Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 320-339)



  320. So, at the minute, it may only be providing a marginal element of the need.
  (Mr Sherwood) That is correct.

  321. What would it take or what would you want the Housing Corporation to do in order to deliver more?
  (Mr Blanshard) It is not just the Housing Corporation, it is that you around this table need to enthuse about off-site manufacture. What we are not trying to do is copy traditional construction which is slow, out of date and pathetic really because the customers are always late with their builds. So, you need to enthuse about off-site manufacture and we need to encourage people—


  322. You have to convince us this morning that this is something we can enthuse about!
  (Mr Blanshard) There is a way of convincing you and that is for you to go and look at the production line and go from flat steel to finished product inside two hours and then to a block of flats and actually talk to the people using it. That is one way you will achieve it.

Alistair Burt

  323. Tell us a little more about the production process and how much can be produced off-site and how much needs to be done when we get on-site.
  (Mr Blanshard) If you produce a module which is a large room or rooms all in one module, then it means you can do the internal fit-out as well, so you do bathrooms, kitchens, carpets and you can even put the picture on the wall. That is down the production line. You then transport that module to site and bolt all that steelwork together and therefore you have created a large building. You then clad it on-site to whatever the planner wants or whatever the client wants. So, you are still making a building using traditional materials but what we are doing is changing the process, we are not changing the materials.
  (Mr Sherwood) And there is a lot more that suppliers can do to help this happen. They are not doing it yet because building things in a factory is very different to building things in the muddy field. We could actually handle a piece of plasterboard the size of that wall, but of course a building site cannot because it has to handle sheets that can be lifted by two people and taken into a property. We can actually handle that size and, if our suppliers supplied us with that size, that would greatly assist the process. There are a number of other examples of the types of things that can be supplied: wiring looms for the electrics; and the plumbing could be made in a totally different way to what it is now.
  (Mr Blanshard) We still buy a radiator from one supplier and a thermostatic valve from another, which is quite pathetic really, and I need a plumber to put the two together. I am restricted with the size of plasterboard sheets that we buy in British gypsum because they are only interested in eight feet by four feet sheets of plasterboards. I am not really interested in that; I want something that is a lot bigger. Opportunities are considerable from the supply chain.

  324. And speed from the initial materials to actually putting it on-site and having it as a working house? How quickly can that be done?
  (Mr Blanshard) The history of putting up the ones that we have done from Murray Grove and one or two others is that it is about 50 per cent faster than what you may define as traditional construction. It takes us about five days to put up a five-storey block of 12 apartments and we have done that.

  325. What share of the market do you have? How quickly could the market expand if more people decided that this was actually a serious way forward?
  (Mr Blanshard) I do not know what the size of the market we have is. We have never really measured it.

  326. Really?
  (Mr Blanshard) No. We find it quite difficult. You can add up how many houses people want and things like that, but then you can add up how much we produce and it is so small in relation to the two.

  327. Not the prefabricated houses?
  (Mr Blanshard) The definition of prefabricated . . . You can have a panel system or you can have a modular system; it is just very small percentages at the moment.
  (Mr Miles) I have looked at this from a pan-industry point of view and the percentage of the market that is taken by off-site fabrication at the moment is very small. Although there are certain systems, like some of the timber-framed systems. They do have a significant hold in the market, but they are only partial off-site solutions as opposed to a full off-site solution that Keith Blanshard was talking about. The big picture at the moment is that there is very small penetration of the market by off-site fabrication methods and producers and that is why there is opportunity for great expansion of that sector and the only question is, why would you want to expand it? I think there are probably three key drivers as to why it might be something that we are going to see expanding very rapidly over the next few years. The first is simply strangulation, that there is not the capacity in the industry as it stands at the moment to deliver the number of houses that we know we are going to need. That really comes about because of a decline of on-site skills and the lack of apprenticeships over a period of 20 years, which is now an endemic shortage and is very difficult to repair. So, if we are going to deliver at the rate that we know we need houses, even maintain the current rate, we have to do something to increase productivity. So, issue number one is strangulation and off-site fabrication hugely increases the productivity per worker. Secondly, there are some issues which have to do with the standards that we set for our housing and there is both legislation and planning guidance which are setting higher and higher standards progressively, which is a good thing, but it takes beyond the reach of conventional building technology some of those issues, like sound insulation and thermal insulation. Again, off-site fabrication offers the opportunity for fully engineered products to be delivered which do meet those requirements in the same way that fully engineered products like cars and white goods have met inexorably higher standards and actually reduced real costs over many years historically. The third reason why we think there is an opportunity for this segment to be hugely expanded is simply because of customer expectation. Customers are aware of the fact that they get much improved products today for prices that are no more than they used to pay in real terms 20 years ago and they are beginning to expect the same from their houses. The Housing Forum, of which I have until recently been a director, conducted a number of user surveys and set up now a site full of user surveys, which will be annual or bi-annual, and it is clear from those that league tables for house builders, rather like the JD power league tables for car manufacturers, will become the vogue and issues like quality, reliability and performance are high on the customer agenda. So, those three reasons are the things that are driving this particular issue at the moment, but the thing that is holding it back is the point Keith Blanshard made which is capital investment. There needs to be a state of confidence on behalf of the emergent suppliers that will allow them to put the money in at the front of what we hope will be a burgeoning activity, but that climate of confidence needs to exist and that, at the moment, is the issue which is holding it back.

Mr Clelland

  328. I am quite sure that during the 1960s in a room not dissimilar to this one, we had the same discussion and developers were no doubt telling Members of Parliament and councillors just how wonderful prefabricated construction was, but much of that has now been demolished because it was not of very good quality at all. I know you have said, "Come and see" but I am quite sure that people went then and saw them and were convinced that it was a good idea, but it did not turn out to be a good idea. So, how can we be satisfied that design quality will be maintained particularly as we have just heard about pressures of productivity and pressures for mass production? How can you be satisfied that in the long term we are going to maintain this quality that you say we have at the moment?
  (Mr Blanshard) I think one thing you have to start off with is the quality of the design. What was designed before was rubbish and you were delivering to site pieces of wall, bits of panels and things like that. We are not talking of doing that. We are actually making the building down the production line, so you are in a more controlled environment. So, you have to start off with a quality design and CABE is on board now with the Housing Forum, so they have an advice to give to that side of it, to the Housing Corporation and things like that. We have history, so we can look back at these sort of things.

  329. So we have learned the lessons, have we?
  (Mr Blanshard) Definitely, absolutely, and I think technology is around now, where materials and testing and all these sort of things are going on which are a great deal more sophisticated now than they were in those days. My opinion is that we will not be reproducing the rubbish that was produced before.
  (Mr Miles) There is a context to that question which should not be forgotten and that is, if we do nothing in this country to change the way in which we deliver housing, there probably will be, on the one hand, a slowdown in the delivery of houses because of the shortage of skills and, on the other hand, a dilution of quality for the same reason. So, we are looking at a situation which is far from perfect if we look at the status quo and continuation of the status quo. I think that your question has to be seen in that context. Nothing is perfect. I think we would be foolish to say that there are no problems that cannot be anticipated. My point is that there are plenty of problems that can be anticipated by an extension of the status quo and therefore it is a balanced judgment.

  330. A number of private developers building new housing estates tend to build a variety of properties on these estates to make them more attractive, but is not mass production in danger of giving us a monotonous sameness all over the place?
  (Mr Miles) We would not call it mass production for exactly that reason because, when Henry Ford made his famous statement, the economies of producing in a factory was because you did the same thing every single time and it was because of that that you had repeatable quality and a reduction of error. If you look at that same industry now, the car building industry, most manufacturers will say that they never build the same car twice because there is an almost infinite permutation of customer options.

  331. They all look the same though, do they not?
  (Mr Miles) We could have a long discussion on this point. They certainly do not all perform in the same way. The point is that, with today's manufacturing systems, it is not necessary for them all to look the same. That has to be a key attribute of any product that comes out of the factory that is designed for housing. It cannot possibly be that that only can look the same every time it is repeated. The systems that are being designed now with which I am familiar, what I might call generation two systems—generation one system is a product that we developed for some other reason and have now brought to housing—are beginning to come through now and have been developed specifically for housing in the first instance right from the drawing board, and one of the key requirements is that it should be flexible both in terms of exterior appearance and interior layout.

  332. Mr Blanshard, you touched briefly on this and did you want to follow up on that point?
  (Mr Blanshard) We have the components which have the building regulations approvals, they have the sound, fire and insulation, all these sort of things and they are all in place. It is really the clients and the planning officer and that sort of environment which will drive the external fenestration. A client's internal fit-out will be driven by his requirements, but the production line and the standardisation of making walls and floors and rooms in any shape possible is already there.
  (Mr Sherwood) The choice of external treatments is to the imagination.
  (Mr Blanshard) We do not have a choice, do we? The planners will drive it, the clients will drive the different external fenestration of the building.

  333. We do have a choice and what we do need—and I think this was touched on by Mr Miles—are the necessary skills to be able to produce the kind of quality that we want. Apparently that is a problem; is that correct?
  (Mr Miles) I do not think it is a problem in the factory context because the numbers of people required in a factory are fewer than the number of people required on-site. My point about shortage of people is shortage of skilled labour in the traditional building skills on-site, like plumbers, carpenters and bricklayers. Those skills are on a downward trend and it will take a generation to replace the gap that is opening up.

Chris Mole

  334. What about in design using certain(?) plans?
  (Mr Miles) I think in design this country has an excellent armoury of skills. I think Britain is actually recognised as a design leader in many areas of product and engineering, so I think there is no shortage of skills in that area.

Mr Betts

  335. We have all been here before, have we not? You are trying to convince us that their new scheme and method of doing something is going to deliver maybe not quality now but quality in 30 years' time and I cannot think of a single system-built form of housing that has not had major structural problems, can you?
  (Mr Miles) Yes. There are a number from the 1970s that have not had major structural problems, but they are not widely publicised of course. I can take you outside this room and show you some.

  336. So there are some?
  (Mr Miles) Yes.

  337. Can you name them for us?
  (Mr Miles) I cannot name them offhand but I could arrange to show them to you.


  338. Can you give us a note because that would be very helpful and we can go and have a look at them.
  (Mr Miles) Yes, of course. There was not an endemic problem within the systems in the 1970s in the sense that off-site fabrication led to these problems. The problem of the 1970s was that some were done well and some were done not so well and the ones that were done not so well became very newsworthy. There were some that, in a technical sense, were executed very well indeed and have required very little maintenance.

  339. There is a technical sense and the theory sometimes that these are going to work and you are saying that a lot of your work is done off-site, but in the end some is done on-site to put things together.
  (Mr Miles) Yes.

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