Sarah Laing Gibbens

Over the next few months we will be featuring follow-up discussions with sector experts from The BIG Debate at WoodBUILD 2019.  In order to promote the benefits of Wales becoming a high-value forest nation and to explore some of the ongoing learning from the Home-Grown Homes Project (HGHP) these discussions will feature specific aspects of the three main HGH themes  – timber homes, timber manufacturing and forest industries.

In the first of these discussion, Christiane Lellig, who curated The BIG Debate, poses some questions to Sarah Laing Gibbens, Head of Commercial Performance Homes & Places at Welsh Government, around the theme of better homes.


Christiane Lellig curating The BIG Debate at WoodBUILD 2019

“During The BIG Debate you mentioned efforts to join up the legislative framework around Part L, procurement frameworks and MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) trying to apply a single set of standards. Could you talk us through what is happening in practical terms around this agenda and timelines?” 

By 2025, our hope is that all homes in Wales will be built to the same standard requirements. Social and affordable housing will be leading the way, creating a path that privately built homes will have to follow.

The harmonisation of building requirements in Wales is rooted in the Independent Affordable Housing Supply Review, which made 24 clear recommendations to modernise the way affordable homes are delivered, built and funded in order to increase supply. There were several recommendations about modernising the Welsh Governments’ Development Quality Requirements (DQR) which set the bar for homes being built from the public purse. Part L of the building regulations is currently being revised, the intention being that both standards complement each other. By the end of 2020 we anticipate revised Part L requirements will be in force, which for gas heated homes, is likely to result in an EPC A rating.

Work is well underway to simplify the existing standard for affordable homes, with a particular focus on enhancing space standards within a completely rationalised and re worded new version of DQR. Quite simply, size matters.

Welsh ministers also want to make it clear that this standard is not about ‘gold taps’ and making new homes overly expensive. Rather, it is about making sure everyone in Wales has a home which is of an acceptable standard regardless of tenure. The standard will be simple, clear and achievable. The same set of requirements will also apply to homes regardless of how they are produced – so for those thinking of building using MMC, yes! Due consideration has been given to modules fitting on back of lorries, even though very few homes are actually built like this right now!

During the review, a cross section of representatives drawn from across the development spectrum engaged in discussions to suggest what the new requirement should look like. A draft of the requirement has been tested with stakeholders and this work will continue. Once agreed by ministers, it is intended that the new DQRs will apply to all new affordable housing schemes from April 2020. Most importantly, the Welsh Government will amend Planning Policy Wales in Spring 2020 to apply the space standard to affordable homes provided through S106 agreements. Work will commence on changing legislation to enable the new DQR requirements to apply to all homes built in Wales from 2025 at the latest.

“Public housing should be setting the standard for good housing, by 2025 we should be building all homes in Wales to that standard and having a level playing field. Sounds exciting. Where do you see opportunities and progress on the pathway to achieving this goal?”

For the Welsh Government, building homes is not just a numbers game – although we should never forget that right now there are around 66,000 households on social housing waiting lists. Equally important is to build in the right way – using local SMEs, both builders and supply chain companies, Welsh labour, if possible creating jobs, training and apprenticeships for those furthest from the job market. We want to build homes at near zero carbon that make it right for our children and grandchildren –as well as working to eliminate fuel poverty for tenants. Building sustainably is a fundamental principle of future housebuilding in Wales.

So the first step is to set out the new DQR standard, which is aligned to ”best practice”, and ensure that all house builders understand expectations of future house building in Wales. Next, the MMC strategy has a key role to play in building the homes of the future. And herein lies an opportunity to examine the way the homes can be produced. The MMC strategy consultation has been concluded after around 650 organisations were invited to comment to help shape it. The approach has been overwhelmingly endorsed, with very few comments to suggest the approach is off the mark. So most of the elements set out in the strategy such as use of Welsh timber and Steel, timber generally and sustainable building will as likely remain. The use of Welsh SMEs to produce homes, and supply the value chain locally – both componentry and labour also continue to be popular approaches in the strategy. There are suggestions that these ‘extras’ mean the homes we build this way are more expensive, but interestingly there is little other than anecdotal evidence to support this at the moment. However our intention is that these so-called extras are mainstreamed in Wales, and housebuilding ‘the right way’ quickly becomes our default “modus operandi”.

As part of that normalising process, we want to level the playing field to support homes built using MMC, especially modular homes. We are therefore looking at which carrots – financial and otherwise can be offered to RSLs and Councils to create the confidence to embrace MMC more readily and support our budding modular industry here in Wales. For example, Julie James, Minister for Housing & Local Government has just announced £10m of investment to support modular factories, and her vision to support Welsh indigenous SMEs is a significant step in creating more house building capacity across Wales.

In the meantime, the reality is that the traditional house-builders will continue to build the majority of social and affordable homes. The Minister has spoken loudly and often about the challenge of building high quality homes (social or otherwise) to the housebuilding community. Working with representatives of some of the bigger individual companies shows there are concerns about building homes to higher standards, as the natural assumption is that this means we are building fewer homes for the same money. Work therefore continues to support traditional house builders to modify their approach in Wales so they are ready by 2025. The long lead time should help prepare business models, changes to financing, logistics and supply chains. Ultimately some may decide home building in Wales is not for them. But others may warmly embrace the opportunity and Welsh Government will seek to help them adapt in any way we can.

“It is widely acknowledged that procurement is broken. You’ve mentioned plans looking at whole life procurement methods which favour high-value over low costs. What can we expect in the future and when will these procurement methods come into force?”

The Innovative Housing Programme is designed to test new ways of building homes. Naturally the supporting elements of the development process on the programme have been stretched and tested as we forge new ways of working. Procurement is one of things that has come under particular pressure and officials have worked creatively and tirelessly to push the existing rules as far as we can to get a result. In every case, between us all (and after a lot of pain) the right result has been achieved. Interestingly, our IHP work has demonstrated procurement activity can be down to over prudent interpretation of the rules, and challenge has yielded some interesting results. So before a complete overhaul of procurement legislation is entertained – there maybe some scope to operate differently within existing procurement parameters.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt current procurement can be a ‘race to the bottom’ for delivering low lost and wider ‘greater good’ value remains difficult to bring forward. The MMC strategy comes with an implementation plan, and initially it is envisioned the lessons from IHP procurement and desire to explore high value models will find a natural home here. Already we have reached out to various other bodies grappling with this challenge, and hope to benefit from their learning and approach. The MMC strategy and implementation will be published before the end of the March 2020.

At the end of The BIG Debate Sarah’s commitment to helping Wales to become a high-value forest nation was that, “by the time there is a new grant machine starting in April 2020 it will favour those organisations that want to build in the right way. That means more timber, Welsh timber and not just in new build but in retrofit where there will be considerable work to decarbonise the existing stock and through the grant system that we have in Wales that is very generous compared to our English neighbours, that we are actually stimulating a high value market that stops, as the minister said, our precious material being pulped or used for fencing in the south east of England.” We look forward to speaking to Sarah again in the months leading up to WoodBUILD 2020 (18 June 2019 in Cardiff) and finding out how much progress has been made, but it certainly sounds like Welsh Government is off to a good start.