HC Deb 14 June 1967 vol 748 cc471-6

10.10 a.m.

The Minister of Public Building and Works (Mr. R. E. Prentice)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement.

On April 20th my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that responsibility for the Building Research Station would be transferred to me on July 1st. I have been considering the arrangements needed, both to maintain the scientific integrity of the station's work and its close links with the building industry and to enable research and development related to the industry to be co-ordinated.

We are all concerned to improve the quality and efficiency of building, to get the best value for money and to develop techniques of design, management and construction. Prospects of doing this depend on increasing the amount of research, and of getting a closer and more effective link between research, development and production. We therefore require arrangements which will take account not only of the work of the Building Research Station itself, but of other research into construction, and of the role of my Ministry in promoting research and carrying out development work.

With a view to encouraging more research into construction and to improving the co-ordination between the work of the station and of other agencies engaged in research, I propose to set up a Construction Research Advisory Council. This Council will report to me. Its terms of reference will be: To survey the national need for construction research, to review existing facilities, to consider measures necessary to encourage the expansion and more effective deployment of available resources and to advise on the dissemination of research results. I shall appoint members drawn from both sides of the industry, the appropriate professions, Government Departments, the universities and others concerned in building research. I hope that the new Construction Industry Research and Information Association will be represented. The Chairman will be Sir Antony Part, the Permanent Secretary of my Department.

Programmes of work for B.R.S. will need to be framed in the general context of policies endorsed by the Advisory Council. There will also be, as at present, a Steering Committee for the station. This Committee will include representatives of other Government Departments with major building responsibilities and an increased number of independent members. The Committee will have an independent chairman.

Executive control of the station will remain in the hands of its Director. He will answer for the overall running of the station to the Permanent Secretary who will, however, delegate his responsibility for finance, administration and contractual matters to the appropriate branches of Ministry headquarters. The Directorate of Research and Information at the Ministry, working under the general guidance of the Director General of Research and Development, will be the main centre for the formulation of Government policy on scientific research for the construction industry.

The station now works not only on materials and structures, but on constructional economics, operative skills, user requirements and urban planning. I agree with this broadening of its scope and shall seek to encourage it.

I am anxious to dispel the doubts which have been expressed in some quarters about a possible threat to the scientific integrity of the station under the new arrangements. The station will maintain —and, I hope, enhance—its status as a research establishment. There is no intention of interfering with its detailed day-to-day working, or of curtailing its accustomed freedom to publish the results of its scientific work. It will be encouraged to preserve its existing contacts with the industry and its own structure of specialist committees by which relationships with outside interests are developed.

I hope that the new arrangements will enable the station to play an even more effective part in construction research than it has done in the past.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

I will, of course, wish to study more closely the right hon. Gentleman's announcement. Is he aware that, for some time, we have wanted the strands of so many research organisations drawn more closely together? What is the relation, financial or otherwise, between C.I.R.I.A. and the Government? Is it unaltered? We welcome any assurances about the independence of the B.R.S., but it seems that the right hon. Gentleman has not gone far enough in that direction.

For instance, what criteria covered his decision to appoint an independent chairman for the Steering Committee of the B.R.S. and a distinguished civil servant for the Advisory Council? What proposals, if any, are there for the future to link the work of the Agrement Board with some of these other organisations? Should we not be trying to cut down on boards and committees generally?

Mr. Prentice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general expression of good will. C.I.R.I.A. has only just been formed and is an organisation of the construction industry itself. The Government are represented on it, but it is not a Government organisation. It will, of course, get financial grants from the Government on a £ for £ basis for research and, for the time being, on a £2 for £1 basis for information. I hope that it will grow and that the industry will give it maximum support.

The hon. Gentleman asked why I had decided on an independent chairman for the Steering Committee of B.R.S. and a civil servant for the Advisory Committee. We had to weigh both decisions in the balance of advantage. The Advisory Council will report to me, and I thought that the appointment of the Permanent Secretary of my Ministry as chairman ought to be seen as an example that we were very keen that the Ministry, at top level, should be concerned in research and the formation of research policies. As I said, its membership will be widely drawn.

On the Steering Committee for B.R.S., we are planning a committee of a chairman and 10 members which will be slightly larger than the old committee, which will mean that other Government Departments with building interests will be represented. For that reason, I wanted to achieve a balance by having more independent members, and the appointment of an independent chairman might give some extra assurance that the B.R.S. would have the right kind of technical assistance. The Agrement Board uses the facilities of B.R.S., and this will continue.

Mr. Hilton

I think that we will all be encouraged by my right hon. Friend's statement. In his examination leading up to this announcement, did he gain any impression of the research facilities sponsored by private interests in the industry? How widespread are they and to what extent does he think that they will fit in with these new arrangements?

Mr. Prentice

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's view, particularly in view of his wide experience in the industry. On research sponsored by firms, there is, of course, a certain amount going on and some very good work is being done, but the total is almost certainly inadequate. The amount of research in construction is about 0.4 per cent. of the total output of the industry, as against 2.6 per cent. in industry generally. This is not quite a fair comparison, because related research takes place in the construction material industries, but nevertheless the amount is too small. I hope that the new arrangements will stimulate more research by the industry and organise it more to help itself, in addition to the help which it gets from the Government in this respect.

Mr. Costain

As the Minister has got back into his Department a brainchild of his own making, will he arrange for flags to be flown on 1st July to show this victory? Will he also consider the fact that the efficiency of the industry is very much affected by stop-go types of policy on the part of its clients, including Government Departments, which results in getting a surplus and a shortage of material at the same time? Will the research organisation have the necessary powers to investigate these matters, including the Treasury's attitude towards the building industry?

Mr. Prentice

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to go somewhat wider than the terms of reference would indicate. As to stop-go, this industry, along with others, obviously could not escape the effects of the economic measures introduced last July. I am making no apology for those measures. It is worth noting that, taking 1966 as a whole, the output of the industry has been about the same as, or marginally higher than, that in 1965. It is not true to say that an undue burden has been placed on the industry.

Mr. Urwin

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which will be widely appreciated by the industry. Will he assure the House that there will be no overlap between the B.R.S. and the existing research establishment in his Department? Will they operate separately or become a single entity?

Mr. Prentice

There has been some comment in the technical Press about this, and I think that much of it has been based on a misunderstanding of the situation. The Directorate General of Research and Development in my Ministry does not do scientific research itself, but stimulates research, gives guidance and co-ordination to research that is going on elsewhere and places some research contracts with universities and others. This side of our work will continue and we have plans for it to grow. The emphasis is on development work and applying the results to our building programmes. This will continue and it will in no way overlap.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Under the new arrangement, who will be the accounting person for the expenditure of the B.R.S.?

Mr. Prentice

The Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Public Building and Works.

Mr. Channon

Without being thought to be carping, would the right hon. Gentleman say how many committees are now working in this field of operation? Would it not have been better to have had a committee to organise research rather than to survey the national need for research? Will this new body be able to carry out research into, say, the development of building materials to help our export trade?

Mr. Prentice

I am sympathetic with any view that there may be too many committees nowadays. However, research into the construction industry is bound to be carried on at a number of different places—by firms themselves, through the industry's own Research and Information Association, by universities, the B.R.S., and so on. This means having a number of committees, and this is inevitable. It is right, for the reasons I have given, that we should have an Advisory Council for research as a whole; to survey the whole field of activity, to co-ordinate it, identify research needs, consider future priorities, and so on. The Advisory Council will certainly be able to look into the question of research, including building materials, if it thinks fit.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Now that the station is to come under the right hon. Gentleman's eminently civilised Department, will it be giving its attention to the better use and conversion of older buildings and will the Advisory Council contain people who are skilled in this art?

Mr. Prentice

Although I have announced the chairmanship of the Council, I have not made any decisions about the whole membership of it. Certainly, we want people who have broad experience of the industry, and they will have to advise on the needs for research in the construction industry. I would not at present try to specify the problems which they may think will require priority.