HC Deb 20 March 1978 vol 946 cc1268-78

6.2 a.m.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

I must apologise to the Minister personally for this starting time. He will appreciate that the circumstances were somewhat unusual earlier this evening. I shall say no more than that.

Class VIII, Vote 3 of the Supplementary Estimates deals with the Building Research Establishment of the Department of the Environment. The present provision of £6,355,000 is increased to £6,531,000 and the capital building programme is increased from £1.1 million to nearly £1.2 million. These are not enormous increases, but they are significant and allow us to examine rather more closely the staffing and administrative structure of the establishment.

As the Minister knows, the BRE contains three separate elements—the Building Research Station itself, the Fire Research Station and the Princes Risborough Laboratory. Between July 1971 and July 1974 there was a static staff position, which varied between 1,203 and 1,215. By July 1975 there had been a sharp increase to 1,304 caused by the elimination of previous recruiting difficulties and added work load. But the following year there was a sharp fall—down to 977 in July 1976, to 914 by January 1977 and a March 1978 target of 10 per cent. below 977, according to the Minister himself in reply to me on 28th January 1977. That would suggest a figure of about 880 as the target figure now.

My first question to the Minister is, what is the present staffing figure at the BRE, in particular for the building research station itself? Secondly, have the March 1978 target reductions been reached? Are there still further cuts to be made? If so, to what level and when will they be achieved? Since drastic staff cuts have already been partly implemented, why do the Estimates show cost increases? How can it be that at a time of falling staff the revenue budget can be increased by £196,000? Is that solely a pay increase estimate, or does it involve increased staffing provision in some new directions?

What about the £100,000 capital building increase? What is that for? No doubt it was planned long ago, but it seems odd for the Building Research Establishment to be involved in further capital expenditure when the staff cuts have been so severe. Perhaps the Minister will give details of that.

I turn to two specific aspects of this Vote that have troubled me in the past, and still do. I argued in an article in the magazine Building in August 1975 that the staffing and administrative structure of the Building Research Station required attention to deal more effectively with the prevention of building failures. As I have argued many times, there have been far too many disasters both of construction and design. The names of Ronan Point, Summerland, high alumina cement, calcium chloride, woodwool slabs and Fair-field tell their own deplorable stories.

In April 1975 the "doomwatch" functions of the BRS were divided between two materials divisions of the materials and construction department, two of the divisions of the engineering department, and the design division of the environmental department. This is apart from the specialist work done at the Fire Research Station and the work on timber at Princes Risborough. Clearly, such a structure could lead to considerable administrative confusion and overlapping, so I argued in my article that an additional deputy director should be appointed with sole and specific responsibility of initiating and co-ordinating all work on preventive research, into possible faults in new techniques, components and materials, and with sufficient power to insist that a new material is not used until he is fully satisfied with its safety from all angles.

I was naturally very pleased when the Minister for Housing and Construction announced the setting up of the building integrity division of the BRE on 24th June 1976 specifically as a focus for research on reducing the incidence of serious building failures due to new products or techniques and to seek out potential problems so that further investigation or action can be initiated"—[Official Report, 24th June 1976; Vol. 913, c. 616.] This was particularly important from the staffing angle, since only 20 per cent. of the scientific and technical staff of the BRE were wholly or mainly engaged in preventive work or structural or technical defects in July 1975, and only 7 per cent. on identifying why those defects had come to light.

However, I am unhappy with the internal allocation of staff and financial resources to this department. I hope that some of the financial increase that we are discussing tonight is intended for it.

The budget allocation for this new department in its first year was £86,000, which the Minister thought adequate in July 1976. But only £40,000 was actually spent. The staffing establishment, which was originally programmed at seven, but rising to 15, was still only four in January 1977 and the target of 15 seems to have been postponed indefinitely. By June 1977, 12 months after the Minister announced that he was setting it up, the staff had reached six, and the plan was to have 10 by March 1978. Has that figure of 10 been reached? If not when will it be?

The budget for 1977–78 was £105,000 compared with the actual 1976–77 outturn of £40,000. Has that £105,000 been spent? If not, how much was? Is any of the Supplementary Estimate that we arc discussing tonight intended for the work of this division? If so, how much and to what use is it intended to put it?

In his annual report on the BRE for 1976, the latest available, I believe, the building integrity division was described by the director of the BRE, Dr. Dick, as an area where expansion has been proposed and a priority subject which should go ahead as planned. It has not gone ahead as planned, in that the staff target of 15 seems to have been effectively abandoned. Within these limited resources, will the Minister say something about the work programme for the division? It first turned its attention to studies of cladding, roofing and wall ties. When will the results of those be available to the industry, and what research is currently under way?

It has been argued that the division's role is to draw upon the 40-odd specialist staff in the Building Research Station who are working in structural fields, including that of vulnerability to fire and weather. Doubtless that is true, but any specialist researcher would be less than human if he did not prefer to plough his own furrow of study and put the research requests of other divisions down the queue of priorities. This is why it is so important to see that the building integrity division has the staff and finance to take the lead itself and really get to grips with the horrifying problems which can arise on the frontiers of building technology.

Of course, the BRE has had to take its share of expenditure cuts, as is right and proper. But I hope that the Minister will agree that nothing could be more important than stopping buildings falling down. If morale is to be maintained, the Government should put their full weight behind this vital work.

On staffing cuts, I believe that there is scope for some savings within the housing policy and urban planning divisions of the BRE. I hope that neither of these Supplementary Estimates reflects further increases there. In 1976–77 the housing policy division had 14 staff and a budget of £220,000. For 1977–78 the staff figure was still 14 and the budget was £250,000. The urban planning division had a staff complement of 31 in 1976–77 and a budget of £350,000, which became 29 in 1977–78 and £380,000.

I do not want to decry the staff in any way. Some of their published work is useful and interesting. But it could equally well be done by universities acting as consultants to the housing development directorate of the Minister's Department. For example, the studies of the views of householders on housing standards, on the quality of the residential environment and on living in a mobile home, for which all the field surveys were carried out by market research consultants, should have had a much lower expenditure priority than work on failures in buildings or energy conservation methods and techniques. There is no obvious reason why they should be the responsibility of a Government body primarily concerned with building technology.

What can one say of the study of urban development, described in page 1 of the annual report in these illuminating and thrilling words: the approach adopted is to construct an archetypal urban area, initially on a mono-nucleated basis, with symmetrical density gradients"? If such stuff has to be studied at all, which I very much doubt, surely the Department should commission a firm of planning consultants or a university department to do it, rather than using the Building Research Station for it.

How can it make sense to allocate 29 staff and £380,000 to basically sociological research, for which ample researchers are available in the private sector, while giving the "doomwatch" section only 10 staff and £105,000? That cannot be a sensible allocation of expenditure priorities.

I appreciate very well that the issues that I have raised tonight may seem small and technical compared with Rhodesia, and they are certainly much less glamorous politically. But they are concerned, quite simply, with the safety of the buildings in which people live and work—like the lives and safety of the four people who died in Ronan Point, the 50 who died at Summerlands, and the 18 who died at Fairfield.

The House has not often discussed such issues in the past, because they are technical and complex. I make no apology for returning to them, because I believe that they are of fundamental importance and involve an area in which, by providing the drive and leadership and the financial and staffing resources, Environment Ministers can and should take a decisive lead.

It is difficult to imagine any subject which could be less politically divisive. We all believe in safety, and want to improve it. I look to the Minister to assure the House that this is top of his departmental research priorities and that he is determined to keep it there.

6.14 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The hon. Member for Melton (Mr. Latham) has raised an important subect. I share his concern that the Building Research Establishment should successfully overcome the problems that have arisen from the recent cuts in staff and funds made by the Government as part of their counter-inflation policies.

The hon. Gentleman will find that I cover most of his points. If I omit anything, I shall read what he said and write to him.

We have tried to apply the cuts to our research establishments in a balanced way. This has obliged us to review research priorities with even more care than usual. As I shall show, certain vital activities have been wholly preserved from the cuts and others partly preserved. The balance of activity has thus been altered as staff strength has declined.

The steps we have had to take have presented both management and staff with some very awkward problems. I recognise that the staff have found them mostly unwelcome and that this has adversely affected morale.

The current non-industrial strength of BRE is 854, of whom 605 are scientific and professional staff and 249 provide the various administrative and technical support services which are also needed. There are, in addition, about 330 industrial staff. Most of these resources are concentrated at Garston, near Watford, where work is carried out on materials and structures, building design and processes, electrical and mechanical engineering in relation to buildings, construction economics, urban and environmental planning, and the conservation of energy in buildings.

Garston is also the base for the highly successful BRE advisory service which, whenever requested, helps the construction industry by bringing the latest knowledge to bear on its day-to-day problems. Located there, too, is the overseas unit, which is concerned with building problems in developing countries and has made important contributions to resolving the special difficulties that such countries face, both on account of climate and of their limited economic resources.

There is a small but important Scottish laboratory at East Kilbride and separate laboratories at Princes Risborough and Borehamwood respectively.

All this adds up to a very substantial body of research work. We expect to spend almost £10 million on BRE in 1978–79, and, from a Vote outside the scope of this discussion, another £500,000 on new building work. The former figure is in effect very closely similar to our outturn forecast for 1977–78 but the total level of spending has fallen a little since 1975–76 and 1976–77, when it was about £10.7 million and £11 million respectively.

The most recent figures are very similar to those for 1972–73, when the spend in this establishment totalled £10.2 million. These comparisons are at constant 1977 prices.

The one exception to the general trend shown by these figures is the spend on extra-mural research which the establishment places with contracts. This is an integral part of its research programme and considerably enlarges the amount of ground the establishment can cover without massive growth of buildings and staff. Under this head, BRE spending was about £800,000 in 1972–73 and rose to a peak of about £1.5 million in 1976–77.

The background is, as I have shown, one of considerable real growth from the early to the mid-1970s. Most main heads of BRE expenditure reached peak levels at various points between 1974–75 and 1976–77.

I turn now to details of the staff cuts. In most parts of the public service, which includes Government scientists and administrators, the cuts made were in terms of the differences between public expenditure survey strength projections to April 1978 and new target complements fixed at lower levels. There were also staff cost ceilings, designed to maintain structural balance between grades. The gross cut in numbers we were obliged to apply to research was one of 13.9 per cent. in these terms. This percentage was above the average for the former DOE, which includes the Transport Department, but was not as great as that for several other major units.

Shortly after these decisions were taken, the former DOE was split in two, in September 1976, by the creation of a new Department of Transport. For most purposes, including the Votes of this House, the two Departments are now separate. They have, however, retained common services for personnel management, and also for research. There is now, therefore, under the director-general of research, a research service, which, as well as having a headquarters staff, includes two establishments mainly serving DOE, and one mainly serving the Department of Transport.

The latter is the transport and road research laboratory at Crowthorne, which is wholly financed from Department of Transport Votes. The Department of the Environment establishments are BRE and the relatively small hydraulics research station, which now has a staff of 188.

Within this framework, the decisions taken entailed almost identical percentage reductions for BRE and TRRL, though by general agreement HRS, being smaller, was treated a little less severely.

Two important conclusions follow—first, that it is not true that research work was singled out, over and above all else, for particularly harsh treatment within the two Departments. It is also untrue that, within the research service, BRE was singled out for treatment any harsher than that applied to the other establishments.

Nevertheless, the practical problems which the achievement of these cuts presented were formidable. Leaving aside industrial staff, strength at April 1976 for the research service as a whole was 2,109. This had to be reduced to 1,895 in less than two years, and it was, especially in view of the cost ceilings, necessary to work out new target complements—group by group and grade by grade. On this basis, the net cut we needed to make across the research service was 10 per cent. It was, of course, an over-riding objective to seek to achieve this if possible without compulsory redundancies.

The main problems this presented were for the science group, where we could not hope to achieve this in a balanced way by wastage alone. It was therefore necessary to introduce a series of measures for this group which included lowering to 60 the normal age of retirement for the more senior staff, a reduction in the rate of promotions, and provision, on "public interest" terms, for a limited number of voluntary premature retirements. Only the last of these proposals was attractive to the staff concerned, and on that they had reservations about the size of the offer. Lengthy negotiations with the appropriate staff associations were therefore necessary, and these have taken substantially longer than we had expected.

We have meanwhile had until now to suspend recruitment almost entirely, and in these circumstances have reached—and indeed fallen slightly below—our overall target strength for this group. We have also virtually reached our overall cost ceiling. Throughout the research service, the present science group staff pattern is thus unbalanced, being the product of wastage almost alone. There are various specific difficulties at more senior levels, but the problem common to all these research establishments is a considerable staff shortage at the scientific officer and assistant scientific officer levels where wastage has been greatest.

These factors have had a particularly heavy effect on BRE, partly because of the age structure of the staff. The number of science group staff there is now some 25 below the new target complement, and strength will fall considerably further during the summer before it begins to recover as a result of resumed recruitment. About two-thirds of these vacancies are at junior levels, but the rest include a number of section heads posts.

The junior vacancies can be filled only by external recruitment, which cannot make a significant difference before the autumn. The losses in expertise and leadership at more senior level will take much longer to replace, whether by internal development or by external recruitment.

These staff problems have affected all areas of the programme, but they have been particularly acute in desirable growth areas, the development of which requires expertise not currently available in BRE. They have, for example, slowed down the development of the new and important building integrity division. Many of the staff needed for this work require a background in materials and structures—the very areas which have been most hit by losses in the last year or two. In these circumstances, it has been impossible to reach the target complement of 10 by the end of March, without stopping similar work of comparable priority in other divisions. The present strength is eight, in addition to the division head, and further increase will depend on the resumption of external recruitment. The development of activities in support of construction exports is another desirable growth area which will not attain its target complement for some time to come.

In short, we are in considerable temporary difficulty, mainly as a result of the unexpected delay in completing what has, both for management and for staff, been an exceptionally difficult and intricate series of negotiations. We have meanwhile, however, been laying constructive plans for the future of the research programme.

These in particular affect the two growth areas just described, where, notwithstanding the cuts, we have made provision for new complement and are doing our best to achieve strength to match this. We have also decided to maintain the allocation for the much larger areas of work related to fire safety and for offshore engineering. In addition, we have kept to a minimum the reductions in complement made for energy conservation in buildings, for housing and planning and for the advisory service and the Scottish laboratory. We believe we have identified our highest priorities correctly, and in particular I would stress that we attach considerable importance to our analytical work on housing and planning, which deals with major social and economic issues that demand close attention. This inevitably means that slightly larger complement cuts must be made in other areas.

To achieve a fully effective programme at the new level of staff planned, the Department must now take action in three main ways. First, we must promptly resume recruitment of creative young research workers and the necessary scientific supporting staff. Secondly, we shall seek to return as soon as posible to the rates of promotion current before the imposition of the staff cuts. I expect the promotion situation to be better in 1978 than in 1977, and I hope that by 1979 promotion will no longer be an issue. Thirdly, we must continue to ensure that the research staff are provided with buildings and all the facilities necessary for them to work to full effect.

By these means, we shall seek to rebuild science group morale, which is at present generally low, for reasons that are understandable but also, I believe, were inescapable. This will be one of our two cardinal aims. The other, which is closely related, will be to seek to ensure that the present transitional problems are overcome as soon as possible, so that our research establishments, and BRE in particular, can realise our revised programme plans with adequate numbers of high-quality staff and all the necessary supporting resources both of manpower and materials.

Britain has been facing the worst recession since the 1930s. All parts of the public service have been subject to the most rigorous scrutiny to determine where reasonable economies could be made. At BRE every effort has been made to make savings which would have the minimum effect on the moral and expertise so esential to this service. Our task is to ensure stability and real progress in the future, and I believe that this can be achieved.

I shall read carefully what the hon. Member said in the debate and, as I say, if there are any matters with which I have not dealt, I shall write to him about them.

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