New Build Homes

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:35 pm on 2nd December 2015.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art, Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 10:35 pm, 2nd December 2015

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I know that he also has a keen interest in this issue. The nub of the matter is the 10-year guarantee and how effectively it comes into play when there is a problem.

As a society we have become very aware of our consumer rights. When making substantial purchases we look for warranties, for quality assurance and for customer service. There is no purchase in life more substantial than buying a house, yet over the past 18 months some of my constituents have felt less protected than they would have been if they had, for example, bought a new car. The protections they believed that they had, and which they had taken for granted, assuming that they would come into action should there be a problem, have simply not had the effect any reasonable consumer would want.

We all know that with new build properties there can be snagging problems. Indeed, back in 1996 I well remember buying a new house and some minor issues needed fixing. The builder came back and sorted them out, and I remember the pride I had in that house and in being able to put my own identity on it, and how happy I was.

What about when the issues are not minor, as was the case with my constituents Evelyn and Riccardo Lallo? Some 18 months after they first identified the problems with their brand new house, they remain in rented accommodation paying a mortgage on a house that they cannot live in. Unfortunately, they are still waiting for the builder, in this case Taylor Wimpey, to remove the undersized ceiling joists, some of the walls and the roof. To be frank, it sounds awfully like a total rebuild, and although they are in rented accommodation, one of their neighbours lived in a hotel for six months.

One of the problems I would like to draw to the Minister’s attention is the assumption by house purchasers that building control is necessarily performed by the local authority. That is not always the case. It is in some, but in many cases the building control checks are done instead by the warranty providers, such as the National House Building Council. There can be very good reasons for that. The warranty companies might prefer it, as they will then be providing the warranty for the building with which they have been involved from a very early stage. Several inspections take place at various stages, from checking the depth of foundations and making sure that cavities are the appropriate size, through to the pre-plaster check. There is a log for each inspection, which my constituents argue should be freely available automatically to the prospective purchaser.

The customer is not necessarily aware of that, and there needs to be a better understanding that a local authority building control inspector might never have seen the building, and the local authority, beyond granting planning permission, might have no direct interest in the subsequent build process. The assumption, however, is that no matter who has carried out the inspection process, problems will be flagged up throughout the process and could be amended in the build process before it moves on to the next stage.

I am conscious that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has raised in detail with the Minister the flaws in the inspection regime, and how that might leave the homeowner in a more vulnerable position than they had ever imagined when entering into the contract to buy a home. I do not intend to repeat those arguments. Suffice it to say that I wholly endorse her view about the need for a duty of care to be established between approved inspectors and the homebuyer, and I welcome the Ankers report in that respect, but we also need somehow to convey to purchasers that they need to be vigilant in the process, and to be aware that it might not be their local authority that has inspected the build.

In the case of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Lallo, they feel very much as if they have been pushed from pillar to post, with each one shrugging shoulders and all pointing back to the builder as the one who must rectify the problems, and that is undoubtedly right. The NHBC system and other warranty providers require the builder to rectify any problem within the first two years, and in this situation the builder, Taylor Wimpey, has accepted that it is its responsibility to replace all the joists and trusses, which had not been installed properly as required. Tonight the scaffolding is up and I understand that the roof will come off tomorrow. We must hope that the sun will be shining.

When a defect is discovered and the builder refuses to carry out the remedial work, a free resolution service is offered by the warranty providers, but what happens when the builder agrees to carry out the work but drags their feet and does not get on with the repairs? That is the point at which my constituents first contacted me. Their bright, shiny new house had unacceptable levels of vibration and investigations revealed the joists and trusses were acting independently of each other. They have to come out, all the plaster must be removed, the ceilings must be taken out and the roof will come off. They contacted the local authority, which very quickly stated that it was not its responsibility, but could find no agency to act as an intermediary between them and the builder to exert the pressure that they wanted to facilitate a speedy and appropriate remedy.

For six months, the family lived with no ceilings after they had been stripped out, walls were missing and their living room furniture was in storage. For a further six months, they have lived in rented housing, expecting at every moment work to start on the house that was meant to be their pride and joy—a home for their boys. My constituents feel that for big purchases such as houses there should also be some protection—someone to speak up on their behalf, to act as an intermediary. It is their contention that there should be some sort of ombudsman, and that idea certainly has some attraction.

My real concern is that if, as happened in the case of my constituents, fundamental structural flaws that should have been picked up in the pre-plaster inspection were being missed, what can we expect as rates of house building accelerate? I hope the Minister can provide some reassurance that the inspection regime remains robust, and that the case of my constituents and their neighbours, who were similarly affected, is unusual. I say that because as house building necessarily increases, we want the owners of new homes to be happy, to have pride in their new homes and, above all, to be protected adequately should the worst happen.