Quality in the Built Environment

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 13th December 2017.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds 4:30 pm, 13th December 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered delivering quality in the built environment.

It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. Having spent much of my working life in the construction industry, I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

One’s home is the biggest purchase that many of us will make in our lives. The fact that there is so little consumer protection attached to the purchase of new homes needs addressing. It is staggering that one is better protected when purchasing a kettle than when buying a house, given that the average house price in October was £223,000 and the average price of a kettle is £25. Most of us know our protection under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 or the Consumer Rights Act 2015, so we can get a kettle sorted. However, no matter where a homebuyer is in the system—whether freehold, housing association or charity—they have no clear understanding of how to escalate complaints and seek redress for problems when they move into a new house or move within the guarantee period.

Why is that important? The latest report delivered by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, of which I am chair, namely “More homes, fewer complaints”, showed that 93% of all people surveyed reported problems to their builders.

The latest national new home customer satisfaction survey showed customers’ dissatisfaction had risen to some 98%. Not all people are dissatisfied with their homes, but that shows that an alarmingly large number of people move into their new home, full of expectation, but are left unhappy with the quality therein. Thirty-eight per cent. of buyers had more problems than they expected, a staggering 25% of buyers reported 16 faults or more, and just 2% of consumers buying a home in the period reported zero defects.

Given that the debate is brief and I would like colleagues to have time to contribute, I intend to cover quality within house building, and briefly cover skills in construction, the needs of the consumer and where we might positively go from this point. Along with the APPG’s report last year, we held an open inquiry into the quality and workmanship of new housing for sale in England. Evidence suggests that, as the number of homes being built increases, the quality declines. That correlation is supported by the Chartered Institute of Building, which has commissioned an investigation in order to drive up quality. Thus far, it has identified behaviour and education as two key components that we need to address if we want to make changes.

Like many of my colleagues, I have encountered constituent issues: people frustrated with the problems with their new homes. They feel there is a lack of recourse to builders and warranty providers to address the problems.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not just for calling for the debate but for taking over as chair of the APPG of which I used to be a member—I was involved in the report she has talked about. As a result of that report and work I have done on behalf of my constituents, the Government agreed to make approved inspectors’ reports available to new homebuyers as a way of making transparent build-quality problems. We have yet to hear much about how that is working in practice. Does she agree that that might be one practical way in which a homeowner could understand more about the problems there might have been when their home was being built?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

My right hon. Friend highlights one of the key recommendations that came out of the report, several of which were very easy to implement. I will ask the Minister where we are on that and how we can move forward more swiftly, because it seems that we have been talking about these problems for well over a decade. It was first mooted that we needed to do something in 2008, and we will be 10 years on from that next year.

My right hon. Friend mentioned transparency. That is what is important to people: they want to understand. It needs to be simple, straightforward and transparent. While I appreciate that the House Builders Federation is looking into a voluntary code, there are problems with the industry policing itself. If there were any real intent, it would not have let the situation deteriorate as it has done, and for so long.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster

I thank my hon. Friend for tabling this increasingly important debate. I have been dealing with a case involving new homes in my constituency, where for two years the developer of a National House Building Council-guaranteed home failed to rectify problems stemming from the installation of a communal heating system that posed a serious safety risk to the residents. The managing agent told me that it firmly believed that the NHBC faces a fundamental conflict of interest in enforcing its technical requirement against the developer, because it was a major fee-paying member of the organisation. Does she share my concern that the NHBC guarantee might be providing new home- owners with a false sense of security over its independence and enforcement powers?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

My hon. Friend is in an area of the country where there is large pressure on the number of houses being built. She brings a pertinent point to the debate. It is difficult to be independent when not independent of the entire system. I will come to that point.

There are four different redress providers in the system: the housing ombudsman; the property ombudsman; ombudsman services; and the property redress scheme. However, there are still gaps. A key point is that we need simplicity in any system we develop for the individual homebuyer, for them to understand how to navigate the system.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this forward. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings, and therefore this is a very important issue for me. We are doing an inquiry at the moment looking at noise, acoustics, heating, windows and finish so that we have homes that are habitable for this day and age. Does she agree that being environmentally responsible and promoting social integration—the designer sometimes does not see that important issue—are key components in delivering quality in the built environment, and that planners and indeed Government need to give consideration to that?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

I could not agree more. Many of us sit on different APPGs, and the hon. Gentleman brought up environmental issues and the fact that people’s homes should use modern-day construction methods that give them the cheapness to be able to run a home efficiently. It should not impact on the environment. We should be using what skills we have to make homes both healthier for people and communities. I trust that my hon. Friend John Howell may well come on to the importance of design within the environment. The hon. Gentleman is right. Also, building in the vernacular is extremely important in certain areas of the country, making people feel like they are rooted and have more of a sense of place.

The NHBC guarantee currently covers most builds in the sector and purports to be independent, as my hon. Friend Julia Lopez said. However, in the main, large house builders fund the organisation, and any surplus funds are returned to the house builder at the end of the guarantee period. It is my belief that that skews the system and leaves it unable to act clearly on the side of the consumer.

Large house builders obviously seek to make a profit, and I have no issue with that, but some of our largest house builders have paid themselves tens of millions of pounds—in one case it was hundreds of millions of pounds —in dividends this year. When we have such poor outcomes on quality, I find that challenging. For an industry that has overseen a substantial rise in profitability over recent years to oversee an equal decline in customer satisfaction ratings and a fall-off in skills training, for which it sees itself as only partially responsible, is unacceptable. Just 10 companies build half of new private homes. Arguably, that does not aid competition. As the number of new homes has risen, satisfaction has fallen. The time for Government action to step into the broken market is arguably upon us.

Research indicates that investment by these companies should be targeted at skills. They build thousands of units each year—thankfully, they built somewhere in the region of 220,000 to 230,000 units last year—but they directly employ very few skilled workers and are largely reliant on subcontractors across the industry, where the whole basis is to drive down costs rather than concentrate on quality. An acute shortage of good site managers compounds the problem, yet they seem reluctant to train and to ensure quality and delivery. Worryingly, the industry estimates that to carry on building in the same way we would need to double our workforce. My question to the Minister is why we are not building construction training schools at the heart of large sites—even those sites subdivided between different house builders—so that individuals can earn while they learn and be proud of the homes in which their communities live.

It is not an industry into which young people will be encouraged to go, given the working in all weathers, the cyclical nature of the industry and the prospects it holds. The difficulty for small builders and subcontractors in accessing and providing employment for training over the course of a national vocational qualification period means that, if work dries up and they have apprentices, they potentially fail to enable them to complete their training. There is no co-ordinated thinking. If someone is on a price for a contract, they are less likely to spend time training employees—they will be looking to optimise their income.

Large house builders take much of the gain from others’ training, but do not always feed back down the supply chain, nor do they incentivise or reward the benefit they ultimately get from others. That is short-sighted, since it is those skilled craftsmen who will ensure continuity of supply in the future. Having an independent clerk of works or similar who would look at the quality of the work as the construction is going up is one solution. Currently, there are some 700 inspectors in the industry, which equates to their inspecting some 317 units each year. We know that houses are not being inspected properly.

What about the consumer? Unless there is a challenge to the system to ensure that quality standards are driven up, there is little encouragement for those house builders who produce a poor quality product to raise their game. Some large producers concentrate on quality, but that is often reflected in the price. Should quality be a question of either/or? Snagging on new house builds ranges from issues such as backfilling cavity walls with site rubbish to splicing broken roof trusses, leaky roofs, poor electrical work, insufficient insulation and the repointing of joints on walls where purposeful demolition and reconstruction should have happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster alluded to the problems she had.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Conservative, Hornchurch and Upminster

One of the interesting phenomena I have noticed in recent years is that the quality of homes developed by local authorities is substantially higher than the quality of homes developed in the private sector, for which consumers are asked to pay very high sums. Does my hon. Friend think we should be applying similar standards in the private sector to ensure that people are not short-changed?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

That is interesting to a point, but there are also quality problems in the housing association and local authority sector. It is an overall raising of standards throughout the industry that we should be seeking.

People purchase a home, full of hope, pride and expectation that it has enduring quality and performs to the requisite levels of maintenance, costs and energy efficiency, which Jim Shannon alluded to. Giving peace of mind to those who are working hard for it should be a given. It should not be possible to build new homes without the fourth utility, broadband, and every home constructed in the UK should be as energy efficient as possible, lowering the cost of heating but also the environmental impact. The building industry has high waste costs, which add to the build cost. The highest levels of insulation should be a basic standard: grey water collection, battery storage, solar panels, triple glazed windows and a plethora of modern, energy-efficient building materials could be used. That is often not the case, because it is argued that new and ever-better things will come along and will need to be retrofitted. That means that the industry never moves forward.

Looking ahead, there is a quality gap between customer demand and industry delivery. I applaud the Department for Communities and Local Government for getting the Home Builders Federation to look into the voluntary ombudsman scheme, but perhaps the time for any such voluntary scheme has passed. We are sitting on the cusp of the largest construction delivery ever: some 300,000 new homes, the biggest expansion in the construction of homes since Macmillan. It is imperative that we get the quality right. The domination of the market by a handful of large developers is part of the problem. It used to be the case that 60% of new homes were built by small and medium-sized enterprises, often local, which had a vested interest in the build quality and were more conscious of the vernacular and the local environment. Currently, that figure is less than 30%. Although the £1.5 billion of short-term loan finance from the Government is welcome to drive activity in that market and the modular market, there must also be quality.

Quality in the modular, or modern methods of construction, market should be easier to achieve, as should speed, but I ask the Minister what build standards are being driven into this new area of house building from the start. Organisations such as the Federation of Master Builders, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Chartered Institute of Building, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Construction Industry Training Board and others have an important role to play in ensuring that quality is a given and not a “nice to have”. From a quality design to a first-class finish, including national space standards and the right regulatory environment, it is essential.

The practice of retention in the industry is currently under consultation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but it also has a part to play in quality, restricting the cash flow of small businesses. As we develop new models of finance and business for delivering homes, we need to understand how they affect type, tenure and quality.

It is of concern that large house builders set aside enormous contingency funds for what they call customer service problems—that is, poorly built houses. That has a detrimental effect on the bottom line and productivity. If they constantly have to revisit a building to address its defects and snagging, they are not building the next home. It is also much harder to put faults right once a family has moved in. I have been contacted by numerous people listing incidents and faults that caused them misery, from lintels to crib walls, from foundations to roofs, for which they cannot get redress. The letters often state that all they want is an acknowledgment of the problem, a pathway to a solution and someone to say sorry.

There is a feeling that large house builders are happy to trouser the profit and move on, and are not interested in the long-term reputation of their product. We might regularly replace our white goods; our homes we do not. They should be right the first time. We need a single, transparent, accountable body, with a remit covering the whole housing industry. Currently, someone housed by a charity would go to the Charity Commission, someone in social housing would go to the Housing Ombudsman Service and someone in private housing would go to the National House Building Council or a similar guarantee scheme. We know that in areas with a single ombudsman it is much easier to get it right.

Customers need to be aware that the guarantee often covers far less than they assume, and neither building control functions nor warranties provide any form of comfort that finishings and fittings will be defect-free. Many new homebuyers fail to appreciate that, for the first two years after completion, it is for the builder to sort the defects. Little notice is given to the customer about when the clock starts to run, or the amount of procrastination the builder is allowed in rectification. For the remaining eight years, warranties cover purely structural matters. Individuals often go to the local authority building control, but that carries no jurisdiction.

In conclusion, I would like the Minister to say whether the Department keeps records on the number of defects and on dissatisfaction rates for individual house builders, so it can benchmark them and drive up quality. I would like him to say whether the Department recognises the need for more on-site inspections by independent organisations and individuals to achieve that. A minimum number of inspections would cover both the customer and warranty, say at two, five and 10 years, as argued by RIBA. The responsibility for constructing a defect-free home should rest with the house builder. Consumers need greater leverage—the under-supply in the housing market means that normal market forces do not come into play, as the house builder has the upper hand. We saw that recently with the issue of selling on leaseholds.

House builders must put purchasers at the heart of what they do. They should aspire to deliver a zero-defect construction, make consumers more aware of the construction and warranty process, and develop quicker forms of redress to solve disputes. The next inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group will look into the primary recommendation of our last report: that an ombudsman be set up. We will take evidence from across the sector, including from ombudsmen that currently exist, builders and failed consumers.

Some simplification of sales contracts should arguably a priority, and those contracts should be standardised, so that people know what to expect and are not blind-sided by a smart operator. A buyer should potentially have the right to inspect a home before completion—consumers can have an MOT on a car but not on £230,000-worth of house. If snagging issues are found, repairs should be carried out prior to completion, preferably in a given time period. If after inspection the buyer or surveyor deems the property is not capable of occupation, the final financing should be delayed at the builder’s cost, which might speed the job up.

An easy win for builders would be to improve the transparency of the design, building and inspection process, and as part of the conveyancing for a new house, written information should be provided to enable buyers to take issue if what they purchase is materially different from what they are sold. That information could include a version of building regulations, designs, details of the warranty and who the builder is and how to contact them.

I would like to understand whether DCLG is working on a thorough review of the warranties that exist in the marketplace. Homebuyers have said that they may well be prepared to pay for the guarantee of a worthwhile warranty, rather than continuing in the somewhat opaque market that currently exists. Warranty providers are currently covered by the financial services ombudsman. We need to establish whether warranties are currently adequate and look into clear and transparent ways in which house builders can set out, at the time of conveyancing, what the warranty actually covers, to stop the misery of individual lives being wrecked by poor housing.

Solving these issues will see an increase in trust between house builder and homebuyer. We need to see houses of improved construction, and one way for that to happen is for house builders to ensure that their annual customer satisfaction surveys are more independent, with their being obliged to publish the number of reported defects, which may well focus them on building better houses. I offer the Minister the support of the all-party parliamentary group in ensuring that the homebuyer is the most important person in the system.

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 4:52 pm, 13th December 2017

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate Jo Churchill on securing the debate. She made some excellent and knowledgeable points.

As we all know, anyone who wants to change the world has to get busy in their own little corner—and where better than in their own home? There is no better way of improving quality of life and changing the world we live in, particularly for our communities that we represent, than by improving the quality of the built environment that we spend most of our daily lives in.

The quality of the built environment is intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the local community. Land is a finite resource, and we should all recognise that the modern day built environment must be multifunctional, meeting society’s cultural, aesthetic and community health needs, as well as contributing to a vibrant local community. Access to green-space opportunities for biodiversity to flourish and sustainable urban design to manage environmental risks are no longer nice-to-haves—they are absolutely essential elements of our towns, villages and cities.

Achieving a high quality built environment requires good planning, imaginative design and, importantly, forward-thinking investment. However, it also requires a policy framework that not only encourages but expects local authorities and developers to take proper account of those essential elements in building for the future, in construction, design, management and planning.

All have the highest responsibility to deliver a quality built environment for communities. Our communities must be involved in planning and what affects their wellbeing. Community empowerment is a great vision, and it should mean just that. Empowerment is to have a say in the decision-making process—for communities to be their own architects of choice. In my own area of Falkirk, the communities of Denny and Dunipace were deeply involved in the decision-making process for a new town centre investment when I was a councillor in that community.

There were many difficult conversations, but we had them, and I think that our participation, as well as that of many other Scottish communities, helped the Scottish Government to introduce the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. That came into force this year and will benefit local organisations across Scotland to the tune of some £8.6 million of funding this year. That investment says everything about our values and our inspiration, and it means that communities are active—and developers now know that. That is extremely important.

Providing everyday access to the natural environment and working with natural features to manage risk, such as flooding or poor air quality, should be a requirement, not a choice. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on flood prevention and have undertaken visits to various places—one as a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and four to other villages and towns around the UK. Following the storms of December 2015 and January 2016, we spoke with community leaders and residents affected by flooding and reported the challenges that their communities faced and how those challenges were being tackled.

Differences between Scotland and England emerged during those visits. For example, it is worth highlighting that the Scottish planning system severely restricts development on floodplains, while the English system is more permissive. English planners often have little choice, as many of the country’s larger population centres are located on floodplains. If planning permission is granted for a development that later floods, local authorities in Scotland are legally accountable, while English ones are not. That is quite a staggering discovery.

Sustainable urban drainage systems—SUDS—are mandatory in Scotland. It should be remembered every time housing provision is considered that one in six homes is at risk of flooding, and up to £1 billion of flood damage is incurred every single year. Flooding, water quality, access to green space and biodiversity are all affected by the way homes and communities are planned and delivered. There is extensive evidence that demonstrates how healthy local environments drive healthier economies and healthier people, so in aspiring to solve one crisis, we have an opportunity to solve many more and deliver multiple benefits to communities, for little or no additional cost.

We have found that well-designed SUDS can be built affordably and without delay in nearly all kinds of developments, and can be retrofitted in established developments. Arguments for not developing SUDS on the basis of site constraints may be overstated; the range of options available means it is nearly always possible to incorporate some measures. SUDS are a cost-effective alternative to conventional drainage when included early in the planning process; the failure to consider SUDS from the very start of a development’s design is a significant barrier to their efficient delivery.

SUDS are enablers of climate resilience and support healthy and economically vibrant communities. The value of those benefits is considerable. However, because the benefits accrue to local communities and are not valued by conventional markets—as I think the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds was referring to earlier—with costs initially borne by one party, typically the developer, they require effective policies to correct the market externalities involved.

Our analysis, underpinned by the findings from a survey, provided some clear indications. First, at the majority of sites, the costs and, particularly, the benefits of implementing SUDS are not being assessed. Secondly, physical site constraints are frequently cited as reasons to opt out of delivering SUDS in new housing and commercial developments, when the range of options available means that that is commonly unjustified. Thirdly planning authorities in many areas do not have the capacity to properly judge the merits of applications, leading to more opt-outs than necessary on the grounds of price and practicality, as many go unchallenged. Fourthly, when SUDS have been delivered, they often miss opportunities to provide multiple benefits, as they follow the very narrow and non-statutory standards that presently exist. Fifthly, the adoption and future maintenance of SUDS are the greatest barriers to be resolved.

Scottish Water, Scotland’s sole water company, is legally required to adopt and maintain SUDS, and it has the legal right to block planning permission for developments if the local water supply or sewerage system is inadequate. As a statutory corporation, it can borrow money off the Scottish Government at lower interest rates than it would receive from commercial lenders. The water framework directive and the habitats directive have been transposed into Scots law, subject to sustainable flood management requirements; water bodies can be dredged or altered to manage flood risk. In England, those directives can prevent flood management work from being carried out.

Under the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009, flood risk is managed at a catchment scale. Co-operation is facilitated between local authorities, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Water and other stakeholders. Failure to consider the catchment-level flood risk impacts of new developments or flood risk management work was a hot topic in north Yorkshire when I visited earlier this year. Information sharing between organisations carrying out flood defence work and flood-related repairs to critical infrastructure was also criticised.

I sincerely hope that this debate will improve the quality of life and peace of mind that our communities deserve, with a high-quality built environment for them to live and work in. I hope the Minister takes into consideration the need for a SUDS appraisal to be made compulsory in delivering a quality built environment. I look forward to his reply.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 5:00 pm, 13th December 2017

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend Jo Churchill on securing the debate. She covered in great detail and with great aplomb the snagging problems that arise with individual homes.

I want to take us back a stage in the process. I do not want to see the built environment characterised by little boxes or rabbit hutches, nor do I want to see it characterised by little boxes and rabbit hutches that are badly built. In around 2011, I was one of those here who was responsible for introducing neighbourhood planning as a means of dealing with that. Neighbourhood planning has become very well known for giving communities a say over where housing should go, but it is less well known that they have the right also to comment on what those buildings should look like.

The reason we have a large number of rabbit hutches and little boxes is that house builders largely go about the building of their houses on their own, with no influence from the communities in which they operate. A great deal of influence from communities would be of great advantage to the people who will live in those houses and to the communities, because of the overall impression they create, as well as to the house builders, who would produce exactly what someone wants.

That deals a bit with the big picture stuff. I completely agree that there is still a need to get the details of the housing right, but I want to continue on that in my role as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary design and innovation group. That is particularly relevant to the points I made about the use of neighbourhood planning for people to decide what sort of houses they want to get involved with.

I was very pleased to see that the Design Council has produced a guide to neighbourhood planning. When a body such as the Design Council gets involved in neighbourhood planning, it represents a significant shift in the attitude of communities to taking advantage of the principles we set out in neighbourhood planning, to talk about and have influence over the design aspects of what they are trying to include in their neighbourhood plan. Having some influence on design and being able to participate in the design process is fundamental to the success of the neighbourhood planning process.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

My hon. Friend is right to bring up the issue of design. Does he share my concern at how often new houses and new settlements are designed without any thought for disabled people who might live in those settlements? At the moment, an office block is being converted into a new community in my constituency. The local authority is not able to insist on disabled access in that office block because it is a conversion, which means the rules on disabled access do not apply.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The conversion of buildings is largely permitted development, and therefore the community has no ability to get into that. I go back to my fundamental point, which is that the community’s involvement in the process at the beginning should take account of what will be required for disabled people. That should feed into the design parameters that should be being discussed with the house builders, to get the design of the house right.

I echo the Design Council’s comment that embedding good design in a neighbourhood plan is crucial. The sad thing is that very few neighbourhood plans include design. They are mostly concerned with where the housing should go, and they do not look at design. Even within my constituency, there is a community that forgot to look at design criteria when producing its neighbourhood plan. Later, when it tried to object to a particular design format being used for an area, it did not have anything to rely on to make that change. It is of no consequence to that community now that it missed the boat, but that serves as a good lesson for communities looking at producing a neighbourhood plan that they should include some design features.

Overall, I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds in her concentration on problems with individual houses, but I urge communities to go back one stage in the process. They need to include design in their neighbourhood plan and ensure they have really got to grips with what they want to see, so that they can influence the type and design of buildings from the outset.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I am going to call Justin Tomlinson next, but I will have to limit him to two minutes, so that I can call the Front-Bench spokespeople in good order.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon 5:06 pm, 13th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I was initially only looking to intervene, so my contribution will be short.

I want to offer my total support for my hon. Friend Jo Churchill. I cannot think of a speech I have agreed with more than the one she made. I say that as someone who represents Swindon, which has been one of the fastest growing towns year on year for some time. I was a councillor for 10 years in Swindon and have been an MP for seven, so I have had 17 years of representing new build areas. My maiden speech was dedicated to this subject, and I brought forward a private Member’s Bill in the early days of my political career to offer some solutions—they were wholeheartedly rejected, but I had a go. I have had countless public meetings and an incredible amount of casework. There is clear frustration, anger and despair from the residents who have made their single biggest purchase and from myself, on behalf of the Government, because I am desperate to see us fulfil our commitment to 300,000 houses being built.

This poor, shoddy and shambolic work is all too often putting people off and, frankly, ripping people off. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds summed it up well with her reference to a kettle. It is a given with every other purchase that we are protected by trading standards and all the various Acts, but when it comes to our single biggest purchase, we are at others’ mercy. Members have rightly highlighted build quality and the excuse of a lack of skills. Why on earth do people sign houses off if they are not fit? Cars are another big purchase, and at Honda in my constituency, nothing leaves the factory unless it has been robustly tested. If there is a problem, which is rare, it is dealt with swiftly. That is not the case with houses.

There is frustration about change of plans. People buy houses based on the layout and the scheme proposed, but for a variety of reasons, that often changes, and people have no recourse. There is all too often a lack of maintenance of roads and open space, particularly, perhaps by coincidence, at the point that the final house is sold before the road is adopted. One of the tactics is—

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Order. The Front-Bench spokespeople need to limit themselves to six minutes. I call Alison Thewliss.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 5:09 pm, 13th December 2017

It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I will try to be brief. I might pick up where Justin Tomlinson left off, with unadopted roads, which are a serious issue. My mother-in-law has spent many years fighting with her local council in an attempt to get her road adopted, and it is a real challenge if those things are not done as they should be.

In Scotland, we agree about the need for better guarantees for consumers. In general, we believe that the communities that we build and invest in today say everything about our values and aspirations as a country. In particular, community empowerment and people having a say in their local communities on how developments are built and the facilities that go in, along with housing on its own, are really important.

Jo Churchill made an excellent speech. I agree that it is entirely concerning that a kettle has more guarantees than the place that someone wants to stay in for the rest of their life with their family. The Government ought to be addressing that urgently. In thinking about what she was saying, I was reflecting on my own experience. When my parents moved into the house that I grew up in, they had to take up numerous snagging issues with the developer. Many of those issues were addressed. Further down the line, there was an issue with the roughcast falling off, and they had to go the NHBC to get that dealt with, but even when it was a very simple thing, such as getting the cap on the cold tap fixed, they could not get that piece of snagging done, and eventually they had to deal with it by pinching one out of the show home, because they knew that the show home would be fixed. A very simple thing such as that proved to be very difficult to get fixed, and that just should not be the case—snagging issues should be dealt with. That was more than 30 years ago, so the problem has been around for a very long time and deserves to be addressed with great seriousness.

The hon. Lady raised issues about the ombudsman and the gaps that exist. People ought to have a very clear pathway. They should be able to say, “This is an issue. How do I get it fixed? If it’s not fixed, where do I go?” That is crucial.

The hon. Lady’s point about broadband and energy efficiency is very pertinent to my constituency, as residents in Toryglen have been missed in the various stages of broadband roll-out and infill later on. People move into smashing, brand-new houses, marketed as being close to the city centre and for young professionals, yet the broadband service that they get is wholly inadequate. Getting it retrofitted in those properties is proving hugely frustrating, both for the residents and for my office.

In a number of different areas, there need to be standards whereby quality can be assured. The hon. Lady mentioned modular developments. I have visited the factory of CCG, which is next to my constituency. It built the Commonwealth games village in Glasgow, along with many other developments. The Commonwealth games village in Dalmarnock was a mixed development of private homes for sale and homes for social rent. Residents had some issues with snagging and still do, but the fact of being able to guarantee the quality going out of the factory was important. CCG prides itself on producing a product that can be quality-assured before it leaves. It does a number of checks to ensure that what it is sending out of the factory is fit for purpose. The company is very innovative.

Looking at the wider context, my hon. Friend John Mc Nally talked about ensuring that the whole of a development is of good quality and is future-proofed in relation to flood risk. A SUDS scheme runs through the Commonwealth games development in Dalmarnock. That was an integral part of it. It would not have been built had that scheme not been part of the development—it was a requirement. Looking at things ahead of time in that way is best practice. What is the environment more broadly going to look like in a number of different years? How can people ensure that the house that they have bought and paid for will not be flooded? I would suggest that people can have more than just snagging problems when water is coming through their door.

The point made by John Howell about design quality is crucial. When people are building something, they want it to be theirs. When people are moving into a home, they want to have ownership of it, and not just in the sense of having the keys to the door. They want to feel that they are investing in something of good quality, and embedding good design is a hugely important part of that. The Scottish Government have a very useful place standard tool, which the hon. Gentleman may want to look at. It looks at all the different aspects not only of a house but of a whole development, to ensure that all the aspects of quality—the transport infrastructure, the roads, the facilities, and a walkable, liveable, safe and secure neighbourhood —are in place. The house should not just stand on its own as part of a wider development, but be connected to other things, so that people are not just building a house but having a home, and one that is in a community.

In Glasgow, the East Pollokshields charrette carried out a very interesting exercise in that regard. In my constituency, there is less new build and lots of existing properties, but where new build comes in, we want it to be integrated well into the community. There is a big gap site in East Pollokshields that is going to be developed, and they took the time to get money from the Scottish Government to have that charrette, which involves the whole community in the area coming together and seeing what the facilities are, what they would like to have in their area, what does not quite work and what the opportunities are for change. I very much recommend that wider approach both to the Government and to other hon. Members. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on all the excellent points that have been raised.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Minister (Housing) 5:15 pm, 13th December 2017

May I, too, congratulate Jo Churchill? She will have to go home blushing tonight, because she made an excellent speech and set out the terrain very well. Indeed, all the contributions had real merit in their different ways.

We know that we have a housing crisis in this country and that we have to build at levels not seen previously, but John Howell is absolutely right: this is not just about houses; it is about people’s homes. It is about people’s homes in communities that are both safe and sustainable, and that means things such as flood prevention. John Mc Nally talked about building that in and, as far as we can, future-proofing.

Mrs Miller spoke about the need for facilities for people with disabilities. In fact, we should be building homes that can be retrofitted where appropriate, so that people can, if they choose to, spend their lives in those homes. The windy staircases of the past are simply not consistent with the future. Justin Tomlinson also made very valid points on how we ought to move forward. I was attracted by the comments of the hon. Member for Henley about neighbourhood planning. Yes, we have to see design as a central part of the changes that we want to make.

One of the realities is that we have a serious infrastructure backlog that will prevent us from moving forward quickly. Building 300,000 new homes means an awful lot of construction workers. We have an ageing construction force in this country, and half the construction workers in the national capital are EU nationals. I know not where they will go post-Brexit, but there is a good chance that many will disappear. That will, if nothing else, create shortages in London and suck in construction workers from elsewhere. With those twin problems, we have to be serious about training the next generation of construction workers. They will not necessarily always be young people; they may be less than young people.

I say to the Minister that under this Government, we have seen the hollowing out of both planning and building control in our local authorities. That simply is not consistent with the demands that the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds has rightly made. We have to see the public weal protected, and in the end it is our local authorities that can do that best, if we are to make it meaningful. I will not repeat everything that the hon. Lady said about the housing surveys. I will simply repeat the point that we know that many people—a disproportionately high number—are dissatisfied with the homes that they get.

There is a house in my constituency that was referred to in the report by the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment. It is owned by Elizabeth and Stephen Watkins. The house was built in 1998, and they have been involved in a dispute ever since. It has never been lived in. It is a disgrace that there is no process for reconciliation. We must have not a nice, cosy, industry-led ombudsman, but an ombudsman process that has real teeth and the capacity to make a material difference. I have to agree again with the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds, because yes, that would be good for the private sector.

Grenfell Tower, we know, was retrofitted. We will probably have to do a serious retrofit to something like 27 million homes that already exist in Britain, but the work on Grenfell Tower was very recent. We have to ensure that there is an ombudsman capacity that has real teeth and can protect people, whether they are living in social housing, in owner-occupation or, very importantly, under private landlords. We know that private landlords will play a disproportionate part in the building of the future.

I will finish on a couple of issues. The hon. Member for Henley said that he does not want to see little boxes. We have to do something about the space standards. There is a consultation out, and I say to the Minister that we have to bring that to a conclusion. Secondly—this will be my concluding point—we know that we are not hitting our targets for moving to carbon neutrality by 2050. Probably 1 million homes in this country will be retrofitted to those carbon standards. The Committee on Climate Change said that it should be something like 4 million over the same period. I say to the Minister that the Government have now got to do an awful lot more.

Congratulations to the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds. This has been a great debate and it is an important one for the future.

Photo of Alok Sharma Alok Sharma Minister of State (Communities and Local Government) 5:20 pm, 13th December 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jo Churchill on securing this vital debate on delivering quality in the built environment. I know that her contribution is based on first-hand experience, with her expertise in the sector. We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). John Mc Nally made some very pertinent points, as did other Opposition Members.

The one thing we all recognise is that our country urgently needs many more homes. The Government are delivering them. There were 217,000 net additions in England last year alone. That is the biggest increase in housing supply for almost a decade. The housing supply package announced in the Budget takes the total financial support for housing up to at least £44 billion over the next five years. Alongside the planning reforms that were also announced, this package will enable us to deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average by the mid-2020s.

Just as important as building those homes is the need to ensure that they are of good quality, well designed and respond positively to their local context, as all hon. Members have agreed. We believe that we can build not only more homes, but better homes. This is something I care deeply about, which I emphasise every time I talk to representatives from the sector, particularly the large developers. There are some great examples of house builders who are making quality and design a priority, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds has said, too many new homes still fall short.

The all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, which my hon. Friend chairs, has led the charge. It is thanks to its work that we are taking forward many of the measures to bring about improvements.

My hon. Friend made reference to a number of statistics, but let me throw in another. According to the latest Home Builders Federation survey, 84% of new homebuyers would recommend their builder to a friend. That figure has fallen steadily from 90% over the last four years. That means that 16% of new homebuyers would not recommend their builder. That simply is not good enough and must change. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am committed to addressing that by putting the focus squarely on better quality and design at every stage: planning, design and construction.

Our housing White Paper launched in February this year set out our proposals to amend the national planning policy framework. We want to increase the emphasis on design and community engagement in local neighbourhood plans and other development plan documents. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley spoke with great clarity—he is a champion of neighbourhood planning, and it is right that design should be reflected at the neighbourhood planning stage. We want to strengthen the importance of early pre-application discussions with local communities about design and the types of homes being provided. We want to make it clear that design should not be used as a valid reason to object to development where it accords with clear design expectations set out in statutory plans. We also want to recognise the value of using a widely accepted design standard, such as Building for Life, which is from the Design Council, in shaping and addressing basic design principles.

To ensure we achieve those high standards in planning, we must ensure that the right skills are available. Last week, I announced a £25 million planning delivery fund, which will provide ambitious local planning authorities with funding, to ensure they have the skills, capacity and capability they need to deliver high-quality housing at scale. One of the streams of this funding is the design quality fund, which is all about increasing design skills in local authorities.

Tony Lloyd talked about the Government hollowing out the planning system of the local planning authorities. I would just point out to him that I am grateful for the support of his party in our passing regulations to increase planning fees by 20% earlier today. That will have a positive impact for planning departments up and down the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds and other hon. Members raised the issue of skills. There is a commitment by the industry—we are encouraging it—to work to deliver another 45,000 skilled workers by 2019 through the Construction Industry Training Board. The Chancellor announced another £34 million for construction skills funding. On apprenticeships, I agree we should be looking to do more, but I have been pleased to visit sites up and down the country where apprentices are on site and being trained up.

On our work on design with the industry, early this year I launched a design quality symposium at the Royal Institute of British Architects. On Monday, the Secretary of State announced that in the spring we will be following that up with a national design conference to raise the bar even further.

Yesterday I launched a new modern methods of construction working group—Alison Thewliss mentioned modern methods of construction. The working group comprises key stakeholders from across the house building sector. It will be tasked with looking at issues such as the availability of finance, warranties and insurance to encourage people to consider using modern methods of construction, which will enable us to build good-quality homes more quickly.

On the core of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds, as well as championing better quality and design, the Government want to make it easier for people to get redress when things do go wrong, which her all-party group has rightly highlighted. Residents currently have to navigate four different redress providers to make a complaint. Research in other sectors has shown that redress works more efficiently for consumers when there is a single ombudsman. It is right that we explore the need to consolidate processes and look at the options to improve redress. Therefore, we will be consulting on the potential for a single housing ombudsman in the new year. I welcome the inquiry into the potential for a new homes ombudsman that the APPG for excellence in the built environment has announced, and which my hon. Friend referred to in her speech. I can assure her that we will consider the findings closely.

I have a few minutes left, so let me respond to a couple of other points. My hon. Friend talked about improving the redress scheme. We will look at that as part of the consultation in the new year. There was discussion about how independent the national house building guarantee is. She asked whether the Government keep records on the number of defects and the dissatisfaction rates. We do not but, as she pointed out, warranty provision and the handling of cases can be raised with the Financial Ombudsman Service.

My right hon. Friend Mrs Miller asked about inspection records. They are available for homeowners for building works that started after 1 April. Of course, we are committed to ensuring that the system performs to the best level that it can, and we will continue to assess that.

The hon. Member for Falkirk rightly raised the issue of flooding risk. The national planning policy framework sets out that flood risk areas can be built on only if they pass an exception test and no other areas can be built on. On the flood risk assessment process, there must be very clear consultation with bodies such as the Environment Agency.

In conclusion, we are taking action across all fronts to drive up not only quantity, but quality. We do not have to choose between the two, quite rightly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds said. I thank her and congratulate her on raising this issue and on the valuable work that she and her all-party group does.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered delivering quality in the built environment.

Sitting adjourned.