Protection for Homebuyers

Part of Treasury Committee – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing) 3:31 pm, 13th December 2018

My hon. Friend is right. Some of the dismissive responses from some developers have been mentioned in the debate: “Have you been doing this?” “Well, yes.” “Has it previously been to the disadvantage of leaseholders?” “Well, yes.” “Have you been able to do anything about it?” “Perhaps, but it is only now that we are prepared to do it.” It just goes to show that highlighting such things and putting pressure on the companies can have a swift effect, not least if they want to save their reputational skins.

It is not acceptable that people have to put up with major problems with their home or delay moving in, or even that they have to move out during belated repairs to bring the house up to scratch. The Government should bring forward a full suite of consumer rights for homebuyers when they introduce the measure on the new homes ombudsman. However, when more than half of new homes are built with major problems, it is clear that problems in providing protection and standards to homebuyers run deeper than consumer rights. There are clear failings across the house building sector, allowing homes to be built systematically in a way that quite clearly falls below the standard that anyone should expect.

That was highlighted well by my hon. Friend Liz Twist, when she talked about unfinished estates and issues of completion, adoption and delays. She mentioned people living for too long on building sites when there are delays in completing properties, as well as lack of transport and infrastructure, and the failure to provide basic amenities such as shops, play areas and community centres—the things that build a community. Instead, estates are left full of Lego houses, with no centre or heart.

We have a planning permission bidding system with too much flexibility on both affordable housing and standards of building, and bidders can see the building of a home to a high standard as a costly extra. Too often, they fail to recognise that they are not simply building houses; they are building communities, which confers on them a corporate ethical responsibility. They should take pride in the work they do, the homes they provide, and the communities they are building around the country. It sticks in the craw when large companies exploit the system and fail to live up to their moral duty to deliver affordable housing of an acceptable standard, but still pay uncomfortably high bonuses—despite benefiting from the Government Help to Buy system.

We have already heard about Persimmon’s horrendous customer service. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North may be surprised to learn that it gets three out of five stars for customer satisfaction. Perhaps she would think that that rates it rather too highly. It will no doubt be disappointed that it is not getting five stars in the HBF customer satisfaction ratings, but rather than concentrating on improving building standards or communication with customers, it insists on paying out £75 million in bonuses to its executives. That is alarming.

Last year, I met the new bosses of Bovis Homes, another company that was struggling to meet acceptable standards, because of a combination of over-expansion, too much subcontracting and being too distant from customers. For a long time it had a five-star building rating, of which it was incredibly proud, but it lost it. It was heartening for me—and it did not take me five years to get a meeting—to hear that Bovis bosses were determined to turn things around. They were quite crestfallen that the company’s reputation had been hit so hard. They had been known as a high-quality, trusted home building brand. Customers were pleased at the change of heart, but there were those who had hoped to move into their dream-forever home for whom the game change was too little, too late.

The need to build hundreds of thousands of homes a year should not lead to reduced standards in house building or allow companies to exploit the housing crisis by making a fortune from an under-regulated housing system. The Government should consider the call from the Federation of Master Builders for a licence to practise, to root out cowboy builders who forgo the rules during construction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston talked about a single homebuyers code, developers not being able to insist on particular solicitors to be used by homebuyers—who would have a free choice—and an information pack post-sale. She also highlighted the issue of training for subcontracted staff, and looked forward to high-quality apprenticeships in the building sector. Those are issues that it is well worth considering.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse talked about safety and retrofitting sprinklers, and that should not be forgotten. The issue is not just about houses; it is also about flats, of course. When we think about high-rises, the Grenfell tragedy and its effects should not soon be forgotten if we want citizens to be safe.

I hope that the Government will take seriously what has been said in the debate, which was a good and helpful one. I hope they will seek to tighten regulation of planning standards and materials quality, and ensure that the homes we build are safe and up to scratch. Like the HomeOwners Alliance, the Government should want better new build, and should take much stronger action, including retrospective action for leaseholders.