What’s the point of building a million new homes if they’re not fit to live in? | John Harris

The dream of a property-owning democracy is ridden with cracks and leaks: ministers say build, build, build – but then fail to ensure proper regulation

They might be the most ubiquitous feature of the modern English landscape, and yet they barely attract any comment: those sprawling newbuild housing developments that seem to surround almost every town and city, offering a promise of comfort and security and a vital foot on the property ladder.

More often than not, their avenues and culs-de-sac will have faux-bucolic names often ending in “meadows”, “mead”, or “wood”. The life therein seems profoundly modern: stripped of much history or sense of shared experience so that everything suggests the weightlessness of suburbia. Yet for all the outward gleam, something is wrong.

This week the Guardian reported that Bovis is set to award people who live in some of its newbuild homes a total of £7m in compensation, in response to claims that houses have faulty plumbing or wiring, missing insulation, and other serious defects. Some people say they were offered money to move into homes that have not been completed. When the news broke, the Bovis share price fell by 10%, wiping £100m off its stock market value.

This is just one part of a bigger story of complaints about Britain’s construction giants – and what happens when the rush to build leads to corners being cut and houses left either unfinished or deeply defective. On social media there are hundreds-strong groups telling their personal stories: “The toilet leaked into the living room and when my plumber came to fix it he found the toilet had not been installed correctly”; “having my kitchen ripped out for the second time”; “no insulation in roof”; “mould growing all over the house … too dangerous too live in as I have asthma”.

Meanwhile, the pressure is on to build as many new homes as possible. Even if it is behind on its targets, the government still wants a million to have been put up by 2020. The year 2015 saw a big jump in completed builds: 142,890 homes were finished, a 20% year-on-year increase. Last year the number was put at more than 150,000.

Behind these increases sat policies such as the new homes bonus (which gives councils cash rewards for granting planning permission for newbuild developments) and George Osborne’s help-to-buy scheme – now drastically stripped back, although the fact that interest-free loans are still available for newbuild homes means that the policy will carry on incentivising builders to put up houses.

But in privately owned developments and new social housing, and the mixed-tenure places that combine the two, problems abound. Last month I spent two weeks reporting on the case of the Orchard Village estate on the Essex/east London border, and properties split between homeowners and tenants whose problems – with leaks and damp, and allegedly faulty fire protection and dangerous levels of methane – are mind-boggling.

Since then I have been contacted by people in other newly built developments who have suffered similar problems. The most spectacular case is that of a development called Solomon’s Passage in Peckham, south London: four housing blocks completed in 2010 that were plagued with leaks, fire protection issues and defective balconies, until the housing association in charge – Wandle, which owns about 7,000 homes across the capital – decided to tear two of them down and start again.

So what is going on? A report by the clunkily named House of Commons all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment (the report today mysteriously disappeared online) and it is all there: “Housebuilders have targets to achieve … the quality is reduced as they rush … Builders substitute products specified by the architect with cheaper products … Housebuilders’ own quality control systems are not fit for purpose.”

The recession, says the report, pushed out as much as half of the construction industry’s skilled labour, much of which is yet to return. A fifth of the existing building workforce is set to retire in the next five to 10 years. And still the call blithely goes out from Westminster and Whitehall: build, build, build.

There are also issues surrounding how the building trade is monitored. Industry standards are set by the National House Building Council, which is also in charge of most of the 10-year warranties that cover new homes: in 2015-16 it paid £90m to homeowners affected by problems, compared with only £37m 10 years before.

The NHBC also pays out millions to housebuilding companies every year via a de facto profit-share arrangement which rewards the firms who put up the most new homes. In addition it insists that some homeowners claiming compensation sign gagging orders that reportedly extend to conversations with their neighbours. This is a funny way for a supposed honest broker to behave, and underlines the sense of helplessness felt by people at the blunt end.

So does the increasingly oligopolistic nature of the industry. There are said to be 19,000 fewer firms involved in UK building than when the recession struck, and the trade is now dominated by such giants as Barratt, Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey, Bellway, Redrow, Bloor Homes and Bovis. In that sense, the rage and dismay all over social media are even more understandable: people up against distant conglomerates inevitably feel like mere specks shouting at monoliths.

Some of what needs to be done is obvious. Britain has a huge construction skills gap that needs to be filled as soon as possible, not least because of the possible consequences of Brexit. The operation of building regulations and warranties needs to be much more stringent and transparent.

To echo recommendations made by the aforementioned House of Commons group, we need a specific new homes ombudsman to shine light into this part of the housing sector; and people who have either bought or opted to rent a new home off-plan ought to be given the right to inspect their home prior to the buying or renting process being finished, and to defer completion until everything is satisfactory. Most of all, Britain’s botched newbuilds demand a political prominence they have so far been denied.

Words like “scandal” are too easily bandied around, but they fit these stories. Moreover, they suggest something that cuts to the heart of the national condition: even for those lucky enough to buy their own home, the dream of a property-owning democracy is so ridden with cracks and leaks that it can easily look like a con trick.


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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