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Protection for New Home Buyers

Volume 669: debated on Thursday 16 January 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

I applied for this debate in anticipation of the Government’s plans to bring forward measures in this Parliament relating to building standards and safety. In recent years, I have seen numerous examples in my constituency—[Interruption.]

Order. Could Members who are leaving the Chamber do so quietly, because the hon. Lady is trying to make her speech?

In recent years, I have seen numerous examples in my constituency of shoddy and sometimes downright dangerous workmanship, and a lack of redress for homeowners. The all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment highlighted similar issues in reports in 2016 and 2018. I therefore welcome the announcement in the Queen’s Speech of the Government’s intention to act. I hope that, by sharing some of my constituents’ experiences and concerns, I can urge speedy progress, and help to inform the Minister’s thinking as policy is developed. I also hope that he will carefully consider the issues relating to the regulatory regime, enforcement and the operation of warranties that I will raise tonight.

May I start by placing on record my thanks to Martin Scott and Paul Hargreaves of solicitors Walker Morris, and Geoff Peter of New Build Guru, who have all been generous with their expertise in helping me to prepare for this debate? I also thank my constituents for bringing their concerns to my attention. They have shown great fortitude, and a determination that the problems that they have endured should not be suffered by other homeowners in years to come.

Let me give the House some idea of the defects experienced by my constituents. At a development in Stretford—undertaken by Mr Selcuk Pinarbasi through his family companies Pino Design and Build, and Talbot Gate Developments—homeowners showed me numerous defects that they found when they moved into their new homes, including unfinished and damaged bathrooms and fittings; floors, skirting boards, bannisters, windows and doors out of true; the measurements of a downstairs WC not complying with statutory requirements to enable wheelchair access; breaches of electrical safety regulations; and an incorrectly fitted gas sleeve.

In another development, in Old Trafford, buyers found that there had been failure by the developer to comply with conditions relating to external works including boundary treatments, security, lighting, landscaping and waste disposal. That developer, Mr Jason Alexander, was also behind the development of Aura Court, an apartment block on the border of my constituency and Manchester city centre that has been the subject of a “Granada Reports” programme highlighting the dangerous and incomplete state of the block, such that Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue has put a number of enforcement notices in place. Issues there include damaged fire doors; cladding not installed on external walls and walkways; decking not installed on walkways; unauthorised window installation, affecting fire safety standards; waterlogging on escape routes; and dangerous staircase treads. Even so, the block remains occupied, despite its shoddy state.

This is a really important debate. I think lots of Members will have examples of such issues in their constituency. My constituents have also experienced a real difficulty getting the guarantees behind these developments actually enforced. Premier Guarantee, which is apparently endorsed by all household lenders, has been in dispute with some of my constituents for three years over a series of defects in the property—defects that are accepted by Premier. Premier is now suggesting that the case needs to go to independent arbitration—at my constituents’ expense—to resolve the issues, even though it accepts that the defects exist. Does that not show a fundamental need for the reform of the system?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who does excellent work through the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform. I will be saying a little more about the deficiencies of the warranty arrangements, including those provided by Premier, in a few moments.

The National House Building Council in Northern Ireland gives some guarantees to people who buy houses, although it may not always be able to have the enforcement powers that it would like to. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is also a responsibility on banks to intervene and help when it comes to mortgage repayments on a house that is not finished correctly?

I will say a little about mortgage lenders later in my speech.

The examples I have given the House are not isolated. Indeed, Mr Alexander is notorious for a number of poor-quality developments across Greater Manchester and beyond. But it appears that developers can continue to develop new properties that fail to meet buildings standards, sometimes to a dangerous degree, while avoiding taking any action to address defects in their previous developments. Local authorities lack resources for inspection and enforcement. They cannot take developers’ previous failures into account to refuse them planning permission for future applications. Unscrupulous developers are free to continue to build with impunity, while buyers are left without redress.

How can it be right that such poor-quality buildings can be constructed, sold and occupied? How on earth are they receiving building regulations certificates? Section 57(1) of the Building Act 1984 means that it is an offence “recklessly” to issue such certificates, but it seems that they are being issued for clearly substandard buildings. I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House how many successful convictions have been brought under this legislation, because I have not been able to identify a single example.

Faced with defects and developers’ refusals to rectify them, buyers may seek to rely on their buildings warranty cover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned. But as my constituents have found, all too often that does not offer the protection they expect. Warranty providers are able to carry out a dual role as both approved inspector and warranty provider. That surely creates a conflict of interest. Insurers have an incentive to suppress knowledge of defects, particularly when they may give rise to very large claims. Exclusions to the cover often leave significant risk with the homeowner, so the inspector may not even bother to inspect every property in a development—arguably, there is insufficient incentive to do so.

Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised to hear from my hon. Friend about his constituents’ experiences with Premier Guarantee or that the main warranty provider in the UK, NHBC, told the all-party group in 2015 that of all the homeowners it covers, fewer than 5% contact NHBC with issues that result in a valid claim under the warranty. That does not of course tell us how many buyers try to claim under their warranty but are unsuccessful. It conceals the fact that warranty providers are extremely reluctant to rectify defects, as the onus will fall on them to recover the cost of doing so from the developer. Although defects the builder has failed or refused to deal with can be referred to NHBC’s resolution service, by which it decides which claims to accept or reject, New Build Guru suggests that house builders and NHBC routinely liaise directly with each other without notice or reference to the policyholder, and privately decide between them which claims will be accepted, thus avoiding both cost for the developer and the need for NHBC to incur expense to recover its costs from the builder.

For all practical purposes, a homeowner cannot challenge the warranty provider if it refuses to accept their claim. The reason for this, as one of my constituents has recently discovered, is that the resolution service is not a regulated insurance activity. If NHBC rejects a claim and the homebuyer wishes to challenge the refusal, the Financial Ombudsman Service has no jurisdiction to deal with such complaints. Homeowners may be able to complain to the Construction Industry Council, which regulates approved inspectors, but failing that their only option—mostly costly and impractical—is to go to law.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. My constituent Sarah bought a property off-plan from Bellway Homes in West Didsbury and ran into a whole host of problems. She is very supportive of the idea, which my hon. Friend has mentioned in the past, that homeowners should be able to retain a snagging fund, governed by an independent team and possibly held in an escrow account so that it can be fairly administered. Would my hon. Friend support such a system?

I most certainly would support that suggestion.

There are a number of other actions that the Government could take to address the slippery state of affairs that exists around warranties. Will the Minister consider, for example, standardisation of warranty policies, with the use of clear and unambiguous language, and an end to unreasonable exclusions? Would the Government consider amending the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 so that warranty policies are brought within the meaning of “construction contracts” under section 104 of the Act? That would mean that disputes could at least be settled by the relatively quicker and less expensive route of arbitration, rather than people needing to pursue a court claim.

The Minister will know that the problems I have described are compounded for those who own leasehold property. Management companies should be under a positive duty to act in leaseholders’ best interests, but often they are powerless to claim on the leaseholder’s behalf under the defects cover that is taken out by and for the benefit of the developer and his design team, usually for a 10-year period, to cover total or partial collapse or some other latent structural defect. The position of leaseholders could be strengthened through new legislation to make it compulsory for management companies, and leaseholders, to benefit from decennial insurance, specifically requiring such insurance to be taken out, specifying minimum levels of cover and the term of the insurance, and giving leaseholders and management companies third-party rights to claim directly under these policies.

The Government could also strengthen the Defective Premises Act 1972. This legislation extends protection for a period of six years—a period that is obviously out of line not only with decennial insurance cover but with actions in tort, where claims are allowed for a three-year period from the date of knowledge, subject to an overall maximum of 15 years under the Latent Damage Act 1986. The limitations period in the Defective Premises Act could be extended to be consistent with tort actions to give owners more protection. This is particularly important following the case of Murphy v. Brentwood District Council, which means that the residential property owner cannot claim for economic loss in tort.

There is a further adjustment to the Defective Premises Act that I invite the Minister to consider. Section 1(1) sets a test that work should be done

“in a workmanlike or, as the case may be, professional manner, with proper materials…so that as regards that work the dwelling will be fit for habitation when completed.”

That is a high bar when measured against the relevant test in consumer legislation, which refers to goods needing to

“meet the standard that a reasonable person would consider satisfactory”

under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, because I think we are going to be tight on time for the Minister to respond, and I am covering—we are all covering—a lot of territory.

Is it right, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the law should offer more protection when you buy a toaster than when you buy a house? Why is not the standard similar in relation to the purchase of residential property?

I would like to mention two issues that are outside the direct remit of the Minister’s Department but that none the less impact on the overall picture of protection for homeowners. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 means that, even if a householder does successfully pursue a defects claim in court, they may struggle to recover costs from their unsuccessful opponent. Although conditional fee arrangements are still possible, success fees and after-the-event insurance costs cannot be recovered from the losing party. This is a big issue for defects actions, since these costs can leave successful litigants so out of pocket that they still cannot afford to carry out the work to remedy the defects that were the subject of the case in the first place. Will the Minister press his counterparts in the Ministry of Justice to exclude defects actions for residential property from the prohibition on recovery of success fees and after-the-event insurance costs so that a successful owner can use the damages awarded to carry out repairs?

The operation of company law also seems to assist rather than hinder unscrupulous developers, who can set up a new company for each development, then place the company in liquidation, leaving defects unaddressed and sometimes avoiding tax and money-laundering rules in the process too. One constituent has found neither Companies House nor the Insolvency Service very willing to act to prevent this from happening, even when the same developer has blatantly and repeatedly breached registration and company law requirements. How will the Ministry work with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that company law operates robustly against such practices by developers?

While I am aware of attempts by the industry to address homebuyers’ concerns through the five-star system, of proposals for a new homes ombudsman, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ intention to draft new guidance for its members and regulated firms on the inspection of new residential building works and snagging, and of UK Finance’s role in relation to mortgage lenders and improving building standards, these protections will still be insufficient.

The more I have looked into this matter, the more shocked I have been by the extent of the problem, the utter unscrupulousness of some developers and the absence of meaningful protection for homebuyers, many of whom are making the most significant purchase of their lives. I am sure the Minister will recognise from this brief description of the problems experienced by my constituents and those of my hon. Friends that the case for holistic, far-reaching, regulatory and legislative reform is both urgent and compelling and that any measures introduced must have real teeth. The Government’s stated intention to act to strengthen buildings standards and safety is a real opportunity, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate and on making such an informed, well-researched speech? I know that she has worked hard to raise the issues that new homebuyers experience many times in the House, and I thank her for the opportunity to debate this.

This Government have been delivering on the new homes that this country needs. In 2018-19, the net additions were the highest since 1987. As we deliver new homes, we must ensure that they are of higher quality and higher standards and that homebuyers are treated fairly. This Government have been clear that safety, quality and fairness are our priorities. When people move into a home, they should have confidence that they can live their lives without the stress of unfair fees, safety issues or poor-quality workmanship. The protection of new homebuyers must, and will, improve. We expect all housing developers to deliver good-quality housing, to deliver it on time and to treat homebuyers fairly.

We are determined to learn the lessons from the Grenfell Tower fire and to strengthen the whole regulatory system for building safety, including fundamental changes to the regulatory framework for high rise-residential buildings. That will involve a fundamental change in both the regulatory framework and industry culture, creating a more accountable system. Our aim is to change the industry culture to ensure that there is accountability and responsibility and that residents are safe in their homes and have a stronger voice in the system. We will also legislate to close gaps in redress services, so that consumers are better protected and can navigate the market with confidence.

There is nothing more important than being and feeling safe in your own home. This Government will be putting residents at the heart of the new, stronger system of building safety. To ensure that all people are safe and secure in their homes, the Government are committed to bringing forward legislation that delivers meaningful and lasting change. The building safety Bill will put in place an enhanced safety framework for high-rise residential buildings, taking forward all the recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, and in some areas going even further.

The enhanced safety framework will provide clearer accountability and stronger duties for those responsible for the safety of high-rise buildings throughout the building’s design, construction and occupation. We will include clear competence requirements to maintain high standards. The hon. Lady should note that we have consulted on the details of this regime, including a proposal that buildings will need to go through a new gateway process, in which duty holders will have to prove to the regulator that their building is safe and ready for occupation. Building owners will be required to demonstrate that risks are identified, understood and effectively managed on an ongoing basis. Those responsible for building safety will not simply be able to tick boxes to discharge their responsibilities.

The hon. Lady speaks incredibly well on behalf of her constituents, and I am proud that the building safety Bill will give residents a stronger voice in the system, ensuring that their concerns are never ignored and that they fully understand how they can contribute to maintaining safety in their buildings. We will be strengthening enforcement and sanctions to deter non-compliance with the new regime to hold the right people to account when mistakes are made and ensure they are not repeated. The building safety Bill will include a new stronger and clearer framework to provide national oversight of construction products to ensure all products meet high performance standards. There will be a new system to oversee the built environment, with local enforcement agencies and national regulators working together to ensure that the safety of all buildings is improved.

We are genuinely grateful to the hon. Lady for her input into this important matter. As we continue to develop the policy in the weeks ahead and bring forward legislation, I will make sure that her comments during this debate are taken into account. I would like to invite her, if she so wishes, to come to the Department, sit down with officials and me, and talk about how we can make sure this Bill is effective as it can be.

We have committed to implementing all the recommendations of the phase 1 report from the independent Grenfell Tower public inquiry led by Martin Moore-Bick. The Government will introduce a fire safety Bill to implement the relevant legislative recommendations. This includes putting it beyond doubt that the fire safety order will require building owners and managers of multi-occupied residential premises of any height fully to consider and mitigate the risks of any external wall systems and fire doors. The Bill will also strengthen the relevant enforcement powers to hold building owners and managers to account.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing to my attention the case of the specific developer that she mentioned in her contribution. I know that her constituents and all prospective homebuyers and tenants will want to note that the enhanced regime we are planning will have stronger protections at various stages of the building process. These protections will ensure that outstanding issues are resolved before buildings are occupied. I understand that the specific case mentioned is currently under appeal, and therefore I cannot comment at this stage. However, I will follow the outcome of the legal proceedings with interest.

In fact, Aura Court is not under appeal, but the same developer is in relation to another development. However, the general point applies that this developer has repeatedly been able to erect substandard buildings and have them occupied while in very poor condition. Clearly, we need a legislative regime that means homeowners do not have to keep trying to go back to court to get these matters resolved.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for putting that point on the record. I hope that is one of the things we can discuss further in the weeks ahead.

We know that a stronger regulatory system is necessary, but it will not be enough to deliver the required cultural change, so we need industry to show the same leadership it has shown in successfully making building sites much safer for workers over recent years. They must also prioritise residents’ safety in the construction of high-quality buildings.

The Government welcome the action we have already seen from industry, especially the early adopters group, which has spearheaded the building safety charter. The charter demonstrates the commitment to putting building safety first, ahead of all other priorities. All those across the industry that are involved in the life cycle of a building should follow suit. The industry-led competence steering group has developed proposals for raising the competence of those working on buildings in scope of the new regime. We support the group’s proposals for an overarching system for competence oversight and have included them in our consultation as part of our package of measures to improve building safety. To drive progress further, the industry safety steering group, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, is holding industry to account for making practical and cultural change happen.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of leasehold. The debate has a particular bearing on leaseholders, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) in that respect as well. We know that leaseholders can too often face unfair practices, poor management of properties and difficulties in taking action to address problems. We are clear that there is no place in a modern housing market for unfair leasehold practices, and we are undertaking a comprehensive programme to reform the leasehold system to ensure homebuyers are treated fairly and protected from abuse and poor service.

We are moving forward with legislation to reform the leasehold sector. This includes the ban on new leasehold homes, restricting future leases to ground rent of zero financial value and closing legal loopholes to prevent further unfair evictions. We are committed to helping current and future leaseholders. We welcome the recent report of the Law Commission on enfranchisement valuation. This included options on how to make the cost of buying a freehold or extending a lease cheaper, and we are now considering those in detail. We look forward to further reports from the Law Commission on the broader enfranchisement process, reinvigorating commonhold, and improving the right to manage later this spring.

We are deeply aware of the issues surrounding onerous ground rent and other unfair terms which some leaseholders are facing. We encouraged the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate the extent of any mis-selling of leasehold properties, and we look forward to receiving its findings.

I will not if that is okay, because of time.

The independent working group reported last year, and we are considering its recommendations. We will announce our next steps in due course. It can be expensive to take legal action against a landlord when that is necessary, and we are deeply concerned that leaseholders sometimes have to pay their landlord’s legal costs, even if they win the case. That can lead to leaseholders facing bills that are higher than the charges they were seeking to challenge in the first place, and it can also deter leaseholders from taking their concerns to a tribunal at all. The Government believe that leaseholders should not be subject to unjustified legal costs, and we will close the legal loopholes that allow that to happen. Again, I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s contribution on that matter, and perhaps we can take the issue forward in the weeks ahead.

Our plans to reform the housing sector will be a collaborative effort with colleagues across Government. We are also closing a gap in redress for leaseholders by extending mandatory membership of a redress scheme to freeholders who do not use a managing agent. Managing agents are already required to belong to a redress scheme, but there is no such requirement for freeholders who do not use an agent. This change will give more leaseholders access to redress in the future.

There is much reform still to come, but we have taken action already. We have worked with industry to secure commitments to help existing leaseholders through our industry pledge. The leasehold sector is clearly ripe for reform, and I assure the House that the Government are fully committed to ensuring that such reform can happen.

Let me turn to the new homes ombudsman. Problems in the current redress system threaten the quality of the experience and product for new homebuyers. The Government are dedicated to ensuring that homebuyers are treated fairly when things go wrong, and for developers to up their game and get things right from the beginning. The hon. Lady raised important points about warranties, including warranty exclusions, the provision of clear information to consumers, and the resolution services of warranty providers. It is the responsibility of the Financial Conduct Authority to regulate new build warranties and protect consumers. If a consumer is unhappy with the warranty provider’s action, they can contact the Financial Ombudsman Service for free. I agree that consumers must be provided with clearer information on warranty cover, and we are considering how that is best achieved.

The hon. Lady made a valid point about potential conflicts of interest where approved inspectors have dual roles. Dame Judith Hackitt recommended that where they are involved in regulatory oversight, an approved inspector must be completely independent of the duty holder. The Government accept that recommendation and are working with the Joint Regulators Group, representatives of approved inspectors, and local authorities, to identify ways of minimising conflicts of interest and ensure sufficient regulatory capability and capacity under the new system. The industry has acknowledged many of those problems and is working to improve consumer confidence and trust.

In conclusion—time is short—the Government are committed to ensuring that the housing market works for everyone. That means building more of the right homes in the right places, and ensuring that when consumers purchase a new home, they have the protection they deserve and need. I assure hon. Members that as we work towards our ambition of building 300,000 new homes a year, residents in all tenures are safe. They must be treated fairly and be able to live in sustainable, high-quality homes.

Once again I am hugely grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution, and we will make sure it is taken into account. I hope that we can organise those meetings in the week ahead and see what we can incorporate. I look forward to the Government driving forward that vital reform.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.