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Help to Buy: Housebuilders’ Profits

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to restrict the profits being made by housebuilders through the Help to Buy scheme.

Schemes such as Help to Buy equity loan have helped to deliver 222,000 new homes in 2017-18, the highest level since 2007-08. However, we expect builders to act responsibly. We expect all housing developers to deliver good quality housing, to deliver it on time, and to treat purchasers of new-build homes fairly.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will be aware that yesterday, the housebuilder Persimmon declared annual profits of over £1 billion, having built 16,449 homes. That is £66,000 per house built, with half the sales funded through Help to Buy. That represents almost a trebling in profit per house since Help to Buy was introduced in 2013. Does the Minister accept research concluding that Help to Buy has led to house prices being 15% higher than they would be compared to similar properties that were not eligible—in turn, fuelling profits? What plans do the Government have to clamp down on huge bonuses arising from the increased profits, made from the public purse under Help to Buy?

My Lords, I should point out to the noble Lord that the Help to Buy scheme was initiated under the coalition Government. Some of the figures he has quoted were made by his leader, the right honourable Member for Twickenham, Vince Cable, who is in a much better position than I am to know how successful the scheme has been in delivering houses. It has delivered over 190,000, and he was a Cabinet Minister when it started. Ensuring we get value for money is of course important, and we are focused on that. Regarding directors’ salaries, there are provisions in the Companies Act 2006 relating to directors’ duties. Section 173 includes a complex corporate code that governs listed companies. Persimmon, which he has referenced, realised how unacceptable the situation was and the chairman, the chairman of the remuneration committee and the chief executive resigned. That is an indication of the realisation, which I share, that it was inappropriate.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the Government should set a framework for space standards, quality of design and energy efficiency so that, no matter if the home is for sale or rent, it will provide a quality dwelling for many years to come? It is disappointing that many of the homes benefiting from the Government’s scheme fail in these respects.

My Lords, I do accept that standards are important. The noble Lord will be aware that the National Planning Policy Framework tightens up some of these quality and design requirements, and there are also rules relating to safety. These will be at the forefront of the Government’s mind when we have the new Help to Buy scheme. We will look at all of the providers, not just Persimmon, to make sure that they are delivering value for money for the consumer and the taxpayer.

Will the Minister return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley: that the vast profits Persimmon is making would be far better invested in bricks and mortar and new council houses?

My Lords, I leave it to the Labour Party to have an assault on profits; there is nothing wrong with profit itself. It is inappropriate when the money is not being invested properly and providers are not taking proper account of their duties; that is unacceptable. The noble Lord will know that the lifting of the cap on local authorities will help with an issue on which he and I agree: the need for more social houses.

My Lords, the Minister is suggesting that the oligopoly of major-volume housebuilders has let us down on quantity, affordability, design, workmanship and quality of product. Could he update us on the arrival of a new homes ombudsman, who can deal with a good number of the complaints that, justifiably, people are making about the appalling quality they experience when they buy some of these properties?

My Lords, most of the suppliers of homes under the Help to Buy scheme are small and medium-sized enterprises, although I accept that the larger players are delivering the volume. I agree with the noble Lord about the need for a new homes ombudsman and he will know that, when legislative time allows, we will introduce that. In the meantime, with the Home Builders Federation we are looking at the possibility of a voluntary homes ombudsman, to make sure we have the qualities he and I are keen on and that they are enforced.

My Lords, I understand that, as of 2021, the scheme will be restricted to only first-time buyers. In those conditions, what will stop first-time buyers being subjected to inflated house prices?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: the new Help to Buy scheme, which will start in April 2021 and run for two years, will be restricted to first-time buyers. At the moment, 81% of the uptake is first-time buyers. We will look carefully across the board at who is designated under that scheme as a provider, and we will have an opportunity to review that because it is a new system. We will look at it in the round to ensure that there is quality and proper consumer reference around some of the complaints that may be made. We will look also at leaseholds, to ensure that is no longer there. In 2021, all the new entrants and refreshed members will be required to sign up to that.

My Lords, it is important to state for the public record that the figures provided by my noble friend Lord Shipley are from research done by the Times. Is the Minister aware that in 2018, the largest housebuilders declared dividends amounting to £2 billion? On hearing this, does he have any sympathy for the many council planning officers who regularly do battle with those developers who are still exploiting the Government’s viability loophole to avoid paying the community infrastructure levy and Section 106 money rightly owed to councils, thus depriving communities all over the country of millions of pounds that should be spent on roads, schools and much-needed social housing? When will the loophole finally be closed for good?

My Lords, the figures are right, to the extent that they stack up mathematically. I accept that the figures set out by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, featured in the press, but they are simply an exercise in looking at the profit and then dividing it by the number of houses built, without any attempt to isolate those in the Help to Buy scheme. It is very much a back-of-a-fag-packet exercise and does not bear mathematical analysis.

I hope the noble Baroness will accept that her more detailed questions have slightly blindsided me because they are not on this specific point. However, I will write to her and ensure that a copy of the letter is placed in the Library.