Westminster Hall debate: New housing design speech

Last week in Parliament I spoke about the government’s lack of leadership on design or build quality for new housing and outlined the action that is urgently needed.

You can read my speech below or watch it at: https://goo.gl/KKEBjr 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate.

This country faces a housing crisis that is unprecedented since the second world war and getting worse. By the Government’s own admission, the housing market is broken and failing to deliver anything close to the 300,000 homes a year we need to address housing need in the UK. The broken nature of the UK housing market and the Government’s failure to tackle it are stifling the number of new homes being built, but also damaging the quality of those homes that are being built.

Last year the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, of which I was vice-chair jointly with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), undertook an inquiry into the quality of new build homes entitled “More homes, fewer complaints”. The inquiry was undertaken in response to an increase in complaints from people who had purchased a brand new home—the most expensive item that they had ever purchased—only to find when they moved in that there was something seriously wrong with it, such as rising damp, faulty electrics, the drains not being properly connected, or poor quality fixtures and fittings, and the very great difficulty that many people faced when they tried to seek redress. Research by Which? found that under this Government more than half of new homes have serious defects, indicating that this is a widespread and serious problem. Such situations are deeply distressing and completely unacceptable. Not only is the brand new home that someone eagerly anticipated moving into flawed, but the flaws can seriously undermine the quality of day to day life and physical and mental health, and can take months or even years to resolve.

The APPG made several recommendations to address the quality of new build homes, including changes to the building control inspection regime, with a defined minimum number of inspections, and the setting up of a new homes ombudsman. The new homes ombudsman must be properly resourced, have teeth and be able to react quickly to right the wrongs that it identifies. It and its compensation scheme should of course be funded by the development industry, providing an important incentive ​to get new homes right first time and not to compromise quality standards in the rush to increase profits. I fully support the recommendation on the basis of the struggles that my constituents have had to access redress, but I would also like to focus this morning on some of the underlying reasons why the quality of so many homes in the UK is so unacceptably poor.

The first is the structure of the land market in the UK. It allows far too much speculation, driving up land prices and artificially inflating the amount of money many developers believe that they have to make as profit before they will build a scheme. This results in a structural focus across the UK development industry on the bottom line, and therefore on cutting costs. Since staff costs for development are relatively fixed, it is the cost of materials that is pared back to the minimum. On so many housing schemes, any generosity of design that was intended in the original plans is cost engineered out by using cheaper materials, meaner proportions, or cutting corners on the build itself. This is simply not an adequate basis for a housing market that needs to deliver so much so quickly, and it is not acceptable that short-term profits are being achieved at the expense of long-term quality and the health and wellbeing of residents.

The second is the systematic reduction since 2010 of the resource and regulation underpinning the design quality of homes in the UK. The coalition Government simplified planning policy in the national planning policy framework. There was no disagreement about the need for simplification, but they went too far and one of the casualties of that process was any real emphasis on design quality in national planning policy. There are just 12 short paragraphs on design quality in the NPPF, two of which relate to advertising hoardings.

Under the previous Labour Government, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, supported by a network of regional architecture centres, advised and reviewed the quality of many planning applications and masterplans for new homes, and published a huge body of work on design quality. CABE is now an independent organisation with a much-diminished resource, and since its services are no longer funded by Government, the number of local authorities that can afford design review services and choose to take them up is much reduced. There has been no comprehensive or systematic review of the quality of design of new homes being built across the UK for more than ten years, and there is no systematic post-occupancy evaluation of the quality of new homes.

Good design is about more than just the appearance of a new home; it is also about its sustainability, energy efficiency, durability, robustness and flexibility to the changing requirements of its residents. Since 2010, the Government have removed many of the policy requirements that had previously helped to drive up the quality of design, including the zero-carbon homes programme and the lifetime homes standard, which increased the number of homes being built to a fully accessible standard for disabled people. The Government have also refused to incorporate the nationally described space standards into building control regulations, resulting in a situation where the number of homes built below the standards more than trebled from 2013 to 2016, and some homes are being built in London at just 16 square metres. The house building industry is very responsive to the policy and legislative environment that it is in and will adapt to ​meet new quality standards. Standards matter because many parts of the sector will only deliver the bare minimum the Government require. Leadership from the Government in this area is sadly lacking, and a clear and rapid change of approach is needed to set the standards UK residents require from their new homes.

Finally, the lack of direct Government funding for genuinely affordable social housing—a problem in itself in addressing the housing crisis—also contributes directly to the issue of poor design quality. The number of social homes built with Government funding since the start of the coalition Government in 2010 has dropped by a staggering 95%, and the Government have not increased the borrowing cap for councils. This means that the delivery of affordable housing—often not affordable at all if it is built to this Government’s definition of affordability—is increasingly dependent on cross-subsidy from private sales, which also creates an incentive to maximise the number of homes at the expense of design quality, to minimise the cost of materials and to lower the specification. The Government must now do what the Labour party has pledged to do, and restore the building of genuinely affordable social homes and a civic purpose to the building of new homes.

We face such a huge challenge in the UK to build the number of homes that we need, but at the same time the Government must ensure that those that are built are high quality homes that are energy efficient, have generous space standards, have high quality open space, have good storage for refuse, recycling and bicycles and are pleasant places to live that can stand the test of time and become communities of the future. Ensuring that new homes built in the UK are consistently of a high quality requires structural change in the land market and reform of the deeply flawed and unacceptable viability assessments that are used to justify cutting costs. It requires a Government commitment to fund genuinely affordable new homes, built for a social and civic purpose, to meet our desperate need for housing, rather than for profit. That commitment is currently sadly lacking. It also requires properly resourced planning departments with access to good practice in design, and a policy and regulatory framework that raises the bar, in particular on environmental sustainability and accessibility in new homes.