The big firms have been shamed into making some progress but there’s much more they could do, says Julia Park

Julia Park

With a major housebuilder making record-breaking profits of over £1bn last year, inviting the secretary of state to speak at its annual conference in March might not have been the Home Builders Federation’s smartest move.

James Brokenshire didn’t hold back. “For most people, buying a home is one of the biggest financial and emotional investments of their lives. And for that to go from being a cherished dream to becoming a nightmare of snagging problems months after moving in and punitive costs is simply unacceptable.”

The fact that the same housebuilder also profited most from Help to Buy and has consistently ranked among the worst when it comes to build quality, would not have escaped him. Brokenshire went on to warn that he would be, “…considering carefully how the developers who work with us meet the standards and quality that customers expect and deserve.”

This came after widespread concern about the growing practice of new homes being sold under leasehold, rather than freehold, and charging ground rents that double year on year. It is seen as particularly unfair that this involves houses as well as flats.

The latest in a series of YouGov surveys, commissioned by HomeOwners Alliance, BLP and Resi.co.uk, show that concerns over the quality of Britain’s housing stock and our outdated leasehold system are rising at their fastest rate for five years. Related research found that 63% of adults now cite the quality of Britain’s homes as a serious concern. Leasehold issues aren’t far behind at 60% and negative equity is also a worry.

These stats relate to all householders, not just those in new housing. But given that most adults would prefer an old home to a new one, the HBF’s claim that over 90% of the new homebuyers it surveyed in March 2018 said they would buy a new home again, seems surprising.

For years, the main argument has been that if people didn’t like new homes, they wouldn’t buy them. Disingenuous given the acute shortage and the fact that almost all the incentives, including Help to Buy and the New Homes Bonus, only apply to new homes.

So far, Brokenshire’s bark seems worse than his bite. He has confirmed that Help to Buy will be extended beyond 2021, though admittedly restricted to first-time buyers from that point on – a condition that should have been obvious from the start. It would have been smarter to incentivise young buyers to invest in existing homes and encourage churn, given how little of our existing stock is suitable for older people.

The problem with the other well-worn rebuttal that, “people would be complaining if they were unhappy with their homes”, has always been who can you complain to. Social media is changing this. Bovis suffered its own #MeToo the year before last when more than 1,000 of its new homeowners joined a Facebook campaign. When the press piled in with their negative stories about defects and poor workmanship, it quickly became too big to ignore.

It has made a difference. Bovis has since spent £7m on repairs and has risen to four stars (HBF stars, that is) compared with two stars the year before. And Persimmon – whose chief executive resigned under pressure having received a massive pay cheque due to its record profits – is now working to improve its reputation. Announcing recently that it will be the first housebuilder to offer buyers a “snagging retention” (allow 1.5% of the total home value to be withheld by the buyer’s solicitor), it is now promising an independent review of its build quality and customer service.

You could be forgiven for worrying that the offer seems to be to rectify only, “any faults identified at the point of key release”, and that the average retention of £3,600 (equivalent to 6% of build fabric costs) might just be added to the purchase price. And you may question how Stephanie Barwise QC will manage this commission alongside her current role representing survivors and victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, and whether her report will be made public. But it’s a start and the chances are that others will follow suit.

Taylor Wimpey also deserves some credit. Having sponsored a recent survey by Foundations Independent Living Trust – the government-funded national body for home improvement agencies, which found that a third of older people (over-65s in this case) are put off moving by the stress involved and that 11% would move if support was available – it is trialling ways to support those contemplating a move.

The so-called “senior move manager” has apparently transformed the image of downsizing in America. It won’t be just the job title that needs some cultural adjustment. For many Americans, downsizing means moving to a huge retirement community. One of the largest, (ironically called The Villages), has 56,000 “residences” and is spread across three counties.

No doubt everyone understands that option is unlikely to have much appeal here. I suspect that one of the solutions is something much simpler but rarely seen: a flexible, contemporary, light, spacious, two-bedroomed, wheelchair-adaptable house, with a level access shower, plenty of storage, a small, paved garden and easy access to a green space and a bus-stop.

It would be a cheap shot if it were not true: we have a knack of ignoring the obvious, as well as the difficult, when it comes to housing. While it’s fair to say it would make a difference if the industry as a whole took the steps taken by these three companies, it’s also clear that a much more radical approach to the design and layout of suburban housing is needed.

It should be obvious to everyone that detached housing is unsustainable. It makes no sense for the combined surface area of the external walls of a new home to be greater than its total floor space, particularly when the two largest walls are only a couple of metres apart and lose heat without bringing in any light. It is pointless to have a roof space you can’t use; ironic to have space to park two cars outside your front door but nowhere to store a bike. And ridiculous that we seem to need at least two wheelie bins and a lawnmower each, and that a postman brings junk mail to our door six days a week – often in a van that stops and starts every 100m.

As a self-proclaimed not-for-profit organisation, perhaps the HBF could divert more of its considerable revenue towards research into forward-looking ways to live and make that the theme of next year’s conference?

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