New Housing Design Debate

Neil lead a Parliamentary debate on New Housing Design. You can read his speech below. A full transcript of the debate can be found at this link. 

Neil: Good morning, Sir David. It is great to serve under your chairmanship. Britain needs more homes; I think we all agree on that. Rising house prices have made building more houses a social and economic imperative, so it is vital that we get the design and quality of these new homes right. I will make two points in my speech. I will argue that the majority of new homes should be built in a high-quality traditional design, so that they are popular with the public. Secondly, I will call for the creation of a new homes ombudsman, to give homebuyers redress for any problems with their new homes, to ensure the highest possible standards.

There was one policy in the Conservative election manifesto that I dare say I was delighted to recommend to everyone, unlike one or two in the manifesto. We committed to building

“better houses, to match the quality of those we have inherited from previous generations. That means supporting high-quality, high-density housing like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets.”

That commitment really stood out to me.

As someone who was a member of a planning committee for nearly 12 years, I know just how terrified some communities are of new development—not necessarily because people are nimbys but because they have seen how developments in the last 50 years have left communities with homes that are totally unsuitable for their area. That is backed by hard evidence. A recent survey of 2,000 British adults showed that a whopping 81% are unenthused about living in new build housing developments. What is more, 60% feel there are too many unattractive, poorly built new builds popping up across the country. Older properties and streetscapes in a traditional design are, on the whole, much more popular.

Andrew Selous (South West Bed): I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has said so far. Does he agree that it is possible to have attractive houses that have no net energy bills during the course of the year? That is not fantasy. The Building Research Establishment has proved that such houses can be built, and it has examples of them. Does he agree that we should go further down that route, to have not only attractive houses but houses that do not have energy bills?

Neil: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. Houses need to be attractive not only architecturally; they are very attractive to live in if people will not have energy bills. That also, of course, reduces our commitment to produce energy as a country, so it makes our power stations and gas supply go a lot further. He makes a really good point that I very much endorse.

The survey showed that over two fifths of people feel that new build homes lack character and are an eyesore in the local community. Those are shocking statistics. We will never build support for new homes when people fear new housing designs. The latest research from the Department for Communities and Local Government shows that over half of households would be less opposed to new house building if they had more say over the design and layout of developments.

A separate poll for Ipsos MORI shows that design clearly influences public support for new build homes. When people were asked about their local area, housing designs in traditional form and style commanded about 75% support. Less traditional development styles commanded very low support, from about a fifth to a third of those polled. The message is clear: people want and are happy to accept new housing if it has the right design, and if developers take local people with them when producing new designs.

We cannot go back to the mistakes of the ’60s and ’70s, when ugly modernist designs were imposed on communities, damaging trust in new housing for a generation. Of course, some of those properties proved not really fit for purpose, and some have actually had to come down. I say to the Minister that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we only have one chance to get it right. We must build new housing in the right way, with designs and forms sympathetic to local areas.

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane): My hon. Friend is making a really strong case for something that is terribly important. Does he agree that it is right to cater for all types of people? New homes are quite often very much built for young families, but in Somerset, the number of people over 75 will double within a decade. Is it not right that we should consider purpose-built, well-designed developments for them—low-level houses, with sliding doors, that look attractive, are perhaps modular and fit in with the vernacular? Is it not essential to put that into the whole planning process?

Neil: My hon. Friend makes a really good point. We can still have a reasonably traditional design and regional design that also fits into the new type of living we want. Older people may well need wheelchair access, wider doors and all sorts of things in these properties, and those can be fitted in. Our housing almost fits into categories—affordable homes, homes for young people or homes for the elderly—but it should be a complete mix. When we have a complete mix within the design, we can then get it right. Traditionally, we would not have had one type of housing all put together; my hon. Friend makes a good point.

We must build new housing in the right way, with designs and forms sympathetic to local areas. Ruth Davidson hit the nail on the head when she recently wrote:

“The biggest ally we have in increasing housing supply is beauty—if new houses complement the local environment and avoid the disastrous design choices of the past we can help build sustainable local support for extra construction.”

She is right; good-quality design will boost support for development and then encourage further growth. I would like to give a special mention to the social enterprise Create Streets. It has done fantastic work in the past three years to encourage the development of quality town and city homes. Its focus is on terraced streets of housing and apartments, rather than complex multi-storey buildings. We know that these designs are popular with the public.

So how do we achieve this? The key is strong community engagement. The tools are already there in the form of neighbourhood plans and design codes, but we need to ensure that neighbourhood plans are not then overruled by local district councils and others who decide that they still know best. I want to ensure that local people get a real input into the design. A design code is a set of drawn design rules that instruct and advise on the physical development of an area. Used well, they create certainty about what should be built, but they are not enough used. Local people should be given the encouragement and resources to create neighbourhood plans with their own design codes, and then, like I said, to actually put the plan in place. They could then plan the sort of development they want in their local area. This would have two main benefits: it would improve the quality of our housing stock and give local communities a stake and a sense of civic pride in the new development. They would be buying into the new development, and we need that to happen more.

Shelter recently published a report, “New Civic Housebuilding: A better way to build the homes we need”, with practical solutions for building high-quality, popular and affordable homes. It recommended a strong master planning process so that local groups, landowners and residents could influence the design of new housing in the area, which in turn will build public support.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has also recommended that every neighbourhood forum or parish council should have the funding to develop a design code for their area. This is a good idea. The village of Membury in my constituency has drawn up its own local plan; the problem is that the local district council is trying to overrule it. That is where the Government’s ideas are right. We must make sure that Membury can get its way because it had a local referendum and has done all the right things, but its plan is still being scuppered by the local district council. Imagine how this idea could stimulate interest in local design of housing and really boost support for new housing in towns and cities in England and across the country.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that if we want local people to engage properly in the manner he is describing, which is absolutely right, it is critical that their decisions, guidance and local plans are not overruled by remoter bodies over which they have very little control?

Neil: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. A developer may put an exciting design on the table but then, further along the line, may decide that due to economic or other circumstance they cannot build to that specification; or they may suddenly drop a water park that was in the specification. That is when people become cynical, which is why, when things are put forward and local people have an input, we need to build what they decided on, not something that is foisted upon them.

Developers need certainty about the standards they must hit instead of the current race to the bottom. Local people must have confidence that developers will build to their plans. A new town, Sherford, is being built in Devon and in Cullompton, a proposed garden village will have a water park and a lot of green open space. What I have seen so far is very exciting, but I want to make sure that the developers do what they say they will do because it is a great example of how design should be done with a design code and proper consultation. However, the developers have now applied to change the town code to mere guidelines. That would be a retrograde step and must not be allowed to happen around the UK.

When communities come together to influence local housing design, they must know that the plans will be implemented. The local authority should amend them only in exceptional circumstances, not because they do not suit its plans for the future. Designs should not be railroaded by big house builders chasing extra profit and deciding that the economics have changed. I have a clear question for the Minister: how are the Government working to meet their manifesto commitment to support high-quality, high-density housing like mansion blocks, mews houses and terraced streets? How are they helping communities to shape design of houses in their local area?

The second part of my speech calls for a new homes ombudsman. The concept is simple: a new ombudsman focusing on complaints about new build homes. I suspect that no Member in the Chamber has not received complaints from constituents about new build. An ombudsman would give new homebuyers redress for any dispute with house builders or warranty providers. I am sure that every Member here today could reel off examples from their own constituency.

In Axminster and particularly Cullompton, in my constituency, there has been a problem with new homes. I name Barratt Homes and its offshoot, David Wilson Homes, not because there have been problems with their houses, but because they have not redressed those problems. They have been reticent to be contacted and difficult to get hold of. They take ages to make repairs, such as to roofs that are not sealed properly, and to wet rendering that is supposed to be damp proof, but is not. There have been all sorts of problems that they do not sort out quickly enough. That is where the new homes ombudsman could have a good effect.

Mary Glindon (North Tyneside): In my constituency, Bellway Homes has been negligent to my constituents. Does he agree with my constituents, Mr and Mrs Maine, that “whilst numerous consumer groups have redress to an independent ombudsman consumers who have bought defective homes have no parity of redress and are therefore being discriminated against by the Government?"

Neil: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I do not know about the individual case, but I suspect it is similar to those we all get when redress is not available. An ombudsman could intervene directly to get the builder to rectify the situation quickly. That is what the issue is about. Builders often rectify problems eventually, if they have not gone bankrupt in the meantime or used other wheezes to make sure they do not carry out improvements and repairs. If someone buys a new house, they should be able to get quality, and redress if there is a problem. We must accept that when a new home is built, there can be problems with it. I accept that, but there must be proper redress.

Before this debate, I asked members of the public on the House of Commons Facebook page to give examples of problems they have had with their new homes. There was a very strong response. They reported leaky pipes, faulty front doors, abandoned rubble and necessary re-rendering. A whole host of new build problems were raised. The anecdotes were depressing and are backed up by hard evidence. The national new homes customer satisfaction survey showed that an overwhelming 98% of new home buyers had reported snags or defects to the building after moving in. Over four in 10 reported more than 10 faults. That is shocking in a new property.

Mary Robinson (Cheadle): A new homes ombudsman would provide a great opportunity to look again at the system of warranties and perhaps assurances. As he will know, modern methods of construction offsite would require an assurance rather than a warranty. Is there is an opportunity to look at assurances and warranties again and to give consumers the powers that they need to get decent homes and the good build that they require?

Neil: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That quality of assurance rather than a warranty would work much better. The National House Building Council can act, but once a builder has started repairs, it can do no more. If the builder takes a long time to instigate repairs, there is no real redress. That is where there is a role for an ombudsman and an assurance scheme so that building is delivered to a high standard and builders are held accountable. I value that point.

If a customer buys goods in a shop, there is an automatic power of redress, but if someone spends their life savings on a new home, they may struggle for years to get what they paid for. If we make the mistake of erecting millions of poor-quality homes in the next decade, the public will never forgive us. We are building to higher standards, including insulation standards, but we must make sure that houses are designed to fit in with the local area, with regional variations so that one does not see exactly the same designs all over the country, whether in the north of England, Devon, Wales or Scotland. One could almost say, “Well, we’ll have an off-the-peg development,” and all the homes would look the same. I have explained what I want to see in the future, and the cost will not be that much greater if we use a little more imagination as we build.

As things stand, the National House Building Council cannot step in if the builders claim that they are dealing with the problems, and there seems to be no time limit on how long a builder can spend dealing with problems. That is where a new homes ombudsman could step in to close the loophole. That would give a wake-up call to all house builders—many are good, but many are not—to sharpen up their act and build to the design standards and quality that they promised. Builders would know that they could not cut corners, as redress would be swift and exacting.

The APPG for excellence in the built environment, chaired in the last Parliament by my then hon. Friend Oliver Colvile, published a report last year on the quality and workmanship of new housing. Its No. 1 recommendation was for a new homes ombudsman. I think that the screw is beginning to turn on this issue. We need to take action. This country is going to embark on a big house building drive. Those properties are needed, but we must ensure that they are built in the right way. Let us seize the opportunity and give people the sort of housing designs that they want. I am talking about quality, popular designs, with community backing, and all backed up by a powerful new housing ombudsman. I look forward to the Minister’s response.