Starting from here
Overturning years of failings in the construction industry isn’t going to happen overnight, but the new regulator is already under pressure to make its mark.
The New Homes Quality Board has started work after a low-key launch in February that confirmed the new board in charge. It had already been operating as an interim body for a year. The board members are from the housing sector, including Homes England, NHBC and developers. Its creation followed pressure from new home buyers outraged by major failings on their properties and the Grenfell Tower fire inquiries.
But the government also wants more homes built fast. In March, the communities secretary announced planning laws on retail premises would be changed to allow them to be converted into housing. The industry is optimistic that consumers will get a better deal. But can the new watchdog take on the big private sector builders and ensure standards are maintained?
How will it work?
The core job is to ensure developers build to a standard rather than the planning regs. So the first priority is agreeing a new industry code of practice. The other job is appointing the New Homes Ombudsman Service (NHOS) which will mediate for buyers in the event of a dispute in the same way as the Financial Services Authority. All this will, according to the NHQB, “plug the gaps in existing protections and aim to deliver consistently high-quality homes and considerably stronger consumer protections”.
So far, so good.
But there’s a sticking point. It will be paid for by the housebuilding industry through an annual registration fee and a levy based on volumes. Referrals to the ombudsman will also have a fee. But access to the New Homes Ombudsman will be free to consumers. The ombudsman will not cover cases retrospectively and will only cover homes reserved from the date a developer registers with the NHQB and signs up to the new arrangements.
The problem? Other ombudsmen funded by the industry have failed, such as the Gambling Commission which is set to be replaced after years of controversy And the make-up of the board, when it was announced, was criticised for being too close to the big builders and the government’s inner circle.
The chair is Conservative MP Natalie Elphick, who before taking her seat had pushed hard for finance reforms as a director of the Housing and Finance Institute. She says: “The new arrangements will lead to a step change in how new homes are built and sold and how customers are treated. The board is committed to driving new build quality and strengthening protections for buyers.It is essential that buyers have confidence in both the product and the processes in place to support them.”
The other members include Jennie Daly, group operations director at Taylor Wimpey, Katy Jordan, a former surveyor now managing director of Storey Homes and Paul Smee who is a former director general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. Also involved is Nicholas Boys-Smith, former chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.
Although the launch got a positive industry response, critics raised concerns a board made up of big developers, politicians from the same side as the government and representatives of groups that have already been beaten by the rogue players wasn’t robust enough.
How Whitehall responds will define the board and ombudsman. Usefully, there’s a lot riding on the outcome for housing minister Eddie Hughes who was appointed to the job in January
As chair of the APPG for Excellence in the Built Environment, Hughes chaired the inquiry into the need for a new homes ombudsman in 2018 that led to its formation. He says: “I welcome the launch of the New Homes Quality Board and look forward to working closely with them to ensure the house building industry is delivering new homes of the highest possible quality.”
So, what does the industry think so far? After Grenfell and the rows over shoddy quality, the industry has to restore consumer confidence. Stewart Baseley, executive chair of the Home Builders Federation says: “The industry is absolutely committed to putting measures in place to help deliver consistently high-quality new homes and effective redress for buyers. Recent years have seen significant improvements made in build quality and customer service and we are determined to go further. The proposed arrangements will present the industry with some challenges but will, I believe, ultimately prove of considerable benefit to builders and customers alike.”
Will they do it again?
With questions being asked after the green energy grant debacle, there is also concern that the regulator could be swept aside by an administration that doesn’t ‘do’ detail.
Caroline Gumble, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building, says: “I want to reiterate that quality remains one of the biggest issues facing the construction industry and the new Ombudsman will have a significant role as a mechanism for driving improvements in the quality of new homes.”
Simon Storer, chief executive of the Insulation Manufacturers Association (IMA) warns success will mean improving actual quality as well as emissions and energy targets. He says: “There must be honesty in assessing compliance with those standards and what they can, and will do, if houses do not meet the required standards. Quite simply, if a home fails to meet performance standards, then it should not pass.”
The UK has building codes, getting compliance with a new one is the acid test. CIPHE chief executive officer Kevin Wellman says: “After decades of failings, it would be unfair to dismiss a regulator at the start. There are lots of competing pressures and how those are balanced will decide its credibility. But there can’t be fudged decisions. Light touch oversight has failed and we can only go forward by being open and clear about standards.”
Grenfell exposes industry flaws
Critical failures in products and installation have been revealed at the Grenfell inquiry.
The public inquiry into the fatal fire has heard products used in the tower block’s refurbishment did not meet standards and were poorly installed.
The technical officer for fire Sideriser, the firm that made the cavity barriers, said the site installation was flawed.
Christopher Mort, technical officer for fire, said an inspection that took place after the fire revealed the barriers had either been siliconed in place or not fitted at all.
And the lead scientist at British Board of Agrément revealed the firm that made the cladding, Arconic, had ignored 11 requests for fire test data.
BBA said it had no processes in place for data being withheld and crucially had issued a certificate of worthiness in 2015 – a year late - based on data sourced from the firm’s website in order to close out its request.
The inquiry continues.
P&H verdict: Industry has backed the idea, now the NHQB needs to prove it isn’t in the developers’ pocket.