Debate on Quality of New Housing

Alok Sharma responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on delivering quality in the built environment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) on securing this vital debate on delivering quality in the built environment. I know that her contribution is based on first-hand experience, with her expertise in the sector. We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson). The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) made some very pertinent points, as did other Opposition Members.

The one thing we all recognise is that our country urgently needs many more homes. The Government are delivering them. There were 217,000 net additions in England last year alone. That is the biggest increase in housing supply for almost a decade. The housing supply package announced in the Budget takes the total financial support for housing up to at least £44 billion over the next five years. Alongside the planning reforms that were also announced, this package will enable us to deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average by the mid-2020s.

Just as important as building those homes is the need to ensure that they are of good quality, well designed and respond positively to their local context, as all hon. Members have agreed. We believe that we can build not only more homes, but better homes. This is something I care deeply about, which I emphasise every time I talk to representatives from the sector, particularly the large developers. There are some great examples of house builders who are making quality and design a priority, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds has said, too many new homes still fall short.

The all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment, which my hon. Friend chairs, has led the charge. It is thanks to its work that we are taking forward many of the measures to bring about improvements.

My hon. Friend made reference to a number of statistics, but let me throw in another. According to the latest Home Builders Federation survey, 84% of new homebuyers would recommend their builder to a friend. That figure has fallen steadily from 90% over the last four years. That means that 16% of new homebuyers would not recommend their builder. That simply is not good enough and must change. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am committed to addressing that by putting the focus squarely on better quality and design at every stage: planning, design and construction.

Our housing White Paper launched in February this year set out our proposals to amend the national planning policy framework. We want to increase the emphasis on design and community engagement in local neighbourhood plans and other development plan documents. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley spoke with great clarity—he is a champion of neighbourhood planning, and it is right that design should be reflected at the neighbourhood planning stage. We want to strengthen the importance of early pre-application discussions with local communities about design and the types of homes being provided. We want to make it clear that design should not be used as a valid reason to object to development where it accords with clear design expectations set out in statutory plans. We also want to recognise the value of using a widely accepted design standard, such as Building for Life, which is from the Design Council, in shaping and addressing basic design principles.

To ensure we achieve those high standards in planning, we must ensure that the right skills are available. Last week, I announced a £25 million planning delivery fund, which will provide ambitious local planning authorities with funding, to ensure they have the skills, capacity and capability they need to deliver high-quality housing at scale. One of the streams of this funding is the design quality fund, which is all about increasing design skills in local authorities.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) talked about the Government hollowing out the planning system of the local planning authorities. I would just point out to him that I am grateful for the support of his party in our passing regulations to increase planning fees by 20% earlier today. That will have a positive impact for planning departments up and down the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds and other hon. Members raised the issue of skills. There is a commitment by the industry—we are encouraging it—to work to deliver another 45,000 skilled workers by 2019 through the Construction Industry Training Board. The Chancellor announced another £34 million for construction skills funding. On apprenticeships, I agree we should be looking to do more, but I have been pleased to visit sites up and down the country where apprentices are on site and being trained up.

On our work on design with the industry, early this year I launched a design quality symposium at the Royal Institute of British Architects. On Monday, the Secretary of State announced that in the spring we will be following that up with a national design conference to raise the bar even further.

Yesterday I launched a new modern methods of construction working group—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) mentioned modern methods of construction. The working group comprises key stakeholders from across the house building sector. It will be tasked with looking at issues such as the availability of finance, warranties and insurance to encourage people to consider using modern methods of construction, which will enable us to build good-quality homes more quickly.

On the core of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds, as well as championing better quality and design, the Government want to make it easier for people to get redress when things do go wrong, which her all-party group has rightly highlighted. Residents currently have to navigate four different redress providers to make a complaint. Research in other sectors has shown that redress works more efficiently for consumers when there is a single ombudsman. It is right that we explore the need to consolidate processes and look at the options to improve redress. Therefore, we will be consulting on the potential for a single housing ombudsman in the new year. I welcome the inquiry into the potential for a new homes ombudsman that the APPG for excellence in the built environment has announced, and which my hon. Friend referred to in her speech. I can assure her that we will consider the findings closely.

I have a few minutes left, so let me respond to a couple of other points. My hon. Friend talked about improving the redress scheme. We will look at that as part of the consultation in the new year. There was discussion about how independent the national house building guarantee is. She asked whether the Government keep records on the number of defects and the dissatisfaction rates. We do not but, as she pointed out, warranty provision and the handling of cases can be raised with the Financial Ombudsman Service.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) asked about inspection records. They are available for homeowners for building works that started after 1 April. Of course, we are committed to ensuring that the system performs to the best level that it can, and we will continue to assess that.

The hon. Member for Falkirk rightly raised the issue of flooding risk. The national planning policy framework sets out that flood risk areas can be built on only if they pass an exception test and no other areas can be built on. On the flood risk assessment process, there must be very clear consultation with bodies such as the Environment Agency.

In conclusion, we are taking action across all fronts to drive up not only quantity, but quality. We do not have to choose between the two, quite rightly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds said. I thank her and congratulate her on raising this issue and on the valuable work that she and her all-party group does.

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