MP Gordon Henderson questions whether the current system of building regulation is fit for purpose after the health of home owners in Swale is put at risk.
What follows is the full speech which took place in Westminster on 11th May 2016
Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the control and monitoring of building regulations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, for what I think is the first time you have presided over one of my speeches in Westminster Hall. I am pleased to have this opportunity to highlight what I believe to be the inadequacy of the current system of building regulation.
This debate comes at an opportune time because the Government are currently prioritising house building and pushing for more affordable homes to be built, which is a good thing. Nevertheless, I am concerned that, without a proper building regulation system, an admirable commitment to build more homes will have the unintended consequence of compromising the quality of those homes. Building regulation inspections are increasingly being undertaken not by local government inspectors, as in the past, but by approved inspectors employed by private building services contractors. The problem is that all too often those approved inspectors are not monitored to ensure that they undertake sufficient checks and are not accountable to anybody when something goes wrong.
To highlight the problem, I shall relate an example of how the existing building regulations system failed properly to monitor a builder to such an extent that it put at risk the health of homeowners. In my constituency there is a row of houses that was built between 2007 and 2011. A couple of years ago I received a complaint from one of the residents, who alleged that his drinking water had been contaminated with sewage. When I investigated, I discovered that the local water company had no knowledge whatever of the houses, which were a later addition to a larger development where no problems had been recorded. It is worth noting that the houses in question were never registered with the Land Registry, which caused another problem I had to sort out—but that is a story for another day.
It seemed that the water company had never supplied drinking water to the row of houses or cleared the waste water system that had been installed. It turned out that the drinking water supply to the houses was linked to another house in the original development, and that house was supplied by the water company. The builder paid the very large bills run up by the house, which he apparently owned, and in turn billed the new houses, none of which had a water meter. In addition, the builder had installed in the road a waste pumping station that was serviced by a fish-pond pump that regularly broke down, resulting in blockages. Mr McCabe, you simply could not make it up. On at least one occasion, when the tank was full the builder was seen pumping the sewage out on to the railway line next to the development. The water company for our area and the National House Building Council are now in the process of designing a proper waste system for the homes, which have all suffered from waste water leaking into their foundations, leading to smells and, in some houses, rats.
During my investigation, I also discovered several other building defects in some of the homes, including dangerous gas pipework that had been installed by the builder without contacting a gas supplier. I immediately raised the matter with my local authority, Swale Borough Council, which explained that the building regulation inspections had been undertaken not by the council but by a private building services company. The council insisted that it had no authority or responsibility to monitor inspection work undertaken by a private company, although it would be more than happy to take on such a responsibility.
When I contacted the private building services company, it was very helpful. The company insisted that its inspections were in accordance with the building control performance standards issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I am sure that they were. The guidance requires an approved inspector to determine a risk-based inspection regime, but accepts that it is not practicable to inspect all items of work relating to the building regulations.
The company said:
“The overall responsibility for achieving compliance with the building regulations rests with the builder.”
At first, I could not believe that that was the case. However, it was confirmed to me by a Minister in the coalition Government when I met him after tabling an oral question to ask that local authorities be
“given powers to force independent building control inspectors to ensure that there is proper compliance with building regulations.”
I have to say that at that meeting it soon became apparent that there was no appetite to beef up the regulatory system.
Allowing builders to police themselves is probably fine in theory, particularly when we are talking about responsible builders, but it is certainly not satisfactory in practice when dealing with people like this particular builder—to call him a cowboy would be to insult Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. One of the affected residents had so many problems with her house that I eventually persuaded the NHBC to pay for her to have a structural survey. That report makes frightening reading.
Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is right that we are not experts and so rely on an independent approved inspector to ensure that building regulations are adhered to. Does he share my concern that, although approved inspectors are regulated by the Construction Industry Council, not one of them has ever been struck off regarding the quality or professionalism of their work?
I agree that it is about accountability. I will come on to that issue, so I am pleased that my right hon. Friend raised it.
As I said, the report makes frightening reading. I shall read out just five of the 27 findings listed in the survey:
“Finding No 1: Generally: The property was found to be constructed to a very poor standard. We found numerous breaches of Building Regulations that would have been in place at the time the property was constructed. We have serious concerns over significant elements within the building that, if left without further attention, may pose health and safety risks to occupiers and users of the building.”
Finding No. 6 states:
“Structure/Floor: The beam and block floor within the garage has not been designed to meet the minimum loading requirements. This has subsequently resulted in its collapse. Exposed beams within the garage did not appear to have the minimum bearing on the supporting structure.”
My fear on reading that finding is that the rest of the ground-floor beams have been constructed in the same way.
Finding No. 7 reads:
“Structure/Upper Floors: Deflection and bouncing of the floorboards was noted to the upper timber floors. Movement of the floors has caused spot lights to fall from the ceiling.”
Finding No. 20 is on drainage:
“The mains foul sewer and drainage system serving the property do not discharge to a suitable drainage system in accordance with Approved Document H: Drainage and Waste Disposal.”
And finding No. 23, on lighting and electricals, states:
“Internal lights work intermittently suggesting that there may be issues with the electrical wiring and supply.”
Those are just a few of the damning condemnations. It is scandalous that any builder should be able to get away with such dangerous work. However, it is even more scandalous that nobody appears able to do anything to bring the builder to book. The local authority, the approved inspector and NHBC can do nothing, and it appears that the Department for Communities and Local Government can do nothing, too.
It would be bad enough if this case were the sole example of the lack of accountability in the construction industry, but unfortunately I have other examples of homeowners who have been unable to receive redress for poor quality work by builders, some of which are large national housing development companies. Let me give one example. In my constituency, there are a number of 12-flat residential buildings, in which the heating and hot water supply to the flats is supplied by just two domestic boilers. I am no heating engineer, but even I can see that such a system cannot cope with the demand, particularly in the winter, so it is hardly surprising that over the past couple of winters I have received regular complaints from tenants in the flats about a lack of heating and hot water. I arranged for a local heating company to investigate those complaints on my behalf. It said in its report:
“All boiler rooms throughout the estate have the same problem. Most boiler room faults are caused by leaks in the copper pipework, the leaks become worse, soak electrical components and the system fails. Boiler room 5 has had ongoing issues with lack of hot water temperature. There is a constant flow of water being drawn through the cylinder and the recovery is not quick enough to maintain a constant temperature. All copper pipework throughout the estate appears to be substandard quality and has resulted in regular leaks.”
I eventually contacted the plumbing company that worked on the original system. It said in its response that it did not design the system, but it made this very interesting comment:
“It was evident on completion that the system design was flawed and we raised this continually with the developer”.
I took up the matter with the developer, who refused to accept responsibility and insisted that the system was adequate when it was installed and that the problem was a maintenance issue. They advised me to contact the property management company, which I subsequently did. That company eventually hired the local heating company, which had produced the report—whenever it is called out to a breakdown, it tries to patch up the system as best it can in the circumstances.
That heating system is still not working properly and does not provide sufficient hot water to all the residents. The whole system needs replacing, but the costs of undertaking such a major exercise would have to be met by the current tenants, because their lease states that they have to fund work undertaken by the property management company. Because the developer refuses to accept responsibility for what was patently a design fault during the original construction phase, they are getting away scot-free. That cannot be right. Sadly, that is not an isolated incident, as my mailbag can testify. Once again, there appears to be no accountability and nobody, except me, to whom the affected residents can turn for help, but I am limited to hitting my head against a brick wall of indifference.
I would like to talk about which regulations are actually enforced. Currently, the building regs require buildings to have a range of measures that are deemed necessary to make houses more energy-efficient or healthier for the residents. For instance, they require that all new buildings have extractor fans in bathrooms and kitchens, are properly insulated and have smoke alarms, but they do not require developers to install building alarms or burglar-proof windows and doors to a standard approved by the local police. That seems very short-sighted. It highlights that current building regulations are simply out of date.
The truth is that the system is simply not working, not least because those charged with regulating building work are not themselves regulated. The time has come to undertake a review of how the building regs are monitored and enforced. My own preference is for local authorities to be given the ultimate responsibility for taking enforcement action against builders who do not comply with regulations and the approved inspectors who are supposed to ensure they are compliant.
I am, by nature, somebody who believes that we British are over-regulated, but in this instance I believe that better regulation is needed. A house is the most expensive purchase that most people make, and they have a right to expect value for their money. Too often, they do not get it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (James Wharton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important debate on an issue that affects a great number of our constituents.
On the whole, the system of building regulations in this country—the system by which the work that builders do is monitored—is of a good standard, but that does not mean that it does not go wrong at times. I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns, particularly given the terrible situation that he set out and the difficulties that his constituent faced as a result of it. I do not want to comment too much on the detail of that case, simply because I do not sufficiently know the background. He referred to the specific to comment on the general, and I will therefore address the general—the overall system—in my comments.
It is appropriate that I first talk about the system that is in place for redress when people find that the properties they have purchased are not up to the standard that they expected. We recommend that such a person first complains to the person who carried out the work—the builder or the developer—and makes known to them their concerns about the work that they believe to be inadequate. Most responsible builders and developers will put right work that is not to the expected standard.
Should that not work, the next level of complaint is to the warranty provider if a new home warranty is in place. There are many different providers—NHBC, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is one of the largest—and they do a good job of ensuring that the standards that people rightly expect when they buy and move into a home are met, and that the system enables them to raise concerns about work that has been done. The consumer code for home builders provides protection if a home was built by a home builder that is registered with one of the supporting warranty bodies, such as NHBC, on or after 1 April 2010.
Should a constituent not find acceptable redress through those routes, there is the option to bring a civil claim against the builder in the civil courts and to pursue appropriate redress through the legal process. I have received a number of complaints about the process by which building control is carried out, but they are not focused only on approved inspectors. Local authorities, just like any other organisation, will not necessarily get building control right every single time. The reality is that the processes and the system that is in place allow these issues to be addressed at an earlier stage. I have set out some of the options that exist to enable redress to be found and problems to be rectified.
There are isolated cases—my hon. Friend spoke of one in his constituency—in which the impact is significant, but for some reason the system has not found a way to bring redress to correct the problems. I do not know whether civil action has been considered in that case, but that is the ultimate fall-back option for those affected by poor-quality building work—work that does not meet the standards that it should.
I accept what the Minister is saying, but the biggest problem that people have is cowboy builders. The people who bought that particular property had no recourse to the courts because the builder maintained that he was subcontracted to another builder, who had subsequently gone out of business and had disappeared back to Europe. That is one of the problems that residents face today.
At the risk of giving legal advice to the constituent in question on the basis of my hon. Friend’s explanation, helpful though it is—I do not want to stray into the specific legal position—when somebody buys something with a certain expectation, there is always the option of looking at whether a legal redress is the right course of action.
We also monitor and regulate the work that approved inspectors do. At the heart of my hon. Friend’s concern, or at least one part of it, is the way the approved inspectors system regime is working for our constituents. The Construction Industry Council Approved Inspectors Register is the approval body for approved inspectors, and it has reviewed its activities. One of its recommendations was that there be periodic audits of approved inspectors to ensure that they are doing the work that we expect them to do, to the standard that we expect them to do it. CICAIR started carrying out audits last year to pick up issues with particular approved inspectors—hopefully, before complaints are raised. The Building Control Performance Standards Advisory Group has also strengthened the standards that apply to both types of building control bodies—local authorities and approved inspectors—to give better targeting of building control work.
The role of building control can only ever be to be a spot-checking service. The issuing of a building regulations compliance certificate at the completion of work is not a complete guarantee of compliance throughout the process; it is only a spot check that seeks to hold developers and builders to account and to ensure that the standards that we expect are applied.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response. As he has already agreed, an important way to make the inspection regime more transparent would be to make the approved inspector’s report available to people who are buying a new home. I would be grateful if the Minister would update the House on his progress in putting a new system in place.
I put on record my appreciation of the work my right hon. Friend has done in this area. She has been a powerful and effective advocate on behalf of her constituents when they have run into such problems. Indeed, in an Adjournment debate much earlier in this Session, we discussed some of the things that she wants to be done.
One of the ideas discussed was to modify the system to allow greater transparency of the process by which approved inspectors ultimately sign off work. Only the other week, I had a meeting with representatives of CICAIR to discuss initial proposals. It is something I intend to take forward, appropriately, to ensure that the system continues to work, while adding layers of transparency in line with my right hon. Friend’s desires and her comments in the House during that debate.
I will be happy to write to my right hon. Friend with details of exactly where we are in that process, but I assure her that I have heard, loud and clear, the concerns that she has expressed—in particular during the earlier debate—and I intend to act on them and find a way to deliver the transparency that she and her constituents are looking for. There are some complexities within that; I want to ensure it is done in co-operation with industry and in a way that people across the field support, but I think it will be welcome and I intend to deliver it. I will write to my right hon. Friend to ensure that she is fully updated on where we are in pursuing that process.
If an approved inspector does not take all reasonable steps, a complaint may be raised with the regulatory body, CICAIR. It will investigate whether an approved inspector has acted negligently or in breach of contract. It is also possible to make a claim against an approved inspector in the civil courts—that is another route by which redress may be sought—if they have not acted in accordance with the regulations or as they should, to give homeowners reassurance, and to give developers and builders reassurance that they are complying with the appropriate regulations.
Approved inspectors are, of course, insured. That should not be necessary and we hope that jobs are done properly, and we should not put unreasonable expectations on the process—as I said, it is a spot check, not a complete guarantee—but there is the option of civil recourse if people feel it to be appropriate. That is not advice, but it might be the right thing for them to do.
We have been talking about how we can better regulate approved inspectors and bring them to book, but how, and where, is anybody able to bring a builder to book? There is no such recourse or mechanism. The builder whom we have talked about in the debate is still building houses. He has been struck off the NHBC list of approved builders, but he has probably signed up somewhere else. If that happened in any other walk of life, he would be in court, charged with a criminal offence, and be put in prison—and he is not.
I had anticipated my hon. Friend’s concern, and I am about to talk about some of the ways in which accountability can be enforced, against not only the approved inspector, but the builder, if they are in breach of our expectations.
Section 35 of the Building Act 1984 allows a local authority to bring a prosecution in the magistrates court for a breach of the building regulations. Prosecutions must be brought within two years of the date of completion of the building work and—I accept this is an area on which my hon. Friend might wish to have further discussion—approved inspectors have no powers to bring a prosecution. Further, section 48 of the Building Act prohibits a local authority from bringing a prosecution where an approved inspector is the building control body.
Where approved inspectors identify concerns that are not addressed, however—where they are not satisfied that the builder is doing what should be done—they may in effect step back from compliance; they may cancel the initial notice; and the local authority may then, if appropriate, step in to take the action of which I have spoken. We do not have centrally kept statistics on the number of prosecutions, or their outcome, or on how many prosecutions take place for reverted work from approved inspectors, but a regime is in place to ensure that local authorities can take action.
The constituency case to which my hon. Friend referred is a particularly extreme and complex one. On the level of the problems, I was especially struck by the comment that the properties were not registered with the Land Registry, which seemed odd to me. I do not know by what process people could then purchase or occupy them. Concerns in the specific, however, may not necessarily or uniformly apply in general.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. Not only were the properties not registered with the Land Registry, but one of the homeowners who approached me said that she had spent £10,000 doing her house up only to discover that she owned not that house, but a house three doors down. Given that there was nothing with the Land Registry, it took my help to get things sorted out. That was the problem that I was talking about earlier. It is a total scandal, and the builder responsible is still out there working.
The specific case seems to be an extraordinary one. Of course, homebuyers would normally employ a solicitor of their own, whom we would expect to carry out inquiries in that area. Again without commenting on specific circumstances, given the limited information available, some of my hon. Friend’s constituents may find recourse in looking at the process by which they acquired the homes, as well as the process by which the homes were built.
Clearly, the problems my hon. Friend discussed are specific and serious. I am well aware from his comments, and long-running contributions even before this debate, that he has concerns about the area. I also recognise and have commented on the contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller). She has been an effective advocate for her constituents.
I do not want to give the wrong impression of the role of approved inspectors, or whom they owe a duty to. They are doing a spot check, not providing a complete guarantee. They should and must act professionally; where appropriate, they are audited and regulated to that end. They have insurance to ensure that if anything goes wrong protection is in place for those who may be affected. We are looking at how we can increase transparency, following the powerful comments and the advocacy of my right hon. Friend, given her concerns about constituents.
I will continue to look at the way in which the process works. I am happy to continue to have discussions to that end with my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who introduced the debate, but I cannot pretend that we will change the entire nature of the system. On the whole, it works well, it delivers the appropriate standards and most homes in this country are built to an extraordinarily good standard, by international comparisons. We should be proud of the system we have and of the people who work in and contribute to it, day in, day out. That does not mean that there will never be problems; where there are, we want to find ways to address them. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend to ensure that we do that in the appropriate way, in the appropriate time.