David Johnston – 2022 Speech on New Homes and Management Companies

The speech made by David Johnston, the Conservative MP for Wantage, in the House of Commons on 5 January 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of developers, housebuilders and management companies in new homes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Happy new year to you and to everybody else who is here this morning. This is a 90-minute debate, and I have said to quite a number of people that I could easily speak for at least 90 minutes on this topic—it will be a relief to everyone that I am not going to do that. The reason is that it is a source of huge frustration in my constituency. Owning a new home and the development of new homes should be a source of great joy, but too often it is a source of great distress. There are a few reasons for that that I want to talk about, but before I go into those, I want to say at the outset that, contrary to some of the media stereotypes about areas such as mine, most people in my constituency are not opposed to new homes. If they are homeowners themselves, they entirely understand why other people want to own a home. They often have children and grandchildren whom they are trying to help get on the housing ladder. They know that we need housing for key workers. They know that sometimes people just want to move into one of these new homes from where they already live in the constituency. But people have real frustration with the way in which these things are developing and the problems they are causing in the local area.

The first issue is simply the quality of a lot of the homes that go up, because it is often poor. Sometimes it is very good, but too often it is poor, and constituents’ homes have major defects that take years to try to deal with. I have constituents who have spent two, three or four years—sometimes more—trying to get these defects repaired. This is not like buying a cheap version of something on eBay, half-expecting that there might be something wrong with it. This is the biggest purchase that any of us will make, and we do not expect to then have years of trying to sort out the problems with it. Unfortunately, when constituents try to do that, they feel completely outmatched by the builder that built their home. Sometimes the builder will blame the contractor; sometimes they will say that there is nothing wrong: “We signed it off according to building regulations.” But I have been in some of these places and we can see these huge issues. It is completely unacceptable that people are experiencing them.

The second issue is about the impact of these homes on the environment. That has two major aspects to it. One is what it does to the local environment around the area. Naturally, people can see greenfield sites disappearing. One constituent wrote to me and said that the biodiversity commitments that a particular house builder had made had not been kept whatsoever. There is an impact on air quality and water quality, but the other aspect is how the homes themselves are built. I am continually asked by constituents, “Why are we building so many homes that we know we will have to retrofit in a few years’ time?”, and there is no easy answer to that. I am continually asked, “Why can’t every new home have solar panels? Why can’t every new home have a heat pump?” I understand why: there are various reasons why we might not put the same thing in every kind of house.

I completely welcome the Government’s commitment to having electric charging points in every new home. I really welcome the future homes standard, which will make new homes from 2025 net zero ready, with a 75% reduction in their emissions. But the point still stands that thousands of homes are going up right now and we know that because of our ambitious net zero goals, we will have to retrofit a lot of them. The reason is that it is cheaper for the house builders to build them that way today.

The third issue is affordability. I have said a few times in this place that no one who rents has ever said to me, “There are too many new homes going up.” They say only that those homes are not affordable. They say that they have saved for years and years, and it does not matter how much they save; they do not get close to being able to afford one. The average house price in my constituency is £335,000. The average house price in my constituency is £335,000. To London ears that might sound fine, but it is 9.2 times median income, and that is out of reach for most people. An affordability threshold of 80% of that is still not affordable. Again, we run into bad practices. We all know that developers commit to a certain number of affordable homes, but time after time that number is driven down on the grounds that the development would not be viable if that commitment were maintained, so broken promises are a constant theme.

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman makes a particularly important point about affordable housing. I am often told that developers who make such arguments about viability are working on a 20% profit margin per property. Does he agree that that is completely unsustainable?

David Johnston

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was just about to say that when the taxpayer is subsidising the development of affordable homes and when the profits of house builders are so large—often bordering on 30%, come rain or shine; they are making these profits in all weathers—it is completely unacceptable for them to play this game so that people are unable to get on the housing ladder.

The fourth aspect that I want to talk about is the role of management companies. After someone has purchased one of these new homes, the costs do not always stop. People are often signed up to quite expensive contracts with management companies who purport to provide services to maintain communal areas, and it is often very difficult for residents to find out what is being done for that money. The charge goes up year after year, but their communal area is not maintained. They are told that staff are employed to do things, but they never see the staff. They work hard to try to get transparency about what is being provided for the money, but they cannot get it. They get a basic summary, and that is about it. The people who try to get the information are often well qualified, but they cannot get it.

I know of a management company—the residents do not want me to name them, so I will not—where many of the residents are elderly, sick or vulnerable, and they feel completely bullied and exploited by their management company. Right now they are being pressured into taking a new lease, which they do not want to take because they know it will be bad for them, but they fear the repercussions if they do not or if they go to someone to talk about it. They have talked to me, but, as I have said, they do not want to me to talk about who they are. That is an appalling situation for people to be in. Far too often there is a real problem with the way in which management companies fleece people in new homes when those people have already spent so much money.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. In preparing for it, I looked into leasehold in the United Kingdom. In England, Wales and Scotland, people are unable to buy their leasehold, but Northern Ireland is one part of the United Kingdom where they can. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when it comes to purchasing the freehold, people certainly get a “fleecehold” in England, Wales and Scotland? In Northern Ireland they have a chance to buy it out. Does he feel that that should happen here on the mainland?

David Johnston

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I expect the Minister will address that point when he speaks later. Most people think that they own their home, but they can often end up feeling like tenants. I experienced that myself until recently. I used to get a bill for £300 on Christmas day every year. The bill, dated 25 December, was £300 for absolutely nothing, but constituents of mine are in a much worse situation.

The fifth aspect I want to talk about is the overall broken system in which the process operates. I do not blame the Government entirely. Councils have some responsibilities: if they do not enforce the planning conditions when developers go above the assessed numbers that they are supposed to build; and if they allow the same application to be made over and over again, when they could refuse it after two tries. They do not take a bigger-picture view. There are villages in my constituency, such as Sutton Courtenay, that feel hugely overdeveloped because individual applications are all being approved and nobody is looking at what is happening to the whole area and why it might not be a good idea to keep approving those applications.

Ultimately, these companies have to be held accountable for their behaviour. They apply for sites that they know the local plan does not allow them to apply for, as is happening in Grove, in my constituency. They continually try to build on flood plains. They continually fail to adhere to their section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levy agreements—sometimes not building infrastructure at all, and sometimes building pointless things, such as a pathway that goes only halfway across an estate or a bike path that leads to nowhere, just so they can say that they have done it. All those things are going on with new developments in my constituency. I do not blame Government for it all, but it is the Government’s job to ensure that the system does not operate in that way.

If I had to sum up the problems in my constituency, it would be, “Too many homes, too little infrastructure.” The two district councils that my constituency covers are, relative to their size, in the top 10 areas for house building in the country, yet they are in the bottom third for infrastructure spending. That is a huge bugbear. To put that in numerical context, an estimate of the population change between 2017 and 2027 found that the largest town and surrounding area in my constituency, Didcot, will increase from 36,000 to 51,000. The second largest area, Wantage and Grove, will increase from 17,000 to 27,000—that is in a 10-year period. Faringdon is getting thousands more people, and Wallingford is getting thousands more.

The infrastructure is not following that. It is harder to get a GP appointment, the roads in the constituency get more and more congested and it is harder to get a school place. One village has a 220-child school, and 300 houses have been built right next to it; just last year, the catchment area became less than 470 metres. People who have lived there for a long time and who expected their children to go to that school now cannot get in. When my constituents hear that planning reform may mean new houses and that they will not be able to oppose them, or that the Oxford-Cambridge arc may mean more houses, or that the council’s Oxfordshire 2050 plan may lead to more houses, they are not concerned out of nimbyism; they are concerned because of their experience, over many years, of so many houses being built and so many promises being broken.

To conclude, I will talk about a few things that I think should happen. There are lots of things, and there are plenty of experts in this room who I know will talk about other aspects. First, we need a much tougher regime for the quality of new buildings. I know that the new homes ombudsman will deal with some of these issues, but it is completely unacceptable to pay that much money and have that many problems. We need very tight quality conditions, and the threshold needs to be raised. If it is not met within a certain timeframe, there should be penalties; issues must not go on for years.

Secondly, we need “use it or lose it” planning permissions. I know that there are debates about how best to do this, and I am frequently written to about the 1 million permissions that have not been built on. I know that there is a debate about land banking and whether it happens; hon. Members would be hard pressed to persuade me that it does not, at least from the developers’ point of view. We in this place are familiar with the phrase “dig a trench.” The emphasis has been on starting the building: companies dig a trench to suggest that they have started building, and the houses then take years to appear. We need these homes to be completed within a certain period. If they are not, taxes might be levied or fines paid, but I think that the permission should be lost entirely.

Thirdly, I want to talk about environmental standards. If it takes several years for these houses to be built, they should be built to the latest environmental standards, not to those that existed when the developers got permission. That is what is happening at the moment: companies are building houses to an environmental standard of several years ago, when they should be building to a standard of the future. That needs to change.

We have got to make developers and house builders commit to their affordability criteria. Our big house builders are doing completely fine for profits for their own viability, so they cannot keep saying that developments would not be viable if they committed to what they originally promised.

When it comes to management companies, we need a much stricter regime, because the current one is very murky. Companies are getting away with appalling practices, bullying residents into things and fleecing them, year after year, for things that are not being provided. We need a tougher regime under which companies cannot keep hiking charges without an extraordinary set of circumstances. The charges often go up because of things the company itself has done and got wrong, and it passes the cost on to residents who had no say in the first place. Much more transparency is needed, and penalties for such bad behaviour.

I understand that house builders want a level playing field, because an individual company does not want to commit to expensive things if its rivals are not doing so. That is where there is a role for Government in raising standards, so that all house builders have to do the same. I want more of a level playing field for smaller companies, such as Greencore Construction in my constituency. Many such companies are more environmentally friendly and more efficient, and produce higher-quality homes, but they are often outbid by the financial muscle of the big boys. Perhaps we need to reserve a greater proportion of development sites for such companies or give them greater access to capital. I am all in favour of smaller organisations rather than larger ones—I ran small charities, not larger ones. I think we can get a better product from smaller house builders, and we need to help more such companies into the market.

My final point is that infrastructure needs to go in first. It is not right to pile more and more houses and people into an area, but to do nothing to support local services and infrastructure. I have been campaigning for Grove station to be reopened, for improvements on our roads and for better medical facilities. GP surgeries are bursting at the seams because thousands more people have been added to the area—Members have heard the numbers. GP surgeries and school places have not been added along with the people. Infrastructure must go in first. Unfortunately, over decades my constituents have been told too many times that the infrastructure will come with the houses, but it never has, and now they do not believe it. That has to come first. As part of that, we might better capture the land value increase that comes with planning permission. At the moment, the increase all goes to the owner. Some of it ought to go to the local community who will live with the new houses, not to the landowner who has sold the land.

The balance of power is wrong. Management companies, house builders and developers have too much power, and local residents have too little. The Government cannot be blamed for every single thing that a private company does, but they can help to restore the balance, so that local communities do not see new houses as a curse on the area they used to love.