Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner tears into the house-building industry over poor building standards

Mr Zeichner was speaking in the Opposition Day Debate on Protecting tenants and leaseholders from unsafe cladding

You can watch Mr Zeichner’s speech here on Parliament TV.

From the uncorrected transcript from Hansard, Mr Zeichner said:

“For some hours now, we have been hearing accounts of those whose lives have been ruined by an appalling situation caused by a mixture of deregulation by Government, the greed of some developers and their failure to take responsibility and then continued inaction by Government to address the situation.

“In my almost six years as an MP in a city that has seen much new house building, these failures are, sadly, all too common. It is not just the cladding issue, serious though that is, but the abuse of leasehold that sees people trapped with unexpected and inexplicable charges and the frankly dreadful standards of some construction.

“I was staggered to visit a very expensive property in the centre of the city a few years ago which had to be completely rebuilt twice because of basic and fundamental errors in construction, causing huge heartache and distress to the owners, made worse by the almost sure knowledge that adjoining properties were likely to be no better, but their owners could not face the huge battle to try to get redress.

“All this came against a backdrop of huge profits and fantastic so-called bonuses for individuals at the top of some of these companies. It also came against a backdrop of deregulation of building control and inspection that creates the perfect environment for such abuse to flourish, and all this under the watch, or lack of it, of a Government happy to take political donations from these people. Frankly, it stinks. People in that sector need to think very hard about their responsibility.

“We have heard much about the cladding issue and we know that it has left people marooned and trapped, unable to sell, unable to move, their lives put on hold, often with a spectre of endless bills to pay, for faults not of their making. In Cambridge, I have had numerous representations from residents of the Kaleidoscope estate who rightly tell of their own circumstances. There are the young mums whose dream homes have turned into a nightmare. Sadly, it is not the only development. There is:

  • the flagship Belvedere that has been a problem since Grenfell;
  • Pym Court;
  • Grand Central development.

“I am afraid that I do not have time to list all the problems, but the problems have been made worse by the abject failure of the NHBC guarantee and the consistent failure of developers to take responsibility. If it were not for Brexit and covid, my guess is that this national scandal would have got the attention it deserved earlier. The leader writer in The Sunday Times had it right yesterday, when they said:

“Those who created this problem—the builders and their suppliers, some of whom have shown a blatant disregard for public safety—should be made to pay for it. The blameless leaseholders should not. The government has to use its muscle, and not be influenced by whether some of these businesses are Tory donors. If not, more than 4.5 million affected leaseholders will know exactly who to blame.”

The Sunday Times 31 Jan 2021

“That is not Labour speaking; that is The Sunday Times. Today is the start of shining the light on those who are responsible.”


“Should we be surprised?”

If you look through the history books, no.

The term “Jerry Builders” is one that repeatedly comes up time and again, the origins of the term being a contested one as Glen Huntley explains here.

130 years ago at the Alexandra Hall in the old YMCA, the Leasehold Enfranchisement Association held a meeting to debate the lease holding system. It has been digitised by the British Newspaper Archive here.

Above – what was left of the old Alexandra Hall and the YMCA building before the demolition balls came in prior to the construction of the Lion Yard shopping centre in the early 1970s. You can see St Andrew The Great’s Tower behind. Image from the late Colin Rosenstiel.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive – Liberal MP Sir Wilfred Lawson tore into the leasehold system, stating that there was a direct causal link between the leasehold system and poor quality builders using substandard materials – leading to the growth of slums. Also in the audience was Rudolf Lehmann, then the Liberal candidate for Cambridge, who would later win the seat for Harborough (retiring after one term of office due to ill health).

So even as far back as the 1890s, politicians local and national were already making the link between ownership/tenure and building standards. Yet some of the examples that Mr Zeichner gave in his speech involved people who had bought their properties.

“Are the Tories to blame for taking money from property tycoons?”

Mr Zeichner took a big swipe at the Conservatives over their donors. And with good reason as the Open Democracy investigation revealed. That’s not to say that there are politicians up and down the country doing the bidding for individual developers in return for cash donations – for that would be corruption in most people’s books. Which is one of the reasons why the behaviour of the Housing Secretary with the Westferry case was one that should have cost him not just his ministerial office and seat in the Cabinet but his entire political career.

My conclusion of the Westferry case is that the most senior minister in Johnson’s Government with specific responsibility for delivering affordable homes and sustainable communities was exposed as preventing a local council – councils also being part of his ministerial responsibilities – from achieving those aims in order to assist a wealthy developer who had paid a substantial figure to attend a party fundraiser and lobby the Housing Secretary – even though planning law prevents him from engaging in such conversations lest – as in this instance the case ends up before him in order to adjudicate. Which is why the local council concerned took him to Court – forcing him to climb down and enable another minister to adjudicate instead.

The relationship between the Tories and the building industry goes back much further. During my civil service days I spent a year working on the then Labour Government’s policy on sustainable new homes. The division I worked in covered the Code for Sustainable Homes and the 2016 target date that all new homes built would have to meet the zero carbon standard. Seven years after my time there, I heard ministers announce the scrapping of that Code and the watering down of the zero carbon standard. Which is why any claims about zero carbon homes from the current administration are ones I don’t take seriously.

“Kate Henderson, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), said the decision to cancel the guidance, which said settlements should aim to be zero carbon with homes that meet Building for Life, Code for Sustainable Homes and Lifetime Homes standards, “marks the end of any benchmark for building the high quality communities of the future.””

Kate Henderson in Building News 09 March 2015.

Essentially I agree with Kate Henderson – now at the National Housing Federation representing housing associations.

Personally I liked the principle of new homes being properly surveyed by qualified persons which then enabled each house to have its own standardised certificate across a range of sustainability criteria such as water use, materials used, waste management and so on.

Above – example certificates from the 2010 technical guidance – produced a few years after I moved to a different policy area. It was such a high pressure policy area that in the end I felt I was more than a little out of my depth. Furthermore, given how heavily that policy area was being lobbied by industry heavy guns, ministers should have *increased* the policy capacity of that area rather than reducing it successively as governments of all three parties seemed to do after I moved on. But hey, isn’t it ancient history now? I was in my mid-late 20s back then, and am in my early 40s now. Yet sometimes the intensity of the experiences makes it feel like yesterday.

“What future for the building industry?”

To be honest I don’t know, and in one sense don’t really care from a despondent perspective because I know I’ll never be in a situation to afford my own home due to chronic ill-health.

From a public policy perspective, there’s a financial incentive for the Conservatives not to do anything that will upset a donor stream that has proved extremely lucrative. At the same time they cannot keep dragging their heels over the cladding of homes because at some stage the Grenfell Inquiry will deliver its report ***and it will be utterly damning*** of many parts of the building industry. I know this as I’m sad enough to have sat through some of the video livestreams to see some major players in the building supply industry get absolutely roasted by the Inquiry Counsel. The BBC summarised what we learned by the end of 2020 here.

There are further issues for local councils which the Ministry of Housing has issued further guidance on – spotted by Open Democracy here at the end of January 2021. The problem with the guidance letter is that local councils could interpret it as permission to refuse all access to information requests relating to the cladding of buildings. The Ministry of Housing does not have the powers to grant that permission. All they can do is to give an opinion. If they want the powers, a Minister has to table the necessary legislation in Parliament and Parliament has to approve.

Instead of wasting time writing guidance on how local councils can withhold information from the public over cladding of buildings, ministers would be far better advised to deal with the problem at hand – something they have taken far too long over already.

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