“They might be the most ubiquitous feature of the modern English landscape, and yet they barely attract any comment: those sprawling newbuild housing developments that seem to surround almost every town and city, offering a promise of comfort and security and a vital foot on the property ladder.
More often than not, their avenues and culs-de-sac will have faux-bucolic names often ending in “meadows”, “mead”, or “wood”. The life therein seems profoundly modern: stripped of much history or sense of shared experience so that everything suggests the weightlessness of suburbia. Yet for all the outward gleam, something is wrong.
This week the Guardian reported that Bovis is set to award people who live in some of its newbuild homes a total of £7m in compensation, in response to claims that houses have faulty plumbing or wiring, missing insulation, and other serious defects. Some people say they were offered money to move into homes that have not been completed. When the news broke, the Bovis share price fell by 10%, wiping £100m off its stock market value.
This is just one part of a bigger story of complaints about Britain’s construction giants – and what happens when the rush to build leads to corners being cut and houses left either unfinished or deeply defective. On social media there are hundreds-strong groups telling their personal stories: “The toilet leaked into the living room and when my plumber came to fix it he found the toilet had not been installed correctly”; “having my kitchen ripped out for the second time”; “no insulation in roof”; “mould growing all over the house … too dangerous too live in as I have asthma”.
Meanwhile, the pressure is on to build as many new homes as possible. Even if it is behind on its targets, the government still wants a million to have been put up by 2020. The year 2015 saw a big jump in completed builds: 142,890 homes were finished, a 20% year-on-year increase. Last year the number was put at more than 150,000.
Behind these increases sat policies such as the new homes bonus (which gives councils cash rewards for granting planning permission for newbuild developments) and George Osborne’s help-to-buy scheme – now drastically stripped back, although the fact that interest-free loans are still available for newbuild homes means that the policy will carry on incentivising builders to put up houses.
But in privately owned developments and new social housing, and the mixed-tenure places that combine the two, problems abound. Last month I spent two weeks reporting on the case of the Orchard Village estate on the Essex/east London border, and properties split between homeowners and tenants whose problems – with leaks and damp, and allegedly faulty fire protection and dangerous levels of methane – are mind-boggling.
Since then I have been contacted by people in other newly built developments who have suffered similar problems. The most spectacular case is that of a development called Solomon’s Passage in Peckham, south London: four housing blocks completed in 2010 that were plagued with leaks, fire protection issues and defective balconies, until the housing association in charge – Wandle, which owns about 7,000 homes across the capital – decided to tear two of them down and start again. …”