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Response to Consultation Government Delay with New Homes Ombudsman

Response to consultation and government delay in creating the Statutory New Homes Ombudsman

Another consultation? On 1st October 2018, now ten months ago, the then Housing Secretary James Brokenshire announced the government would create a statutory new homes ombudsman which in his words:

 will champion homebuyers, protect their interests and hold developers to account. And give confidence that when you get the keys to a new home you get the quality build you expect and the finish you’ve paid for.” 

It is hugely disappointing that this has yet to take place, meaning tens of thousands of new homebuyers have no available recourse to seek unequivocal, 100% independent redress and meaningful compensation awards for the often nightmare new homes they now own and the indifferent service received from errant housebuilders and inadequate warranty policies.  

As the one person that suggested the statutory new homes ombudsman at the APPG EBE Inquiry on 23rd November 2015, I had no idea at that time, it would take this government over 4 years to implement. Many thousands of new homebuyers are aware of the government’s failure to listen to their concerns, hear their pleas and start a long process of change, beginning with the creation of a statutory new homes ombudsman. The government should be aware that the lack of urgency and constant prevarication will lose votes, from homebuyers, their families and friends, whatever their political persuasion.

Will Robert Jenrick create the statutory new homes ombudsmanIt is my hope that following this somewhat unnecessary Consultation (closing on 22 August 2019), the statutory new homes ombudsman will become fully operational and not be further delayed by Brexit fallout, political grandstanding and become yet another one of those classic wishy-washy government promises that take a decade to materialise if at all.

When 99% of new homebuyers report defects to their housebuilder, 43% reporting more than 10 defects* within the first few weeks of moving in and many new homes not even built in full compliance with existing building regulations, clearly government must act.

It has come to my attention that the MHCLG has been giving advice to the Consumer Code for Home Builders (CCHB). The cynic in me is concerned that the CCHB could be being tasked by government, to come up with a watered-down set of rules and requirements agreeable to plc housebuilders and warranty providers, with a view to setting up an industry-led “Ombudsman” perhaps a temporary ‘beta’ version of the new homes ombudsman, ahead of legislation “at the earliest opportunity” “when parliamentary time allows” which will be operated on a voluntary membership basis. Could this even be the “Shadow form” the MHCLG has outlined?

The time for debates, announcements and consultations with stakeholders has passed. It is now time to deliver on the promise made on 1st October 2018 and create a statutory new homes ombudsman.

Too many new homebuyers are suffering, many are physically drained as a result of engagement with indifferent housebuilders when trying to get their new homes brought up to warranty standards and statutory regulations. For some buyers, the mental anguish has become almost unbearable, with some contacting me for help even mentioning thoughts of suicide, such is their hopelessness! Like Yvette Davis and her contaminated uninhabitable Linden new home in Sarisbury Green

New Home Expert’s Consultation responses:

Having completed the online version and answer all the specific questions I also sent in expanded comments some aspects. 

Q4      Who should be covered by the new homes ombudsman
To avoid housebuilders wriggling out of compliance with the statutory new homes ombudsman and depriving new homebuyers of effective redress, it should also encompass anyone who is involved in the selling of new homes or what are effectively new homes as ‘second-hand’. 

Q5      Should a New Homes Ombudsman only cover complaints where redress cannot be sought elsewhere?
NO! Clearly the New Homes Ombudsman should cover ALL complaints from new homebuyers regardless of the nature or existence of alternative Ombudsman or redress. The “limited in its scope” Consumer Code for Homebuilders has clearly failed new home buyers over its ten-year existence.
It should also include warranty providers as the Financial Ombudsman Services NHBC complaint decision in Appendix A demonstrates, this despite 71% of complaints against the NHBC being upheld in new homebuyers favour * originally shown here  now deleted because, according to Which, The NHBC is a “warranty supplier and not a home insurer” and the data was therefore “not correct.” 

Q6      Anyone else able to seek redress through the New Homes Ombudsman?
YES! Anyone who buys a new home from the original buyer within the 10-year warranty period.  

Q7      Should anything be excluded from the new homes ombudsman remit?
NO! It should include anything and everything including complaints about new home warranty providers.

FREE – FAIR – FOR EVERYTHING

Q8      Awareness of requirement to belong to the New Homes Ombudsman
The requirement should be a condition of planning and building regulation approval. Building control inspectors and warranty providers should be legally required to seek proof of membership before carrying out inspections.  

Q9      Should there only be a single New Homes Ombudsman
YES! It should be single Statutory New Homes Ombudsman administered by a PUBLIC BODY in a way not dissimilar to the Financial Ombudsman Services.

There should not be any form of “voluntary” New Homes Ombudsman, “shadow form” New Homes Ombudsman or any “Ombudsman” scheme or services, created by any of the housebuilding industry’s stakeholders. 

Q10b Additional circumstances a purchaser can access the New Homes Ombudsman

  • When a sale did not go through and housebuilder is withholding money, such as reservation fees and other payments such as for optional extras.
  • It should also cover breaches of written agreements regarding carrying out remedial works to defects.
  • When a purchaser of a new home is given a non-disclosure agreement to sign as a condition of carrying out remedial works to defects. 

Q12    Should the New Homes Ombudsman be delivered by a public sector body?
YES! Anything less, would be a sell-out to the housebuilding industry and a betrayal of trust to every new-build buyer. On no account whatsoever, should any private sector organisation, either existing or newly created, be allowed to deliver the New Homes Ombudsman. Already the industry’s own Consumer Code for Home Builders (CCHB) is attempting to manoeuvre and reinvent itself as an ‘Ombudsman’ with advice from the MHCLG! The New Homes Ombudsman must be unquestionably, 100% independent of the house building industry and its stakeholders (various Codes and warranty providers) and be clearly seen to be. The only way to ensure and guarantee independence is a New Homes Ombudsman service delivered by the PUBLIC SECTOR.

The MHCLG should take note of the abject failure of deregulation of Building Control function with the use of “approved inspectors” with the now many documented, poor quality standards and examples of non-compliance in “completed” “inspected” and “signed off” new homes. 

Q16    Should access to the New Homes Ombudsman be free for purchasers of new build homes?
YES! Any charge to access redress will deter consumers making complaints and questioning their validity. It has been previously announced by government that the New Homes Ombudsman would be free and on Page 41 of the 24 January 2019 response to the last Housing Redress Consultation it stated it would be free. Even on page 17 (3.19) of this consultation it states “we want to see better redress faster so that consumers can benefit from FREE, FAIR and EFFECTIVE redress as soon as possible”  

Until this year, the CCHB charged new homebuyers seeking redress £120 (including vat!) as a registration fee. Just 357 complaints were received in 8 years with many no doubt being put off by the fee and the bias of adjudication.  

It would be idiotic to have the opinion that a free service would be subject to misuse giving rise to vexatious complaints, as any new homebuyers that angry and frustrated, would in all probability have genuine, justified grounds for making a complaint.  

Q17    Funding the New Homes Ombudsman
A simple levy for each and every house built. I am suggesting £100 per home built giving around £20 million on 200,000 homes a year completed. In addition, for each complaint the housebuilder concerned should also pay £750 towards the cost of investigating the complaint and also any additional amounts to cover the cost any independent external specialist’s inspections, assessments and testing. 

Q20    Sanctions for New Homes Ombudsman
All of the above. In addition, when considering sanctions, expulsion or suspension, this should apply to all companies and regional companies within a plc housebuilder’s group. It should also apply to the directors of those companies. This is to prevent any plc corporation simply using another company within its Group, acquiring another housebuilder or setting up a new company to carry on trading and avoid the Ombudsman sanctions. 

Q21    Powers of the New Homes Ombudsman
It is essential that the New Homes Ombudsman has the power to force housebuilders to buy back (‘reverse the purchase’) defective new homes at full market value. This should be offered to the buyers of any new home where defects are serious or extensive enough to require the new home owners to move into temporary accommodation for more than 28 days.  

In addition, the New Homes Ombudsman should have the powers to stop work on any development where serious defects are reported, such as weak mix mortar, missing fire barriers and structural issues. In all such serious instances, the New Homes Ombudsman should INFORM all other home owners on any particular development, that their home may have a serious defect(s). This will nullify the use of non-disclosure agreements by both plc housebuilders and warranty providers to cover up their shortcomings and limit their financial liabilities. 

The purpose of a New Homes Ombudsman is to make meaningful, justifiable levels of compensation awards to new homeowners, taking into full account the impact on their family life. It should not just exist to enforce the rectification of defects and ensure any financial loss is reimbursed. This should ensure that housebuilders are suitably encouraged to improve quality and service. Each case should be judged fairly on its merits, in most cases compensation awards of less than £2,000 will be insufficient, as it will be cheaper for plc housebuilders to write-off the Ombudsman’s award for the few buyers that take their complaint to the New Homes Ombudsman against the cost of improving quality for every new home built.  

Q22    Maximum award by New Homes Ombudsman
This should be up to £200,000, in line with the Financial Ombudsman Service upper limit. A home is the most expensive purchase anyone makes in their lifetime; indeed, it can take a lifetime to pay off the loan. The upper limit must therefore properly reflect the investment, thus the likely cost of a total demolish and rebuild, to properly cover those new homebuyers who do not wish to take advantage of the buy-back option. 

Statutory New Homes OmbudsmanBy implying that taking legal action is an option for larger claims would dismiss its impossibility for most new homebuyers. For even those with legal expenses insurance, this is a lengthy and costly process with no guarantee of a successful and just outcome. Indeed, housebuilders have deep pockets and vigorously defend every attempt by the very few new homebuyers who take this course of action, in the full and certain knowledge that it will cost less to defend the small number of claims that could potentially end up in court, than routinely pay justifiable compensation to homebuyers. Even if an agreement is reached ahead of a court hearing, this is normally subject to a non-disclosure agreement clause, (“gagging order”) to avoid any precedent being established and to reduce likelihood of action being taken by others, often with identical issues.  

Taking legal action against a plc housebuilder is a serious barrier to access to justice, in terms of cost, risk and time. As I said on national television, “Buyers who go to court will run out of money long before the housebuilders ever will.” Most having just bought a new home at a premium price, perhaps using help to buy, cannot simply afford long and protracted legal battles with plc housebuilders and their bullying ‘Rottweiler’ litigation mitigation solicitors.

Q23    What information should be published to empower consumers?
There should be a builder league table, revised bi-annually naming house builders and the number of complaints made against them to the New Homes Ombudsman. It should detail the number of complaints upheld, amount of awards and compensation, with statistics divided into categories such as pre purchase, defects and poor quality, non-conformance with building regulations and unfair terms and charges. 

In time, this incorruptible government data, should replace the industry’s own, in-house and highly criticised ‘8-week HBF survey’ designed with the sole intention of “providing data to rebut negativity” and completed by purchasers at a time when the full extent of defects and their housebuilder’s indifference are unknown. Indeed the NHBC have said that the responses to its 9-month survey, which is never made public, show the satisfaction levels are normally 5-10% lower than those in the 8-week survey. 

Q26    Should a New Homes Ombudsman remit be UK-wide
Whilst there is a case for this, given most plc housebuilders have operations in the devolved nations and clearly have the same need, it will inevitably result in further legislative delay. For this reason the Statutory New Homes Ombudsman should apply only to England with devolved nations free to copy or amend their own legislation if they choose to do so. 

The nations were devolved for a reason and have autonomy to change and revise their own building regulations, so why, if they feel a statutory New Homes Ombudsman is required, would they not be able to act and create their own? A requirement for a UK-wide New Homes Ombudsman would only serve to delay implementation. 

Q28    What should be included in a Code of Practice for developers?
Obviously everything listed in the consultation should be included, but any industry collaborated/created Code of Practice will invariably be used to limit or restrict the redress available to new homebuyers and the effectiveness and powers of the New Homes Ombudsman (as is the case with the industry’s own CCHB). This must not be allowed. 

The New Homes Ombudsman must not be confined to decisions from any Code requirement not met. Each and every complaint should be judged in its own individual merits. Whilst the FOS does make reference to the ‘Banking Code’ and the ABI ‘Statement of general Insurance Practice’ it does not appear bound to them implicitly. Neither should the Statutory New Homes Ombudsman be restricted in what it can and cannot rule on. 

FREE – FAIR – FOR EVERYTHING 

It must be said, that the universal practice of housebuilders encouraging, incentivising and in some cases insisting, new homebuyers to use a particular solicitor of the housebuilder’s choice must be banned. Clearly this practice leaves buyers at a distinct disadvantage as there is a clear conflict of interest. This being demonstrated by the harm thousands have suffered as a result of being led into leasehold ownership of houses, without fully understanding the implications and disadvantages of doing so. Housebuilders recommending/suggesting solicitors (because “it will be quicker/easier as they know the development and have already done the searches”) should and must be banned. Until it is, this should be included under the New Homes Ombudsman remit. 

3          Conclusion
The housebuilders and warranty providers operational policy is to bat away buyers’ complaints and warranty claims rather than work in the consumer’s best interests. Despite many years of opportunity, nothing has changed. It is now time, as the previous Consultation recognised, a Statutory New Homes Ombudsman is required to award justifiable and meaningful levels of compensation. It needs creating now, as a government priority, without further and unnecessary delay.

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Persimmon Launches Homebuyer Retention Policy

Persimmon announce 1.5% homebuyer retention policy

Persimmon homes - giving greed a bad nameIn a blaze of positive publicity, under headlines such as Persimmon homebuyers can withhold money until faults fixed (well not exactly); the housebuilder everyone loves to hate, has launched what is claimed will be a ground breaking initiative and a first for the industry, in response to overwhelming criticism about the quality of its homes, the obscene corporate greed-fest of executive bonuses and its part in the leasehold scandal,  Persimmon homebuyer retention “allowing buyers to withhold an average of £3.600 per home until all faults are fixed”

Nils Pratley in The Guardian suggests the homebuyer retetention could have been called the ‘Jeff Fairburn memorial clause’ – an eye-catching gesture designed to combat Persimmon’s reputation for corporate greed, as embodied by Fairburn’s infamous £75m bonus.”

A few weeks ago Nils said, in another well-written article: “It’s nice that the housebuilder wants to address its substandard scores for customer service, but shouldn’t this thought have occurred when the executives, Jenkinson included, were racking up their millions?” 

Not forgetting, this is a company that has also now admitted it lobbied government in 2015 to abandon the zero carbon policy for new homes.

In the Financial Times, Persimmon’s recently-appointed CEO Dave Jenkinson said:

“Persimmon is listening hard to all of its stakeholders and we hear the message that we need to continue to raise our game in customer care.

CEO Dave Jenkinson announces Persimmon homebuyer retention

“The initiatives we have already announced, including the action taken in the new year to deliver greater accuracy of anticipated moving in dates by adopting a more targeted approach to the phasing of sales on specific sites and the improvements and investments that we have made in our customer care team, operations and technology over the last few months are beginning to take effect.

“We are now accelerating the pace of change through the introduction of a contracted retention, which will give homebuyers far greater satisfaction at the completion of the purchase.  

“Moving into a new home should be a positive experience enhanced by all the benefits of a new build that is designed for modern living.  We are determined that the experience is not overshadowed by teething problems and providing a homebuyer’s retention is an important step towards achieving this.

Chairman Roger Devlin, said:
“This is a first among the UK’s large housebuilders and I hope will lead the way in change across the sector. This move, and the urgency with which we will introduce it, is a clear and unambiguous signal of cultural and operational change at Persimmon putting customer care at the very centre of the business.”

Other “improvements” include offering maintenance appointments at weekends and out-of-hours opening of customer care departments.

In the big announcement, Persimmon said it “would implement the homebuyer’s retention, by writing into its standard sale contract that 1.5% of the property value (£3,600 on average) could be withheld by the buyer’s solicitor until any faults identified at the point of key release are resolved
Update: During the time it took Channel 4 Dispatches to make ‘Britain’s New Build Scandal’ June-July 2019, featuring Persimmon, the time limit  buyers had to report faults was extended to 7 days.

The homebuyer retention policy, announced in haste, won’t be fully in place until the end of June 2019 – so much for its claim “we are now accelerating the pace of change”! But why wait until June? It’s hardly Brexit! Well, the end of June is Persimmon financial half-year, so homes could be rushed to get them included for the half-year. In addition, Persimmon will need to start building better, much better and all homes completed after the end of June, will not yet be started.

But quite frankly, this could easily be implemented at the beginning of April, fittingly perhaps on April Fool’s day as in my opinion, buyers and the government would be fools if they believe this small sticking plaster on a disgraceful housebuilder that gives greed a bad name, will make any noticeable positive difference for buyers.

Unlike the Barratt 5-year warranty, which despite its exclusions, was a corporate statement of quality: “our product is so good we are so confident we can afford to give our buyers a longer warranty”  The Persimmon homebuyer retention announcement shouts: “our product is so bad, we have decided to allow our customers to withhold part of their payment until we have sorted out defects”

This scheme is also  unlikely to cost Persimmon anything, with any costs being borne by the sub-contract companies it employs.  Retentions are deducted on all sub-contractor payments. Half is usually returned 6 months after the buyer moves in, with the balance normally after two years. The percentage retention is negotiated at the time the contract is drawn up, often used by housebuilders as a bargaining tool to force their sub-contractors to discount their rates or accept payment terms “monthly valuation on account.” Most sub-contractors tend to view any returned retention as a bonus, as it is priced into their rates.

Persimmon homebuyer retention – so what is not to like?
This is not as it first appears. For a start, this only applies to “faults” (I prefer the term defects) that excited and distracted buyers note and report at the time they are first given the keys. Why not make it for ALL DEFECTS notified to Persimmon in the first 6 or 9 months? It should not be limited to just those small, quickly dealt with, cosmetic “faults” which may, or more likely, may not be spotted by buyers on the day they first get the keys to their new home.  This will certainly not be of any help to buyers that later discover they have weak mortar, cracking render, issues with their floors or serious fire safety issues like this 

If Persimmon really are “determined that the experience is not overshadowed by teething problems” why does the company routinely refuse to allow their buyers and/or their professional snagging inspectors access to their homes to check the property before legal completion?

Persimmon "Teething" problem?The homebuyer retention monies are also to be held by the buyer’s solicitor. In most cases this is highly likely to be one that Persimmon has suggested, recommended, or in some cases, even bribed or required the buyer to use. A recent government inquiry found conveyancing solicitors are too close the house builder. There is a clear conflict of interest. The report says: “buyers’ interests ‘cannot be served where they are coerced into using developer-recommended conveyancing solicitors, who rely on repeat business from developers and may not be inclined to put their client’s interest first.”
This is also against the Law – The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, In addition, it also breaches requirement 2.5 of the “limited in its scope” Consumer Code for Homebuilders and SRA rules on conflicts of interest. Yet this has been going on for years! Furthermore, as Patrick Hosking notes in The Times, “there’s a danger the scheme will descend into countless legal disputes, with buyers’ solicitors quickly swallowing up that cash buffer in fees” indeed, as sure as night follows day.

Sebastian O’Kelly, 58, chief executive of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, told The Times: “Persimmon has an open-ended liability on the snagging issues. If they build something appalling, and so many of our plc housebuilders build houses and flats with major defects, then they have a responsibility to fix them. I don’t think consumers would be able to take much comfort from this.”

So why are Persimmon doing this?
The homebuyer retention initiative comes following statements that the company is to improve customer satisfaction levels after being dogged by complaints about poor build quality. There had been murmurings lately about a buyer’s retention. Paula Higgins from the Home Owners Alliance told The Times last month that her idea of buyer’s being able to hold a 2.5% retention for 6 months “would be a powerful incentive for builders to put problems right”   I told The Times it would be an “administrative nightmare” and that “6 months would be too short.” Unbelievably, I even found myself agreeing, for the first time, with Steve Turner of the Home Builders Federation , when he said that “introducing retentions as the rest of the construction sector is scrapping them is a crude and naïve suggestion that could reduce consumer protection and risks creating a long drawn out legal process – the new homes ombudsman is a better way to help buyers.”  Trade bodies call to scrap retention Retention in construction under review

Pressure from Government – withdrawal of Help to Buy
In February, The Guardian reported that Persimmon’s right to use Help to Buy was under the scrutiny of Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, who was considering stripping Persimmon of its right to sell properties using Help To Buy because of poor satisfaction levels and concerns on the housebuilder’s behaviour. Persimmon has benefitted immensely from the Help to Buy scheme. Nearly half its 16,449 home sales last year were made through the taxpayer-funded scheme.

A source close to the minister said:
“Leasehold, build quality, their leadership seemingly not getting they’re accountable to their customers, are all points that have been raised by the Secretary of State privately,”

Help to Buy, should never have been extended and should now be cancelled on economic grounds but, if the government wants to keep the housebuilders’ gravy train running, originally due to end in 2016 yet twice extended, first until March 2021 and more recently to March 2023, Government should at least attach a few requirements and conditions that specifically benefit new homebuyers.

Persimmon needs evidence to shoe that they are changing their behaviour under the threat of parliamentary time being found to debate this, perhaps even a select committee inquiry. The homebuyer retention scheme, weekend appointments and the changes to customer care availability hours are little more than tokenism to keep government at bay. It looks like a cheap PR job which has given the company some much needed, positive, coverage in the quality national press.

Persimmon’s premium rating by the NHBC and LABC/PREMIER GUARANTEE may have increased dramatically. The homebuyer retention scheme may be being used to reduce their warranty premiums like an insurance voluntary excess.

An attempt to improve Persimmon’s dire HBF 8-week survey 3 star rating
Persimmon rated 3 star for 5 years in a row!Persimmon Homes have been rated just 3 stars for the fifth year in a row. Jenkinson even mentions the “contracted retention, which will, give homebuyers far greater satisfaction at the completion of the purchase” –  in other words early on, just as the 8-week, HBF survey arrives in their post or inbox. Is it really an “unambiguous signal of cultural and operational change at Persimmon, putting customer care at the very centre of the business.” or a calculated measure to improve their HBF 8-week survey scores and 3-star rating? Given Persimmon claims 79% “satisfaction” which is just 1% below the 4 star rating, you would think giving a few £250 John Lewis vouchers to buyers would have been a cheaper option!

A spokesman for the Home Builders Federation told The Times: housebuilders had “delivered consistent improvements in customer satisfaction over the past two years” and he was again not keen on Persimmon’s housebuyer retention saying it “should not be seen as an option for housebuilders generally.”

No doubt with Persimmon now learning how to “play the star rating game” the heavy weighting of their current 3-star rating drag on the overall satisfaction scores over the last 5 years, the overall satisfaction score at least, is certain to improve, even if in reality, the actual new homebuyer satisfaction does not.

This industry’s reinterpretation of defect into snag has been one of the great distortions of the narrative surrounding new homes in recent years. The likes of Persimmon will be more than happy to agree a 1.5% retention – which they are likely never to have any intention of recovering, is cheap when compared to the loss of access to Help To Buy and other possible government sanctions such as a land-banking tax.

A clear indication that Persimmon has got this wrong is their statement:
“we hear the message that we need to continue to raise our game in customer care.” When actually it is the quality of construction and inspection regimes where improvements are required. It is not a case of putting out the fires quicker, but of fire prevention, getting it right first time, or at least before buyers get their keys!

As with Barratt in the eighties, it will take a generation to turn around Persimmon’s reputation, forever historically tarnished by corporate greed, poor quality homes and contempt and indifference to its own customers. Britain’s top site managers won’t want to go there and have their CVs forever tarnished. Those that do, will justifiably demand huge salaries for their sacrifice. In directing attention to the newly moved in and including quality and customer care in site managers’ bonus calculations is a step in the right direction that should improve their HBF survey star rating. It is a recipe that Barratt have adopted with success over nine, 5-star rated years. It is amazing it has taken Persimmon so long to either begin to care about it, or cotton on!

Persimmon Annual Report 2018 27 Feb 2019
Range of new customer service initiatives implemented in late 2018 showing encouraging initial results. The Group is confident these measures will improve its customer satisfaction score once they have had time to take effect”

CEO Dave Jenkinson “A wide range of projects to improve customer satisfaction commenced in late 2018 and the initial results have been encouraging, giving us confidence in our ability to make progress in this important area”

Chairman Roger Devlin: “Alongside that we are changing our pay and incentives to include greater emphasis on both quality and customer care with plans that are more rigorous than we have had in the past.

“Delivering a good quality product for our customers and providing high levels of customer service throughout the home buying process is a top priority for the business. For the year to 30 September 2018, the percentage of our customers who would recommend Persimmon to a friend under the independent Home Builders Federation (HBF) survey was 79%, in line with the prior year and just short of the four star threshold of 80%. The Group has continued to invest in its customer care systems and resources during the year and this will continue to be the case in 2019 as we remain determined to improve customer satisfaction levels.”

But talk is cheap! Persimmon have said it all before!

Persimmon Annual Report 2016 27 Feb 2017
“During 2016 we have continued to invest additional resources in new customer focused initiatives to improve our customers’ buying experience and our NHBC/HBF 3 star rating. This is yielding further improvement in performance with the majority of the Group’s operating businesses showing progress. Prior to customers moving into their new home we have improved our communication processes with them to provide greater understanding of the progress we are making in constructing their new home. We have strengthened our build management processes to facilitate delivery to expected timeframes. Additional support is being provided through reinvigorated processes to demonstrate the features of the new home to customers, assistance with identifying any small remaining issues on moving in day and providing improved systems and processes for our customer care teams to support the prompt rectification of any outstanding matters. Customer care performance is reflected in relevant employees’ remuneration to support a closer alignment to the Group’s objectives. Whilst these initiatives are delivering tangible improvements in our customer satisfaction ratings we remain determined to deliver further advancement this year.“

Persimmon  Annual report 2015 on 22 February 2016.
CEO Jeff Fairburn stated:
“The Group’s priority is to serve our customers well by providing good quality new homes and great service. All of our team are[sic] responsible for delivering high levels of customer satisfaction….Our sales teams across the business are trained to provide excellent levels of service to our customers.”

“During 2015 we invested substantial resources in new customer focused initiatives to improve our customers’ buying experience and our NHBC/HBF 3 star rating. We have introduced dedicated customer liaison managers on our larger sites, improved communication processes with our customers, introduced new processes to strengthen our build programmes and provided additional resources in our customer care teams. These initiatives are showing some early signs of improvement in our customer satisfaction ratings and we will continue to pursue this agenda to secure further progress this year.”

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Housing Redress Consultation – Government finally publish response

The wait is over the results are in, and the winner is……
the new homebuyer!

Housing redress consultation

After what has seemed an eternity and without any explanation for the nine-month delay, the Government published its response to the ‘Strengthening consumer redress in the housing market’ consultation on 24 January 2019, which had closed 283 days  earlier! As I mentioned in my last article about government dragging its heels on housing reform, uploaded 10 days before this consultation response was made public, MHCLG minister Heather Wheeler stated in a letter to my MP on 1st October 2018, “access to redress is a priority for this government.” 

Whilst the government consultation response relates to redress in all housing sectors, I will restrict my comment and subsequent observations to the government’s reiterated commitment to establishing a New Homes Ombudsman which will champion home buyers, protect their interests and hold developers to account.” as previously announced by James Brokenshire on 1st October 2018.

Disappointingly, just 1,209 responses were received for this consultation, only 355 (34%) from those having bought a new home and 385 (37%) from leaseholders. ‘Industry and organisations’ returned 172 (14%) responses. The consultation “Overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector” which closed on 26 August 2018, received over 8,700 responses! Are new homebuyers uninterested in having someone fight their corner?  “holding developers to account”  Nevertheless, I would like to acknowledge and thank the few who did participate on behalf of many thousands of new homebuyers with defective new homes and thank Katie Kendrick of the National Leasehold Campaign who encouraged members of her group to also respond.

Consultation response - Redress in housing In the government housing redress consultation, just 12 people (7%) indicated that had made a complaint using the Consumer Code for Home Builders (CCHB) IDRS in the last FIVE YEARS! Some respondents said their complaints had been considered as ‘out of scope’ – a common phrase used in the CCHB Case Summaries!  A Government inquiry report in July 2016 also concluded the CCHB was “limited in its scope”.

Out of the 167 individuals who rated the service they received from a redress scheme in Q7, 40% were made by those who recently bought a new home and 35% from leaseholders. These two categories made up the majority (79%) of those who said they had received a ‘very poor’ service. In addition, 42% of purchasers of new homes said “yes, they had encountered gaps in current redress schemes.”

The majority of respondents (84%) who replied to Q20, stated that an ombudsman scheme for new homes should be statutory.

Nearly all, 91%, of the new homebuyers that responded said “that a redress scheme should publish decisions and the number of complaints relating to different providers should be made public.”

The response to Q30 regarding a single ombudsman or one for each sector was not disclosed. Nevertheless it is clear that the majority of new homebuyers want a stand-alone, independent statutory new homes ombudsman and this is what the government have pledged to create.

So what was the Government response to this Consultation as far as the New Homes Ombudsman is concerned.  I will endeavour to interpret the ambiguity in my next article:

Following the consultation, James Brokenshire announces overhaul of broken housing complaints systemJames Brokenshire“And to protect the interests of home-owners who buy new build homes, government has also reiterated its commitment to establishing a New Homes Ombudsman which will champion homebuyers, protect their interests and hold developers to account.

 

Legislation will be brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity to require all new developers to belong to the Ombudsman – giving homebuyers the confidence that when they get the keys to a new home they are getting the quality of build they expect.

Developers will also have to belong to the new body by 2021 if they wish to participate in the government’s landmark Help to Buy scheme.

First, I want to help plug the gaps in available redress services so that more people can get their housing disputes resolved without going through the courts. To that end, I am proposing a New Homes Ombudsman, underpinned by legislation following the establishment of an interim voluntary service, and requiring developers of new build homes to participate.

I want to see a single “Code of Practice” on complaint handling across all tenures.”

Consultation – Housing Complaints Resolution Service

Our aim is to provide a single point of access for all the current schemes in housing. We intend to develop this in collaboration with the redress sector, initially on a voluntary basis, but we will keep open the option of legislation to make this mandatory if necessary.

Our ambition ultimately is for the new service to cover all housing consumers including tenants and leaseholders of social and private rented housing as well as purchasers of new build homes and users of all residential property agents.

We propose to establish a Redress Reform Working Group with redress schemes, which will work with industry and consumers on developing the new service and the other options set out in this paper…”

Addressing the gaps “proposing legislation to extend mandatory membership of a redress scheme to:  c. developers of new build homes.

The government announced the proposal to create a New Homes Ombudsman service in October 2018. This response indicates how that service will sit in the wider redress landscape and the next steps of its implementation.

First, I want to help plug the gaps in available redress services so that more people can get their housing disputes resolved without going through the courts. To that end, I am proposing a New Homes Ombudsman, underpinned by legislation following the establishment of an interim voluntary service, and requiring developers of new build homes to participate. I will also bring forward legislation to require all private landlords, including private providers of purpose-built student housing, and park home site operators to belong to a redress scheme.

On 1st October 2018 we announced our commitment for a New Homes Ombudsman to protect the rights of buyers of new build homes. These commitments are part of the Government’s drive to close gaps in existing redress services and ensure that all housing consumers have access to redress when things go wrong. This consultation response provides more detail on the implementation of these measures.

We propose to bring forward legislation to underpin a New Homes Ombudsman in statute and we will work with industry and consumers prior to legislation so purchasers of new build homes have access to better redress now.

In the meantime, we will work with industry, warranty providers and consumers to ensure that the distinct practices for the new build sector are addressed and that these are reflected in an agreed single consumer code of practice which would be used by a New Homes Ombudsman to adjudicate against.

New Homes Ombudsman

99. It is clear from the responses that more needs to be done to strengthen consumer redress in relation to new build homes, and to drive up standards across the industry. The need for an easy, effective and independent body for consumers to go to is evident, and supported by the industry. A significant minority of respondents said that there is no current existing redress scheme which is best placed to deliver an ombudsman scheme for purchasers of new build homes.
100. There was very strong support in favour of purchasers of new build homes having access to an ombudsman scheme, and many respondents were in favour of such an ombudsman being statutory. We consider that the fastest way to improve redress is to work with industry and consumers to implement a better redress scheme for purchasers of new build housing as soon as possible.
101. We have announced proposals to ensure that a New Homes Ombudsman is established, working with industry and others. We will look to strengthen protection for the first two years after purchase when the majority of problems occur and minimise the variance in the levels of protection and schemes that are currently available. To ensure that consumers get the protection they deserve, we will introduce legislation to require developers of new build homes to belong to a New Homes Ombudsman, which will be underpinned in statute.
102. It is proposed that the New Homes Ombudsman would charge developers to ensure that the service is free of charge to buyers of new build homes.
103. Developers work across all nations of the UK. As the proposed legislation includes devolved matters, we will continue to engage and consult the devolved administrations to seek agreement to introduce UK-wide legislation.
104. We will consult on the detail of the proposed legislation to statutorily underpin a New Homes Ombudsman. This will include the approval mechanisms and standards that a New Homes Ombudsman must meet as well as whether a Code of Practice for developers should also be underpinned in legislation.
105. As we introduce statutory arrangements, we will work closely with industry and consumer groups to establish a voluntary New Homes Ombudsman ahead of legislation. We expect this ombudsman to be:
• Free to the consumer and funded by industry;
• Independent from the organisations the ombudsman will investigate;
• Fair in dealing with disputes;
•Open and transparent and have public accountability through regular reporting;
• And have effective powers to hold developers to account.
106. At Budget 2018, we announced that a new Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme will run for 2 years from April 2021 before closing in March 2023. We will establish the condition that housing developers must belong to a New Homes Ombudsman to participate in the new Help to Buy Scheme.
107. Although there are benefits to having competing redress providers as set out in the section on the Private Rented Sector which has an established redress system, it is clear that the number of schemes operating in the new build sector has created an unacceptable variance of standards and, as we have an opportunity to establish a new system without disruption to consumers and there is a need to reform all the existing schemes, we believe a single New Homes Ombudsman could solve these issues without unnecessary disruption. Our consultation will consider whether one or more organisations could provide a quality service to consumers under the principles above.”

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Consumer Code for Homebuilders – Causing the Confusion!

So much for “Clearing the confusion” the Consumer Code for Home Builders (CCHB) appears to be creating it with its latest webpage purporting to “answer” consumer’s questions following the government announcement last month that a statutory new homes ombudsman was being created.

It would seem that the conclusions in the APPG Report published in July 2015 “More homes Fewer Complaints” appear to be lost on the Consumer Code for Home Builders as it ramps up rhetoric in a battle for its very survival now government has announced the creation of a statutory new homes ombudsman.

Under the headline “Clearing up the confusion”  the CCHB allegedly answers questions from consumers:

 

“Will the proposed New Homes Ombudsman replace the need for the Consumer Code?

Consumer Code for Home BuildersYes it would. The APPG Inquiry Report number 1 “Key recommendation” that a New Homes Ombudsman be set up saying “it would need to be completely independent and replace the dispute resolution service offered as part of the Consumer Code for Home Builders. This same Inquiry reported that the Consumer Code for Homebuilders:

  • “does not appear to give homebuyers the safeguards we think they should expect”
  • “it does not appear to us objectively to offer consumers a wholly satisfactory form of redress”
  • “is limited in its scope”

Yet the Consumer Code for Homebuilders ‘clears the confusion’ saying:

“The spotlight is on proposals for a new homes ombudsman once again, and we are actively working with government to understand how the new proposals will work in practice and what rights consumers would have under the scheme. In the meantime, however, there has been some confusion about the role of an ombudsman.

There are clear rules about what an ombudsman can and can’t do. While they can award a remedy (including money) to rectify a problem, they don’t have jurisdiction to fine organisations or apply standards. So introducing a new homes ombudsman may help with dealing with the complaints about existing problems, but it won’t prevent future problems arising.”

Wrong! An Ombudsman can award substantial justifiable compensation to consumers which would amount to a fine in all but name. All adjudication decisions would be publicly available in full with housebuilders named and shamed. By its very existence it would, as the APPG Inquiry Report alluded to, “put pressure on housebuilders to up their game in the first place and spur them on to improve workmanship and increase levels of customer service”

“We want service standards in home building to improve. Training and compliance checks are needed which is one of the areas we focus on.”
[The training being of housebuilders’ sales staff and estate agents – The CCHB specifically does not cover defects, poor quality or warranty issues]
“Furthermore, under the Consumer Code, builders can and have been held to account for not complying with an adjudicator’s decision.”
Really? Where is the evidence? James Brokenshire said the new homes ombudsman would go further and “champion homebuyers, protect their interests and hold developers to account”

This is an industry-led and industry funded Code that would never bite the hand that feeds it.

“Our Advisory Forum advises the Code on policy and action. We also have a fully independent disciplinary and sanctions panel which considers what action should be taken against those builders that breach the Code requirements. For example, one builder was suspended from building any new homes until all staff had been trained on the Code to prevent further breaches of the Code.”
But presumably not many, if any, have had their registration cancelled by the warranty providers. We don’t know because it has never been published!

Does the Consumer Code offer any more rights than existing legislation?

“Unfortunately, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 does not cover purchases of new homes.”   That’s why the protection provided by the Consumer Code is so important – the Code gives buyers of new homes protection if they change their mind or find sales literature misleading or inaccurate.”
Wrong! It does as far as ‘services’ are concerned. However, no consumer legislation at all specifically covers property. The CCHB does not give consumers any “Protection” it is merely a set of requirements that plc housebuilders appear to pay little more than lip service to at best.

“The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 offers some protection.”
Wrong again! Not “some protection” – it covers every area regarding selling property. The CCHB was set up by the industry to prevent housebuilders being reported to Trading Standards and ending up in court.

“However, it requires Trading Standards to take enforcement action or consumers to bring their own action, which can be complex and costly.”
That is specifically why the Statutory New Homes Ombudsman is being created.

“Where issues are identified under the Consumer Code, home buyers can use the Code’s Independent Dispute Resolution Scheme rather than take lengthy and costly legal action through the courts. We’re raising awareness of the Code  because we want more home buyers to make use of this scheme to seek redress where a breach of the Code has been identified.”
The CCHB has existed for over 8 years yet apparently raising awareness is still necessary? A statutory new homes ombudsman would give consumers a right to redress in any dispute with housebuilders, in the same way the Financial Ombudsman Services does with financial providers. The statutory new homes ombudsman would not and must not be, restricted and shackled by specific Code requirements drawn up in collaboration with the industry and its own vested interests.

Why doesn’t the Code deal with more cases?
Good question!
Because no housebuilder is going to promote the CCHB as it would make complaints more likely! In addition, the CCHB charges consumers an administration fee of £120 to register a complaint, and in some “successful” cases, this fee has not been refunded.
“We are continually raising awareness of the Code”
It hasn’t improved in the last 8 years! In fact I’ve done more to raise awareness of the CCHB and encourage buyers to use it after they sought my advice.
“so that we can encourage more people to access our independent dispute resolution scheme, including lawyers involved in new home purchases.”
The majority of solicitors being those that housebuilders force or coerce buyers to use even though this breaches requirement 2.5 of the CCHB!
“We are also working on removing/reducing any barriers that may exist to raising a complaint as well as investigating options to raise the maximum award limit.”
This is too little too late. Now consumers will hopefully soon be able to use the new statutory new homes ombudsman:  FREE – FAIR- FOR EVERYTHING

“Satisfaction with new homes has increased according to the Home Builders Federation which surveys new home owners.”
Wrong! Satisfaction has not increased. True it is 2% higher than in the previous years survey at 86%, but still way below the 91% in 2013!

“The latest survey response rate was 62% (57,972 responses), in which 90% said they would buy a new build again. Warranty bodies have also seen a drop in claims raised.”
Spin and PR?  An example of this industry never letting an opportunity for a bit of HBF survey spin pass by!
FACT – 99% of new homebuyers reported defects to their housebuilder within weeks of moving in.
FACT – 41% reported more than ten defects!

There is a danger that Government will bow to industry pressure and propaganda like this, placing limits on the effectiveness and powers of the statutory New Homes Ombudsman.

Bearing in mind the government said it “will work with consumers and industry to develop our proposals and publish more details in due course.”  But is this a delaying tactic? Whatever the perceived necessity for “further work”, the housebuilding industry is grasping it as an opportunity to lessen the impact that a statutory new homes ombudsman will undoubtedly have on their businesses.

Any perceived failure, collusion or delay with regard to the creation of the statutory new homes ombudsman will only serve to increase consumers (voters) existing and growing belief that  government is ‘in bed’ with the housebuilding industry, for example some have already questioned the recent extension of  help to buy to 2023, albeit restricted to first time buyers. It is time that for once government ignored the whining of this broken uncaring industry, one that has been running roughshod over new homebuyers for decades ans is ruining lives. This Hansard debate from 22 April 1998 is as relevant today as it was then Why have so many successive governments failed to act? They must do so now.

 

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Weak mortar – Britain’s crumbling new homes

The great weak mortar scandal – Part Two

Following my first article  exposing the weak mortar scandal, many more new homebuyers have contacted me. It would appear this issue is both widespread and serious. Whatever causes their mortar to crumble, sometimes in under a year, both housebuilders and warranty providers are doing everything they can to limit their costs and keep weak mortar issues quiet, out of the public gaze.weak mortarThe NHBC provide warranty policies for around 80% of all new homes built in the UK. Defective superstructures, which include external walls, is their most common cause of claims accounting for 41% of all claims in the year to 31 March 2017, costing the NHBC £27.2million. Weak mortar cannot be considered as minor snagging, this is the rectification of serious defects often affecting the structural integrity of the home. It cannot be explained away by the industry as a few “isolated cases” either.

Are NHBC Warranty Standards “Raising Standards – Protecting homeowners”?

The NHBC Warranty Standards are in general, recommendations or guidance as a means of compliance, with just five absolute Technical Requirements (in red) these are mandatory and must be met by the builder
Regarding weak mortar, two stand out. R2 Design Requirement;
“Design and specification shall provide satisfactory performance”
and R3 Materials Requirement; “All materials products and building systems shall be suitable for their intended purpose”  That is having “a life of at least 60 years.”NHBC Technical Requirements - Chapter 2.1If Performance Standards (in black bold) are followed, the Technical Standard for that particular work will be met. The NHBC are quick to highlight to buyers that the remainder of the warranty standards are just Guidance on how the Performance Standards may be met and surprisingly, are not mandatory. The NHBC have stated that “failure to follow that guidance does not constitute a non-compliance” [with warranty standards]

With regard to mortar, the Performance Standard is 6.1.14 “Mortar shall be of the mix proportions necessary to achieve adequate strength and durability and be suitable for the type of masonry…”
The Guidance table then state various mix proportions which enable the Performance Standard to be met, using Portland or sulfate resisting cement. No mention is made of cement replacement material such as GGBS. Clearly mortar with an insufficient cement mix proportion, namely less than that stated in the NHBC Standards “guidance” table (from BS EN 1996-1-1), will not meet the “adequate” performance standard required. It is certain that mortar which is crumbling and falling out of joints is not suitable for its intended purpose neither is it of “satisfactory performance”.Mortar mix designations
So what are the NHBC responses when new homeowners who make a claim under the warranty for crumbling mortar?
“We can never guarantee that a property will be defect free”
“The mortar was tested with a flat blade screwdriver [dragged over the surface] and examined for defects”
“I am advised that the cement/lime/aggregate ratios provided in our Standards are guidance only”
“We remain of the opinion……….. to rake out to a depth of 25mm and repoint are [sic] an acceptable method of repair”
“Where issues relating to mortar are concerned, we predominantly rely upon visual assessment of the performance of the mortar to determine our opinion on whether the mortar complies with our Standards.”
“It is the problem associated with exposure and weathering which is the main factor when determining remedial works required”
“Repointing the external walls of your home will ensure our Technical Requirements are met”
“Jenkins and Potter Consulting Engineers [Barry Haseltine] were tasked with providing an independent opinion on the durability and strength of the mortar to your home and provide any necessary recommendations for repair.”
“Under our standards the builder must ensure the Technical Standards are met. Mr Haseltine remains of the opinion that repointing works recommended, if carried out using a specialist contractor, will ensure the durability of the external walls and will also meet NHBC Technical Requirement R3.“
This does not necessarily make the weak mortar behind the repointing “suitable for its intended purpose”

“I am advised that the overall strength of the brickwork comes from the compressive weight of the brickwork and mortar”
The builder is responsible for putting right anything covered by Buildmark that isn’t built to the NHBC requirements. If we don’t consider that the resolution service is appropriate, or if you don’t accept the findings in our report, we may advise you to consider another form of dispute resolution. Bear in mind that your concerns were raised during the builder warranty period (first 2 years), so any action you take will need to be against the builder and not us.”
“You have the right to refer your complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS)…. Some aspects of our Resolution service do not form part of our insurance regulated services”

Indeed they do not as the FOS have confirmed to me:
“Generally during the first few years of the policy the cover they provide isn’t an insurance product. And isn’t something we can look in to. “We can’t investigate when NHBC are acting to mediate under their resolution service. But if the resolution report isn’t complied with (deadlines for work are missed for example) the insurance element kicks in and we can then investigate.”

Mortars of Mass Degradation – Prescribed or Design mix?

A “prescribed mix” is one where the mortar is made in pre determined proportions, the properties of which are assumed from the stated proportions (recipe concept). A “design mix” is a mortar whose composition and manufacturing method is chosen by the producer in order to achieve specified properties a compressive strength (Performance concept) The M number being the expected compressive strength in 28 days so an M4 design mix mortar should attain a strength of 4n/mm2. Mortars are given a designation ranging from (i) highest cement content to (iv) lowest under BS EN 1996-1-1.

Mortar manufacturers can now infer the mix proportions of their mortar from compressive strength. BS EN 998-2 states the relationship between compressive strength and mix proportions for a limited range of strengths and mortar compositions in Table 2.

“Whichever type of mortar, in terms of its constituent materials, is chosen, its durability will be enhanced
as the cement content is increased”
BDA

NHBC “leading mortar expert” Barry Haseltine (85)

When a buyer makes a claim under the NHBC warranty eventually the NHBC normally dispatch their “leading mortar expert” Barry Haseltine (85) to the home. Having seen more than one of his reports, I was surprised by the similarity, with identical ‘cut and paste’ paragraphs, despite being at opposite ends of the country, different housebuilders, different mortar suppliers and different mix analysis results. Haseltine alludes to the fact that the mix proportions in the NHBC Standards mix are “a recommendation” and have not been revised since the use of factory produced ‘design’ mortar, covered by BS EN 998-2 in 2010, became more widespread. Haseltine also stated in letters and reports:
 “an M4 design mortar is the same as a 1 : 5-6 cement : sand mix.“

“an average batch volume proportion of 1:7.4 from which it is indicated that the mortar can be taken to agree with the designed mix and so there can be no complaint about it”

Yet in this case, of the 18 samples tested, by five different UKAS accredited testing laboratories, ranged from a best 1:7 to worst 1:9.6. In addition, the mix proportions from the manufacturer’s batch records fall well below the “guidance” mix table in NHBC Standards for M4 mortar, that would be deemed to meet Performance standard 6.1.14 and in turn, the NHBC mandatory Technical Requirements R2 and especially R3. When confronted by indisputable multiple evidence of insufficient cement.
Haseltine says:
it was very common for laboratories not to reach the same results as others. Although I am not a chemist, I believe it is not possible to find more soluble silica, the basis for cement content, than is there but it is possible not to find all that is there.”

“A cement content of 8.5% equates to a volume mix of 1: 9.3; looking at all the test results in my table… I conclude that the mortar mix can be considered to be a designation (iv) on the basis of mix proportions, one must remember that this mortar was a designed M4 mix so mix proportions are not a valid means of checking compliance”

A designation (iv) being a mix ratio of 1:7, equivalent to M2. The cement : sand ratio of 1: 9.3 is even weaker than this and in any case is not the designed M4, designation (iii) required and specified!

No samples were tested from mortar supplied to the site so there cannot be any allegation that the strength of the mortar that was supplied was incorrect. Factory Product Control (FCP) tests do not have to be related to any particular delivery of mortar”

“I would recommend M6 mortar for the repointing”

M6 is 1 : 3-4 cement : sand that is a minimum 25% cement content by volume. This for a new home constructed with mortar proven by laboratory testing, to have just 13% cement content.

Incorrect mortar specified at the design stage

Severe exposure areasThe mortar specified at the outset is often not as required by warranty standards for the level of exposure on certain developments. In geographical areas with ‘very severe’ and ‘severe’ exposure, new homes should be built using a mortar as designation (ii) – M6 which is an equivalent mix of 1:3 to 1:4 cement : sand. The Brick Development Association and Ibstock go further stating that in these areas, the cement used should be sulfate resisting cement (SRC). So mortar required to be M6 due to exposure, when M4 has been specified and used, clearly does not meet the NHBC mandatory technical requirements R2 or R3.

Insufficient cement

It is well known that the greater the cement content, the stronger the compressive strength of the mortar will be. It is relatively simple to take mortar samples from a wall and have them analysed in a laboratory. In most cases when buyers report crumbling mortar, these have proved the mortar has far less cement than is stated in NHBC warranty standards and in Table 2 found in the National Annex provided in BS EN 998-2:2010. In one case, laboratory analysis of samples found the mortar had just 36% of the cement (1:11) required in an area with severe exposure (1:4).

Testing weak mortar

There is no agreed UK or European Standard test method available for assessing the quality of questionable mortar, in-situ. However, when mortar samples have been taken and in one instance analysed by three accredited test houses they were found to contain far less cement (being in the range 1:7.5 to 1:10.5) than that required of a prescribed class (iii) mortar and has been classified as class range (iv) to (v). This casts doubt on the bond of wall ties that require a minimum of class (iv) mortar.

“Once mortar deteriorates it will compromise the
rest
of the brickwork.” BDA

Wall Ties

A weak mix mortar as opposed to say a purely durability issue due to weathering, can have serious structural implications. (The NHBC tend to use the word “erosion” specifically excluded under the Buildmark warranty) In any mortar proved by laboratory analysis to be a mix with a cement content of less than 16% (1:6 – designation (iii) M4), the bond to the wall ties should be considered as inadequate, meaning the brickwork outer wall could potentially fall away from the house in severe stormy weather.

The NHBC’s go-to “mortar expert” concludes the request for testing using a screw pull-out test which records the helical wall tie pull-out force from a 20mm to 30mm depth, 6mm diameter hole within mortar, is “unwarranted”. He says “the results would be very dubious” due to vibration, concluding: “the wall ties are entirely adequate and no work is required to justify them.” but fails to grasp it is the integrity of the actual composite cavity wall that has been compromised by weak mortar, creating an inadequate bond with the wall ties, not the strength the actual wall ties. He appears to completely overlook that it is the performance of the overall structure in adverse weather conditions, especially in severe and very severe exposure areas, that has the potential of structural collapse and in the worst case, even loss of life. Furthermore an unconnected report by Tarmac regarding weak mortar in a Persimmon home stated we are concerned about the fixity of the cavity ties into the outer leaf, which if not suitable will result in the cavity masonry wall mot acting as a composite structure when considering lateral wind loading. A 100mm thick brick single skin wall will be structurally inadequate when enduring high wind loading”

Erosion

The NHBC and their resident mortar expert make frequent use to the term “erosion” in letters to homeowners and reports. Could it be because erosion is not covered by the NHBC Buildmark warranty; “mortar erosion which does not impair the structural stability or protection from the weather” is specifically excluded. So in years 3 to 10, if the matter has not been addressed by the housebuilder, the NHBC can reject a claim and say it was caused by erosion.
Mortar Erosion not covered by NHBC Buildmark Warranty
Cement substitutes:
Ground Granulated Blast furnace Slag (GGBS) and Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA)
GGBS is a by-product from the production of iron. PFA is a by-product of burning pulverised coal in power stations. GGBS hydration mechanism is more complex and the rate of strength development is slower than that of Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC). Graham True of GFT Materials Consultancy says in his excellent article “What is happening to masonry mortar” that National Annex NA1 guidance based on best UK practice, including limitations on the use of replacing traditional OPC with GGBS or PFA ash, is restricted to specific levels namely 6–35%. One mortar supplier has stated that the National Annex guidance in BS EN 998-2 is just that – ‘guidance’ not ‘mandatory’ – and therefore can be ignored! Graham says: ”On investigation it transpires that GGBS additions are being incorporated at levels well above the recommended limits of 35%, up to 50% and more, of the total cementitious content.”

Even Barry Haseltine, the NHBC’s go-to 85-year old “mortar expert” acknowledged in at least one of his many reports that: “For the last 20 years or so, cement has become a complicated subject compared with the relative simplicity that existed when we had Ordinary Portland Cement and a small number of specialist mixtures for example masonry cement. It is a regrettable fact that mortar has become a potential problem with regard to durability in recent years, probably linked to the use of cements that have considerable proportions of additions which reduce the active cement in the mixes.”

Graham True says: “There has been, and probably will continue to be, issues related to the performance specification of mortar since it currently differs fundamentally from past UK practice but in addition so does the incorporation of high levels of cement replacements, in particular GGBS

Sulfate attack

It is well known that where there is a high risk of saturation and in [very severe/severe] exposed areas, even with an M6 design mix, sulphate resisting cement should be used. Simply put, sulfate attack encompasses a series of chemical and physical interactions that occur between hardened cement paste and sulfates. The soluble sulfate salts within a high proportion of clay bricks react with a constituent (Tricalcium Aluminate) of the Ordinary Portland Cement within the mortar forming calcium Sulfoaluminate (Ettringite). So when sulfate present in bricks is dissolved due to driving rain and saturates brickwork in severe exposed areas, the sulphates present will cause mortar to degrade. For anyone interested in the chemistry.

Importantly for new homeowners with failing mortar, the normal 25mm rake out and repointing with M6 mortar will not have any lasting longevity if sulfates are present in the bricks. In investigations by Tarmac which supplied mortar to Persimmon site in Leeds found “sulfate levels higher than would be normally expected” believing that “the mortar has been subject to sulphate attack and cement degradation over a long period” However, it should be noted that it is in the mortar supplier’s own best interests to find alternative explanations to failing mortar other than incorrect mix proportions.

Use of Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)“Gagging orders”

Weak mortar is the housebuilding industry’s dirty secret and it is doing everything it can to ensure it is kept quiet. It has become almost standard operating procedure for housebuilders and warranty providers to require the homeowner to sign a legally-binding non-disclosure agreement (NDA) also referred to as a ‘gagging order’ as part of any compensation settlement, especially when buying the home in question. One buyer on a Taylor Wimpey estate in Peebles Scotland tells me: “over the course of the following few years, houses started to empty with folk just literally disappearing overnight – Taylor Wimpey were buying back houses, probably around 10-12 houses but it was still being kept hushed up.
A plc housebuilder's 'Gagging Order'People were signing gagging orders and therefore kept quiet. Taylor Wimpey sent out letters saying there were a few houses that had mortar issues and scaffolding was to be erected for repair works but not to be alarmed as they were isolated cases.”

I am also aware that the NHBC often require buyers to sign NDA’s perhaps because the last thing either housebuilders or the NHBC need is everyone on the development becoming aware of weak mortar issues in their home and making a similar claim. The Home Builders Federation chief Stewart Baseley said on BBC national radio
I’m a great believer in transparency”  yet the industry he represents, promotes and defends, is anything but transparent.

New homebuyers with weak mortar tell me:

“The NHBC Resolution Service and recommendations are unregulated and totally outside the Financial Ombudsman’s jurisdiction making it open for abuse and for the NHBC to look after their direct customer, their housebuilder registered members.  It seems all the NHBC need to do is actually offer their Resolution Service in the first two years but they then have an open book to recommend whatever they want as we all know.” (e mail)

“The NHBC Consumer Affairs Manager made claims which contradicted their own findings report and they also went on to say that my mortar tests were meaningless and that the Mortar M classification rating system is only a guidance, and that BS EN 1996-1-1 Eurocode 6 can be ignored.” (Social media)

Yet the NHBC standards clearly state that the builder must comply with “relevant standards” this includes BS EN 1996-1-1 Eurocode 6 states: 3.2.2 Specification of masonry mortar (1) Mortars should be classified by their compressive strength, expressed as the 1etter M followed by the compressive strength in N/n1m2, for example, M5. Prescribed masonry m0rtars, in addition to the M number, will be described by their prescribed constituents, e. g. 1: 1: 5 cement: lime: sand by volume. 

NHBC have known about weak mortar issues for many years

NHBC Technical Newsletter July 2000 Issue 20
The consequences of getting it wrong are well known to NHBC. At the least it may mean raking out all joints and repointing and at worst it can be removing the outer leaf and rebuilding. The problem is that too little cement is added to the mix to ensure that the strength is achieved and, perhaps more importantly, the hardened mortar is durable.”

“Take appropriate action to ensure that the right mortar mix is used. The consequences of not doing so are costly and can easily be avoided. NHBC inspection staff will be looking at mortar more closely and may take samples for analysis where they believe the mortar is not up to strength.”

NHBC- "Low strength factory mortar"

NHBC Technical Extra September 2013 Issue 11

So why have warranty standards not been revised to reduce the likelihood of failing mortar in new homes?

Why have cement replacement materials such as GGBS not been banned in masonry mortar? Especially as the reduced cement (OPC) is more vulnerable to attack from sulphates in bricks.

Why have the NHBC Standards not been revised to include BS EN 998-2 2010 for factory supplied “design mixes” and requiring testing of site mortar samples by housebuilders to ensure compliance? 

Opinion

This industry must recognise the threat to UK homes posed by failing mortar. It must not be deliberately hidden, with homeowners that do reach agreement being legally silenced by NDAs. If Toyota can issue multiple recalls to around 7.43million car owners worldwide, surely the housebuilding industry has a duty to be open about weak mortar in new homes. This issue isn’t going away. Tens of thousands of new homes could, and in all probability do, have weak mortar. Many more are currently being built. As Jo Churchill MP for Bury St Edmonds said in the House of Commons debate on poor quality new homes:“…the repointing of joints on walls where purposeful demolition and reconstruction should have happened”

Nevertheless, “repointing to a depth of 25mm” is deemed by the NHBC as the industry’s normal practise where repointing works are required”  This, even when independent laboratory tests prove the cement content of factory-made design mix mortar is well below that required to achieve the durability, weatherproofing and structural performance required and when it is highly likely not to have “a life of 60 years” a definition of compliance with NHBC mandatory Technical Requirement R3

It is in my opinion inconceivable, that the NHBC’s “leading mortar expert” is not acting for and in the NHBC’s best interests, to limit the potential cost of weak mortar claims by understating and dismissing clear factual evidence of inadequate cement content in failing, independently tested, mortar samples. His repeated opinion and reliance is on the single fact that a ‘design mix’ need not meet the listed mix proportions solely on the basis that it is not a ‘prescribed mix’ and mix proportions cannot therefore be used to judge compliance with masonry codes and has no scientific basis of suitability or performance justification whatsoever.

The NHBC themselves do not cover themselves in glory either by making assumptions and dismissive statements in their letters to homeowners whose homes in some cases, are clearly and quite literally, disintegrating. Opinions are not fact. New homeowners that have homes built with mortar with insufficient cement content that is crumbling is an undisputable fact. The best they can hope repointing, without any investigations into the mortar bond strength with wall ties, the use of cement replacement such as GGBS or possible sulphate attack.

Unfortunately, this is an industry that runs roughshod over the interests of new homebuyers, fobbing them off with questionable expert opinions and interpretations, whilst hiding behind NDAs. Perhaps James Brokenshire’s  recent announcement of statutory New Homes Ombudsman will force  change.

Conclusion

Given the cost, disruption to homeowners and potential further reputational damage in this already tainted industry, you would expect that warranty providers would be updating their standards to reflect the now widespread use of factory produced mortar and covered by BS EN 998-2. If housebuilders persist in their apparent preference for design mix factory mortar, they must be required to take mortar samples during construction for their own independent testing, rather than relying on the manufacturer’s in-house test results.

Graham True told me: “I just do not know why the house builders can’t use the correct mortar. The cost difference is minimal. They should be made to use a Prescribed Mix since the Design Mixes fail.”
I totally agree.

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Micro Homes – Smaller Than A Hotel Room

Welcome to ‘rabbit hutch’ Britain as Government gives the green ight to even smaller micro homes

“Ridiculous” – “immoral” – “dog kennels” – “shoe boxes” – “rabbit hutches” These are just some of the words local residents have used to describe Britain’s micro homes – Government-endorsed “favelas in the sky.”

It would appear the Government is intent on cramming an ever increasing number of ‘hard working British people’ into ever smaller areas and living spaces. Evidence of this provided by the Housing White Paper, with its proposal to review the guidance on minimum sizes for new homes, despite the “nationally described space standard” only being in force since October 2015.

The Government proposes to amend the National Planning Policy Framework to make it clear that plans and individual development proposals should:

  • make efficient use of land and avoid building homes at low densities where there is a shortage of land for meeting identified housing requirements;
  • address the particular scope for higher-density housing in urban locations”

We also want to make sure the standards do not rule out new approaches to meeting demand, building on the high quality compact living model of developers such as Pocket Homes

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Fitting carbon monoxide alarms in new homes should be mandatory

Carbon Monoxide Alarms

The fitting of carbon monoxide alarms in new homes should be a mandatory requirement of the Building Regulations in England and Wales.  It may come as a surprise to learn that every year over 4,000 people are admitted to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning that could lead to brain damage and strokes – with 40 fatalities recorded in England and Wales. One in nine British homes have boilers classified as unsafe.

The new home defect that kills

You can’t see it, you can’t smell it. Carbon Monoxide – the new home defect that kills!

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the equivalent to the building regulations, requires a BS EN 50291 kite-marked carbon monoxide alarm to be fitted when any new or replacement fuel appliance is installed (except cookers). This covers any fuel burning appliance, including those that burn gas, oil, coal and wood. The alarms must be fitted in any room with the appliance or if it is an enclosed boiler, just outside the enclosure and any room that has a flue running through it. Alarms can be mains or battery powered but if the alarm is battery powered then the battery should last for the life of the alarm.

No requirement in England and Wales:
But the Building Regulations for England and Wales, Approved Document J, only require carbon monoxide alarms to be fitted when any new or replacement solid-fuel appliance is installed. Examples of solid fuel burning appliances being wood burners, open fires etc. There is also additional legislation requiring a carbon monoxide alarms to be fitted in all rented residential accommodation with gas appliances, but not in owner-occupied homes.

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NHBC hand millions in cash-backs to housebuilders

The NHBC has come into justifiable criticism in the national press recently. The NHBC provides warranties for around 80% of new homes built in any given year. Last year its accounts show it spent £90 million fixing 11,000 defective new homes. What is not listed is the total number of claims the NHBC rejected because the estimated cost of remedial work was judged (by the NHBC) to be less than their ‘minimum claim value’, currently £1,550. So unless buyer’s homes need costly repairs, their warranty claims are often rejected.

The NHBC state on their website:

“Our purpose is to work with the house-building industry to raise the standards of new homes and to provide protection for homebuyers in the form of Buildmark warranty and insurance. We are an independent, non-profit distributing company limited by guarantee – neither part of government, nor a charity. Our business is run by the Board of Directors with surpluses being re-invested in the improvement and development of our products and services.”

The standard of UK new homes is at its lowest since 2009 according to the results of the NHBC’s own Customer Satisfaction Survey!  So it might come as surprise to learn that in yesterday’s Guardian, Graham Ruddick reported that the NHBC has been paying around £10m-£15m every year to housebuilders in what he describes “is effectively a profit-share agreement.”

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Government push to build prefabs to meet its housing target

Prefab Sprout! Flat pack new homes – no Allen keys required! But will  prefabs be the answer to Britain’s housing crisis?

As reported in The Telegraph last Saturday, the government is to embark on a building programme to “embrace the first new generation of pre-packed homes since the reconstruction after the Second World War.” prefab-post-warBy using prefabricated homes that can be delivered to site and built [thrown up] in 48 hours. While the Department for Communities and Local Government [DCLG] is not expected to set a hard target, (one lesson learned at least!) government sources said it was hoped that more than 100,000 prefabs could be built by May 2020 – around 2,500 a month.  Theresa May’s Government is struggling to work out how to meet a commitment to build a million new homes by 2020.

Clearly the large housebuilders, supported in every respect by this and previous government policy, have failed to deliver any meaningful and desired increase in production – even now, they are building fewer new homes than were built in 2007. Profiteering from landbanking? – Channel 4 Dispatches ‘Britain’s Homebuilding Scandal’ due to be aired on Monday 7 November 2016 will no doubt highlight this.

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Annual Report 2015/16 – Consumer Code for Home Builders

The first  Annual Report by the Consumer Code for Home Builders since April 2014, was finally published this month.

In May 2014, I asked the question, Is the Consumer Code for Home Builders (CCHB) fit for purpose? In March this year I wrote that the Consumer Code for Home Builders is failing new homebuyers. This voluntary code was launched in April 2010 and has been inadequate and failing new homebuyers ever since.

In July, a report published by the APPG Inquiry Into Quality of New Homes found that:

  • “The Code [Consumer Code for Home Builders] does not appear to give homebuyers the safeguards we think they should expect.
  • It does not appear to us objectively to offer consumers a wholly satisfactory form of redress.
  • The Consumer Code for Homebuilders is limited in its scope.”
APPG Inquiry Report Publication 13 July 2016

APPG Inquiry recognises a government-appointed New Homes Ombudsman should be set up.

The APPG Inquiry “Key recommendation” is the setting up of a government-appointed New Homes Ombudsman.  It said that the Ombudsman:  would need to be completely independent and replace the dispute resolution service offered as part of the Consumer Code for Home Builders.”

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