§ 11.6 a.m.
§ Mr. H. Rhodes (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I beg to move,
That this House, recognising the need to protect house purchasers from jerry-building, poor materials and bad workmanship, congratulates the National House-Builders Registration Council on its efforts to obtain high standards in the building trade by voluntary agreement, but believes that legislation should now be considered to ensure that all house builders conform to accepted standards and specifications, and insure against contingencies.
I bring this subject before the House because of the petition which has been brought to me by 138 householders in the town of Ashton-under-Lyne, living on the Everest and Cranbourne estates, who have been and are faced with heavy loss due to faulty materials used in the construction of the houses which they have bought.
In personal justification, and with modesty, may I claim just a little experience in building, in that during the course of my career I have been instrumental in building over 80,000 sq. ft. of factory floor space and several houses. The current edition of Good Practice in Building, published by the Ministry of Works, has three references with illustrations to the standard of building that I have put into operation.
The houses that I am talking about were built in the period 1955 to 1959. They were built on a sloping site and filling was necessary, colliery shale being used for the purpose. The builder of these houses was warned by the borough surveyor about its use and his attention was drawn to the Building Research Station Digest, No 84, dated January, 1956, which sets out in explicit terms information about this material. For the purpose of publicity, and so that it will prevent other people from doing the same thing, I propose to draw attention to it.
This digest, dated January, 1956, states:Several cases of damage to concrete solid ground floors of houses have recently been brought to the notice of the Station. The damage has taken the form of cracking and heaving of the concrete floor to an extent that makes it impossible to open or close doors; in some houses lateral expansion of the concrete has caused outward movement at the base of the external walls. The cause has 713 been traced to the use of colliery shale as a filling or hardcore under the concrete.It goes on to explain what should be done.
As no reply to the warning was forthcoming, the borough surveyor gave two further warnings, but the materials were still used. In addition, the occupiers said that they could prove that instead of going down to the clay, as shown on the plans, the inside walls were built on a concrete raft and in consequence were affected by the buckling of the floors. After going through the preliminary stages of cutting bits off the bottoms of doors and adjusting table legs and shifting furniture to the sides of rooms, the whole thing boiled up earlier this year when the householders realised that drastic action was needed to put the matter right.
Naturally, they consulted the person who had built that property. At the time the property was built he had created chief rents to the extent of £10 per house, which he had promptly sold, and they have not been able to obtain any satisfaction from him. They next consulted the building societies. Most of the householders had bought their houses with money advanced by the building societies who sent a staff surveyor to take samples of the material. The material was analysed and I cannot do better than read an extract from a letter from a building society which illustrates the sort of attitude which the building societies took to the job at that stage. This is to Account A956 which is common to the estate. The letter says:In the hall, the floor surface between the front door and the kitchen has bulged to form a ridge which has caused the staircase to lift along its outer edge. In the lounge, dining room and kitchen the floor surfaces are badly bulged. Over the kitchen window and the side door settlement fractures are patent.It has been ascertained that this bulging is due to chemical activity producing a swelling in the filling material underneath the floors. As this chemical activity is known to be increasing, you will appreciate that unless the position is corrected soon, the bulging in the floor surfaces will become more pronounced, the internal walls will move, and it will be only a question of time before these defects will affect the whole structure seriously and will have also a marked adverse effect on the value of the property.The letter goes on to say what should be done.
714 The borough surveyor, the Building Research station and the society's surveyors produced a specification of work. The letter goes on:Three local builders are prepared to carry out the work at costs ranging from £435 to £460 assuming that the central pier envisaged in the specification will contain brickwork to a depth of 5 ft. below the suffit of the steel beam. Such work would be supervised"—supervised at this juncture—of course, by the Society's Surveyors. It should be appreciated, however, that after structural work has been completed, other work may be necessary to make good disturbed fixtures, pipes, conduits and decorations.The letter goes on to say that the building societies would advance the money.If necessary, such further advance could also include the Surveyors' fees for supervising the work equivalent to 9 per cent. of the builder's price, together with the Society's Solicitors' charges in connection with the Deed of Further Charge…The Further Advance would be added to the balance outstanding on your mortgage account, and the total mortgage debt would then be re-arranged over any period up to 25 years, depending on your requirements.So the letter goes on.
In some cases the householders asked builders to do the job for them. In others, they started taking up the floors and excavating; then getting craftsmen in to do the skilled jobs. On one Saturday afternoon, I looked into a pit which a householder was digging and which was 8 ft. deep. In the sardonic way in which some Lancashire people talk, he said, "I have paid a lot of money in my time for colliery shale sent to me by the Coal Board, but this is the first time I have dug any myself, and it is going to cost me £500." It does not need much imagination to appreciate the misery, physical as well as mental, these people have endured.
When this case began, I gave the Parliamentary Secretary photographs of the situation of these poor householders. With his usual courtesy, he has looked at them and sympathised about them. They are available for anybody to see. This is a little visual training for anybody who does not know anything about the subject.
Most of these householders who took on these commitments to buy their own houses did so on very finely balanced household budgets with the expectation that after 20 years they would have an asset, a house of their own, which would be a bulwark in their retirement. But instead of 20 years they are now com- 715 mitted for 25 years. One of them said that it would set him back ten years and that in his case he would be paying into the second year of his retirement. What a prospect for hard-working, thrifty, house-proud folk who have been subjected to the trouble through no fault of their own.
In most cases the purchase of a house by people like this is the only real business transaction which they undertake in the course of their lives. They assume that in some way they are protected and that because the building society has advanced perhaps 80 per cent. of the cost of the house and because the local authority has byelaws, they are somehow covered and will not be let down. They now know full well from bitter experience that that is not so.
I have begun my case for the consideration of legislation with an illustration of a problem with which I have now been dealing for several months, but it is not an isolated case. This sort of thing can be multiplied all over the country. Since my Motion first appeared on the Order Paper, I have had sheaves of letters from all over the country bitterly complaining about substandard workmanship, builders going bankrupt, plumbing, leaky roofs and so on. This morning my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones) handed me a letter from one of his constituents which says:I am writing with the hope that you might restore the faith I hitherto had in British justice, for after my recent experiences I feel there is no justice for a person with limited means.That is the sort of beginning to letters we all get from time to time. We discount some of the things written in letters of this type, but I assure hon. Members that if I read the whole of this letter they would see that this person was genuinely aggrieved. I shall spare the House by not reading the whole letter, but I hope hon. Members will take my word for it. From time to time in this last week I have had letters from all over the country.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)
I am interested in what the hon. Member is saying, but I was not quite clear, when he started citing cases of which he has photographs, whether the purchasers 716 had had independent architects or surveyors to look at their property, or if they had relied entirely on inspection by building societies. I should be grateful if he would explain that.
§ Mr. Rhodes
They had relied on the building society's and the builder's specification in the hope that they would be covered by the surveyor's inspection and the bye-laws. I shall come later in my speech to the proportion of builders of houses who employ architects.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) has on two occasions brought in a Bill under the Ten Minute Rule, dealing with this subject and has quoted cases from all over the country. I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that if he has the opportunity to catch your eye he will lay before the House cases which he has had in his postbag. He has a vast experience of this subject and has made two first-class attempts to bring it forward. What he has done has been very good, but the method of a Ten Minute Rule Bill is not very satisfactory. It is rather like the old custom of the Chinese who used to put on the dykeside unwanted female children and leave them to die from exposure.
I have mentioned the Building Research Station. I am sure that hon. Members will not fail to connect what I am now about to say with the terms of this Motion. Despite the money which the Government have poured into research for the building trade, very little of the information which comes from the Building Research Station ever gets down to the small builder. Take the case of the history of the material I have been talking about. The possibility of using colliery shale was explored as far back as 1949. The Building Research Station issued a pamphlet on the subject at that time, saying:Chemical analysis is advised to check the need for special precautions.That was a long time ago. Despite this warning, reports were received by the Building Research Station of the use of this material in St. Helens and Warwick in 1955. This provoked the station, which does first-class work, to issue a further warning in January 1956, in Digest No. 84, from which I have already quoted. The subject was referred to again in Digest No. 87 in April 717 1956, and yet again in Digest No. 97 of April 1957. Yet reports of trouble still pour into the Building Research Station after fourteen years.
The house building section of the building trade is a highly important section. This is not a small industry. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have agreed about the number of houses we should like to see built. We hear about 350,000, 400,000, 450,000 a year needing to be built for many years to come. That means a turnover of something like £1,000 million a year. This is no insignificant industry. Yet what the Building Research Station says is practically ignored and interest in it is very small indeed.
Instead of talking of what we intend to do in erecting houses, it is a good thing occasionally, such as on this occation, to spend a little time on what we should do about the quality of building. The Government spend £72,000 a year on the Building Research Station, but my examination of the D.S.I.R. accounts discloses no contribution from the trade. The only money the Research Station receives outside the income from the D.S.I.R. is by way of commissioned research projects from large firms, which very often are in a different class of building altogether, such as office or factory building. In the trade generally people are not research-minded.
I do not want to broaden the debate into an argument about research, but it seems high time that this trade was brought into line with other industries and that a levy was introduced to support the Building Research Station.
§ Mr. Philip N. Hocking (Coventry, South)
I know the hon. Member would wish to be completely fair. Is it not true that many of the firms which give commissions to the Research Station are manufacturers of materials? Do not the building trade employers make quite a large contribution to the funds? I have always understood that to be so.
§ Mr. Rhodes
No, my investigations into the accounts show that the only contributions the Building Research Station receives are from large firms, as the hon. Member says, and for investigations into materials or methods for which they pay. I think the hon. Member will find that there is no reference to subscriptions from any other source. If there is, I shall 718 readily apologise, but I have gone to some trouble in this matter and I think this is so.
The country has gradually become very conscious of the need for consumer protection of all sorts. In the last few years interest in the protection of the ordinary purchaser and consumer of durable goods has quickened. There is a semi-official body, the British Standards Institution, with its Kite mark. The Consumer Council journal has come into being because of public interest in this matter, and to ensure that purchasers are not fobbed off with shoddy goods. The Board of Trade, through the Merchandise Marks Act, can prosecute those who misrepresent their goods. Motor-car manufacturers, through pressure of public opinion, have had to change a warranty to a guarantee for twelve months in many cases. According to the Inland Revenue, in my experience that constitutes a fifth of a motor-car's life.
Compare that sort of guarantee with what the house purchaser has when he buys a house. We have the Retail Trading Standards Association. Quality marks are given by Courtaulds and others. Traders are increasingly conscious of the need in this country—to their credit—to get better quality into their goods. It counts in the export markets. Even places such as Hong Kong are taking an enormous interest in the quality of the goods they produce.
But very little has been done to protect the person who buys a house except by one Council, and that on a voluntary basis. I notice the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) in his place. The inquiries which I have made about this Council lead me back to the work, the genius, the altruism and the foresight of his father. He should be proud, and I am glad that he is here this morning to say a word on this subject, because I should have thought that it was in his bones.
The Council has been in operation for 27 years and has had to endure the opposition and very often the indifference of the trade, which has consistently refused to put its house in order despite the injunctions of the present Minister of Housing and Local Government. At the last employers' dinner the present 719 Minister went to town on this subject and told them that if they did not do something quickly, he would do something for them. I hope that there will be more forthright talk today from the Parliamentary Secretary. And yet we have known that this jerry building, with its terrible results, has been with us all the time.
I want to be quite fair to the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. Indeed, there is no point in trailing my coat at all this morning. The Federation has been most courteous. It has given me the information which I have wanted and has written to me in an open and straightforward fashion. On 5th December, it wrote to me as follows:We have been giving considerable thought recently on how to increase the number of builders registering although outside our control, and with this in view my Council agreed only last week the following resolution:That a working party, comprising representatives of the Government, of the national House-Builders Registration Council, the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and the Federation of Registered House-Builders be set up to study ways and means of bringing about adherence by all house builders building houses for sale to the principles of the present National House-Builders Registration Council's scheme, suitably strengthened as necessary.This working party will be meeting shortly and I can assure you that we have every intention of producing an answer to this somewhat difficult problem".This is more than a difficult problem. It is a tragedy for 138 householders in Ashton-under-Lyne. In many cases it means the ruin of their lives. Sometimes the cold-blooded mind of the Ministry can lead to more and more frustration. What we want in this case is a little bit of urgency, a little bit of feeling for people who do not seem to be able to turn anywhere for succour. I raised this with the Ministry, hoping that there would be a public inquiry, and I received all the assistance possible from the Ministry, but they finished their letter by saying, in effect, that the only recourse which these people had was to consult a solicitor. That is being done, and I will not pursue it.
What about registration? It seems to be agreed by people on both sides of the House, by the Employers' Federation, the workers, building societies, the Government and everybody who has an 720 interest in and is connected with the trade that there should be registration. Some people have made the proposal that registration should take place with the local authorities. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston holds this view. Personally, I do not hold it, and I will explain why. Last Tuesday I led a deputation of Lancashire and Cheshire M.P.s to the Ministry to show the Minister the difficulties which 21 local authorities in Lancashire and Cheshire were experiencing in the building of houses. Five themes ran through the difficulties; for every local authority they were the same. One of the five important points was the shortage of technical assistants and staff and the inability of the local authority to acquire any. My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) can corroborate that, I see no sense in loading the job of registration on to a local authority which is already understaffed and cannot cope with the job which it already has to do. I think that if teeth were given to the National House-Builders Registration Council some progress could be made soon.
It is interesting to see what this Council has been doing, is doing and is trying to do. I understand that since its inception it has issued 230,000 certificates. During this time 38 cases have been referred to arbitration and the sum involved in the way of liability to the Registration Council during the whole of this time has been only £900. This shows the value of registration and the responsibility which people take upon themselves when they go to the length of registering with the Registration Council. It shows how they are prepared to shoulder their obligations if faults are subsequently found in the structure of the housing.
The Council has on its register 1,700 house builders, an increase of 500—which is interesting—since my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston introduced his Ten Minute Rule Bill on 15th May 1962.
The 1,700 builders represent a proportion of the house building industry. I am not able to say what percentage it is. Some people have suggested the figure of 10,000 builders. Others say 3,000. I do not know. The Council has been instrumental in inspecting 50,000 houses in the last year, against 33,000 721 in the previous year. The total potential of private house building is 170,000 a year.
I come to the point now about architect-designed houses. Twenty-five per cent. of the purchasers of the 170,000 houses have their own architects to carry out examinations, inspections and quality control. This means that the Council is getting an increasing share of the remainder to supervise. This is building up but not fast enough.
I come to other services which the Council gives. Together with registration goes insurance. Insuring by the builder means that in the event of trouble—there are black sheep in every family—the insurance will take care of the liability that the house purchaser is likely to run into. I ask hon. Members to think of the difference in the mentality in my constituents if insurance had been taken out by the builder. He could have made a mistake. Anybody can make a mistake. However, in fairness to purchasers of this type of property, it is beholden on anybody who is to build houses to insure so that buyers will not be out on a limb, as my constituents are. Further, there would be as a matter of course dissemination of information down to the lowest level in the building trade. This could be brought into the general specification and the general rule which would apply in registration.
I appeal to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to do something about this urgently. My constituents are asking themselves what on earth they are going to do. The old lady who has just lost her husband through old war wounds has taken on a job which she knows full well she will not be able to carry through. She is looking round for somebody to buy the house. She is paying out money which she has had to borrow from kith and kin to make the house good so that she can sell it. Then out she goes—God knows where to. If there were one case in the country, it would be sufficient to justify legislation. But there are thousands of cases. It is time action was taken on the lines taken in my Motion, perhaps even stronger. I have couched my Motion in this way so that the Parliamentary Secretary can accept it and devote his speech to concentrating on the need for 722 such action, whilst at the same time bringing some encouragement to me, to those who have raised this problem before, and to the rest of the House who are interested in this great human problem.
§ 11.46 a.m.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) for the eloquence, clarity and feeling with which he has moved the Motion. I am very glad that he has taken the opportunity to raise this matter in the House, though I am naturally sorry for the constituency reasons which have, in part at any rate, motivated his action.
House purchase, as the hon. Gentleman said, is an extremely important matter in the lives of those who purchase a house. The hon. Gentleman described it as sometimes perhaps the sole business transaction in their lives. It is one of the most important transactions in their lives, yielding, however, to the still more important matter of the choice of a helpmate to share the house with. It is a very important matter. The hon. Gentleman touched both on the problem and on some of the things that are being done to try and deal with it.
I want to address myself for a few minutes to those matters. I start with a few words about the reason why there is this problem in regard to house purchase. The law, which in many respects has provided an increasing degree of protection for purchasers of goods of various categories, has never faced up to the special problem faced by purchasers of mass-produced houses. Purchasers of mass-produced houses fall into a sort of no-man's land, on the one hand lacking the protection that is obtained by the person who, wanting a house, is able to order a new house specifically to be built for him, and on the other hand lacking the statutory protection which the law, primarily through the agency of the Sale of Goods Act, has provided for the purchaser of goods and chattels. The purchaser of a mass-produced house lacks these forms of protection and is still treated by the law on the principle of caveat emptor, with the added complication that few buyers can be in a less good position to detect latent defects in the subject matter of their purchase 723 than the average purchaser of house property.
The person who is in the happy position of being able, if wanting a house, to give instructions for one to be made to order has varied protections. He has, first, the protection of the supervision of the design and work by an architect of his own choosing and nomination. It is the architect's business to see that he gets a house free from defect, and he may be liable in an action for professional negligence if he does not carry out that duty properly. Secondly, he has the protection of the individual contract with the builder, which binds the builder to follow the specification of the architect and to do the work to the reasonable satisfaction of the architect. If the builder fails in his duty he is liable in an action for damages for breach of contract.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
And, under the R.I.B.A. contract, has he not a 12 months' guarantee of the work?
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith
I was coming to that. I was about to say that, thirdly, he has in the R.I.B.A. standard form of building contract what is called a defects liability clause, which gives him protection against defects arising during a period specified in the contract which he has signed.
Those three things taken together add up to a considerable protection, but they are, in the nature of things, a protection for the favoured few, because the house made to measure is, I suppose, not really much more common than the suit made to measure as distinct from the ready-made garment. That sort of protection, which obviously cannot be translated into the circumstances of mass-produced houses, is not available for the majority of cases or for the type of transaction with which we are dealing today.
I turn to the sort of protection which is enjoyed by the purchaser of goods and chattels. While the Sale of Goods Act does not give any general implied warranty of quality, it does something in respect of goods that is not done in respect of the sale of houses. It distinguishes between a transaction where the seller is an ordinary individual and where he is a trader.
724 Where the buyer of goods relies on the skill or experience of the seller, the law implies a warranty of fitness for the purposes for which the goods are required. Where the goods are bought from a dealer setting up to trade in that particular line of goods, the law implies that they will be of what is called merchantable quality. That does not apply in the sale of houses, because the law treats that as if both parties were ordinary people. If the same principle applied as in the Sale of Goods Act, both these warranties would operate for houses. They would have to be fit for the purpose of living, because the purchaser relies on the builder-vendor for his skill; and there would also be an implied warranty of the equivalent of merchantable quality because the builder sets up to deal in houses. In fact, the law gives no such safeguard. The position was well summarised in a decision of the Court of Appeal, which said:Quite clearly there is no implied undertaking by the Vendor as to the fitness of the house or its condition. In such circumstances, the maxim caveat emptor dearly applies to the full when the purchaser inspects the house by himself or by his surveyor and makes up his mind as to its condition and fitness for occupation.We get the position, from the point of view of the basic law, that there is a gap in the law regarding protection for the purchaser of a mass-produced house. Where one gets a gap in the law one always gets some people, albeit generally a small minority, who are ready, anxious and able to take advantage of it.
That is what happened during the days of the house building boom in the inter-war years. The great majority of houses built in this mass-produced way at that time were not only cheap and good value but were soundly constructed. However, there was a small minority element who built what has been estimated to be about 3 per cent. of bad, jerry-built houses. Although 3 per cent. is a small proportion of the whole, it is a very significant number when translated in terms of bad houses in which people must live. That was a matter which naturally attracted attention and gave rise to a good deal of disquiet among those who had the standards and good repute of the building industry at heart and who did not want to see people badly housed when there was no need for it.
725 Those are really the circumstances which brought about the establishment of the National House-Builders' Registration Council, to which the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne has referred and of which he has given a description. My father was one of the pioneers of this organisation and in his ninetieth year he is still an active vice-president. I am sincerely grateful to the hon. Member for his kind references to him, which I very much appreciate.
The Council is staffed, accommodated and administered by what is known as the Housing Improvement Association, a non-profit-making company, limited by guarantee, with an Order by the Minister under Section 5 of the Building Societies Act, 1939. It operates on the basis of the registration of house builders who are prepared to accept its standards, disciplines and a system of certification whereby a house builder is entitled to a certificate if the house is built in accordance with the standards of the Council. Those standards are ensured by inspection, by the expert staff of the Council, and by a standard specification. There is an agreement whereby the builder, in the case of defects reported within two years and due to non-compliance with those standards, makes good for the purchaser. The result is that the purchaser gets at no cost to himself as good protection, in some ways better, as the purchaser of the bespoke house gets at considerable expense by employing his own architect and having an individual contract with a builder.
The progress of the Council over the years has been good, though necessarily uneven, because it reflects the uneven characteristics of the period of the lifetime of the Council. It started shortly before the war, got off to a good start, was inoperative during the war and for some years thereafter was not able to make much progress for obvious reasons. There was, first, considerable restriction on private enterprise house building and, secondly, such houses as were built were in such great demand that it was a very striking case of a sellers' market and not one in which the Council could make as much progress as one would have wished. Since 1956 there has been very rapid progress, resulting in the figures which the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne gave. Indeed, of the 230,000 certificates of 726 which he speaks about 215,000 have been issued since 1956. Overall, there have been only about 6 complaints per 1,000 houses, mostly of a very trivial nature and immediately rectified by the builder, and of serious complaints only the 39 arbitration cases to which the hon. Member referred.
The hon. Member pointed out that these matters are rectified and that there is an insurance policy in force. He gave the phenomenally low figure of insurance liability which has arisen with regard to defects. It is perhaps worth noting that when the premium was fixed in pre-war years it was fixed at 6s. per house and now, when inflation has quadrupled the cost of a house, the premium has been cut to one-half of the original figure. This is striking evidence of the very little amount of defect amongst house-builders who accept the obligations of the registration scheme.
§ Mr. Rhodes
Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman also make clear that the £900 was the liability of the Registration Council after the builders had had an opportunity to put right the other defects in dispute?
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith
I am much obliged to the hon. Member. As far as the Council is concerned it is, so to speak, a residual liability after the builders have had the opportunity themselves to remedy the defects.
I submit, in summary, that these figures and this progress are a striking success story and they show the high standards of domestic building by those operating within the scheme. Where there are defects in house-building today it can therefore reasonably be assumed that they exist in the sector outside the scheme and possibly only in very small elements of the non-registered sector. But having regard to the facts and figures I should think that all trouble could be eliminated if the scheme of the National House-Builders Registration Council could become universal in its application.
The real problem now, therefore, is that, having got the scheme operating over 40 per cent. of the potential—that is 40 per cent. of houses privately built without the superintendence of an architect nominated by the purchaser— 727 the problem is how to extend it to the other 60 per cent. Can it be done voluntarily, or will some method of compulsion be necessary? I say straight away that this has been a voluntary movement and it would be preferable if what has been begun voluntarily can be completed voluntarily. But if that should turn out not to be so and sufficient progress cannot be made, or made fast enough, there is no philosophic reason, as I see it, why a scheme such as this should not be made mandatory.
After all, compulsory standards and codes are the commonplace of professions. All professions submit to registration and to a compulsory code of standards, and though rather different considerations no doubt apply in the case of an industry from those of a profession I see basically no reason why the same principle should be rejected in the case of an industry if the requirements of the protection of the purchaser demand it.
We therefore now get to the question whether evangelisation and consumer insistence can make sufficiently rapid progress with the spread of the Council's registration scheme to absorb the remaining 60 per cent. in a reasonable space of time. I hope that they will; but I think that there is a case for the Minister to institute such inquiry as he can, as soon as he can, to see whether the answer looks to him to be that there are sufficient prospects of voluntary completion of this work or whether he should have to have regard to the possibilities of compulsory registration. Whichever way the answer lies, I very much agree with the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne that registration in the future should take this form and not be added to the already over-burdened local authorities.
There is now long experience in this field for the workings of the Registration Council, and I would submit that the future lies with it, either on a voluntary basis or on a more compulsory basis if circumstances should so require. There is no need for any new machinery, because we have here machinery which has been well tried and which has achieved a substantial success and holds out signal promise for the future.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
Would my right hon. and learned Friend be kind enough to tell me whether he considers that a persistently smoking chimney in a newly-completed house would be of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the Registration Council and to require remedy by it?
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith
Yes, but I think that the illustration my hon. Friend takes is a matter which would also be dealt with by byelaws. There is of course machinery for byelaw approval which eliminates some defects, but it does not go far enough and it is with the latent defects in the structure that we are more particularly concerned here.
§ 12.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Edwards (Bilston)
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Motion and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) on his good fortune in having been No. 1 out of the hat in the Ballot, on selecting such a vitally important subject, and on the excellent contribution which he made to the House today in a very human and constructive speech indeed. My hon. Friend has enabled us to debate the subject constructively, without going into all the background reasons, why something should be done quickly to halt what I consider is the rising tide of jerry-building and substandard building.
My hon. Friend, quite rightly, emphasised the view that this was not a problem for the registration of building firms by local authorities, but on this issue I must beg to differ with him and with the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith),who spoke so eloquently on the subject. There are district surveyors in the L.C.C. area and I discovered in all my inquiries into sub-standard building that in the area covered by the L.C.C. jerry-building hardly exists because of the machinery of the district surveyors.
I also discovered that there is little sub-standard jerry-building in Scotland, because, there again, the local authorities have power through a very similar system to inspect the building of houses at every stage and have some power to condemn the material that goes into the building of the houses.
729 If the contention that there is very little substandard building throughout Scotland and throughout the area covered by the L.C.C. is correct, as I believe it is—perhaps the Minister will deal with this point later—then here we have a clear solution to the problem—more power to the local authorities. The whole tendency in this country unfortunately—because I am against bigness and monopoly and remote control—is to create larger local authorities. We are moving towards the creation of county boroughs, which will have increased resources and facilities for doing the additional work which is absolutely necessary if the houses of the future are to be fit for people to live in and we are to relieve so many thousands of young people who are purchasing houses today from their dreadful anxieties.
Every house-building firm should be registered with its nearest local authority. Local authorities should have the power to inspect all new house building for private purchase at every stage of construction. They should have the same powers as they now possess over their own municipal building. This seems to me to be a reasonable request. It is necessary because a builder who has consistently been responsible for substandard building would have his registration withdrawn or he would not be allowed to reregister. This, in one stroke, would compel the building industry to put its own house in order. I would bring in to this registration the National House-Builders Registration Council. I would ask for its active co-operation, and I would apply its standard as a minimum standard for the house costing under £3,000.
I would also compel every house builder to take out insurance against bankruptcy. Builders could do this through their own industry, as is done by the Law Society and the medical profession, Preferably, it could be done through the industry. Firms of repute would not be asked to do this because their standing and their record would prove that they could meet their responsibilities.
This is not a question which affects merely a few hundred people; the problem of substandard jerry-building affects thousands of young families and retired people. Young people making the biggest purchase of their lives are the main victims of jerry-building. There is also 730 the retired person who buys a bungalow, thinking that he is protected by the local authority, the building industry or the building society, and who is often involved in heavy additional expenditure that he cannot possibly afford, because there is no proper supervision and no registration of house builders.
About 300 builders go bankrupt every year. The latest figures that I have show that 357 builders "went broke" in 1962. True, they are not all house builders; indeed, there has been no attempt to break down these figures.
In my constituency part of an estate was built over a disused mine and another part was built over a disused clay quarry. Six of the houses constructed within the last six years cracked in half and collapsed, and are now little more than heaps of rubble. Quite a number of these houses on the estate have been condemned by the local authority.
The builder went bankrupt. He was a decent chap. He wanted to do a good job. He thought that the foundations were safe and that everything had been done to safeguard the construction of the houses The local authority did its best, but the cost of preparing this disused land for this kind of estate was out of proport on to the cost of the houses which were being built, and, obviously, the people concerned cut down on the expenditure.
The occupiers of these houses are tied with mortgages for the rest of their lives, and in some cases there is no house in which to live. The local authority, using the same land, just across the road, built an estate of perfectly good houses. There are no cracks and no complaints. They will stand there for another 200 or 300 years.
My point is that the local authority had not the power to inspect the construction of the first estate to which I referred during every process of the building. Indeed, energetic and dedicated local authority surveyors make themselves very unpopular with the building industry if they persistently visit the sites. I know from letters that I have received that building surveyors from local councils have been ordered off sites because they have become a nuisance to the builder. What is required is for local councils to have authority to inspect the material, to 731 reject unseasoned timber and bricks that are intended for interior use, but which are used for the outside of houses.
I know of an estate in Surrey where the bricks that are being used absorb dampness like a sponge. When half a brick is put into a bucket of water it swiftly sucks up the water. To deal with this diffculty the outsides of the houses, which cost £4,000 each, were painted.
How do we deal with the builder who goes bankrupt? I have with me two letters. Actually, I have scores of letters in my possession—pathetic and heartbreaking letters from old-age pensioners. One put down a deposit of £350 on a bungalow before the site was cleared. The builder "went broke" and this man has lost all his money and has no redress at all.
I have another letter here from two old-age pensioners—I mention these cases only because old people cannot start again, like a young couple can—who paid a deposit of £275 in similar circumstances. The builder went bankrupt, and they have no redress at all.
What is more, very many houses can be involved in the bankruptcies of 350 building firms. Estate after estate can be affected. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Hertford that there is here a real gap in the law to protect the consumer. We protect the consumer against bad food. We protect the consumer now against the hazards arising from defective household equipment. We protect the consumer in very many ways.
Almost at every level, we have become more and more consumer-conscious because modern developments have produced all kinds of new products which go into people's homes, and a greater need for protection has accordingly arisen. But we have not got down to the problem of protecting the house buyer from the builder who goes bankrupt and from sub-standard building by firms not affiliated to the National House-Builders Registration Council.
I have all manner of details here—I will not bore the House with them—of estate after estate where trouble has arisen, in parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, the West Midlands, Greater London and Surrey and as far away as Plymouth and 732 Poole. Some of the surveyor's reports are heart-breaking. This is characteristic: on an estate of 200 bungalows, 37 sub-standard jobs in one bungalow are noted. On another estate, over 40 substandard jobs in one house among those built are noted.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
Were any of these cases covered by the National House-Builders Registration Council guarantee?
§ Mr. Edwards
In one case, yes, but at least one of the persons who wrote to me about it was not satisfied. In the main, they are not covered by that Council.
Any house purchaser who does not buy from a builder affiliated to the National House-Builders Registration Council is very foolish indeed. House purchasers should see to it right away that the builder constructing their houses, or the builder responsible for a new estate on which they buy their homes, is a member of the Council. The Council, at least, does give fundamental protection. But it has had 30 years to organise the building industry and it has only 1,700 affiliated members. It has 50 inspectors, and I understand that they have inspected 50,000 houses.
Last year, I believe, the method of inspection involved nine visits to each house. I do not know how it is possible for 50 inspectors to inspect 50,000 houses in one year nine times during the course of construction. But these are the figures which we are given, and we must take the word of those who supply them to us. I know that this is a dedicated body, and has done very valuable work. The trouble is that it is not representative enough of the industry.
We do not know—I do not think that the Minister can tell us—how many house-building firms there are in Britain. I estimate that there are 130,000 building firms. I have spent some time trying to discover the structure of the building industry.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn
I think that I am right in saying that a circular goes out each year from my right hon. Friend's Department, which collects this information. It requires builders to say how many employees they have and what they are actually doing. I think that 733 the information which the hon. Gentleman wants could be extracted from those returns.
§ Mr. Edwards
I do not think that it is possible, without registration, for the Minister to give a report on the structure of the building industry. Any man can become a builder. Give him a ladder, a bucket of sand, a bucket of mortar and a bucket of water, and he is a builder. How does the Minister know? No one is required to register. I estimate that there are 70,000 building firms operating in this country which employ no labour at all; they are one-man firms.
§ Mr. Edwards
Yes; I am talking about the building industry. I am coming to that point.
I understand that the Minister has a register of 5,000 firms which build houses, and that that is the figure which he takes from a register which the Ministry itself compiles. But there are only 1,700 building firms affiliated to the National House-Builders Registration Council. Therefore, there must be a great many house purchasers who are completely unprotected.
This is why it is most important to have compulsory registration. The voluntary method has been tried and it has failed. I do not want to take up more time than is necessary, but I must emphasise the size of the problem. Today, thousands of young people are complaining about sub-standard building. Whole estates of as many as 200 houses are built, with every house substandard.
A builder buys a piece of land and pays a great deal for it because of the inflated price of land. Then he has to recover his money, so he cuts his building costs to bone. He puts into the bungalows or houses timber which has not been properly treated. He uses too much water and sand in his cement and too much sand in his mortar. He paints the walls before the plaster has properly dried. When the people take over the houses, they find gaps between the windows and the walls, the windows will not close, the doors will not open, the garages are quite unusable, and so on. 734 This state of affairs calls for intervention by the Government.
We cannot deal with this problem on a voluntary basis. It is a minority in the building industry which is responsible for jerry-building and sub-standard building, but it is also a minority of the people who buy the sub-standard houses who complain. The overwhelming majority of people do not want to be involved in litigation. They are not complainers. They say, "We will put up with this", and the result is that they are involved in hundreds of pounds of extra expenditure in making their homes habitable—often expenditure which they cannot really afford.
That is why I regretfully disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East that this is a matter which can be settled by voluntary action. I believe that legislation is required to compel all building firms to register with the local authority; that every house builder should be compelled to guarantee that the purchaser of a house is covered against sub-standard building; that every firm that wants to build houses should take out insurance in case it goes bankrupt; and that new standards of house building should be a condition of any firm operating in this industry.
Over the next 20 years, 6 million houses will be built and purchased. We must guarantee that these 6 million houses will not be the slums of the future and that the people who buy them will get value for their money and will be able to live in decent, healthy homes. This is a responsibility that the House of Commons must accept, and we would accept it if we gave these guarantees to the people we represent through legislation.
§ 12.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip N. Hocking (Coventry, South)
I should disclose at the outset that I am engaged in the building industry and that my firm is a registered company with the Registered House-Builders Federation. I have had a long family connection with this organisation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) on raising this question, because it is a very important one about which there 735 has been a considerable amount of misinformation over the years. The hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) seems to me to have had a most unfortunate, experience. He painted a very black picture. I believe that there is less jerry-building in this country today than ever before. There was a large measure of it after the First World War, but as time has gone on it has become less and less.
The hon. Member gave the impression, wrongly, I think, that the local authorities have no powers whatsoever. It has been my experience—and I was born into the industry, so consequently this has been a common place occurrence for me during practically the whole of my life—that building inspectors and surveyors employed by local authorities have very wide powers and can, and do, in fact, condemn materials and work. It is a fact that a local authority requires notices to be served when the foundations are laid and when the concrete is placed in position, when the damp-proof course is laid, and so on. Notice has to be given on the completion of the property. It is, therefore, wrong to say that the local authorities are not involved in this.
The hon. Member for Bilston referred to an estate which had been built over a mine. It seems to me reasonable to suppose that some subsequent subsidence was always a danger. I should have thought that the planning authority, in giving permission for the properties to be built in the first place, was very seriously at fault. The local authority, having been given notice that the foundations were dug and the concrete put in place and inspected by the building inspector, I think that it became involved in it in some way and that the builder, whoever he was, had, as the hon. Member said, tried to do his best.
The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne mentioned the wretched business of colliery shale. I little thought, some years ago, that I should hear this subject debated in the House of Commons, because I have a certain amount of experience of the reactions and actions of colliery shale. It was a very popular material in building just after the war. The National Coal Board 736 suddenly found itself with large quantities of it. In certain cases of old shale which has been burnt through completely, it has been used very successfully. It was used to a tremendous extent in local authority construction.
I can think of a large number of cases in which the material was used and there has been no detrimental effect. Nevertheless, it is true that, when the material was still of a combustible nature, burning has continued after the shale has been put in the foundations and gases formed within the walls and under the floors, causing the buckling which the hon. Member mentioned.
As I have said, I have had some experience in this matter. I do not think that it is always necessary to take out the whole of the shale. I have found by experience that, if a certain amount of air is let in and if ventilation is given to the sub-structure and the gases released, it is often possible to prevent further damage. The hon. Member mentioned that this matter had been considered by the Building Research Station and reports made. This is true. I well remember what happened when, eventually, the results of the use of shale were finally analysed and when the Building Research Station warned people against the use of it. Practically every local authority, in the Midlands anyway, forbade the use of the material under floors. Prominence was given to the digest in most of the trade publications, so that anyone using it after that date took a very grave risk.
I have always believed that the purchase of a house is the most important step a man ever takes, and one which I think should be encouraged and applauded. It is in the spirit of the day and age in which we live that people should want to exert their independence and do something for themselves. But far too often when people purchase their houses they rely on the valuation of the building society valuer and seem to presume that, because he has inspected the property and said that it is worth a certain sum, it must be in good order. On the other hand, they seem to think that because properties are statutorily inspected by the building inspector on behalf of the local authority, this is a safeguard against bad workmanship or faulty materials.
737 My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) has spoken of the registration scheme. I believe that this is the only way in which safeguards can be given to people purchasing properties. I could not contemplate the suggestion of the hon. Member for Bilston that house builders, builders and the brush and pail brigade, as I call them—the one man with the hand cart, ladder and a bucket of sand—should all be registered with the local authority. The local authorities are not the agencies to inquire—
§ Mr. Hocking
I accept that.
Nevertheless, the step from the one-man to the two-man or three-man band is only a small one, and it would involve a great deal of work to try to draw the line between the various sections of the industry. I do not think that the local authorities are equipped to register or inspect in this way. They should continue with their work from a byelaw point of view.
On the other hand, it has been demonstrated this morning that the registration scheme is increasing and its influence is extending. There have been 500 new members of it since the hon. Member introduced his Ten Minutes' Rule Bill. This seems to me to be the right sort of move. The Registration Council is a well-organised body. It comprises many representatives from various sections of the industry, including the building societies, architects, builders and operatives. It has set up the machinery to inspect properties and to see that they are built to a proper specification.
The inspectors do their work thoroughly and efficiently, as I have seen from time to time. They are extremely thorough, practical men. This is proved by the figures which have been given today of the small number of complaints which arise and the small number of instances when people have to take action against registered house builders. The scheme has had a chequered career, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, and it seems to me that the Government have never backed it to the 738 extent to which it should have been supported. Lip-service has been paid to it by successive Governments since almost the day of its inception.
I should like to make a number of suggestions to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his consideration. A good deal of public money is being advanced for house purchase through the local authorities. Why cannot it be a condition of this money being advanced by a local authority that the property should be a registered-built property? This would put teeth into the whole matter. If public money is to be advanced, let it be made a condition that it is advanced only on a guaranteed house.
This would give more strength to the Registration Council, and more builders and contractors would come within the scheme, because they would have to do so. Secondly, when properties are built in new and expanded towns—a trend which is likely to increase—why should not these properties be registered and built to the specification of the Registration Council? I believe that there are sufficient powers for this to be done.
There is a second field in which the Government can do something. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works announced a few days ago the setting up of a National Buildings Agency. This could do a tremendous amount of work, particularly in the testing and examination of new materials. Considerable good could come from this type of work. I hope that consideration is being given to the practical use of materials. Colliery shale was used in all good faith. Its use was recommended and in many cases it was successful, but there was just that last little bit of practical experience which was discovered too late. I believe that this new agency should consider the use of many new materials which are coming on to the market for use.
When the new national building code is brought into operation and the building byelaws are completely overhauled, I hope that teeth will be put into them. Building inspectors should have more authority. They should have power to take away, for instance, test cubes of concrete and have them properly tested for strength. The powers to test 739 materials should be widened and test certificates should be given. This would be a step in the right direction.
I would point out to the hon. Member for Bilston that most bricks are porous. There are very few bricks which will not soak up water.
§ Mr. Hocking
There is something in the Order about 98 per cent. of bricks manufactured being of a porous nature, and this is why we have cavity wall construction. All these materials should be tested, however, and test certificates given. If certificates were given, a good deal of the trouble in which house purchasers find themselves would be eliminated.
I hope, therefore, that when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary replies, he will give encouragement to those who have tried over the years to bring about better standards of house building through the registration scheme, that he will use his influence to persuade local authorities, when they advance money for properties or they sell land or pass it over to private agencies for building, to ensure that the properties are built to the registration scheme standards and that when the new building code is introduced teeth will be put into the armoury of the building inspectors and we shall see positive steps taken. This would add to the safeguards of those purchasing properties.
I hope, however, that my hon. Friend will not be influenced by those who would shackle the industry to local authorities. This would be a retrograde step. It would—although I am subject to contradiction—involve the local authorities to a certain extent in legal liability. When properties had been inspected for registration purposes and the like, local authorities might be involved in legal difficulties concerning the guarantee. I hope, therefore, that the foundations which have been provided will be extended, that the registration scheme will be encouraged and that real teeth will be put into the building byelaws.
§ 12.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)
I, also, should like to congratulate the hon. 740 Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) on enabling us to discuss this subject today, and to express my gratitude to him, because this is a subject of great interest to my own constituency, where we already have a high proportion of home ownership and where there is a large number of houses currently under construction.
I cannot altogether sympathise with the hon. Member in his eulogies of the National House-Builders Registration Council, however. I wish to say a few words about this scheme. I agree with hon. Members who have spoken that it is better than nothing, but is it adequate? Are the inspection procedures adopted by the Council during the course of construction of houses sufficient to detect any faults before the completion of a house, and are the standards to which the Council expect the members of the scheme to conform high enough? Is it easy for the purchaser of a house under this scheme to obtain redress if defects appear after the house has been completed and he has taken occupation?
A case has recently come up in my constituency from which I think it would appear that these matters are not properly dealt with, and I hope that the House will allow me to give a little back history of this case so that it may see what I mean. It concerns constituents of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Gingell, of Starts Close, Orpington. In 1961, they bought a house from New Ideal Homesteads Limited, a company belonging to the National House-Builders Registration Council scheme. Almost from the moment they took occupation, two years ago, defects started to appear.
They took this up with the National House-Builders Association Council, which on 26th November, 1962, wrote to Mr. Gingell's representatives making, for remedying those defects, proposals which were totally inadequate, and they said so. The next thing that happened was that on 13th May this year there was a meeting between the representatives of my constituents, New Ideal Homesteads, and the National House-Builders Registration Council, when new New Ideal Homesteads replied to the criticisms which were made by Mr. Gingell's professional advisers.
I do not wish to weary the House with a recitation of all these defects, but 741 perhaps I may mention just one as an example. The concrete for the foundations was both badly mixed and badly laid and it was poor in quality. The aggregate used in mixing the concrete contained more sand than coarse material, instead of the generally accepted proportions of about twice as much coarse material as sand.
The report of the architect who was advising Mr. Gingell on this subject said thatin the sample of concrete taken up this excess of sand over coarse material was apparent to the eye"—I want that particularly noted, because of what was said about the efficacy of inspection during the course of construction—even before analysis confirmed it. The supervisor should have noticed this excess of sand at once and had it rejected and replaced if he was attending to his job".That is what the architect had to say, and at this meeting of New Ideal Homesteads and the professional advisers acting on behalf of Mr. Gingell the builders submitted that those foundations conformed with the British Standards Specification Code of Practice No. 111, which, I believe, provides only for certain minimum compressive strength and does not say anything about the relative proportions of materials to be used in the mix. It is true that the Registration Council's standard specification does say that there should be a certain amount of cement to so much aggregate, but it does not say the relative proportions of coarse and fine materials which should be contained in the aggregate, and this was a criticism which was made by Mr. Gingell's architect.
About this time, as they did not seem to be getting anywhere at all, I was invited to see this house, and I went round it very carefully with my constituents, and I could see that the complaints which he had made were by no means exaggerated. So, on 25th July this year, I wrote to the Chairman of the Ideal Building and Land Development Company Limited, which controls New Ideal Homesteads, and told him that I could hardly believe that work of this absymally low quality could possibly have been undertaken by a firm with a national reputation to uphold. He replied to the effect that I 742 should investigate these complaints rather more closely before I wrote to him about them; which I think was unfair, since I had been to see the house and had discussed it with my constituents, whereas, so far as I am aware, he never did so himself.
I do not know whether it had anything to do with my visit and my subsequent letter and report to the chairman, but on 31st July New Ideal Homesteads made an offer to buy the dwelling back at its original price plus all reasonable costs. It is clear that this was totally unreasonable, and an offer which could not possibly be accepted, because during the intervening 18 months since Mr. Gingell had taken occupation the prices of houses of this nature had risen by about £1,000 in Orpington. Indeed, the price of houses being built by the same company about 200 yards away from Mr. Gingell's house is now starting from £6,400, whereas he paid £5,350 for the one of which I am speaking.
The next thing that happened was that the case of Mr. Gingell was the subject of an article by Mr. Fred Redman in the Sunday Mirror on 20th October this year. It appeared under the titleBut the lighthouse put him on the rocksbecause the lighthouse is the symbol of security and the emblem of the National House-Builders Registration Council. In view of what has been said about inspection during the course of construction I want to quote to the House a couple of sentences from Mr. Redman's article. He went to see Mr. Purvis, the Secretary of the Council, who explained to him thatthe council's certificates were issued to builders, and the actual agreement that the building standards had been conformed to was between the builder and the buyer.The next sentence of the article is in quotes of what Mr. Purvis said to Mr. Redman during the interview:'Our inspections are not quantity surveyor's inspections, but the kind of inspection you can expect for a fee of five guineas. To some extent we have to rely on the builder not covering up his work.'It is fairly obvious that as this fee is only five guineas per house one would not expect a very thorough inspection, and although they claim to have inspected this particular dwelling nine 743 times instead of the standard five during the course of its construction, they were obviously not very highly qualified people, otherwise they would have noticed those defects, as the architect said in his report.
§ Mr. Hocking
I think that the hon. Member would accept the fact, though, that this registration scheme covers a large number of houses, and while one would not expect a very thorough inspection for five guineas per single house built, if the fee is paid on, say, 50 houses being built under the scheme there is a considerable sum of money involved; and the inspection which takes place on a number of occasions on a large proportion of properties does not cost quite so much, and I think that the hon. Member would find that it is a thorough inspection and thorough investigation. The whole thing must be put into proper perspective.
§ Mr. Lubbock
What I was saying was that in this case the inspection could not possibly have been thorough because the defects were so obvious, but I would give the hon. Member this, and perhaps I should have mentioned this already, that this house was one of a number put up by the company and, so far as I am aware, it is the only one of which complaint has been made, and so it is possible that more highly qualified people inspected the other ones, or, alternatively, they pointed out those defects during the course of construction anyway. The fact remains that nine visits were paid and none of these defects, which were obvious, was noticed by the inspector.
About the same time I wrote to the Minister drawing attention to the case, because we did not seem to be getting anywhere with the N.H.B.R.C. After my letter to the Minister and this article by Mr. Redman in the Sunday Mirror—I am not saying that there is necessarily any connection, but it is curious that every time someone did something an offer was made—the offer by New Ideal Homesteads was improved. This time, on 31st October, 1963, they offered to buy the house back at full market value with vacant possession.
Unfortunately, they did not make it clear in the offer whether this was to be 744 the market value in the condition in which the house then was or whether it would be calculated in such a way as to disregard the defects which had subsequently appeared. I had to write again to the Parliamentary Secretary saying that although this offer had been made, the builders would not clarify it and my constituent had had to reject it. I heard from the Parliamentary Secretary yesterday that they had confirmed that the offer was to assume that the defects were not there and that the house was in perfect condition.
I have related this history at some length because I want to make four points from it. First, it should not have been necessary for my constituent to enlist the help of a small army of architects, quantity surveyors, analytical chemists and solicitors, together with myself as the representative of the constituency, the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Mr. Fred Redman of the Sunday Mirror. It has taken all these people two years of endless correspondence and meetings to get as far as the offer which the Parliamentary Secretary finally told me had been made yesterday.
This offer is not good enough. Why should my constituent have to move? If he bought a car, and some defects suddenly appeared in it, he would not be offered a car of a different make. If he bought a Rover and something went wrong with the clutch, he would expect Rovers to repair the clutch and not to offer him a Jaguar instead. I do not think that it is at all fair on my constituent to force him to move from the house which he bought in good faith.
It would be necessary for the builders to demolish it entirely and to rebuild it if it were to be sold to someone else. What we cannot find out is why they refused to do that for my constituent. It seems likely that they would not wish to demolish this house while in the process of building another estate 200 yards along the road, because this would no doubt be rather a bad advertisement for the firm. This is why I am at pains to emphasise that I am certain that this is an isolated case and that it has not been repeated in the other houses built by New Ideal Homesteads in that area.
745 The third point which I wanted to make was that the standards of the N.H.B.R.C. were much too low. I am glad the Minister appears to recognise this. The Parliamentary Secretary wrote to me saying that at the annual luncheon of the N.H.B.R.C. last June the Minister told the builders in straight terms that they must either get together to ensure their standards or accept the possibility of Government intervention. He added:They have since revised their standards of specification and our architects are looking at them to see whether they are satisfactory.I am delighted to hear that, because it is a step in the right direction, but the fact is that this scheme has been in existence for 20 years and it is only now that the Minister is discovering that some of their standards are not quite high enough. In my opinion, he could quite easily dictate to the N.H.B.R.C. the improved standards which I am saying are necessary. I think that he has the powers under the Building Societies Act, 1962.
In the Fourth Schedule we read:Where the Minister is satisfied, with respect to a body; corporated,—(b) that it issues certificates in respect of buildings which appear to it to conform to such standards as, in the opinion of the Minister, justify the exercise in relation to that body of the powers conferred on him by this paragraph…the Minister may, with the consent of the Treasury, by order approve that body for the purposes of this Part of the Schedule.The N.H.B.R.C, is a body approved by the Minister for the purposes of the Fourth Schedule of the Building Societies Act, 1962, and under that paragraph he has the power to decide what are reasonable standards to be laid down to which the N.H.B.R.C. should adhere. This is what I have been trying to get him to do, but so far without any success.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn
Will not the hon. Member agree that if this were done the £5 charge would have to be substantially increased, perhaps to the ordinary surveyor's fee of about £20 a house?
§ Mr. Lubbock
It is quite possible that the fee would have to be increased. I accept that. I think that it would be much better for the fee to be increased 746 and people to feel that they had adequate safeguards than for them to run the risk of the kind of case which I have described.
The final point which emerges from this case and others like it which have been drawn to my attention is whether it is right to depend on a body which is financed and operated by the builders themselves but which purports to be for the protection of the general public. The guarantee of the N.H.B.R.C. looks very nice to a layman. It is an elaborate document with a nice picture of a lighthouse on it, and anyone reading it, particularly the sentence at the bottom, would imagine that it conferred a very powerful protection on him indeed.
That sentence states that the body is approved by the Minister of Health, now the Minister of Housing and Local Government, for the purposes of Section 5 of an Act. The average house purchaser reading this would certainly say to himself, "If the Minister has approved it, then it must adopt the very highest standards possible."
§ Mr. Hocking
I understand the hon. Member to ask whether it is right that the scheme should be solely financed by the builder; themselves. The Registration Council is not financed merely by builders. It is organised and operated by all those associated with house building—architects, surveyors, building societies, the legal profession and the building industry. It is wrong to give the impression that it is merely the House builders Registration Council.
§ Mr. Lubbock
I am grateful for the correction, but the hon. Member will confirm that the five guineas fee is paid by the builders and that this is the main source of income for the N.H.B.R.C.
The complaints which I received were not isolated. I have similar cases which could be quoted from places as far apart as Falmouth, Stroud, in Gloucestershire, Caernarvonshire and County Durham, and the hon. Member for Bilston no doubt could fill in the gaps in any part of the country from which I cannot quote examples. I believe that the National House-Builders Registration Council, although certainly better than nothing, is by no means an adequate safeguard for purchasers of house property. If the Government 747 impose standards in respect of foodstuffs, electrical goods and a host of other things, I do not see how they can ignore their responsibilities in a field which is very much more important than any of those.
In conclusion, I should like to quote some remarks which Mr. Fred Redman made in the article I have quoted and which summed up very well what I feel about it:It will take something a lot tougher than the National House-Builders Registration Council to cut out all the shoddy work and poor materials which are storing up heartbreak for home-hungry families all over Britain. What we need is a Housing Minister who can give the country national building standards enforceable by law.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) is to be congratulated on raising a most important subject. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) raised some queries about the value of registration with the National House-Builders Registration Council. I, too, have some questions on that. First, however, I want to express two hopes arising from this debate.
The first is that the debate will not be taken as a condemnation of the house building trade as a whole. House-builders, both big and small firms, are making a tremendous effort at present to modernise the building industry and to produce houses of the number and quality the country requires. The small builder, so frequently criticised—merely for being a small builder, it seems—is a craftsman in the trade as a general rule and has served the public well.
I hope that the debate will not be taken as any criticism of the small builders or, for that matter, the big builders, as a whole. They have the confidence of the public, but, of course, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government said in addressing the Registration Council's annual luncheon in June,The public cannot tolerate an abuse of its confidence which is represented by this very small minority of builders who do not care a hang for giving value for money.It is a very small number and the building trade has held, I am sure, public confidence on the whole.
748 Secondly, I hope there will not be a plea for inflexible registration standards to be laid down. There is an absolute necessity at the present time to find modern methods of building. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works has set in motion many most important things to get the building industry to adopt industrialised building. Only by this method shall we get the 50 per cent. increase in productivity in the building industry required over the next 10 years in order to produce the number of houses we need.
In the past, the old building byelaws have prevented flexibility in building methods and I fear that there is a danger that registration such as hon. Members have suggested today, and a rigid standard laid down, may obstruct progress in industrialised building. If it is decided to resort to any compulsory registration then I hope that the standards laid down will be under constant review to see that they do not obstruct modern methods of building.
Every hon. Member who has spoken has referred to the N.H.B.R.C., which, it is claimed, may be able to provide a guarantee to house purchasers that they have got a good home. I do not think that so far the constitution of the Council has been fully mentioned. As I understand, it consists of 45 members, of whom one-third are appointed by the National Federation of Building Trades Employers. The rest are appointed from a very wide range of organisations including the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Chartered Surveyors, Owner-Occupiers' and Property Owner Associations, by land, property and chartered auctioneers' associations and by local authorities. I believe that there are also appointees from both the Ministry of Public Building and Works and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.
Thus, membership of the Council is very widely drawn. The work which it claims to be able to do—I have here a brochure which it has issued—is very extensive. It claims that a house built to standards laid down by the Council will be a house in whichThe damp-proof course is properly laid and correctly placed. The roof is adequately strutted. Windows and door frames are effectively secured. Partitions are properly bonded. 749 Dampness, sagging roof, draughts, cracked walls and other faults due to bad construction won't develop later.This, it is said, is ensured by the fact that the Council has a large staff of technical advisers and supervisors all over the country, and when a house is being built by a builder registered with the Council there is an inspection every three weeks, checking the vital points at each stage of construction.
Like the hon. Member for Orpington, who mentioned what the Council claims to do, I am surprised that it can do all this at the very small fee charged. I understand that for builders not in membership with the Federation of Registered House-Builders or with the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, the initial subscription is 3 guineas, with £1 for each subsequent year, and that the registration fee per house built is 5 guineas.
I am surprised that the Council can undertake the work it claims to do for a fee of 5 guineas per house, I too saw the article in the Sunday Mirror in which the Secretary of the Council is reported as having said:Our inspections are not quantity surveyor's inspections, but the kind of inspection you can expect for a fee of five guineas. To some extent we have to rely on the builder not covering up his work.I do not know what the Government have in mind for the Council at the present time. I have read a report that a working party has been set up, comprising representatives of the Government and of the N.H.B.R.C the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and the Federation of Registered House-Builders:…to study ways and means of bringing about adherence by all house-builders building houses for sale to the principles of the present N.H.B.R.C. Scheme, suitably strengthened as necessary.I hope that we shall be told whether Government representatives are in fact taking part in this working party, what it is intended to achieve, and whether the Government will re-consider the constitution of this working party if it is to be sponsored, as it were, by the Government. I notice that the Federation of Master Builders is not represented on the working party. It is a Federation which represents mainly the smaller builders, certainly a very great number of them.
750 If the working party is considering this matter then it should also consider other forms of certificates on which the public are apt to rely. Too many people rely on the local authority's assurance that a house has been built according to the bye-laws as meaning that the house is fit for the home in which they want to live. But the local authority is only concerned with bye-laws. Furthermore, too many people rely on reports by building society surveyors, but of course those surveyors are only looking at houses from the point of view of good security. They only see houses when they are built and when, perhaps, defects are covered up.
I hope that his sort of point will be given consideration, but I think, also, that we need some new thought altogether on this subject. Almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has talked about registration with the Council as being a solution to the matter. But surely the best form of security is that obtained by the man who is contracting to build his own house. He has a contract and while the house is being built it is subject to the supervision of an architect. This is the best form of security, and I do not think that we need worry about further help for that type of man.
What we want to do is to give the man who buys his house after it has been completed the same sort of security as the man has who has built his own house under contract; to give purchasers of new houses—houses which have been built within,, say, one year or two years before purchase—a proper assurance from a professional man. It is surely that professional assurance which is required, and I do not think that legislation enforcing compulsory registration with the National House-Builders Registration Council will necessarily give that assurance.
I am always hesitant about legislation requiring people to join a certain body, association or society.
§ Mr. Page
Even in the case of the Law Society, every solicitor is not obliged to join the Law Society. There is no legislation to make him do so.
751 On the other hand, I see no reason why we should not legislate that upon the sale of a house completed within, say, the previous two years, the vendor should provide a certificate of home-worthiness. By that I mean a certificate by a professional man who has supervised the building. I would think that very few builders, even on speculation, are now building without architects' supervision, and therefore they should be able to provide a certificate, for use when the house is sold, that it is home-worthy and that it complies with a standard specification which would be stated by the Government, but which, I hope, would be continually under review to take into account new methods of building.
Such a certificate, which I have called a certificate of home-worthiness, might kill more than one bird with one stone. It might be accepted by local authorities as ensuring completion of the house according to the byelaws, and it might be accepted by building societies instead of charging the borrower another fee for the building society's surveyor to look at the house. It may be that builders might find that they would get a certificate of home-worthiness through joining the National House-Builders Registration Council, but I would not make that the only source of such a certificate.
I call it a certificate of home-worthiness following the lines of the certificate of air-worthiness for an aircraft or a certificate of road-worthiness for a car. I am sure that is the ultimate thing that is required, not an assurance that a builder has joined a society, council or association. We want the assurance to the purchaser that a professional man has supervised the building of a house and gives his certificate that it has been properly built.
Finally, I would entirely agree with the Minister when at the annual luncheon of the National House-Builders Registration Council in June he said:…no Government having regard to the public interest can tolerate the building of even a few bad houses which will rapidly degenerate into slums.
§ 1.25 p.m.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)
I am sure that we are all indebted to the hon. 752 Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes) for bringing this subject before the House today. In anybody's life buying a home is possibly one of the most important transactions which takes place, and I think that, if we do nothing else, we can draw to the attention of those who are about to buy property the importance of ensuring that it is properly constructed and not likely to give trouble in the near future.
I believe that by drawing attention to this problem we must, at the same time, pay some respect to the actual magnitude of the number of jerry-built houses as against those that are properly built. It is, of course, a small minority which draw the attention. All over the country there are vast numbers of really good builders who are doing a thoroughly first-class job of work. But it is, as it has been said so frequently in this debate, those few houses to which we have to give our attention.
When the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne spoke about certain houses, I asked whether they had been independently inspected, and I think that, in this instance, one of the mistakes was that the purchasers were ignorant about the purchase of property. They relied, as has been said twice during the debate, possibly on the cursory survey made by the building society. This was probably made on the basis of the value of the property and not on its quality.
A large number of prospective purchasers believe that because a property has passed a building society test it is, in fact, fit. I hope that as a result of the debate people will realise that they are well-advised to have some form of independent survey on the property before putting out a large proportion of their capital—capital which has probably been advanced by a building society. I do not think that it is unreasonable that a building society should have some obligation to see that the properties on which they advance money are structurally sound.
Here again, if any of the mortgaged money is advanced by public authority—I hope that my hon. Friend will take note of this point—I believe that it has a statutory duty to the ratepayers and the public to ensure that no money is advanced on that property unless it is structurally sound.
753 The two points that we have to decide are whether we can graft on to the existing voluntary machinery for inspection or whether we have to turn towards legislation. Here, one has to appreciate one particular point: how much does the average purchaser wish to pay for the survey? The fee charged by the N.H.B.R.C. is five guineas and, as the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) said, this does not allow, in individual cases, perhaps a sufficient degree of inspection. But we must to some extent say how much is the customer prepared to pay for the services which he requires.
Earlier in the debate attention was drawn to district surveyors in London. I know that my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that as a result of their services very few properties are constructed which later show major defects. Of course, in the countryside, as I understand, local bye-laws are controlled by the local authorities. The local authority, in each case, lays down its own standards.
One of the most important things to be done in the building trade today is to ensure some sort of common standards, not only in the actual building, but in plumbing and other specifications required by different boroughs. In London, for example, each individual borough has entirely different standards. A builder operating 50 yards from Westminster in Chelsea has to abide by plumbing standards entirely different from those which operate in Westminster. I know that my hon. Friend's Department is working on this matter, and I hope that we will be able to get some sort of standardisation.
The small builder has been mentioned this morning. I must make an appeal for him, because, in general, he does a useful job for the community. His overheads are low and he gives useful services. I realise that the subject of the debate does not specifically cover him, because he is not generally a house-builder, but we ought to be fair and appreciate that he does a good job with maintenance and other small jobs which it would not be in the financial interests of the large builder, with his bigger overheads, to undertake. Just because the small builder has only a handcart and a bucket, we ought not to say that he 754 does not give good service to the community.
It is of paramount importance that we should get down to some sort of standardisation and modernisation of building methods. Many methods are being used which have not changed for a quarter, or even a half of a century. The use of steel and prefrabricated units is the sort of thing which will help with the standardisation of the building of houses and flats all over the country.
The Ministry already has a register of building trades, which it gets from the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and what I should like my hon. Friend to consider is whether it would be possible to get some agreement among the voluntary bodies, so that standards could be ensured, or whether some form of compulsion would be necessary. I dislike an element of compulsion, but if it were necessary, I believe that the House would accept it. However, before compulsion is used, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider very carefully whether we could not get some form of voluntary agreement.
No hon. Member this morning has disagreed with the view that to some extent we are obliged to protect purchasers of property. The old maxim caveat emptor does not hold water now. We have a duty towards prospective purchasers to ensure that in some way or another they get value for money, and we cannot put the entire burden on the prospective purchaser. I hope that as a result of the debate people generally will realise that when they buy a house it is up to them to spend a little more than £5—perhaps as much as £25 or £30—to make sure that their property is properly surveyed.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will also say something about a warranty of building. The ordinary purchaser who has inspected a property has no warranty from the builder. If subsequent defects show up which the architect could not see when he made the inspection, he has no redress against the builder. This seems to be a fundamental defect in the law and, if it is, perhaps my hon. Friend can think of some way to remedy it.
§ 1.36 p.m.
§ Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)
At least there is some continuity in the debate, because the first line of my notes is "Not caveat emptor" I intended to 755 say that nobody had mentioned it. The hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) did so, but only to say that it was fortunate that it had not been suggested, because in this respect there is no room for that kind of approach to what is a very important social problem.
There have been the conventional expressions of thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes), as there always are to those Members who move interesting Motions of this kind. My feelings are rather different. We have had a debate of great value on a matter of tremendous importance to the public and to individuals only because my hon. Friend was fortunate in the Ballot. I do not know what are the chances of being fortunate in the Ballot. I have never drawn first place, and I do not think that my hon. Friend has done so before. If he had not been lucky on this occasion, we would probably be debating something not nearly as important, and yet it is perfectly clear from what has been said, from the marshalling of information, from the quality of the speeches and from the virtual unanimity about the seriousness of the problem, that this is a matter which must be considered with great care.
The right hon. and learned Baronet the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) compared the purchase of houses with the purchase of goods and said that commodities were covered by the Sale of Goods Act which protected the consumer. However, is it not possible to contract out of the Sale of Goods Act? Does it not happen that consumers often do not get the protection of that Act because they have improvidently contracted out of its protection, or have been forced to do so because they could not buy what they wanted unless they did?
This problem illustrates very well the extravagance of being poor. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, we have something like a buyer's market with expensive owner-occupied property, certainly in the North-West, as the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne would agree, so that if the buyer is prepared to spend £3,000 or £4,000 he can have his pick. There 756 is quite a lot of choice for the man who can afford to pay £3,000 or £4,000 for a house, and he can also afford to have a properly qualified professional man to advise him whether the house is sound.
The problem arises with houses of less than £2,000. It is in this range that the jerry builders' paradise lies. I am not suggesting that all those who tried to provide houses cheaply are jerry builders, but the temptation to cut costs at the expense of the long run life of the house must be very great at that level of cost. The most difficult of the problems of costs is that of inspection. If the inspection fees are increased at the expense of the cost of the house, it becomes very difficult to meet the problems of someone desperately anxious to buy a house at a low cost.
This is a matter in which the public as well as the individual are closely concerned. The public are concerned about the use of building resources, which are desperately short and which will be shorter still as the development of building under the Government's proposed programmes for extending public building go on, and certainly will become shorter under the programme of the Labour Government to expand public building. So far as one can see, the calls on the country's building resources are bound to increase. It is not in the interests of the public that social capital should be wasted, and jerry-building is a waste of social capital.
Another reason why the public are concerned in this matter is that this is a long-term investment. My hon. Friend quoted the case of a catastrophic crisis where, in a comparatively short time after a house has been built, there is a sudden collapse which is visible to everyone. Everyone is immediately aware of it. Probably a more common and widespread problem, but one which is just as important, is that of the potential slum, the slow deterioration of a building which will create for the local authority and all concerned with housing the problems of dealing with private slums.
I think the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Hocking) said that after the war there had been a large measure of jerry-building. That was a frank admission by someone who told us that 757 he had been born into the building industry. It was obviously a well-qualified authoritative view. Those houses which were jerry-built after the first war are the potential slums of today. What we have to be concerned about is not only the general desire of Parliament to protect the individual consumer who has a raw deal and is cheated, but to protect the resources of the country, the social capital of the country, against waste and against the potential slum clearance problem of the future. That is something which we have to look at with great concern.
I hesitated to intervene in the doctrinal dispute which went on behind me between my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) about whether this was a matter in which the National House-Builders Registration Council should be relied upon to give its services or a matter for direct intervention by the local authority. I am in the happy-position of agreeing with both my hon. Friends because I am a dyed-in-the-wool local authority man. If this job is to be done effectively I think it should be done by the local authorities. On the other hand, what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said is perfectly true. Every local authority, certainly everyone in the North, is faced with a desperate lack of skilled and qualified people such as architects, surveyors, clerks-of-works and so on who can be relied upon for this kind of inspection.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Is the hon. Member assuming that the National House-Builders Registration Council will provide qualified inspectors when the local authority is unable to do so? That is not the position.
§ Mr. MacColl
I am not coming down on one side or the other, nor saying whether it is desirable that the National Council or the local authority should do this work. All I say is that if we suddenly put this work on to local authorities there will be a real danger of a hold-up in other types of house building. I should not like to go back to the borough of Widnes and say that we have been getting terribly romantic and excited on this Friday and have decided that it must start detailed inspection of all new houses built in the borough. I suspect 758 that I should get a rather rough answer from the rather tough gentlemen responsible for administering the work of the housing committee.
As a general principle, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said about local authority responsibility. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Bilston and the hon. Member for Clapham said that in London, where there is a system of local authority inspection, we do not get so much jerry-building as in the provinces. I wonder whether there was a hidden factor there because in the L.C.C. area there is very little house building, and extremely little cheap house building. New building, such as it is, is mostly of flats. Probably the builder of gigantic blocks of flats has capital behind him which he can employ if he needs professional advance. The small builder—I do not say this in a pejorative sense—may be concerned with building a few bungalows in a very short time, but there is not so much of a problem in London.
It is a fair point to make in criticism of the work of district valuers that their work, the building code and building bye-laws are to some extent a restriction on experiment with materials and in construction. I do not see how that can be avoided. Not long ago I wanted to have some building done. The architect wanted to use a new and ingenious material which he thought would be cheap and effective. The district valuer, however, shook his head and said, "I don't refuse this out of hand, but I shall have to report back to the council and at some time it will go to the committee." What does a lay client do in that case? What did I do? I did not care two hoots because I wanted to get the thing built. I said, "I am not going to waste time on your learning; I want the thing done."
That is the effect of all controls on experiment. The danger is that unless the building code is very flexible and inspectors and those controlling the code keep up-to-date, fully alive to the need for experiment and the vital importance of reducing building costs, we shall get a slowing down of building and a lowering of experiment. If the alternative is waste through bad building that may be well worth while.
What are some of the possible ways of treating the problem? I was sorry that 759 the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East was not in the Chamber when some of the harsher remarks were being made about the National House-Builders Registration Council. It was a pleasure to see him here as a shy back bencher again. It is a pleasure to me in a way to patronise him from a Front Bench, which takes me back a great many years. It was a pleasure to hear him with his great authority on these matters and particularly speaking with a name which is so very much honoured in maintaining building standards. He painted a glowing picture of the National House-Builders Registration Council. Ever since I have studied these matters I have found that to be the accepted view.
Unfortunately, after the right hon. and learned Member left the Chamber the tide of debate swung rather the other way. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) and the hon. Member for Crosby both treated it rather roughly, but I should have thought there was a case for saying that house builders should register with the Council. I can see no objection to that. I do not want to try to make a speech which I could not make about estate agents. In all these fields, however, there comes a time when a profession is so involved in public responsibility that it must be publicly accountable. Registration at least has the effect of providing a sanction of professional control from within the industry, which is potent. I should have thought that we recognise this not only as an instrument but as one of the effective weapons to use. Therefore, I think it wise to support compulsory registration.
It is suggested that this would involve enormous difficulties with the small man with a ladder and bucket. I should not have thought that was so because in order to get planning permission in London notice of all building going on has to be given so that houses can be inspected. One cannot build a house nowadays without anyone knowing about it. If a house is being built one can find out who is the builder. If the local authority finds who the builder is it can check on whether he is registered or not.
One or two other possible suggestions besides registration have been made. 760 One was the possibility of providing that all people administering public funds should make it a condition that there are reasonable standards of building. I had not thought of that; it might form the basis of an Amendment during our proceedings on the Housing Bill next week. In the proceedings on that Bill we have used arguments about being certain that the conditions attached to housing societies conform to standards of good behaviour and good management. That is a perfectly good principle, and I would not quarrel with the idea that that should be done.
But I would tend to quarrel with it if it did not cover building societies as well as local authorities. I see great difficulties arising from the fact that the local authority is made to say "Because we are lending public money we must have a high standard", while the building societies are not going to have that high standard. We run into the difficulty that the little man who is in desperate need of a cheap house goes to the builder and says "I want to buy a house, but I need to borrow the money for it", and the builder or estate agent says, "Do not go to the local authority. They are a lot of fussy bureaucrats and will interfere with your freedom. If you go to the Grand Mutual Building Society, for which I happen to be the agent, it will see you through and no questions will be asked."
That is the trouble about trying to create standards by using only local authorities. It is reasonable that the local authorities should be tough in stating that there must be adequate standards, a registered builder and adequate insurance, but if we are going to do that, the building societies also, must be made to do it. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will direct his attention to this point.
The certificate of home-worthiness which the hon. Member for Crosby suggested is not, as he said, inconsistent with registration. It could be provided by the registered body or the local authority. I do not know whether the provision of such certificates would mean a great strain on inspection resources, but it is an instrument which I should like to see developed.
There is another point which has not yet been mentioned which is a possible 761 method of approaching this problem of maintaining standards by providing a means of dealing with the situation where standards have been shown, as in the case mentioned by my hon. Friend, to have been inadequate. I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering has just entered the Chamber. I was about to make a moving reference to Mitchison's Act, the famous business about putting down a deposit for new streets. There is the case where we say to the builder "if you are going to develop, in order that the owner or occupier shall not find himself faced with a bankrupt builder and a sudden charge for making up new streets, you must put down a deposit or lodge security with the local authority."
Is it not possible to have a similar arrangement with all builders so that in a case like the one in Ashton-under-Lyne, where the trouble is discovered afterwards, resources will be available, and there will be no possibility of being told that the builder has gone to America or Bangkok or wherever it is that bad builders go? I should have thought that that would be a possible arrangement.
I repeat that we, every home owner and every housing committee owe a very great debt to my hon. Friend for having used his good luck in this most public-spirited way. The Motion is a wider one than the mere grinding of the axe which he had in his own sad case. It has enabled us to look at an extremely important problem. If there is to be a continuation of home ownership and building for the owner-occupier, which everybody accepts in theory as being desirable, it must be possible to ensure that the house, which, as we all agree, is one of the most difficult things to purchase—theright hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East said that it was far more difficult than obtaining a wife. I never succeeded in getting a wife, although I have a house, and so I cannot compare the two.
§ Mr. MacColl
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has more experience of this sort of thing than I have. All I can say is that it is one of the most 762 important and one of the most skilful decisions that the common man has to take. I trust that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will give us an assurance that we shall be able to give the common man some genuine help and protection.
§ 1.55 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)
I would begin by adding my congratulations to the many a ready given to the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Rhodes). He started his speech by expressing congratulations to the National House-Builders' Registration Council and its scheme. I am glad that he did so, because, despite what the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) said, I do not think that it is true that the debate tended to swerve away from that general concept. We had one hon. Member who intervened with one case where a solution was found, albeit after rather longer than we could have hoped, but there is no doubt that there would have been no solution at all in that case had the constituent of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) been in the sorry plight of the constituent of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne.
The only other element of dispute which has entered into the debate is the underlying one about whether we should hope that this would be a voluntary scheme, if necessary made compulsory at a later stage, or whether we should bring in the local authorities. I think that on balance the House has come down in favour of the existing scheme, widened as necessary and improved as necessary, and rather against the cluttering up of local authorities with even more responsibilities in a field where we all know they are already having difficulties in finding the necessary skills and staffs to carry out their byelaw obligations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) is right to emphasise—we should all do this in public and to constitutents who are involved in this—that a surveyor's certificate that the byelaws have been complied with does not imply that the building is soundly constructed throughout. Byelaws have always been directed mainly to matters of health and safety. My right hon. Friends the Minister of Public Building and Works and the 763 Minister of Housing and Local Government are engaged in producing building regulations which will be uniform throughout the country. This meets one of the criticisms of my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn). Although it will be cold comfort to the hon. Gentleman opposite now, the draft of the regulations contains a prohibition against this particular material, and would have provided in such a case a protection.
To make abundantly clear what my right hon. Friend's attitude to the subject is I will quote what he said at the annual luncheon of the National House-Builders' Registration Council:The issue before us is quite straightforward. The Government has announced a major house building programme. That programme is based on the assumption that most families who can afford to provide houses for themselves will do so. They will do so, however, only if they are satisfied that they are likely to get value for money.We know that most builders provide value for money. Many good builders stay outside the National House-Builders' Registration Council's excellent scheme, no doubt because they feel that their reputations are secure. But a tiny majority of bad builders, also operating outside the scheme, fail to give value for money. They provoke bad publicity out of all proportion to their numbers: they get the industry as a whole a bad name: they encourage sharks to think that anybody can set up as a builder and get rich quickly: and they create a demand for controlling legislation.Well, the sharks must think again. Neither this Government—nor, I believe, any future Government—will tolerate jerry-building in its housing programme.This makes it clear that my right hon. Friend regards the present situation as having reached the stage at which the industry has a chance to put its house in order by extending this scheme, or else the Government, whatever government it may be, will be obliged to look to some form of compulsory registration and compulsory enforcement of these standards. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is right in saying that, even if there were only two or three of these cases a year, it would still be a matter of great concern. He referred to this as a tragedy. I would not for a moment question that that was too strong a word. Nevertheless, both he and other hon. Members—we were very glad to 764 have the expert description of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith)—emphasised that a very considerable amount of progress has been made. I know that the hon. Member for Bilston (Mr. R. Edwards) has some disagreement with me about the number of builders. We assess the number of those genuinely engaged in house building at a little over 3,000. Therefore, the 1,700 registered house builders represent about 50 per cent. of the industry. This compares with only 11 per cent. in 1957. This is very encouraging progress. The advantages of going on in this way and hoping to get the voluntary scheme more or less universally accepted are not only that it would relieve a tremendous potential burden on local authorities or some other organisations which would have to find inspectors. We all know that legislative time is always tight. It does not require too much imagination to realise that trying to lay down in an Act of Parliament every standard at every stage of building a house, or even a variety of other types of building—flats, and so on—where standards may be different—would be a very complicated process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby and other hon. Members have pointed out, such regulations would endanger the flexibility which will be necessary if we are to introduce new materials and methods into the industry.
On the other hand, the industry has shown that it can carry out these inspections, although I admit that there will almost inevitably in any human organisation be the odd case that can be quoted. I have had the files of hon. Members who write to me on this subject examined. On the whole, it is surprising how very few complaints there are, and of all the complaints the number per annum that affect registered builders could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I do not think that this one instance, or even the two or three others that I know of, proves that this scheme is unsatisfactory, and it is certainly not proved that the scheme is not capable of being made even more satisfactory than it is.
As my right hon. and learned Friend said, we are faced now with the decision 765 whether this can be extended by, as he put it, evangelical enthusiasm or whether we must legislate. We must realise that part of the answer lies in the hands of the consumer. Until a large number of potential house purchasers start asking the question, "Can I have a certificate? ", there will not be the extension, particularly in many provincial areas, which we want to see, or at any rate not at the speed which we want to see.
Here again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, because this is a matter of publicity and this debate will give the matter some publicity. There must be many householders or prospective buyers who have never heard of this scheme, let alone of the certificate or how it protects them. That is useful. I suggest to hon. Members that it would be useful if they, wherever they go in expanding areas where houses are being built, brought this to the knowledge of people so that they, in turn, add to the demand that it should be adopted.
The main point on which the hon. Member for Bilston disagreed with the rest of the speakers was local authority versus the voluntary Builders Council. I have said something about this, but I would pick him up on the examples he gave, because I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Widnes that London is a very special case. Land is much too expensive in London to have jerry-builders making any sense at all. There are very few house builders. They are nearly all flats and cater for a market where this is not a problem, a market in which the professional advice and professional check right the way through is likely to be there in any case.
The London building regulations are somewhat different from the byelaws exercised throughout the country. Again, London is a very large town and a very powerful authority and more likely to be able to employ these people than smaller towns, certainly some of the smaller county districts.
Several hon. Members implied that the important thing was to get the standards adopted and that registration was secondary. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby was rather on these lines. He wanted to ensure that there is pro- 766 fessional inspection and said that we should not bother about whether there is a register. I suggest that registration is important, if only because it is the application for registration which gives the Council a chance to examine the financial strength of these companies. Although I have no detailed evidence to support this, I would think that much of the hardship flows from small firms biting off more than they can chew and going bankrupt half-way through. Therefore, registration on a financial strength basis is of enormous importance.
Obviously, if it is to do any real good, the application must be looked at to some extent with regard to the skills available in the applicant firm. I cannot think that this is the function of local authorities. I cannot see how a local authority would be able to judge whether a man who is starting a building firm has the expertise or will employ the right people. The building industry, difficult as this task will be, is in a better position to do it, particularly if it is, by admitting a builder to membership, giving some guarantee to the public of a builder's ability and financial strength.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Hocking) made several suggestions. One was that local authorities lending public money should ensure that some certificate was available. My hon. Friend made a suggestion about the National Building Agency with regard to the testing of materials and the giving of test certificates. These are clearly things which should be considered by the working party which is sitting at the moment. This is a working party set up by the industry, admittedly, but my Department and the Ministry of Public Building and Works have been invited to send members.
We have agreed to do this. Its object is to look at the scheme itself, first, with regard to the standards that are required, to see if they are right and where they ought to be improved, and, secondly, to see how we can get them more universally adopted throughout the industry. I would have thought that, if one could get about 80 per cent. acceptance throughout the industry, the tide of consumer demand would push the other 20 per cent. in or out according to their financial strength.
§ Mr. Lubbock
Will the working party publish its recommendations, or will they be confidential to the industry?
§ Mr. Graham Page
Will my hon. Friend deal with the question of representation on the working party, because, as I have pointed out, it does not include some of the important associations of builders?
§ Mr. Corfield
The working party has been convened by the building trade employers. Therefore, I am not entirely au fait with exactly what other bodies are being invited. I will consider whether one of our representatives should make the suggestion that other bodies should be invited. I have been very much struck by the anxiety of the convenors of the working party that it should not either appear to be or, in fact, be builder-dominated. This desire is to be welcomed.
The hon. Member for Orpington asked if the working party's recommendations would be published. Not being our working party, I cannot say. Its discussions will certainly not be in secret because our representatives will be present and my impression is that the working party is anxious to give the maximum publicity to what it is doing. I cannot commit a body which is not controlled by the Government, but I do not think that there will be any anxiety to keep its discussions or recommendations secret.
I agree that the specific case raised earlier by the hon. Member for Orpington has been a long drawn-out affair, perhaps inevitably so since before the offers were made something happened which made one wonder whether the offers would have been so good had those public actions not been taken. The hon. Member said that the first complaint had been made in the autumn of 1962. We have reached the stage now when the builder has offered to buy back at the price of the building assuming that it was entirely sound, plus incidental expenses such as laying out the gardens, legal and surveyors' fees and so on.
I can think of many other remedies at law and elsewhere which would still be going on over a period of less than a year. It is not entirely fair to condemn this scheme out of hand on that basis. Nor would I entirely agree that either the offer nor 768 even the previous offer was, on the face of it, wholly unreasonable. The hon. Member for Orpington compared this case with that of a motor-car. It is true that if one bought a Rover, and it went wrong, one would get another Rover, but could one get another Rover if the first were repairable? And could one expect to sit in the car and have a new car built around one? That represents what the hon. Member was suggesting.
I cannot form a judgment on the right offer in this case. That is not my function. There is arbitration machinery and by accepting the certificate the purchaser, as with the builder, enters into an agreement by which it is agreed that if there are defects and if agreement cannot be reached on the extent of them or how they should be put right there is arbitration. This is the way these matters can be settled and it would not be right for me to say whether or not the offer is reasonable. It is fair to say, however, that, on the face of it, it does not appear to me to be an unreasonable offer at this stage.
The hon. Member for Orpington suggested that my right hon. Friend should withdraw his approval of this body under paragraph 11 of Part III of the Fourth Schedule of the Building Societies Act. This is largely irrelevant and is certainly taking a sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. That Schedule provides for where a building society makes an advance rather larger than it would normally make in relation to the actual security. The building society may make this exception in a number of circumstances, one of which is where the building has the certificate. It increases the advance that can be made by a marginal amount and this, I think, is valuable to building societies.
The existence of this is to some degree an encouragement to more builders to adopt this scheme because builders are interested in selling their houses and they know that 95 per cent. of them will probably be sold only if advances are made by building societies. Thus anything that makes their property more attractive to a building society is likely to help them to sell their houses. As to the withdrawal of the approval of my right hon. Friend of the Council, it would be wrong and, even if one 769 accepted that things had gone wrong to the extent mentioned by the hon. Member today, to do so on the basis of one case would be using a very harsh penalty.
§ Mr. Lubbock
It is true that I suggested in correspondence with the Ministry that the Minister should withdraw his approval from this body, but I made the alternative proposal this afternoon that the right hon. Gentleman should use his powers to impose higher standards on the Council.
§ Mr. Corfield
It is not a question of imposing higher standards. The industry and the Council are showing every welcome to the idea that they should discuss whether their standards are too low. As to imposing higher standards, the precise terms of doing that could not be embarked upon easily or quickly, even if one considered that higher standards were necessary.
I hope that I have covered most of the points raised in the debate. I will see that any suggestions made in future are put to the working party through our representatives. I hope the House will agree that the Motion is entirely acceptable, except that we clearly cannot promise to legislate this week, this Session, or by any given time. I can assure the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne that my right hon. Friend is determined to see this matter put in order, preferably by the industry but, if not, by legislative action.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I have with me the Building Standards (Scotland) Regulations, 1963. They are voluminous and detailed and were laid towards the end of November. They are to come into operation— whether before or after the General Election—on 15th June, 1964. Is the working party to which the Minister referred doing the same job as has already been done by the Scots? If so, does it pro- 770 pose to take the same standards, or will its standards be higher or lower?
§ Mr. Corfield
I would not like to get involved in an argument on whether the Scottish standards are higher or lower. This is a totally different exercise, as the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) would be aware had he been here throughout the debate; although we are always pleased to see him in his place.
The building regulations are successors to the by-laws which are to be operated by local authorities, but universally applied throughout the country. We are working on them. They are nearly ready, although I would not like to give a date when they will be finalised. When they are they will be made the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works and they will be the basic safety, health and structural regulations covering the whole country.
§ Mr. Corfield
We have today been discussing very detailed structural requirements for houses as well as mere safety and health regulations. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne on raising the matter and I thank hon. Members for the suggestions they have made. We have had a valuable debate, if only because it will bring more publicity and a bigger demand from the public that builders should belong to this scheme.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House, recognising the need to protect house purchasers from jerry building, poor materials and bad workmanship, congratulates the National House-Builders Registration Council on its efforts to obtain high standards in the building trade by voluntary agreement, but believes that legislation should now be considered to ensure that all house builders conform to accepted standards and specifications, and insure against contingencies.