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06 September 2021

Housing minister: ‘Construction must drive for better quality and safer buildings’

Housing minister Eddie Hughes is an enthusiastic member of the CIOB and believes the institute has a vital role at a time of rapid change for construction. Will Mann caught up with him.

Eddie Hughes has an anecdote about housing quality which arguably sums up many of the problems that have plagued the industry recently.

“Not long after joining parliament,” recalls the housing minister and Walsall North MP, “I was chatting with then CIOB CEO Chris Blythe, and he showed me photos of his daughter’s new-build flat. There was a carbon monoxide detector in it – but in the wrong place, the hall not the kitchen. And this struck a chord with me because I had just introduced a private member’s bill, pushing for carbon monoxide alarms to be mandatory in new homes.

“At Chris’s daughter’s flat, the site manager had ticked the box by installing it – but may not have known that it was serving no useful purpose. This feels like a metaphor for some of the things that have gone wrong in the construction industry due to dreadful quality assurance.”

Hughes will be addressing these issues and plenty more following his appointment in January as minister for housing and rough sleeping. His background – he is a CIOB member, worked in social housing and chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment – made him an obvious candidate for the role. Since arriving in Westminster, he has been in regular contact with the CIOB and says the institute deserves great credit for “the work it has done to raise quality standards”.

Consumer guarantees

Among his key ministerial responsibilities are the New Homes Quality Board and the New Homes Ombudsman. Provision for the ombudsman will be introduced through the Building Safety Bill. 

“Developers have not paid enough attention to quality, or they have cut corners, or individual trades have,” says Hughes bluntly. “That’s one side of the problem.

“The other side is consumer rights. If you buy a new home, you should have the same kind of guarantee as when you buy something like a kettle. When people buy a new home, they’ve got a certificate that seems to offer a degree of assurance – but that can be false. People feel like they have more rights of redress than they actually do.

“This is where the New Homes Quality Board and the ombudsman come in.”

The board was set up earlier this year and in June launched a consultation on its quality code. Developers signing up to the code will have to offer homebuyers greater protection, including an effective aftercare service to deal with any snagging problems customers may have. If buyers are not satisfied, they can refer their complaint to the voluntary ombudsman being set up by the board.

In addition, legislation is continuing its passage through parliament.  The Building Safety Bill includes provision for the ombudsman scheme which will, in future, be a legal requirement for developers to join. The ombudsman will investigate and determine complaints and require developers to provide redress where complaints are well founded.  Developers may receive sanctions where they breach the requirement to be a member of the scheme when they build and sell new homes. 

“It’s important that people can buy a new home and have some faith in the quality of workmanship and know there is the opportunity for redress,” says Hughes.

“Developers will have to sign up to the code, which sets standards for their behaviour and the quality of product they deliver. From the consultation on the quality code, I think the housebuilding sector is enthusiastic about this. Those builders who are currently producing a quality product feel maligned by those who are not.”

Driving up standards

And for developers who continue to deliver an inferior product, are there sanctions available?

“If you are a developer persistently not meeting those standards you’d signed up for, your ability to develop would be restricted,” answers Hughes.

“But the purpose of the ombudsman is not about enforcement, it is about driving up standards,” he continues. “And I feel that when developers know all of their peers have signed up to this code, they will feel more pressure to comply.

“And there is a financial imperative here too, because if they get things right in the first place they won’t have go back and fix them later.”

Making the Building Safety Bill law is only “a first step towards implementation”, Hughes notes, with secondary legislation to follow.

“It will be important the industry embraces the changes put in place through the legislation,” he says. “And I see organisations like the CIOB at the forefront of that. Every construction professional needs to be aware of the legislation and the drive for better quality and safer buildings for people to occupy in the future.”

Also part of Hughes’s brief is the Social Housing White Paper, which aims to give residents a greater voice, including on building work.

“Previously, housing repairs would involve a relationship between a few people at the registered provider and the construction company,” says Hughes. “Now everything has to track back to the tenant. They should have the opportunity to input whenever construction or refurbishment touches their lives. For new-build homes, that will include involvement in design, layout, choice of materials.

“We also want tenants to have better information on the performance of the people who
carry out maintenance and repairs to their homes; tenants should expect anyone working in their home to treat them with respect. As a private homeowner would expect of any tradesperson in their home.”

Do these softer communication skills come naturally for construction professionals?

“No!” replies Hughes with a laugh. “I say that as a civil engineer, by training. We naturally see construction as a series of problems to be solved rather than thinking about what’s going to happen to the product once we’ve left. The process needs to be made more personable.”

Changes in the industry

Social housing has been one of Hughes’s passions, though he entered the sector almost by accident. He graduated in civil engineering in 1992, during a full-blown recession, when none of the major construction companies were recruiting.

“There was a housing site near where my folks lived in Birmingham, and I literally walked on to the site and asked ‘Have you got any jobs going?’” Hughes recalls. “There was a theodolite set up and a guy said, ‘Can you operate that?’, and I said ‘I certainly can’. He said, ‘Come back tomorrow then’.”

He went on to become chair of Walsall Housing Group and describes his work as construction director at the YMCA Birmingham – overseeing the building of 34 homes, a sports hall and conference centre – as the professional achievement which gives him the most pride.

Hughes has seen “massive change” during his time in the industry, noting “attention to safety on site is now paramount”, but feels it remains behind in other areas: “Diversity has increased to a degree, but not substantially enough; the whole industry needs to act as salespeople, encouraging females and anyone from minority backgrounds to believe they can have a career in construction.”

Hughes voted for Brexit and believes construction now has to step up to address the its skills challenges.

“Previously, there wasn’t the same motivation to invest in training, as building companies could draw in skilled trades from mainland Europe,” he says. “Now, that responsibility sits squarely with the industry.

“Let’s face it, construction is full of innovative and creative people who come up with solutions to the varied problems they face – this one shouldn’t be insurmountable.

“I’m open to the industry approaching the government with an idea to promote construction careers. That’s something I would love to do.”

Hughes is an enthusiastic “cheerleader” for the CIOB and believes the institute has a vital role at a time of such rapid change for construction, with the building safety bill landing, digital change marching on apace, and resourcing issues.

“CIOB membership plugs you into a broad range of really useful information – whether it’s net zero skills, new technology, health and safety, materials shortages – which is a way industry professionals can keep up with what’s going on in the industry,” Hughes says. “I also found that really useful as a backbench MP.

“Another of the benefits and requirements of membership is CPD,” he says. “People need to appreciate the value of that, particularly in the context of building safety and other industry changes. It is one of things that has informed my career in construction since I joined the industry nearly three decades ago, and it should be part of how any young construction manager plans their career.”

Source: Construction Manager Magazine

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