As the taxi approaches Oxley Woods in Milton Keynes, the oblique angles and vivid white and reds of the estate’s futuristic homes seem to rise up out of nowhere.
Angular turret-style roofs gleam in the early evening light. You could be arriving at a multi-coloured fairytale castle.
The roads are empty but groups of neighbours stand on the pavements chatting — some water their neat, clipped lawns, others are walking their dogs.
In an uncharacteristically pristine adventure playground, a handful of children are on the swings and slides. Family cars fill every driveway. A lycra-clad cyclist whirrs past. It’s like a scene from the Stepford Wives.
But just as in that tale of a supposedly perfect community, Oxley Woods — fondly dubbed Legoland by locals — has a dark secret.
Many of the residents in this award-winning estate — designed by renowned architect Richard Rogers, who is also behind the Millennium Dome and the Lloyd’s of London building — are living in homes riddled with problems.
It’s not what you would expect of new-build properties. But the problems faced by these residents are being encountered by increasing numbers of new buyers.
Oxley Woods was the flagship scheme of former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to develop low-cost, energy-efficient homes.
These pre-fabricated properties, built in 2007 for just £60,000 each, could be knocked up in 24 hours.
But last month a secret report described how wooden supporting structures of some of the homes, from scheme developer Taylor Wimpey, are saturated.
It also found examples of ‘poor workmanship and practice’ in laying part of the roof.
The report leaked to industry magazine Architects Journal suggests replacing many windows and doors and repairing roofs and balconies.
As a result, every house is to have a survey to check for faults.
Some residents won’t hear a bad word about their dream homes. They politely — but carefully — fend off questions about the problems neighbours have had.
Those who are suffering are nervous about speaking out. One man is hesitant before answering questions. He pauses, then says: ‘People are disappointed. The houses have only been up a couple of years but up until a week or so ago there was scaffolding all over the place.’
He gestures towards a group of houses he thinks have suffered the most. At one of these, a young woman opens the door. She looks around the street before inviting me in.
Her boyfriend is eating his dinner in a light and airy living room. Our eyes fall on a lonely patch of purple wallpaper against an otherwise white wall. The man explains: ‘We can’t decorate the rest because we’re too worried in case we need repairs doing.’
He’s lived there since 2008, paying £112,000 for a 50 per cent stake. He bought through a shared-ownership scheme — a common type of finance deal for new-build properties that typically allows a developer or housing association to keep a stake in the property.
His home has had leaking windows, mould, and a cracked skylight.
He says its ‘eco hat’ — a red house-shaped funnel that sits on top of each building pumping air through it — has been broken for weeks.
He adds: ‘It’s OK for the builders to say they will do the repairs. But what if after another seven years, they uncover more problems and have to pull the whole place down?
‘If they carry out work, that’s not the end of things for us. We will have to speak to our mortgage company and the cost of my home loan may change and our home insurer may increase our premiums.’
Later, a resident emails a copy of a blog he has written on a local neighbourhood forum. In it he describes how most on the estate love their quirky homes but that now first-time buyers, families and retirees are in a terrible situation.
It says: ‘We personally fear we may have lost all that we have put into our properties — the huge financial investment, but also the time, energy and love spent making these houses our homes.’
Building boom with a third more homes being built
Britain is undergoing a home-buying boom, which is largely spurring on the nation’s economic recovery.
After years in the doldrums, new developments are cropping up all over the country. Developers started work on 133,650 properties in the 12 months to March 2014 — a jump of more than a third on the previous year.
The number of homes being built today is 77 per cent higher than in 2009.
The first part of the Government’s Help To Buy scheme is largely credited for creating this boom. This allows homebuyers to get mortgages for new-build properties. Buyers put down a 5 per cent deposit, and the Treasury gives them a 20 per cent equity loan which is interest free at first and then increases in line with the cost of living.
A second scheme enables banks to offer more mortgages to buyers with smaller deposits.
Since these policies were unveiled two years ago, the fortunes of developers have surged. Figures from investment bank Morgan Stanley reveal a third of newly built homes are being funded by the scheme.
It estimates that by next year, the scheme will be responsible for a 55 per cent increase in the number of new homes, compared with 2012 levels.
Operating profit at Britain’s third largest builder Taylor Wimpey jumped by more than a third last year. The average selling price grew by almost a quarter to £248,900.
Another major developer, Persimmon, sold 5,000 homes under Help To Buy. In its 2013 annual report it boasted that sales had ‘increased significantly’ in the second part of last year, due to Help To Buy and easier access to mortgages for buyers. Sales surged by 63 per cent in Scotland and 44 per cent in Yorkshire. Barratt Developments saw its operating profit surge by a third in 2013 to £252.7 million.
It said it had seen a ‘step change in demand’ for new homes with the launch of the Help To Buy scheme.
HOUSES DELAYED FOR A YEAR AND BUYERS FORCED TO RENT
Many of the properties on the smart Hunters Gate estate in Grantham, Lincolnshire are being sold through the Government’s Help To Buy scheme. Developer Persimmon promises ‘stylish homes that cater for the whole family’.
There is a one-bedroom flat for sale at £79,995, and another, not yet finished, five-bedroom home for £295,995. On the company website the classic-looking red-brick properties with names such as Aspen, Burleigh or Thetford, seem perfect.
But residents who bought in to this dream now feel deceived. Some have been renting for months because their home took longer than expected to complete.
At other homes, residents claim ceilings have had to be replaced. Some gardens are strewn with rubble and, mortar appears to have crumbled from the brickwork.
Twenty-one families have formed a protest group.
Kirsty Burton and her husband Anthony were supposed to move into their £220,000 four-bedroom home on the estate last June. Almost one year on, they are packed and ready to move, but stuck in their old home.
Delays have been caused after the floor became sodden. The garden is still filled with rubble.
Mrs Burton, 44, says: ‘We have suffered unimaginable stress and Persimmon have fought us every step of the way. We have parted with the best part of a quarter of a million pounds for this house, with absolutely no customer service.
‘We’ve been told we can pull out of the deal but in the time since we bought, house prices have gone up. We would struggle to get something else like this for the same price now.’
Her future neighbour, Lisa Farren, 33, bought a four-bedroom house with her fiancé Jordan Smith, 25. They paid £175,000, but then faced a lengthy delay, and since moving in have suffered a string of faults.
‘Come and see the garden,’ says Lisa. ‘This is the biggest problem.’
On plans shown to her the garden appeared to be a slope. But when you walk round the side of the house a small path suddenly ends and the garden just falls away sharply.
It is covered in thick mud and almost impossible to walk up. For a child it would be treacherous.
Lisa complained to Persimmon months ago but so far nothing has happened — although the firm has said it will try to fix the garden in June. She says: ‘This was supposed to be our dream home together but instead it has turned into a nightmare.
‘We have lost a year of our lives worrying about this. If we had children how could we allow them to play safely in that garden?’
A NAIL THROUGH THE FLOOR AND MOULD UNDER THE LINO
Tracey and Christopher Lang bought their three-bedroom home at Hunters Gate for £160,000 through the Government’s former first-time buyer scheme called First Buy.
Their house was delayed by six months. After they moved in they discovered a nail sticking through the bedroom floor. There was also mould under the lino.
She says: ‘The whole thing has been absolutely awful. I feel I have had to shout at the top of my voice to get anything done.’
Adrian Evans, managing director of Persimmon East Midlands apologises for ‘any disappointment or inconvenience caused by the delays’.
He says a high turnover of staff at the site was to blame. He adds: ‘All properties with outstanding works have been contacted and works agreed with each household.’
A Taylor Wimpey spokesman says: ‘A number of residents at Oxley Woods have reported issues with their properties and we are in the process of preparing a programme of remediation works for all affected homes.
‘All residents are being kept fully informed and updated as we work towards resolving these issues as quickly and effectively as possible.’
A spokesman for Richard Rogers’ firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, says: ‘There have been some issues with workmanship in the construction process and we understand that these are being addressed.
‘The residents are very supportive of the design concept and it is disappointing that these issues have materialised.’