I congratulate hon. Members who have made such powerful maiden speeches today, including in particular my constituency neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), with whom I look forward to working on the issues that affect all of our constituents in south London.
The Grenfell Tower fire was an unspeakable horror that became an unimaginable tragedy for hundreds of people who lost parents, sisters, brothers, children, friends and the fabric of their lives, the basis of their security and community. My thoughts are with everyone affected by such devastating loss. Indeed, it has often been hard to think about anything else over the past month.
The fire has had a profound impact not only on all those who were directly affected by it, but on the wider community in Kensington and London, and on the country as a whole. The first priority must of course be help and support for survivors of the fire to access new homes within their existing community that meet their needs and are genuinely affordable, and the support they need to rebuild their lives.
The Government must also recognise that for residents throughout the country one consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire has been a colossal loss of confidence and trust, because somewhere along the line the systems, regulations, standards, inspections and emergency procedures that were put in place to keep people safe failed to do so. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, there have been two fires in tower blocks in my constituency; on one of those occasions, I was on site as the fire broke out. The level of anxiety and fear that residents in tower blocks feel at the moment cannot be overstated. In working to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again, the Government must focus on how confidence and trust can be rebuilt so that residents of tower blocks throughout the country can rest easy again, without any shadow of a doubt that the framework of governance, regulation and inspection that is supposed to keep them safe will do so.
I was elected as a councillor in the London Borough of Southwark in 2010, the year after the Lakanal House fire, as part of a new council administration picking up the pieces following that devastating tragedy in which six people lost their lives. Fire safety was the council’s top priority. Every block was subject to a rigorous fire-risk assessment, starting with the tallest blocks and working down, and the council spent more than £60 million on fire safety works. Fire safety is an ongoing responsibility and must be monitored and assessed constantly, so I am not suggesting there is any room for complacency in Southwark or that there is not more to do, but the level of commitment to ensuring that Lakanal could not happen again was crystal clear.
Lakanal House should have been the wake-up call not just for a single borough, but for the country as a whole. The fact that it was not is down to the lack of political will and commitment from a Government ideologically committed to deregulation at all costs and the reduction of public expenditure, and down to seven years of deep cuts to local and central Government and to our emergency services.
The obsession with deregulation was illustrated in 2014 when the then Housing Minister said, following advice from the Lakanal House coroner that the Government should consider progressing the installation of sprinkler systems in all tower blocks:
“We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 575, c. 188WH.]
What utter nonsense. It is the responsibility of the Government to keep people safe, and that requires a framework of regulation and funding, not a private marketing campaign for sprinklers. That same ideologically driven approach to deregulation has resulted in the review of building regulations that the Lakanal House coroner also called for being left in the long grass for four years.
Multiple problems with the regulatory framework need to be addressed. Fire risk assessments can be undertaken by anyone—there is no requirement for any minimum level of qualifications, expertise or registration, and no requirement for independence. There is no minimum requirement for the number of building control inspections that have to be undertaken during construction works, allowing defects to be built in and covered up between inspections. The all-party group on group for excellence in the built environment, of which I am vice-chair, published a report a year ago that highlighted this issue. It said:
“We are concerned that competition in building control might be fuelling a race to the bottom and we are therefore recommending there should be a defined minimum number of inspections”.
There has been no Government action on the issue.
Building control inspections can be self-procured from private providers, thereby setting up a contractual relationship between construction contractors and building control inspectors that lacks independence and can therefore be compromised. The Government cannot pretend that austerity is not part of the problem. There has been a huge loss of local authority capacity because of cuts to council budgets. Planning and building control is the second most severely cut area of expenditure across local authority services. There has also been a huge loss of capacity in the Department for Communities and Local Government and among the emergency services.
Even without the conclusions of a public inquiry, it is clear that there are actions that the Government can and must take now to rebuild the trust of residents living in tower blocks. They must act on advice that has already received and information that is already known. There must be a complete overhaul of the fire safety inspection regime: responsibility must be restored to the fire service on a completely independent and statutory footing and cuts to the fire service must be reversed to enable it to fulfil that role. There must be a complete overhaul of building regulations, as called for by the Lakanal House coroner four years ago, and its recommendations must apply to existing buildings as well as new builds. Residents must be given a voice in this process. The Government must provide urgent clarity on the safety of cladding products of all types, not just aluminium composite cladding and insulation, including advice on safe replacements for panels that need to be removed and specifications for new buildings. Importantly, there must be new rights for residents in high-rise blocks who have concerns about fire safety to trigger an independent inspection, the outcome of which has statutory weight.
Finally, the Government must stop playing semantic games on the funding for fire safety works arising as a consequence of the Grenfell Tower fire. In response to a written question I submitted last week on this matter, the relevant Minister wrote:
“Where work is necessary to ensure the fire safety of social housing, we will ensure that lack of financial resources will not prevent it going ahead.”
What does that mean? Does it mean that the Government will decide whether they believe that councils have the resources or not? What will be the process? Who will make the decision? The Grenfell Tower fire came out of the blue, and the steps to put it right cannot be at the expense of planned maintenance or major works, or of the delivery of urgently needed new homes. The Government must make a firm commitment to fund fire safety works, sprinkler systems and the replacement of cladding required in response to Grenfell Tower, and they must make this commitment as a matter of urgency. So I call on them to begin the process of addressing the fears that communities across the country have because of Grenfell Tower, and of restoring trust and confidence in the systems that are there to protect people. The memory of those who lost their lives must be respected and honoured by making absolutely certain that such a tragedy can never happen again.