Private Tower Blocks: Removal of Cladding

Part of Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee) – in the House of Commons at 7:26 pm on 29th April 2019.

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Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 7:26 pm, 29th April 2019

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He has weaved in the European perspective, but I would say to him that, fundamentally, the duty of care is with our Government—of whichever political colour—and there was nothing stopping the Government making sure that flammable cladding was not used, so to revert to blaming the EU is frankly unhelpful and not in the spirit of the purpose of this debate. This is about how we protect our citizens in this country, and how we learn from what has happened with the failure of regulation in our country to protect people in the future and deal with what is happening now for those who have dangerous cladding covering their blocks of flats.

Last summer, after vociferous campaigning, Ministers announced £400 million of funding for urgent fire safety repairs in social housing blocks that are at risk. This is welcome, but it did not come easy. The Grenfell survivors, having been through the most horrific trauma, campaigned with charities, local authorities and Members of Parliament. We had to fight tooth and nail to secure this funding, and it took a year. It should not have taken so long; the Government should have done it immediately. Now, we have to fight tooth and nail for a similar pledge for people to be protected in privately owned blocks. I hope the Minister will say something positive today about additional funding because this has gone on for two years, and it should not be like that.

Of the 345 buildings that I have mentioned are awaiting repairs, 226 are in private hands, and Ministers have done too little to make them safe. Of course, fire does not discriminate between private and public ownership. There is no logic in safeguarding social housing while ignoring private housing. Ministers have said that they expect private building owners to pay for these measures, although this has been backed only by an appeal to their good will and good nature, rather stipulating it through legislation. The Government should make this a legal requirement.

Where repairs are being carried out, some private owners, as the Minister is fully aware, are passing on the costs to the people living in the flats as a service charge under the terms of their leases. This can amount to thousands of pounds, and it is simply unacceptable. As we know, freeholders who own these blocks are often in the shadows, obscured by front companies, and under data protection laws they can remain anonymous because of the risk of arson. If there is no law to compel freeholders and no public scrutiny, it is hardly surprising that many will fail to act.

In January, the Minister said that he could guarantee that people in high-rise flats with ACM cladding were safe to sleep at night, but thousands living in flats in high-rise buildings, encased in cladding that could spread fire with rapacious speed, do not feel safe and there is no good night’s sleep. The sleepless nights will continue until Ministers get a grip and move fast to take down the cladding.

My local authority, Tower Hamlets, is among those with the highest number of blocks with dangerous ACM cladding in the country: 41 are privately owned blocks, and nine are social housing blocks. Victoria Wharf in my constituency, which has been in the press, has ACM cladding like that at Grenfell. Residents have been charged nearly £7,000 per flat for temporary safety measures, such as 24-hour fire wardens. They are very concerned that no real action has been taken yet, despite the fact that the dangers are well known. The freeholder is Vuillard Holdings, which is registered offshore.

Currently, there are no legal means of forcing the owners to meet their obligations—and if there are any, they are not affordable for my constituents. Perhaps the Government could take legal action against these companies if they are not prepared to legislate to make the companies pay. Time and again, when Ministers have heard the anguished cries of people in this situation, they have offered no solace. Indeed, the Minister for Housing told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that he was “sorry to be opaque” when he was pressed on making funding available for private ACM-clad plots. I am sorry, too. This evening, instead of being opaque, I hope he will be transparent and demonstrate the urgency of the matter by announcing practical action backed by resources.

Specifically, I ask the Minister to address the following. Will his Department commit to creating new national funding for the removal of dangerous cladding from private blocks, administered by either national or local government? That would mean that works could start straight away. The funding must be additional, given the crisis in local government finance. Will he agree a series of deadlines along a clear timeline to remove all dangerous cladding? Will he amend existing legislation to force freeholders to pay for repairs?

I hope that we are about to hear an action plan about these important issues—making money available now, setting a timetable and making freeholders pay. In last year’s Budget, the Chancellor made £420 million of extra funding available to fix potholes. Do not get me wrong: fixing potholes is important—I tripped on one and had an injury—but the issue that we are debating is a matter of life and death for thousands of people up and down the country. For many in my constituency and the constituencies of Members across the House, urgent action is required.

After Grenfell, the Prime Minister said:

My Government will do whatever it takes to…keep our people safe.”

Two years on, her Government have completely failed to honour that commitment, even when people are living in utter fear and despair for their and their family’s safety and are trapped in properties with no end in sight. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if one more fatality like those at Grenfell occurs in a block with ACM cladding because of this Government’s failure to act, this Government will be absolutely liable. They will have blood on their hands if they do not take action and if some other disaster happens.