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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:49 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton 5:49 pm, 21st January 2020

I pay tribute, as others have done, to the residents of Grenfell, and particularly to members of Grenfell United. They have managed not only to cope with this terrible tragedy, but to make some sense out of it afterwards and to depoliticise it. That is a lesson for this House. We should depoliticise this issue because the source of these problems is pan-governmental. We have some way to go to get this right. We have to do what is right, not just what is easy. There will be some tough challenges before we get to the bottom of this issue.

As I have said, the Secretary of State has done more than anybody else in trying to tackle this issue. Also on the Front Bench today is the former Housing Minister, my hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, who did a tremendous job in bringing forward the remediation fund, which was initially for the social element of the remediation works. We are going further all the time. I was heartened by the Secretary of State’s comments yesterday on his seven-point plan, which has taken us further in understanding that we have not got to the bottom of this issue yet; I really do not think that we have.

We all say that this terrible tragedy should never be repeated. I listened carefully to the words of my hon. Friend Dean Russell, whom I welcome to his place. If we are to make sure that this does not happen again, we absolutely must confront the lessons of this tragedy.

It is right that the Government acted in terms of a ban on combustible materials; they were very quick in doing that. The Select Committee called for it, but simultaneously the Government brought it forward. It was absolutely the right thing to do, as was the decision to replace ACM on every building—social or private—in the UK. The question now is on other combustible cladding on high-rise buildings around the country. It is difficult to challenge the findings of Sir Martin Moore-Bick in his very comprehensive report, but I think that it is ambiguous: I am not sure whether he is right in chapter 2.16, where he says that the building

“failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations”.

I shall tell Members why I think that. That is not definitive; that is why I say it is ambiguous. According to the Government’s own guidance, there are two ways to meet the requirement on fire spread—there are two ways that external walls may meet the building regulations. One is for each individual component of the wall to meet the required standard of combustibility. The guidance is in section 12.6 of approved document B, which says:

“The external surfaces of walls should meet the provisions in Diagram 40.”

If we look at diagram 40, it is clear that the standard allowed is class B, which is a combustible standard, so it is ambiguous. This answers the question of my right hon. Friend Mrs May and my hon. Friend Bob Blackman as to why this happened. We have to look in detail at exactly why this happened. We cannot simply say, as advice note 14 does, that combustible materials were not allowed to go on the outside of buildings. It refers only to materials of “limited combustibility” —A2 and above. Diagram 40 refers to class B, which is clearly below A2 in terms of standard. Therefore, there is ambiguity between advice note 14 and approved document B and diagram 40.

Yes, combustible insulation is clearly banned in terms of a component test. As for cladding, there is ambiguity to say the least. Of course, on the back of advice note 14, we are saying to people who live in buildings with combustible cladding that those properties do not meet the standard, which makes them unsaleable and puts long-lease holders in this terrible situation—this invidious situation—where they are left totally in limbo. Even if that were not the case, there would be a difficulty with this. Clearly, the situation with the guidance is so serious. We recognise now that it was a mistake to allow combustible cladding on the outside of high-rise buildings. That is why the Government rightly brought forward the combustible ban. Building regulations, however, work prospectively, not retrospectively. How can we say that it is wrong to allow combustible cladding on new high-rise buildings but okay for old ones? We simply cannot countenance that, but leaseholders are being put in that situation.

People keep saying that freeholders—the building owners—must pay. However, as I have pointed out time and again, both in the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government and on the Floor of the House, while social landlords must pay, and the Government have put in some money for them, in most cases freeholders—the owners of a property’s ground rent and the ground on which the building stands—have no legal responsibility to carry out remedial maintenance work on a high-rise building. We can talk tough all we like and say, “We’re going to make them do this and make them do that”—Opposition Members have said that, and I have heard Conservative Members say it, too—but there is no legal way to do that. I do not know of a way to impose on anybody a retrospective legal requirement in a contract. It is simply not possible in our legal framework, and that leaves leaseholders in limbo.

We are going to have to look again at the issue and do something for long-lease holders, many of whom will have bought their properties on a high loan to value and who do not have the £20,000 or £30,000 to pay for the remedial work of removing combustible cladding from each flat and replacing it with limited combustibility cladding. So we will have to look at this again. I welcome the fact that the Government have said that they are looking at it again and will look at the testing. It is absolutely right that we wait to see the results of the testing on a lot of the systems—I get that. If it turns out, however, that some of the buildings are unsafe, it is absolutely right that we look again at the issue. I know we are talking about a lot of money, but to put people in a situation where they feel at risk and have a property they simply cannot sell, cannot be right. It is right that we in this place do what is right, not what is easy.