Flammable Cladding Removal

– in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 14th July 2020.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Eddie Hughes.)

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 7:02 pm, 14th July 2020

It is beyond belief that it has been three years since that terrible night at Grenfell Tower. I want to begin by paying my respects to those who lost their lives, and we will remember them today in this debate. We are also incredibly grateful to their family members, their neighbours and the survivors for campaigning, despite all they went through, for the safety of properties that are clad with dangerous aluminium composite material and also of other properties that are a risk.

There are still an estimated 60,000 people living in homes with similar ACM cladding on the outside of their buildings, and many more living in buildings that are dangerous. According to the Fire Brigades Union, some 500,000 people are at risk from living in unsafe housing across the UK. Each night, they are going to bed, knowing that, if their building caught fire, it would spread quickly because of the flammable cladding, and they know, too, that their chances of survival are seriously lessened in that context. They know that progress to remove that cladding has been slow and has slowed further because of the pandemic. I have called for this debate because I think that it is vital that Ministers step up and make sure that the cladding and other dangerous materials on those blocks are removed as a matter of urgency.

It took a year for the Government to agree to fund the removal of ACM cladding in high-rise social housing blocks and then two years for private blocks and three years for others commitments to be made. That happened because of the actions of campaign groups such as Grenfell United, the UK Cladding Action Group and Inside Housing, as well as Members of Parliament and charities and housing organisations. It is not good enough that the Government have been forced kicking and screaming into doing these things, rather than taking responsibility, as was promised at the time of the fire. Although £1.6 billion of Government funding is welcome, they estimate themselves that between £3 billion and £3.5 billion is required to make all buildings safe.

Residents feel like prisoners in their homes. They cannot sell or remortgage their flats, and the external wall fire review and EWS1 form process is not sufficient, is costly and takes too long. They are trapped.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the paperwork needed. Even many residents who live in homes that are not as unsafe as some others find that without that form they are unable to sell. One of the things the Public Accounts Committee picked up on in our recent hearing was that being unable to get professional indemnity insurance is a major brake. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to step in on this issue?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

Yes, absolutely, and I hope that the Minister will, along with his Treasury colleagues, look at this very quickly to resolve the matter, because it affects people who are trying to sell homes, as I have seen in my constituency.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (International Development)

My hon. Friend is making crucial points about the UK Government’s responsibilities in this area, and of course fire safety issues go well beyond the issue of cladding to other matters such as compartmentation and other fire safety measures. Does my hon. Friend agree that the original developers of buildings also need to take a huge responsibility? In my constituency, Laing O’Rourke is refusing to engage with the Celestia development residents about fire safety issues that it is responsible for, in defects in the construction; does my hon. Friend agree that developers must take their responsibilities seriously?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to that point, and I hope the Minister addresses the point about the need for private developers and freeholders to take action and also talks about proposals the Government might have if they do not act, including the recommendation of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee of compulsory purchasing if required. We cannot just rely on good will, because some of them do not have the good will to take action, and people’s lives are at risk.

The Government’s latest release in June revealed that 155 of the 455 high-rise buildings identified as covered in ACM by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have had cladding removed, but another 300 are yet to be remediated. That is a lot of housing that needs to be remediated.

The Government have repeatedly missed their own deadlines of 2019 for social sector blocks and June 2020 for private sector blocks. Despite the major fires in 2019 at student accommodation blocks with high-pressure laminate cladding in Bolton and at the flats in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge, where flames quickly spread up the timber balconies, progress has been painfully slow and the coronavirus pandemic has hampered progress even more, as I have said.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

Does the hon. Lady agree that the leaseholders of St Francis Tower in Ipswich, who have had absolutely no say on, or power to stop, dangerous HPL cladding being put on the tower where they live, are right to feel aggrieved that they now receive letters harassing them for payments for removing that cladding? Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government should support those leaseholders and eliminate that uncertainty and anxiety?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I could not agree more. In debates on these matters I have called time and again on the Government to use their powers and stand with leaseholders and take action, because at the moment leaseholders are being expected to take legal action against powerful, wealthy developers and owners, and that is not a fair balance. To this day, the Government have failed to act, yet they could use their powers and might to help these people. These are hard-working families who worked really hard to get on the property ladder; these are people who work in the NHS; these are people who are keeping us safe and alive, and the Government should be stepping up to support leaseholders.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s response has been entirely inadequate? Not only are not all tall buildings with flammable cladding identified, but neither are medium-rise buildings above 11 metres high and those with valuable occupants such as hospitals and care homes.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I could not agree more.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee found that the £1 billion building safety fund would pay for only 600 of the buildings, when actually we need billions to ensure that all buildings in the country that are in this unsafe state can be addressed.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument. Is it not particularly unsatisfactory that Ministers have signed up to the principle that leaseholders should not have to bear these costs, but have not provided the funds to make a reality of it?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

Absolutely.

We are finding that the small print requirements that housing associations and local authorities are having to pass is excluding them from accessing funding. They are then having to pass on the bill to the leaseholders, as hon. Members have said. Our leaseholder constituents cannot afford tens of thousands of pounds when right now their jobs are on the line, they are struggling to make ends meet and struggling to feed their kids. Middle-class families are having to rely on food banks in this crisis, and now they are worried about what will happen to their housing.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this forward. She has been a champion when it comes to highlighting this issue, and I want to congratulate her on that as well. With the large number of Northern Ireland students in university flats and housing—some of them are my constituents, by the way—I have real concerns about the number of our students who are in unsafe housing. Does she agree that universities and landlords must do more to upgrade student housing to the highest standards to ensure that what happened at Grenfell does not happen there?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I urge the Minister to use his powers and his position to look at these issues in the round, so that he can sleep at night and feel comfortable that he has done everything to protect people. Ultimately, we have a duty of care and responsibility to our citizens, and I hope that he will do all he can to address these points today.

My own local authority has 49 ACM-clad high-rise blocks, which is one of the highest figures in the country. I have had representations from many of my constituents over the past few years. It been years now, and the leaseholders have had to pay for the fire safety wardens. They were originally told that this would take a few months, but it has been years. They are worried about their safety and there is no end in sight for the work being completed. It has been done for some blocks but not for others.

A number of people have been told that the housing providers will not be able to provide the fire service reports. I hope that the Minister can give me some clarity on the need for transparency here, because whether they are private developers who own the freehold or housing associations, they should provide the fire safety reports. Without them, it is difficult for our residents to know how much they will have to pay if there is no Government funding, or to make plans for their future.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Labour, Putney

Do you agree that many of my constituents in the Riverside Quarter, the Swish Building and the Argento Tower are facing this same limbo and have no end in sight? The fund needs to be given out more quickly and transparently. Would you agree that the Minister is not doing enough to explain about these funds and when they will be made available for residents?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Would the hon. Lady mind saying, “Would the hon. Lady agree” rather than “Would you agree”?

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. As the Minister can see, this is a short debate but there is a lot of interest and concern, and I hope that he will hear these concerns and address these points, and that he will really look carefully at how we can unblock these issues so that people can get the results they need so that they can live safely.

One of my constituents said:

“I spend all day stressed at the thought of losing my home. At night I am anxious about the possibility of fire. I haven’t slept well for months and do not see any end in the situation. I am trapped. I cannot sell and I am not allowed to rent the flat out. I am forced to stay here. It now feels like a prison.”

Another said: “I feel suicidal.” Another said:

“I can’t sleep from worry. Because of covid-19 I could lose my job any day now, and when that happens I won’t be able to pay my mortgage or sell my flat. Because of the cladding, I will end up losing everything I have worked for. It’s a big worry that affects my mental health and sleep. It is not fair for the Government to allow housing associations and construction companies to sell us unsafe houses, and we are now getting punished for their mistakes.”

Housing providers have an obligation to ensure that they are doing everything they can to make buildings safe, but the Government have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that they have access to the funds needed to do so. The Government took a long time before providing the funds and gave private developers and freeholders plenty of time to get their act together, but they have not done so. It is time the Government used their powers to make this happen. Ministers have said repeatedly that private owners of buildings have the responsibility to act, but the Government are shirking their responsibility by leaving it to the good will of building owners—many with complex ownership structures based in other countries, including for tax avoidance purposes—to apply for a limited first come, first served fund or to pay for the works themselves. Many have found cunning ways to avoid paying anything, leaving our constituents high and dry, unable to live safely in their homes. This is unacceptable. It has to stop. Our Government must act and go after those owners. We have said this time and again, and it has not happened.

I call on the Minister to address the following questions. Will he explain what powers he will use to make private developers and freeholders end the delays and remove the cladding? Will he increase the building safety fund to cover the costs of removing cladding and other fire risks to all buildings in that position? Will he provide a clear timeline for remediation that the Government will stick to? What plans does he have for ensuring that upcoming legislation improves fire safety and building regulation? Will he consider primary legislation that goes far enough to prevent another tragedy, as well as increased funding and resources for the fire services to carry out vital preventive inspection work?

Finally, I draw the Minister’s attention to the recommendation of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that the Government should give urgent consideration to the establishment of a new national body whose sole purpose is to purchase the freehold and manage the remediation of buildings with serious fire safety defects. Any residential building where works have not commenced by December 2020 should be subject to a compulsory purchase order. The national body would step in where overburdened local authorities are unable to act. Once remediated, buildings should be converted to commonhold and returned to leaseholders. In my view, that is a reasonable and proportionate way forward if companies do not act. I hope the Minister will consider that suggestion. If he will not, we just need action. If he comes up with another creative way to make things happen to keep our constituents safe, now is the moment to set out his plans, and I hope he will.

After Grenfell, the then Prime Minister said:

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

Three years on, this Government have been found wanting. I implore the Minister and the Government to honour the commitments that were made by his party in government when this tragedy happened. It was a man-made disaster that should have been avoided. We need to learn from that and make sure that we all do everything we can to keep people safe. The Government must honour their commitments and honour those who lost their lives, make the funds available, and create the legal framework and the requirements to make sure that our constituents can live without fear safely in their homes.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 7:18 pm, 14th July 2020

I am grateful to Rushanara Ali for securing the Adjournment debate and bringing this important subject to the House today. She secured a similar debate in April last year. I know it is a matter of considerable importance in her constituency, and I pay tribute to her on the record for the work she is doing on behalf of her constituents. I also thank all hon. Members who have taken the time to intervene on behalf of their constituents about the challenges of remediating high-rise residential buildings with unsafe cladding systems, particularly in the light of covid-19.

We established our building safety programme within days of the Grenfell Tower fire. Its aim remains to ensure that residents of high-rise buildings are safe, now and in the future. Our aim has been clear from the outset: unsafe ACM cladding of the type found on Grenfell Tower and other dangerous cladding must be removed from high-rise residential buildings. It is therefore our priority to ensure that unsafe ACM cladding is removed and replaced swiftly, at no cost to leaseholders.

While many responsible building owners have taken action, some—as the hon. Lady says—have not. Too many building owners and managing agents in the private sector have been too slow in getting remediation work started.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

A legal dispute is going on between the freeholder of St Francis Tower in Ipswich and the contractor that put the unsafe cladding on the building. Surely that is an admission from both parties that one of them is to blame, not the leaseholder, yet the leaseholder is in the middle and is getting harassed to pay fees that it should not have to pay.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will not dwell on any particular tower block or issue, but let me simply say that our intention is to make sure that leaseholders should not have to foot the bill; building owners and building managers and their agents should be looking after their buildings. That is why the Government have intervened with funding and specialist support, and we will not tolerate any further delays. Where building owners are failing to make acceptable progress, those responsible should expect local authorities and fire and rescue services to take tougher enforcement action.

By the end of May, of the 455 identified high-rise buildings with ACM cladding, 209 had either completed remediation or had their ACM cladding systems removed, while a further 86 had started remediation but not yet had ACM cladding removed. However, although there has been progress, there is much more to be done. We are under no illusion about that. For the removal of unsafe ACM cladding, we are aiming for all building owners to have works on site by the end of 2020, with completion of remedial works by the end of 2021. It is a challenge, but one that we are determined to meet.

Even with public funding available, the pace has been much too slow. We recognise that remediation is a complex undertaking and that every building is different; we also understand that building owners do not always have the requisite expertise or experience to advance the work. We have therefore recently appointed Faithful+Gould as specialist construction consultants to help responsible entities to increase capacity and capability and to support them directly through the remediation process. F+G is currently working with those buildings identified as most at risk of missing the end-of-year date. It is examining project plans and seeking ways to reduce timescales to mobilise projects.

Overall, the Government have set aside £1.6 billion in funding for the remediation of ACM and other types of unsafe cladding from high-rise residential buildings in the private and social housing sectors. We made that money available to support the remediation of unsafe cladding, and a large proportion of that support will protect leaseholders from costs. We recognise that there are wider remediation costs that will need to be met to ensure the safety of existing blocks of flats, but the public funding does not absolve the industry from taking responsibility for any failures that led to unsafe cladding materials being put on those buildings in the first place. We expect developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay to take responsibility and cover the cost of remediation themselves, without passing on costs to leaseholders.

The Government have committed £600 million to remediate buildings in the public, social and private sectors and speed up the pace of remediation of ACM cladding. In the private sector, although some developers said that they would meet the costs, it became clear that a significant number of building owners could not or would not do so, and therefore funding needed to be made available to enable progress. That is why in May 2019 we announced that £200 million of funding would be available for ACM remediation in private sector buildings, and the fund was opened for applications in September that year. As of May 2020, the Department expects to pay for 94 projects in the private sector where the developer or building owner has not agreed to fund remediation work themselves. The owners of 84 private sector residential buildings have committed to funding the remediation works themselves, with a further 23 self- funded through accepted warranty claims. We are working with a handful of other buildings where a funding route has yet to be agreed. The availability of funding and a direct package of support for building owners means that there can be no excuses for further delays. For those who fail to make acceptable progress, tougher sanctions are coming, first through our Fire Safety Bill, currently before Parliament, and subsequently when our new building safety regime comes into place.

We have always acknowledged that there are materials other than ACM cladding that are of concern. We have been providing advice on their removal to building owners since 2017. The highest priority has been the removal of the type of ACM used on Grenfell Tower because it poses the most severe safety risk, but there are other unsafe cladding materials that must also be removed. That is why in March this year we announced an additional £1 billion of funding for the remediation of unsafe non-ACM cladding in the social and private residential sectors. We expect this funding to be fully committed by the end of March 2021. The new building safety fund will cover high-rise buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding, such as some types of high-pressure laminate.

The issue of waking watch was raised by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow and by other hon. and right hon. Members. I know that leaseholders have concerns about costs of interim measures—costs that have been heightened due to the covid-19 emergency. These interim measures include waking watches. Waking watch is meant to be a short-term tool: it is no substitute for remediation. But the only way to remove the need for interim measures is to remove unsafe cladding as quickly as possible. That is why we are prioritising £1.6 billion of public subsidy on remediation of unsafe cladding. That said, my noble Friend Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister with responsibility for building safety, is investigating what we can do to reduce the cost of waking watch. This includes publishing data on the costs of waking watch to ensure greater transparency on costs. Moreover, the National Fire Chiefs Council is updating its guidance. We have asked the fire protection boards to advise fire and rescue services on how best to operationalise the revised guidance, including looking to measures such as installing building-wide fire alarm systems.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Will the Minister commit to looking at the issue of professional indemnity insurance? This does need a good political fix at the top.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has mentioned professional indemnity insurance. Let me assure her that following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s commitment to review the situation on—I believe, from memory—2 April this year, my noble Friend Lord Greenhalgh has met members of the insurance industry and other fire and safety professionals. I think the last meeting was on 30 June. He is investigating, at pace, ways in which this particular issue may be remedied.

Our landmark building safety Bill, announced in December, will bring the biggest change in our building safety regime for a generation. It will build on the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety. It contains provisions to help to remedy the systemic failings that resulted in the Grenfell Tower fire. The new regime will give residents a stronger voice in an improved system of fire safety, overseen by a more effective regulatory framework, including stronger powers to inspect high-rise buildings and sanctions to tackle irresponsible behaviour.

Much progress has been made since the hon. Member secured a similar debate in April last year: we have set aside £1.6 billion of funding to support the issue and resolve it; we have appointed specialist consultants to increase the pace of remediation; and we have introduced the Fire Safety Bill to strengthen enforcement action. But the hard work must continue, and it will.

We will shortly publish the draft building safety Bill—a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety regime—that will be instrumental not only in shaping future policy to allow the new regime to prevent fire safety defects from occurring in the first place, but also in ensuring that people are safe and feel safe in their homes. We will continue to work tirelessly to bring about the lasting change we need for the future of building safety and the future of all the people living in towers in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.