Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:11 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee 5:11 pm, 29th June 2021

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this important debate. I realise that the whole of the nation will be watching their television sets this afternoon, totally interested in the proceedings in the House on this important issue—but, seriously, four years on from Grenfell, the one thing that we should be able to agree on is that we should do everything necessary to ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell never happens again.

We have had the Hackitt review and the draft building safety Bill on which the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee did pre-leg scrutiny, both of which are welcome steps forward. I will ask many questions this afternoon. I probably will not be able to put all of them on the record, but the Committee will write to the Minister afterwards and set out a list of questions in the public domain, if that is helpful. First, when will the building safety Bill in its final form be published? Can we have a timetable for that? Four years after Grenfell, thousands of families are still living in unsafe homes and facing bills they cannot afford. In many cases, their lives are put on hold because they cannot sell the homes they live in and move on. That puts enormous pressure on the mental health and wellbeing of those families.

The Committee has produced three reports about building safety and cladding issues, and I have with me the most recent one, “Cladding Remediation—Follow-up”, which we published in April. Because it is an estimates day, I will concentrate on resources and Government funding—or sometimes the lack of Government funding. Do the Government yet know how many homes are unsafe and what the estimates are to put them right? There is a second, general point that we have repeated over and over again in our reports. We ought to be absolutely clear that we establish

“the principle that leaseholders should not pay anything towards the cost of remediating historical building safety defects” for which they are not responsible. One of the questions we will probably ask—the second question—is: will the Minister confirm that that is still the Government’s policy? It has changed from time to time.

In recognising that significant funding has been made available by Government, let me go through the funds. On the £600 million funding to remove aluminium composite material cladding—the cladding that was on Grenfell—progress has been a little disappointing. Could the Minister explain, probably with an answer in writing at some point, when the removal of all ACM cladding will be finished and why there are still 33 buildings with ACM cladding where remediation work has not started?

The Select Committee was also at the forefront of pushing for funding to remove other forms of dangerous cladding. The first £1 billion building safety fund was clearly not adequate: it was on a first come, first served basis, which was not appropriate. It is therefore welcome that the fund is now £5 billion, but why are only buildings over 18 metres covered? What risk assessment has been done to determine that? Has an estimate been done of whether the extra £3.5 billion will be sufficient? Why is the £3.5 billion not so far covered in the estimates? Has the funding profile for that money and the years that it will be spent over now been agreed? If so, can we know what it is? Why have 2,000 registrations for the fund not progressed? Are the Government satisfied that those buildings are safe even though their claims on the fund, having been registered, have not moved any further forward?

Have we any further information on how the loan scheme for buildings between 11 and 18 metres will work? Ministers have been unable to explain any of it in previous discussions. They have said that neither leaseholders nor freeholders will be responsible for the debt for the loan, so who will be responsible? Have Ministers any idea what the total cost of the loan scheme will be? How many buildings will it cover? Do they accept that for some buildings it will mean a debt of several thousand pounds, running over many years, before the final costs are paid off?

Does the Minister accept that buildings under 11 metres, which are not covered by the building safety fund or the loan scheme, could still be at risk? How many such buildings are there? What risk assessment has been done on them?

Why has social housing been excluded from all the funds apart from the original ACM fund? Does the Minister accept the National Housing Federation’s figure that it could cost £10 billion for housing associations to put right building safety defects in their homes? If that is to be done without any Government support, do the Government accept that that money will come out of commitments that would otherwise have been made to build new homes or refurbish existing homes? What assessment have the Government done of the impact of not allowing social housing to claim against the building safety fund?

One of the biggest issues is that, apart from cladding removal, the building safety fund does not cover building safety defects. We know that there are faulty balconies, faulty fire doors, missing fire breaks and faulty insulation. Why have those issues been omitted from the fund? What risk assessment has been done of that? Do the Government accept that some leaseholders are facing bills of £50,000 to put right defects in their home other than cladding? Does the Minister accept that buildings that have claimed and received money from the building safety fund to put right cladding problems are being left with other defects that make their homes unsafe? In some cases, we are spending enormous sums of public money and the end result will still be homes that are not safe, because other defects remain that the leaseholders simply cannot afford to put right. Is that an acceptable situation?

Does the Minister accept the Select Committee’s proposal that we should now have a comprehensive building safety fund that covers all safety defects, not just cladding; all buildings, not just those above 18 metres or above 11 metres; and all tenures, including leasehold and social housing?

We believe that where individual developers, architects or contractors can be held accountable for defects in a particular building, they should be held accountable properly in law and made to pay. However, we know that those legal battles can go on for years and years, so essentially Government have to step in first to fund this work, putting the money into a comprehensive building safety fund, although we believe that industry in general should also pay. That includes the development industry, as well as suppliers of products, because often faulty products have been a cause of these problems.

We welcome the principle of a tax and a levy on the industry, which the Government have announced. That is a good step forward. To confirm, will the tax and levy produce money in addition to the £5 billion, or are they part of that, reducing the Government’s cost? Do we know when the money from the levy and the tax will start to arrive? Presumably the tax will need legislation, and perhaps the levy will as well. Is it true that a levy, if introduced, will be applied only when planning permission is granted? If so, it could be years down the road before a building on which the developers are due to pay the levy is actually built and the levy is handed over; we could be years away from getting any money. Will the Government confirm the likely timetable?

This issue will not go away until all homes are safe in this country. It is an issue that we will come back to as a Select Committee and, I suspect, that we will come back to over and over again in this House. This is a major challenge, and so far, bit by bit, the Government are moving steadily towards addressing it. All I would say to the Minister today is that, although progress has been made, there is still an awfully long way to go. I hope we will get a positive response from him to the recommendations in the Select Committee report. We will write to him further to list all the questions we would like answers to following the debate.