Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:28 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 5:28 pm, 29th June 2021

It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of a Select Committee, who has made some excellent points that I wholeheartedly endorse. I recognise many of the issues that Felicity Buchan has just raised, because they affect my constituents too. It is really important to recognise that this is of course a UK-wide problem and that many of the regulations under which these buildings were built predate devolution, so even though some of the responsibilities now sit with the Welsh or Scottish Governments, this is a legacy of failure within the building and construction industry, in the way that leasehold operates, and on many other issues that we have discussed in the House on a number of occasions.

I have been contacted yet again in the past few weeks by residents in Cardiff South and Penarth. I have thousands of apartment units in my constituency. Let us recognise that this issue is not just about new builds; it is also about conversions. I have many old docks buildings in Cardiff Bay and docks communities that have been converted into apartments, and I have heard from residents in a number of those buildings who are affected in the same way as those in new builds. That is why I am somewhat disappointed by the approach that the UK Government have taken in not working constructively, as they could be doing and as they have done on some related issues, with the devolved Administrations, and with the Welsh Government in particular. I will come on to that again in a moment.

I just want to reiterate here that leaseholders should not have to pay for this. Obviously the primary responsibility lies with the developers and those who built these defective buildings. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, this is not just about fire safety. I have heard horror stories about flats that have been flooded with sewage because a foul water pipe, which was not even connected, was propped up behind a wall on a Starbucks cup. I have heard about sewage flooding into apartments, balconies that are not safe to go on, windows that are not safe to open, rendering that is not suitable for the maritime environment of the Cardiff Bay area falling off buildings on to cars, let alone the whole litany of fire safety issues relating to compartmentation, doors, fire alarm systems and, of course, cladding and insulation.

This is an extraordinary situation and the issues are very wide ranging. The situation in which residents find themselves is completely unacceptable. It is worth emphasising the mental health toll that it is taking on many of my constituents—those who have bought properties in good faith and then find themselves facing extraordinary bills while they have been going through the same difficulties that everybody in the country has been going through in the past year. Many of them face difficulties around their own jobs and incomes, and this has been an additional pressure on top of that.

First, I would like the Minister to speak to his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and in the Treasury to urge them to sit down with the Welsh Government and answer some of the very reasonable questions that are being put to the Department by the Minister for Housing and Local Government in Wales, Julie James. On 23 June, she had to write again to the Secretary of State to get some basic answers. Let me quote from the letter that she sent:

“In my previous correspondence, I raised the importance of joint working and meaningful engagement on this topic. I urgently requested details of the level and timing of consequential budget allocations, following the large announcements that the UK Government made about the Building Safety Fund.”

The Secretary of State had previously replied and said that the Barnett formula would play in the usual way, yet the Welsh Government have not been able to get any details of the actual amounts of money, or when it would come through. The Housing Minister is rightly asking for the amount of consequential funding that Wales will receive from the additional amounts announced by the UK Government and when it will receive it. That is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and I find it extraordinary that officials and Ministers have not been able to sit down with the Welsh Government, who want to work constructively with the UK Government on this issue for the benefit of leaseholders to answer those questions.

I hope that we will not only get an answer on that, but some further clarity on how the proposed tax and levy will work. Again, the Welsh Government are willing to work with the UK Government on this, as they did on the Fire Safety Act 2021. Again, we are not getting the communication that we would expect.

Secondly, on EWS1 forms, I recognise what the hon. Member for Kensington said. I am concerned that much of the new guidance is not flowing through. It came into effect on 5 April, but I am still being contacted by residents who are not getting the right answers on that matter from lenders, freeholders or estate management companies. What is happening on that? How many of the new chartered fire engineers and surveyors who are supposedly being trained are now in place and able to deal with the backlog of surveys?

I have two other points. One is that we need to look at the international examples. This situation faces many other cities and jurisdictions around the world. I think of Vancouver, which I know very well. The provincial government there had to pay out $3 billion to $5 billion to cover what was called the leaky condo scandal, with many similar issues around building safety defects. What are we learning from those examples around the world?

Lastly, just to be clear, this is not just about fire safety, critical as that issue is, but about all of those other issues, which is why we need to have the Building Safety Bill and answers to these questions as soon as possible.