Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:33 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:33 pm, 29th June 2021

The passage of time does not always heal wounds or lessen the pain and anger that people feel over wrongs done to them, to their loved ones, or even to their communities. Grenfell will not and should not be forgotten. The failure of Governments to ban the use of flammable cladding will be an issue that will echo for quite a while yet, and I hope that the Government now find that their conscience directs them to ensure that the people who have been adversely affected by that failure to properly regulate will be compensated adequately.

Stark, too, is the impression that profits have come before people. There have been reports that the less expensive cladding was used in some buildings in spite of concerns over its safety. I cannot quite decide whether the people making those decisions felt that fire was so unlikely that it was a risk worth taking so long as it was not their houses the stuff was going on, or they do not concern themselves all that much with possible future events in the buildings they are commissioning. This is perhaps one of the great divides in society and in politics —do you place people above profit or profit above people? Do you value people for the contribution they make to the economy or value the economy for the contribution it makes to society? I do not expect us all to find common ground in the near future, but we can at least agree that profits should not come at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing. Many of us have constituents who find themselves deeply affected by the shaking out of these issues—people who are finding it difficult to sell their flat, who need additional certification to get mortgage decisions in their favour, and who have found that some insurers are backing out of these properties or, alternatively, are demanding substantially increased premiums. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions the team in the Department have been having with insurance companies on these matters.

There is a case to be made for people who find themselves stuck, through no fault of their own, being helped by Government and by the regulatory agencies. There is a case for the Government to provide moneys for the surveys needed to clear mortgage agreements and to provide the resources to clear the substandard cladding from buildings. It would also be good if those who decided that it was good business to install it were pursued to pay the penalty for it.

A good start from the perspective of good government would be to copy the example set in Scotland, where a programme of whole building inspections—it is being referred to as a single building assessment—is to be carried out, saving individual property owners the expense and worry of arranging their own inspections for an EWS1 clearance. That programme has been funded by the Scottish Government and the first phase is about to start. The safety assessments on buildings with flatted properties will provide the evidence needed of the extent of remedial works required. The programme covers low-rise as well as high-rise, and it will mean that people in whose properties no issues are revealed will be released from safety concerns and mortgage lending problems. The programme will then move on to remediation of the buildings in need, starting with those most at risk. It was not the Scottish Government who put these homeowners in this position—in fact, this cladding has been illegal in Scotland for some years—but the mark of good government is stepping up to solve a problem for people. I am at a loss to understand why there is not, or does not seem to be, a similar Government initiative in England.

That leads on to a point about making sure that the people who put this stuff on buildings in the first place are held responsible for their actions, not only where it caused death and injury, as in Grenfell, but where it has cost homeowners financially. All too often, any homeowner who seeks financial redress finds that the firm that built the properties is no longer in existence: the people behind the project are still building, but the company no longer exists. The company, firm or legal entity is dissolved at the end of construction, leaving no one responsible should problems become evident later, with homeowners having to pick up the tab or be stuck with negative equity while those who took their profits are in no way inconvenienced. Making it easier to pursue the companies or individuals who have built those properties would be a step in the right direction.

There is also a case for regulators to be given the powers to step up. The Prudential Regulatory Authority should be looking at the performance and behaviour of insurance companies when dealing with people in properties that may or may not have cladding of questionable flammability. I have heard of some demands being made that are simply not credible. The retrofitting of wider staircases stands out as a particularly ridiculous example. If the regulator needs to be given additional powers, that can be done. That is what this place is for, surely. Perhaps it is time to start asking for reports on the behaviours of the companies involved in the construction and maintenance of properties, including the insurance companies. Let us not leave it until there is another scandal. Let us not leave it to journalists to dig out the horrors that some families may be facing. Let us do the job here before it becomes another emergency.