Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 5:38 pm, 29th June 2021

I start by thanking all the builders who have continued to work on construction projects, including building safety measures, throughout the pandemic.

We need more homes in Stoke-on-Trent—affordable, safe and compliant with the strictest standards, as well as in the right places. I welcome the commitment of Staffordshire’s new police, fire and crime commissioner, Ben Adams, to develop and deliver a fire plan that addresses some of the urban challenges in Stoke-on-Trent. Sadly, those challenges include sunset landmark industrial heritage buildings, many left in a perilous, unsafe and sorry state. I hope that the heritage action zone partnership we have developed in Longton with the city council and Historic England will particularly help to address this and improve the condition of buildings in the town centre conservation area. I am particularly keen to see the redevelopment of the Crown works, a short walk from my constituency office in Longton, which are unfortunately in a very dangerous state. It is important to see new housing uses on the site, and I hope we can also preserve some of the most prominent historical features. I hope the levelling-up fund bid that we have put in to catalyse a safe and sympathetic redevelopment of town centre heritage sites such as that is successful.

Indeed, there are a number of such conversion schemes across Stoke-on-Trent, where we have opportunities to repurpose redundant industrial heritage sites that are currently in an unsafe condition and high street buildings to modern housing in historic settings. In addition, multiple hectares of brownfield sites need support to safely clean up the effects of past heavy industrial uses. We have the capacity to build without eating into the green belt or protected green spaces, and we have a strong track record locally, with 99% of new housing on brownfield sites in Stoke-on-Trent over the past year. This was particularly thanks to housing infrastructure funding, which has helped bring forward work on more challenging sites in in the north of the city.

We are only too happy as a city to relieve some of the pressures across the rest of the country, but we can do that only with the right sort of financial support to address the viability constraints we face: the higher remediation costs of contaminated heavy industrial land; the heritage deficit in converting historic properties; and the wider challenges of making development work in lower-value markets. Significant new development will happen in cities such as Stoke-on-Trent only with focused investment, but this will catalyse far greater private investment on top. The market, although starting from a lower base, is extremely buoyant—it is busier than almost anywhere else, according to Zoopla—with an increased appetite for good-quality, safe development. I urge the Minister to fully support our bids for levelling-up and brownfield funding for cities such as Stoke-on-Trent, so that we can deliver on the potential of our area as well as helping to relieve wider national pressures.

I particularly welcome the 5% mortgage, which will help more first-time buyers in Stoke-on-Trent South to own their own home. We need to keep this success going, providing better opportunities locally too, with good, skilled employment for good wages. We need to plan for the necessary infrastructure improvements as well. Let me take this opportunity to ask the Minister to support our Restoring your Railway fund proposal to reopen the Stoke to Leek line, as well as further developing our plans for a new station at Meir and increasing investment in local bus services. Of course, building safety is a fundamental concern and I welcome the £5.1 billion so far allocated to the safety remediation schemes. There is always a tension between the urgency of aims and the delivery of the right remedy, so I understand the need for the Government to get the measures absolutely right as far as possible.

One final issue I must raise is the danger posed by illegal cannabis farms in residential areas. The landlord guidance issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has rightly been focused on covid safety of late, but I hope the Ministry will look carefully at how building safety encompasses the prevention of illegal uses of buildings, including to farm drugs and fund wider criminality. Power supplies are illegally tapped into and fire hazards are caused, and the human cost is considerable. Landlords who are at best naive about it and at worst complicit in cannabis farming in their properties are a live issue in Stoke-on-Trent. One residential street in my constituency has seen two cannabis farms uncovered within nine days of each other, and in Longton town centre, for a second time in two years, the derelict Woolworths building has been busted by Staffordshire police, with 1,500 cannabis plants found. MHCLG, working with the Home Office, police commissioners and local authorities, must redouble efforts to keep communities safe from buildings that have been made unsafe through illegal uses.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to higher standards of building safety, and the draft Bill stands as a testament to that, but I ask that we also see that investment in places such as Stoke-on-Trent.