Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:07 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 6:07 pm, 29th June 2021

I am going to talk about Sulgrave Gardens, a set of blocks of flats in my constituency, not because it is unique—if one goes round the country, one sees it is certainly not—but because it illustrates a range of perils that have not only emanated from Grenfell but ramified endlessly since then, beyond, I am afraid, the reach or competence of this Government.

One of the leaseholders wrote to me just in the past week and said this:

“Sulgrave Gardens, a modern purpose built eco-friendly development, the first large scale Passivehaus development in the UK. A modern day utopia where children can run and play, families live happily in a safe and secure setting, well it would have been had the developers and builders not…chosen to use the cheapest form of cladding, flammable ACM, they covered most of the development with it”.

He went on:

“Despite both blocks being over 18m high they fail the government requirement that the height of the floor of the top most habitable level be above 18m and so are not eligible for government funding. We have families living in terror and people’s lives put on hold due to unsaleable properties, the chaos this has created for residents of Sulgrave is immense.”

For many people—not just owners, but tenants—the hope of a dream home has been sold short by the appalling standards in the building industry. It is not just about cladding or other materials; it is about construction, design, inspection, the competence of a whole industry and its negligence over a period of time. Perhaps the Minister will explain what the 18-metre rule is about. How would he feel living, as some of my constituents are, on the fourth or fifth floor of blocks that are below 18 metres but clad in ACM cladding? They still live in terror every night. That rule has to go.

We have quite rightly heard a lot of about leaseholders who suffer the triple whammy of living in unsafe premises, having to pay up huge amounts of money and being unable to sell their properties and move on with their lives, but there is no guarantee that they will be compensated, even when they have responsible and identifiable landlords, let alone when they have freeholders who are offshore.

This identifies a separate problem, which is true of Sulgrave, because the owner of Sulgrave is Octavia Housing, a well-known and long-established social landlord. It has said that it will remove the cladding and that it will seek every way it can not to charge the leaseholders, whether that is done through the National House Building Council or the builder or the developer. Of course, it cannot apply for grants because the buildings are below 18 metres. However, if it fails in that, if the Government will not provide any money, and if it does not wish to charge its leaseholders—it does not wish to charge them, but it has not ruled it out—who will pay?

The answer is that its tenants will pay. They will pay out of their general funds, and the consequence of that, as the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Betts, has said, is that their development budgets, their repair budgets and their operational budgets will go through the floor. The four largest social providers have already said that they will cut their programmes by 40%, and that is with only a fraction of the problems discovered, so could we have an answer to this as well? How is the already lamentably small social house building programme going to be assured as a consequence of this, or are the Government going to play divide and rule between leaseholders, tenants and social landlords, which is what they seem to be doing at the moment?

There are other risks that social tenants have to suffer as well. Social housing has a disproportionate number of vulnerable people in it. Also, a large number of fires start accidentally in those premises. They often contain cheap and unsafe electrical products. That was true of Grenfell, and it was true of Shepherd’s Court in my constituency, where there was a serious tower block fire almost five years ago involving a cheap Whirlpool tumble dryer. Unless the Government are prepared to get a grip on this situation, to at least admit the scale and variety of the problems and to take the course that our Front Bench and the Select Committee have taken in providing a comprehensive solution, they will be only tinkering and playing at the edges. That is a huge disservice to my constituents in Sulgrave Gardens, to many other constituents of mine and to hundreds of thousands of people around the country.