Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:38 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:38 pm, 29th June 2021

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today, particularly the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee—my hon. Friend Mr Betts, who introduced the debate very powerfully—and other members of my former Select Committee.

Before I talk about the building safety scandal on our shores, I want to echo Jim Shannon and Grenfell United in recognising the horror of what happened at Champlain Towers in Miami last Thursday. My thoughts go out to the families of those who lost loved ones and to the rescue teams now tasked with working around the clock to find the 150 people who are still missing.

As we have heard this afternoon, four years on from the Grenfell fire in which 72 people lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of people the length and breadth of our country and in Wales and Scotland are living in buildings still wrapped in flammable cladding, constructed with missing fire breaks and insulated with inappropriate materials. They are still paying thousands of pounds for round-the-clock waking watch schemes, with insurance premiums out of control. These are just elements of the day-to-day nightmare that is the building safety scandal, a horror show amplified by the inertia of Ministers and the incumbent of No. 10.

Today’s debate, with passionate and informed contributions from 18 hon. and right hon. Members from across the House, has reminded me of two principal questions that I asked of Ministers some time ago. First, are buildings and the people living in them markedly safer four years on from the Grenfell tragedy? The answer, I am afraid, is again no. Secondly, has the Government’s response been extensive and at pace? We have heard from across the Chamber that that is certainly not the case. It seems that an intergalactic black hole has more transparency than the workings of the building safety fund. The fact that only 10p in every pound has gone out of the door adds another dimension to this scandal for leaseholders. Although, as has rightly been pointed out, social housing providers are excluded, the Government, quite frankly, need to get a grip.

As my right hon. Friend John McDonnell highlighted, residents in his constituency are faced with threats from the developer Ballymore and have been jumping through hoops to apply for the building safety fund. My hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi, who speaks very passionately on these issues, raised the heartbreaking cases of her constituents who are unable to sell flats; young families trapped by the EWS1 chaos, which still hinders over 1 million people, despite Government promises that that is no longer the case—just not reality. My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield cited the mother of his young constituent who dreamed of buying a home, but is now faced with an unaffordable bill and has considered taking his own life—real stories.

In addition, we heard from the hon. Members for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), for Strangford and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms, and my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). All echoed the same stories and everyday experiences, bringing hundreds of thousands of voices alive in the House and shining a light on those trapped in this scandal and crying out for justice.

Another real-life story is one that was highlighted by the Chair of the Select Committee, and which I am sure the Minister can only confirm today. The Government still do not know the number of buildings truly at risk because they have failed to create a risk register, a priority that the Opposition call for once again today. We also call for the establishment of the building works agency to turbocharge this process, with a crack team of experts to take hold of the crisis from start to finish.

The Government’s response to this crisis has been one of dither and delay, with legislation coming down the line—who knows when?—and the building safety fund as a reaction to determined campaigners and strong voices in Parliament from across the piece. However, the size and scope of the fund, as echoed across the Chamber today, is not sufficient, and the remediation of buildings has been carried out at a snail’s pace. Some 2,820 applications have been made to the building safety fund, with only 156 fully approved so far, and with the extended deadline coming to an end tomorrow. We have a system of first come, first served, with gagging orders and chaos hardwired into it. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people wait to hear about the details of the unwanted loans to pay for this toxic mess of deregulation. It is developers and donors—many to the Conservative party—who are responsible for this mess, not leaseholders.

To make matters worse, we now have the ludicrous situation where some management agents, from Manchester to Birmingham to London, are siphoning off up to £500 million in fees, which could fix up to 250 blocks. Others say that their experience of the application process has been like knitting fog. The Secretary of State is not just Bob the bad builder, but Captain Chaos when it comes to the public purse.

In conclusion, the Government have the opportunity today to reset their approach and get a grip of the building safety crisis; to respond to advice from the Select Committee and its Chair; to stand up for leaseholders and protect them with deeds, making good on the promises repeated 17 times that they would not pay historical remediation costs; to establish a building works agency, with experts in the field; to get a grip on this crisis from start to end, building to building; to provide holistic risk assessments; and to fund works up front, sign them off, and recover from what has been done by those who are responsible for this mess, including the donors who have given £11 million since the Conservative Prime Minister came to power. That is the way that we create pace while protecting the public purse and leaseholders. That is the way that we do the right thing to make people and buildings safe.