Building Safety

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:46 pm on 29th June 2021.

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Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 6:46 pm, 29th June 2021

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I must get through the many points that have been raised. I want to try to answer as many as I can and leave time for the Chairman of the Select Committee to sum up. If I get through all the questions, I will certainly give way.

We are trying to take a safety-led approach. We have prioritised high-rise buildings of 18 metres and above, a point that was raised a number of times today. We have put in place a funding package of more than £5 billion for the building safety programme. That is the largest ever Government investment in building safety and it has been designed particularly to accelerate the pace of work on remediating the highest-risk and most expensive defects related to unsafe cladding such as ACM cladding and high-pressure laminates, first filling in where developers or building owners have been unable or simply unwilling to pay. Despite many of the challenges of the past months, we have made significant progress. Over 95% of high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding identified by the beginning of last year have now been remediated or works are on site right now getting on with the job. Some 15,000 homes are now clear of unsafe ACM cladding, with the work finished.

Support goes well beyond ACM cladding removal. Where there are buildings that have other unsafe cladding systems, we are taking measures to protect residents’ safety and their exposure to disproportionate costs. Our building safety fund will remove unsafe non-ACM cladding on high-rise buildings, get that cladding replaced, and get it done as fast as possible. Over 1,000 decisions have been made. Despite many building owners failing to provide the basic information required, we have already allocated over £400 million, with 685 buildings now proceeding with a full application. With the announcement in February of an additional £3.5 billion of funding being made available, we will soon be able to extend that support to even more affected households. The public funding does not absolve the industry from taking responsibility for failures that led to unsafe cladding materials being put on these buildings in the first place. We expect responsible organisations to live up to their obligations. Where they have not, we have supported, and will continue to support, enforcement actions to compel them to do so.

We are also determined to ensure that these high-rise buildings are somewhere decent, safe and secure, and can be bought with a mortgage sold without unnecessary red tape and insured at a fair price. The lending and insurance industries continue to be risk-averse when it comes to high-rise residential buildings. That is why we are working to inject a more proportionate approach into the market, and that is bearing fruit. The majority of lenders—about 80% of the mortgage market—now take a less risk-averse approach to the assessment of high-rise buildings.

I am pleased that the guidance from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors means that nearly half a million flat owners will no longer need to go through the onerous process of requesting an EWS1 form. Recent data from one of the major lenders suggests that an EWS1 already exists for 50% of mortgage applications where one has been requested, and we are working to ensure that this picture continues to improve. Lenders are also reporting that fewer flats require an EWS1, and of that those that do, many do not need expensive remediation work to be carried out. This will make a huge difference to house owners and potential buyers as well.

For buildings that might need further investigations, we are making that easier by providing nearly £700,000 of funding to train up to 2,000 surveyors, working with the British Standards Institution to set standards and develop a bespoke insurance model to ensure that surveyors can continue to pick up this work. We recognise that access to affordable building insurance for high-rise buildings is an issue, and we are working with the industry to support market solutions. Some have already decided to step into the market for new customers, and of course we want others to follow.

Deidre Brock raised the issue of building industry contributions. We have been clear that building owners and the industry should make buildings safe without passing costs on to leaseholders. Owners should consider all routes to meet costs, protecting leaseholders where they can—for example, through warranties and recovering costs from contractors for incorrect or poor-quality work. We have seen many responsible developers and building owners doing this. Taylor Wimpey has set aside £165 million, Barratts £82 million, Persimmon £75 million, and Bellway £130 million. But where companies have not lived up to their responsibilities, it would be unfair for taxpayers, many of whom are not homeowners themselves, to foot the bill. That is why we have announced a new developer levy and a new tax ensuring that the industry makes a fair contribution to the cost of remediating historical safety defects. That will target developers seeking permission to build higher-rise buildings in England under the new regime that we are introducing through the building safety Bill, and we have already set out to consult on a new tax that would be levied on the largest housing developers.

I note the suggestion by my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan of a tax on building products. I thank her for that and I am happy to discuss it with her further. A number of hon. Members mentioned the building safety Bill, and Mr Betts asked when it will be published. I know he hears the word “imminent” many times, but this truly is imminent, and I can assure him of that.

We must ensure, as we look to the future, that nobody is put at risk by unsafe homes again. We must put in place proactive mechanisms for managing fire and structural safety risks, as well as ensuring that residents and leaseholders are kept safe and feel empowered to tackle safety defects and shoddy workmanship. That is what the building safety Bill aims to deliver through the biggest improvement to building safety for a generation. It will ensure greater accountability and responsibility for fire and structural safety issues throughout the life cycle of buildings.

Building on the Fire Safety Act 2021, the building safety Bill will establish a new building safety regulator to swiftly hold to account anybody who does not follow the rules. It will ensure that products used in the construction of buildings are bound by rigorous safety standards, and it will give residents a stronger voice in the system through the creation of a statutory residents panel, which will empower residents to influence and contribute to the work of the building safety regulator. Additionally, a new building safety charge will give leaseholders greater transparency about the costs incurred in maintaining a safe building in the new building safety regime, and the new homes ombudsman will improve redress for new build homebuyers, avoiding the need to pursue costly redress through the courts.

It is right that we have prioritised action on high-rise buildings, but where the risk to multiple households is greater when fire spreads, we are also acting decisively to remediate lower-rise residential buildings of between 11 metres and 18 metres. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington again raised this issue, among many others. We are establishing a finance scheme to ensure that that cladding can be remediated where that is needed. It means leaseholders will never have to pay more than £50 a month. We are working now to develop the details of the scheme to ensure that it protects leaseholders, prioritises affordability and accelerates remediation. We will provide more detail on the scheme as soon as we are able to, and we are working hard to make progress now.

Stephen Timms talked about waking watch. We absolutely recognise that some leaseholders have been unjustly left picking up the bill for interim safety measures. That is why the Secretary of State announced a £30 million waking watch scheme. This is paying for the installation of alarms in between 300 and 460 buildings, benefiting over 26,500 leaseholders, who are expected to save over £137,000 a month.

Stephen Doughty talked about engagement with the Welsh Government. The letter he sent on 23 June raised a number of issues, and I will absolutely make sure that it is responded to.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) talked about the need to invest in Stoke-on-Trent to make sure that regeneration opens up brownfield developments in the city. They took this opportunity to outline the components of their levelling-up fund bid. I absolutely note that and their enthusiasm for the success of the bid, and I thank them for it.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we have made progress. We have accelerated support to drive forward the remediation of unsafe cladding systems. Over 95% of high-rise buildings identified at the beginning of last year as having unsafe ACM cladding are now having it removed—the works are under way there. We have strong Government support to protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs. We want to be fair to taxpayers, while reassuring lenders that remediation costs will not become unmanageable. This will be a complete overhaul of the regulatory framework for fire and structural safety, led by a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety framework, with sanctions to tackle irresponsible behaviour to ensure people are safe and feel safe in their own homes. We will continue to work tirelessly to bring in the lasting change we need so that everyone in our country lives somewhere that is decent, safe and secure.