[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2019-21, Cladding Remediation – Follow-up, HC 1249, and Seventh Report of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Session 2021-22, Building Safety: Remediation and Funding, HC 1063; and the joint Government response, CP 863. Oral evidence taken before the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered social housing and building safety.
The events of the night of
As we reflect on this tragedy, we should bear in mind that there had been warnings before that night. Residents of the tower and others had warned about how the voices of those in social housing were not heeded. In reflecting on what happened, we should reflect not only on the failures in regulation and building safety but on the way in which social housing tenants had not had their rights respected or their voices heard as they should have been. We all have to do better to ensure that issues of life and death are never overlooked again, and that everyone in this country can live their life in safety and dignity, in a home that is warm, decent and safe.
I am glad that we are joined in the Public Gallery by some of those directly affected, including bereaved families, friends and survivors who, for almost five years now, have been living with the ongoing consequences of this tragedy in north Kensington. Since I was given this responsibility as Secretary of State last September, I have been genuinely humbled to hear the personal stories of those affected by the tragedy. I thank them for the vigour, energy, sincerity and determination of their campaign. It cannot have been easy—by God it cannot have been easy—to live with the memories of what happened five years ago, but the people joining us here today, and their friends, relatives and neighbours, have campaigned with dignity and resolution over the last five years to ensure that appropriate lessons are learned.
I can think of few better representatives of community spirit, few better activists for a better world, than those from Grenfell United and the other organisations representing the next of kin, bereaved relatives and survivors. It is important the Government recognise that those voices and that activism should result in action. Again, I apologise to the bereaved, the relatives and the survivors for the fact that, over the last five years, the Government have sometimes been too slow to act and have sometimes behaved insensitively. It is important that we now translate the actions they are demanding into real and lasting change. As I hope I have done, and as I will always seek to do, that involves acknowledging what we got wrong as a Government and what went wrong more widely in our building safety system.
It is clear from the wonderful documentary work on the experience of those in Grenfell Tower that their representatives had warned before the refurbishment about some of the dangers, some of the high-handedness and some of the lack of consideration for which the tenant management organisation and others charged with tenants’ welfare were responsible. Lessons need to be learned about that.
It is also the case that, in the immediate aftermath of the fire, many of the institutions upon which people in North Kensington should have been able to rely failed them. We have to be honest about that, too. There is nothing I can say from the Dispatch Box today that can make up for those failures. All we can do is seek to learn from those mistakes and make sure we work with the community to ensure that nothing like this tragedy ever happens again.
My Department has a dedicated team of civil servants who are working to make sure those lessons are learned and the community’s voices are heard, and I thank all the officials who have worked with the community over the past five years, and who in many cases have become close friends of those affected, for their work. I also thank other professionals in the public sector who have worked with the community and families. I particularly want to thank those in the NHS. The health and wellbeing of many survivors of the tragedy has been impaired in a terrible way, and the commitment of NHS professionals to working with those who have been affected is admirable and worthy of our support and, certainly on my part, gratitude.
I also wish to thank two colleagues, Nick Hurd, a former Member of this House, and Baroness Sanderson, who have been advising the Prime Minister on how we can support the Grenfell families. Both of them were, of course, appointed by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, and I would like to thank her as well for the continuing close personal interest she takes in the issues that the Grenfell tragedy has brought to the forefront of all our minds.
I also want to thank the independent Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission, and I stress that it is independent; it includes elected community representatives, and it has been working hard to ensure that we can have a permanent and appropriate memorial to honour those who lost their lives in the tragedy. I recommend to all Members of the House the commission’s recent report. It makes for powerful reading and gives us all an opportunity to reflect on what the right way is to ensure that there is a fitting memorial for those who have lost their lives. The scene of that fire is both, of course, a crime scene and a sacred place, because for all those who perished that night we want to make sure that their memory is never forgotten. That is why my Department wants to work with the commission to ensure that its report is brought to fruition.
I also want to thank those who have been working with the public inquiry, under Sir Martin Moore-Bick. I know that when the inquiry was set up many representatives of the community were concerned that its work might not meet the needs of the hour, but I think that Sir Martin and his team, particularly the counsels to the inquiry—the lawyers who have been working diligently to get at the truth—have done us all a service. They have laid bare a series of mistakes that were made by those of us in government and by others, and they have exposed what I believe is wrongdoing on the part of a number of organisations. I do not want to pre-empt the conclusions of the inquiry and the steps that will necessarily need to be taken to ensure that justice is done. Sir Martin’s inquiry’s first report made a series of recommendations and it made uncomfortable reading for some, but it also ensured that the decision by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead to set up the inquiry has been vindicated. We now need to ensure that we take seriously all the forthcoming recommendations when the inquiry concludes.
Of course, we in government have not waited for the inquiry to conclude in order to take action. Not all of the steps that should have been taken have been taken, but in recent months we have been seeking to ensure that in respect of the direction of travel set out by the inquiry, and by others who have looked closely at the problems that underlay our regime of building safety, appropriate steps have been taken.
It should not have taken a tragedy such as the Grenfell Tower fire for us to realise that there were problems in our building safety regime and in our regulatory regime. But now that we have had an opportunity to reflect, study and look at the multiple and manifold failings, we know that a significant amount of work, which we are undertaking, requires to be completed as quickly as possible. We know that shortcuts were taken when it came to safety. We know that unforgiveable decisions were made, in the interests of financial engineering, that put lives at risk. We also know that in my Department individuals sought to speak up and to raise concerns but those voices were not heeded. That must rest on my conscience and those of Government colleagues. Many of those involved in construction, from those in the construction products industry to those directly involved in the refurbishment and remediation of buildings, just behaved in a way that was beyond reckless. That is why it is so important that the collective fight for justice that the Grenfell community have asked for results in those responsible being brought to book. In the meantime, we have been seeking to ensure that we put in place a regulatory regime that repairs some of the damage of the past and that money is made available to repair buildings in which people still find themselves in unsafe conditions.
The Secretary of State is being eloquent and honest in his apology for what happened—the collective failure. However, on the point that he has just addressed, he will be aware that there are cases where professional fire safety advisers have told leaseholders that the cladding on their building is not safe and does not comply with the new rules, but when those leaseholders have made applications to the building safety fund they have been turned down. Some of them are now having to contemplate spending £70,000 to £80,000 and waiting another eight months to put the panels in combination on a rig and then set fire to them. If those tests, the BS 8414 tests, go ahead and they show that the cladding does burn and causes a risk, will he undertake that the building safety fund will look again at the applications for funding, so that those buildings get the money, enabling work to begin, and people can feel safe in their homes?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He has been, if I may say so, a consistently clear and authoritative voice on behalf of those who have found themselves in an incredibly difficult situation. The leaseholders he has described should not be in that position. There have been problems with the building safety fund—there absolutely have. Let me promise him that I will look at the specific case that he raises and, indeed, the wider issues and see what we can do to make sure that the building safety fund, which has not been discharging funds at the rate, at the pace and in the way that it should, does better.
The thoughts of myself and my party are with the families. It is hard to believe that it has been five years. Even these days, we still pray for the families who have suffered such pain and heartache.
It is quite clear that the Secretary of State is totally committed to making the changes that are necessary to ensure that this never happens again. May I ask him about sharing those changes and regulations with the other regions—the Northern Ireland Assembly, for instance? In particular, we have similar buildings in Belfast and Londonderry, and perhaps in Antrim as well, which are regulated or owned by our housing associations and councils. Is it his intention to share the recommendations with the other regions to ensure that we can all benefit from better safety?
Yes, absolutely. The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me the opportunity to say thank you to Ministers and officials in all the devolved Administrations who have been working with my Department to learn some of the lessons about building safety. We have also been discussing how some of the progress that we have made at a UK Government level in getting money from developers in order to contribute to remediation can also apply in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In particular, I thank Jayne Brady from the Northern Ireland civil service for the work that she has been doing with officials from my Department in this area. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s own party and others are committed to learning appropriate lessons.
I mentioned the importance of making sure that we had a fit-for-purpose new regime and that we took the appropriate steps necessary. One other person I would like to thank is Dame Judith Hackitt. The work that she did has ensured that we could pass the Building Safety Bill into law in order to make the Building Safety Act 2022 an effective framework for regulation. We have a new building safety regulator, led by a new chief inspector of buildings, which operates within the Health and Safety Executive. We will have a new national regulator for construction products and a new homes ombudsman to improve oversight and standards. We have new statutory duties placed on those carrying out design or building work to make sure that they have the relative competence for their roles, which means that building control will be a properly regulated profession and that all construction products marketed in the UK will be properly regulated in future. To follow on from the very good point made by Hilary Benn, if products are unsafe, they can be withdrawn from the market. There are also strengthened provisions in the legislation to hold industry to account.
As well as the Building Safety Act, the Fire Safety Act came into force this year, and it implements in principle the first nine of the inquiry’s 15 phase 1 recommendations. Changes to regulations include the requirement that the owner and manager of every residential building, whether or not it is high rise, should be required by law to provide fire safety instructions, including instructions for evacuation. We have taken steps, as I mentioned earlier, to say to all developers that they must contribute to both remediating the buildings for which they were responsible and contributing to a fund to ensure that neither taxpayers nor leaseholders are held liable for problems that they did not create and for which they should not pay.
I should stress that, as well as introducing effective regulation, we have made it clear that many of the materials that are unsafe have been banned. It is the case that combustible materials on the external wall of any new residential building more than 18 metres high are banned, and there is a provision for sprinkler systems in all new blocks of flats that are higher than 11 metres.
We are making sure that we have the right regulatory system in place, that we get developers to pay and that the most dangerous materials are banned. All those steps are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We also need to make sure that those companies that have operated in a way that genuinely brings the system into disrepute know that we are coming after them. That is why, when it came to the particular case of Rydon Homes, one of the companies that was part of the group that was responsible for what happened in Grenfell Tower, I have been clear that they are suspended from any participation in the Government’s Help to Buy scheme. I have also been clear that Kingspan, one of the organisations responsible for the material that contributed to the fire, was a wholly inappropriate partner for Mercedes-Benz when it was suggested that it should somehow seek to launder its reputation by sponsoring Mercedes-Benz’s Formula 1 team. It is also the case that I will be taking steps to ensure that freeholders who at the moment are evading their responsibility to pay for and to contribute to remediation can be pursued. More will be announced by the Government in the days to come to make sure that we take all the steps necessary to deal with everyone who has responsibility in this matter.
I should also say that, as well as making sure that Government do everything they can to bring people to justice, when the inquiry concludes, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, quite properly independent organisations, will be making their own decisions about whether criminal prosecution will be necessary. I know that that is an issue of profound concern to the community. I can assure them, having talked to both the police and the CPS, respecting, of course, their operational independence, that both have worked hard to ensure that the evidence is there for any action that they consider to be appropriate to be taken in due course.
As well as making sure that we learn the right lessons on building safety and get the new regime that tenants deserve, we also must ensure that the wider voice of social tenants everywhere is heard loud and clear. I thank the inspirational young campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa, who I know is in the House today, who has done so much working with ITV and others to draw attention to the continuing plight of social housing tenants. Kwajo’s work, and the work of so many other campaigners, has underlined and redrawn to our attention the fact that there are people who are living in our capital city today—five years after Grenfell—in circumstances that are beyond squalid and inadequate. It has been the case that some housing associations and some local authorities have been heedless and neglectful of their obligations, and the steps that we need to take are clear. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, is bringing forward new legislation to give effect to the changes in social housing that are required.
I appreciate what the Secretary of State has said because, obviously, there is a job of work that needs to be done, particularly for young people, with regards to housing. I therefore encourage him to take up the offer by Órla Constant from Centrepoint to visit the work it is doing and to share the lessons learned, and the opportunities available, from those projects for young people to get them into housing and to encourage them to start a better life for themselves and their families.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I know he is passionate about helping young people, particularly those at risk of homelessness and those who need decent homes. It is thanks to him that I have had the opportunity to meet people from Centrepoint, an amazing charity that has done such good work for so long. I look forward to the opportunity to see more of the work it is doing, which he has championed, to help those who are most in need of support to have a safe and decent roof over their heads.
I mentioned the legislation we are bringing in, which of course follows on from the publication of a new vision for social housing by my late colleague James Brokenshire. I think we would all want, as we reflect on James’s life and legacy, to recognise that one of the issues about which he was most passionate was making sure that the vulnerable and the voiceless had a champion in Government. It was his determination to set us on a path to stronger rights and better protections for tenants in social housing that has resulted in the legislation that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North is bringing forward.
Under that legislation, we will ensure that tenants know that they will be safe in their home, that they will be able to hold their landlord to account and that complaints will have to be dealt with promptly. They will know that they need to be treated with respect and that those who work in housing, to whom I am enormously grateful, will have the support and the extra professional training that they need to ensure that they work effectively with tenants. We also want to ensure that, in those circumstances—I hope they become progressively rarer—where there are real and genuine problems and an urgent need for action, there are new powers for rapid inspection and for unlimited fines, to ensure that appropriate steps are taken.
I thank the Secretary of State for the Bills he is bringing forward. He talks about bringing in legislation to improve safety for social rent tenants, which is good—but is that in parallel with the safety that leaseholders and private sector tenants in similar kinds of blocks also expect? Will everybody who lives in or owns a flat that is safety compromised be as safe as his legislation seeks to make social rent tenants?
Yes, that is our intention. The hon. Lady’s question gives me an opportunity to restate and underline one or two things, to make them perhaps a little more clear than I had hitherto. To my mind, and this is very much the theme of this debate, there are two big issues that the Grenfell tragedy threw into the starkest relief, which we should have addressed beforehand and which the tragedy makes it imperative that we do not forget.
The first issue is building safety. We have a compromised and weak regime that needs to change. We need to improve regulation, ensure that those buildings that are unsafe are made safe, and ensure that the people in those buildings do not pay for it, but that it is those who were contributors either to the system overall or to the state of those buildings who pay. That is one important set of issues.
There is another parallel and related set of issues. We know, because we can hear on tape the voices of those who were in that tower saying beforehand that they were not being listened to, at a time when changes were being made to their own home, that they were not paid attention to. That symbolises a wider problem of too many people in social housing not having their voices heard or their interests and lives protected. Of course, the two come together.
The tragedy raises other issues, on which I, my Department and others have reflected, and which I hope this House will return to as well. As Ruth Cadbury rightly says, people in the private rented sector need their rights protected. We have some legislation that we will be debating in this House in due course that is intended to better protect the rights of those in the private rented sector by, for example, getting rid of section 21 evictions. I know the very close interest she takes in housing, so I hope we will have an opportunity to look at that Bill; if she has thoughts about how we can ensure that we do an even better job for those in the private rented sector, I look forward to working with her.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s response to Ruth Cadbury. Not today, but will he and his colleagues turn their minds to how to provide greater security and fairness to the quarter of a million park home residents and the 6 million private leaseholders who are affected both by fire safety and by other unfairnesses, where the Government have proposals from the Law Commission to enact?
I am very grateful to the Father of the House. I have received hundreds, if not thousands, of letters and postcards highlighting the plight of park home residents and referencing the work that he has led. There is much more that can be done there; I will not say more from the Dispatch Box today, but I look forward to working with him on that.
On the question of enfranchising leaseholders, the Father of the House is right, and so is Lisa Nandy, my shadow, that we need to legislate to enfranchise them. We are going to do so in the next parliamentary Session—within this year, as it were. It is important that we do. That is a commitment we must uphold. There are urgent measures, which we debated yesterday, about housing supply, but it is absolutely right that we end the absurd, feudal system of leasehold, which restricts people’s rights in a way that is indefensible in the 21st century.
I apologise to the House for being late to the debate; I have been chairing a meeting of the House of Commons Members’ Fund, which I gave prior notice of. The Secretary of State rightly talks about help for leaseholders and others living in blocks that have been affected by Grenfell-style cladding, other cladding and other building safety defects. That is an important issue, but coming back to social housing, he is aware that there is still a problem: apart from ACM cladding, there is no automatic right to funds for social housing landlords. Ministers have said before that that is still under consideration. If it is not provided, there will be a massive black hole, particularly in housing association funding, which means they will build fewer houses than we want them to.
The Chairman of the Select Committee is right to draw attention to that issue. One of the important questions is making sure that, even as we crack down on those social landlords who may not be fulfilling their responsibilities, we also understand that the overwhelming majority of people who work for and in housing associations are striving every day to provide a quality service and to ensure that more people can have a safe roof over their head. We must make sure that they have the resources required, including the resources necessary to meet their building safety obligations. I look forward to working with the National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing to see what more we can do to help them in that area, and in others.
I know we only have three hours or so for this debate and there are a number of other hon. Members who want to speak, so I will conclude by saying thank you, again, to the bereaved, the relatives and the survivors of this tragedy for the immense forbearance, dignity and courage they have shown. I hope we will have an opportunity at least every year to report back to this House on the progress we are making on the issues for which they have fought. I am sure I speak for everyone across the House when I say that on the 14th all of us will pause, reflect and honour everything through which they have been. Our commitment to ensure that a tragedy like that never happens again is universal across this House.
I join the Secretary of State in welcoming some of those families to the Chamber today. It always feels uncomfortable, at moments such as this when we stand here and speak, that their voices are not heard and ours are, but I have heard from many of the families affected by this appalling tragedy over the past few years that what they want most is to hear from us the action we will take to honour those lives and build a fitting legacy. I am determined that we will work with the Secretary of State and with all political parties across this House in order to turn that commitment that we have all respectively made into reality.
There has rightly been much soul-searching about how such a tragedy was possible in modern Britain. The public inquiry is still under way and must be allowed to do its work without political interference. However, that must never be allowed to become an excuse for delay or for justice denied, because this was not the first fire in a block with similar cladding. The Government were aware of problems as early as 1986, well before a block of flats in Merseyside caught alight in 1991. That fire, at Knowsley Heights, was followed by similar fires spanning three decades, from Irvine in Scotland to Southwark in south London, where six people lost their lives. In those intervening decades, the alarm was raised many times. One parliamentary inquiry led by the former Member for Southend West, David Amess, who is much missed in all parts of this House, warned that it should not
“take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.”
This series of failures spanned all political parties and successive Governments over many decades. We should have heard that and we should have acted. I therefore join the Secretary of State in saying, on behalf of my party, that we are sorry that we did not hear it and sorry that we did not act sooner.
But how did those warnings go unheeded by so many for so long? The Government’s lawyer told the official Grenfell inquiry that
“within the construction industry there was a race to the bottom, with profits being prioritised over safety.”
It makes me angry to hear that that can be admitted with such candour now but nothing was done before. I share the Secretary of State’s passion to go after those who recklessly disregarded people’s lives and put their profits and their own interests before safety. If they broke the law, acted recklessly or acted immorally, then I will join him in going to the ends of the earth to make sure that they pay a heavy price for doing so.
We have to ask ourselves, too, standing here in the centre of power: who permitted that to happen? Over 30 years and five different Governments—Labour, coalition and Conservative—how did it come to pass that profits were allowed to matter more than people. How could the concerns and lives of people in the centre of one of the wealthiest boroughs in the wealthiest city in one of the wealthiest countries in the world be ignored—effectively rendered invisible by decision makers only a few short miles away? The appalling tragedy suffered by the people of Grenfell is undeniable evidence of the unequal society that we live in, where lives are allowed to be weighed against profit on a balance sheet and come out the worst, and where those who lack money also lack power. When I talk to social housing tenants up and down the country, this what I hear so often—that they are not seen or heard by decision makers, and that when they raise their concerns and bang on the doors of the corridors of power, those concerns still go unheeded. One social housing tenant said to me: “We simply do not count.” This has to be the day when we stand up together and say, “This ends now.”
There are 4 million families in rented social housing in England. Every single one of them deserves a decent, safe home, and, more than that, the power to drive and shape the decisions that affect their own lives. We should be scandalised that so many homes are not up to a fit standard, not just on fire safety but in being cold, damp and in a state of disrepair that shames us all in modern Britain: homes with black mould and water running down the walls; homes that are unsafe; homes that are damp and overcrowded. I recently heard from a teacher about a child who was coming to school covered in rat bites. The school is using its pupil premium to send people round to make sure that these children are clothed, fed and protected from rats. What have we come to in Britain in the 21st century? It is an absolute disgrace.
The Secretary of State is right that we should take a zero tolerance approach to social landlords who do not live up their obligations—who do not do everything within their power to make sure that those issues are dealt with. But I also gently say to him, in a constructive tone, given the gravity of what we are dealing with today, that the Government have to do their bit as well. That means reversing some of the cuts that have been made to councils and housing associations in recent years which mean that repair budgets are virtually non-existent in many parts of the country, and that good people have been lost and expertise has gone.
We welcome the decision to publish a social housing reform Bill to try to tackle some of these issues, although we are concerned that it has not materialised in advance of this debate. We were led to believe that we would have that Bill before we stood up to speak today. If there are problems within Government—if there are wranglings taking place behind closed doors—my offer to the Secretary of State is this: we will work with him and support him in whatever battles he has to make sure that this Bill sees the light of day, and quickly. That also goes for the renters reform Bill, which must, as my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury said, deal with the appalling standards in many private rented homes up and down this country. Some of that, I have to say to the Secretary of State, has been caused by Government policies such as the bedroom tax, which forced many people out of the secure social home that they had lived in for many years, close to friends, family and children’s schools, and into private, rented, often overcrowded and substandard accommodation that, absurdly, cost the public more than it did to house them in their own home.
We welcome some of the measures that the Secretary of State has proposed, particularly the promise to beef up the role of the regulator. This is a welcome step forward giving it the power to inspect, to order emergency repairs, to issue limitless fines, and to intervene in badly managed organisations. But we have to do more to tilt the balance of power back towards tenants to give them not just a voice but real power to shape and drive the decisions that affect their lives, their homes, their families and their communities. The measures on tenant satisfaction and a residents’ panel that meets Ministers three times a year are welcome, but well short of a dedicated tenants’ organisation that is put on a statutory footing and exists to be a voice to champion their interests. Such a body existed under the last Labour Government but was scrapped by the Secretary of State’s Government in 2010. I ask him please not to close his mind to perhaps revisiting previous methods that worked. Let us work together with tenants to get this right once and for all.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the body—the Tenant Services Authority—that used to exist and was in place to do that. Let me return to the point that I made to the Secretary of State in an intervention: this is about resources. Councils and housing associations are short of resources. They cannot bring their homes up to a proper standard—the new decent homes standard—build new homes, and do all the necessary building safety and other works with the money they have. Will my hon. Friend join me in pressing the Secretary of State—hopefully he is listening, as he said he was—to make sure that social housing landlords have the same access to funds to deal with safety works that are now, quite rightly, available to the private sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I would add to the many challenges currently facing councils and housing associations the challenge of decarbonisation and the goal of net zero. These things are keeping well-meaning, good people who work in our councils and housing associations awake at night trying to work out how they are going to square the circle, and they deserve more support from their Government.
Nor is it acceptable that the measures are silent on how many new social housing properties will be built. We have a chronic shortage of affordable rented homes, with some of the challenges that my hon. Friend outlined. It is really concerning that today the Prime Minister said that the big idea to solve this is to allow people to use benefits to get a mortgage—not because we disagree with the principle of extending home ownership much more widely to those who want to grasp it, but because he seems to have forgotten to talk to the lenders. The Secretary of State will know that this has been the problem with previous announcements that have aimed in similar ways to help people to get mortgages. If mortgage lenders are not on board, they simply will not do it. The Prime Minister may not have reached out to mortgage lenders, but I am sure the Secretary of State will. When he does, will he talk to them about the very real difficulties of people on universal credit—all of whom, by definition, have savings of less than £16,000, with most having very little in savings, if anything at all—and about how they get a mortgage without any kind of deposit, and whether that is indeed viable? The Prime Minister appears to have forgotten to talk to mortgage lenders; I think it is possible that he also forgot to talk to the Secretary of State before he made the announcement. I do not envy the Secretary of State the task of trying to sort this out, but I am sure that he will go at it with his characteristic tenacity, and I wish him well in the endeavour.
I also wish the right hon. Gentleman well in realising the ambition he set out today: that when the Government extend the right to buy on a voluntary basis to housing association tenants, they will ensure that the homes are replaced, like for like and one for one. I was pleased to hear him say that he had secured that commitment, because Government figures suggest that while just over 2,500 council homes were built in 2010, over 11,000 were sold off under the right to buy; and, as he knows, in the Government pilots of the extended scheme, only half of the homes were replaced and the replacements were more expensive and inferior in standard to the ones that were sold. So how is the Secretary of State able to give this commitment today? What is the estimate of the cost of doing that, and where will the money be found? He knows better than anyone how squeezed his existing budget is. Given that full replacement of right-to-buy homes has never been achieved, how does he intend to pull that off this time? Surely, with 1 million people stuck on social housing waiting lists and a shortage of 1.5 million homes, he is not going to pursue measures that make the situation worse for most families?
There are two important questions here. First, will participation by housing associations be voluntary? They are independent organisations, not part of the public sector. Secondly, replacing one for one, like for like, a family home for a family home, is not just about the Treasury making up the discount. Talk to housing associations: the cost of building a replacement is often greater than the market value of the home sold. There is another gap, which the Government have to fill.
I think my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, is making the Secretary of State’s day. We can add that to the very long list of problems. I think his question was more for the Secretary of State than for me, and I am sure he will ensure that it is addressed in the winding-up speeches, but I add my voice to his in saying that one of the reasons we were very concerned about the scheme is that it reaches only a very small number at a very high price.
We have a housing crisis in Britain and, as the Secretary of State knows, it manifests in a multitude of ways—in people who have been mis-sold leasehold properties, people who face soaring rents and are crippled by housing costs and the cost of living, and people in totally unsuitable exempt accommodation. Those loopholes have still not been closed while people continue to milk the system and claim housing benefit while allowing communities to fall into rack and ruin.
As the Secretary of State acknowledged, five full years after the Grenfell tragedy thousands of people remain stranded in homes covered in similar cladding, facing ruinous costs because of a scandal that was not of their making. The right hon. Gentleman is right that developers, not leaseholders, should pay. He has pushed that further than any of his predecessors and he has my full support in doing so. As long as he continues down that road, we will support him in the fight. However, I understand that so far 45 homebuilders have paid £2 billion to fix fire-related safety defects, which is roughly half of what he told the House would be needed. Where will the other £2 billion come from? What assurances and guarantees does he have that the developers who have agreed to pay cannot backtrack on any of the agreements?
The Government’s plans are missing several elements that need to be addressed and added to existing measures in the Building Safety Act 2022. The Secretary of State will be aware of those. There is still far too little support for the significant number of leaseholders who face huge bills to fix non-cladding defects.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. On the point she just addressed, there are leaseholders living in buildings who have looked to what the Secretary of State says about wanting to make those responsible pay but who still do not know who was involved. Often there is a network of companies; some may have disappeared or taken new names but still have the same directors and so on. Would it not be helpful if the Government were to write to the leaseholders in all those buildings setting out what information they currently have about the willingness of those involved in the construction of the building to cough up for the unsafe flats they constructed?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good suggestion, which I hope the Government will take up. It is not just the huge costs that are causing such damage to people; it is the uncertainty and anxiety that they have to live with every single day. Anything the Government can do to alleviate that anxiety—to send a signal to the leaseholders who are now trapped in their homes that they are not on their own—would be extremely welcome.
Will the Secretary of State look specifically at those who are seeking to sell or remortgage their properties? For such people, this wait is agonising and unbearable; their lives are on hold and they simply cannot move on. I have to say to him that it is quite wrong of the Government to rule out retrospective help for those who have already paid. Many people felt pressured or bullied into paying these enormous bills, yet no help is coming for them. That is not justice. Nor is there help for the countless leaseholders who are mired in mortgage chaos. Government funding so far is available for buildings over 11 metres, but shorter buildings may contain more vulnerable residents, be coated in more cladding and have more serious fire safety issues. What more does the Secretary of State plan to do to ensure that priority funding is allocated according to risk?
At the current pace, it will take until 2026 to remove cladding on all social housing blocks, and until 2024 for private blocks. When does the Secretary of State expect remediation of all dangerous buildings to have been completed? Can he give us some reassurance on that?
It would be wrong of me to stand here and say that the problems facing leaseholders began and end with Grenfell. A group of local residents who have been caught up in this scandal came to see me and told me a familiar story. They have been hit with huge charges, but when they challenged the charges with their management company, they did not even get a response. They have written again and again and have been completely and utterly ignored. It is totally unacceptable, and it is not new.
Sir Peter Bottomley is not in his place right now, but he has fought this battle for years, as I well remember. Many years ago, in 2001, I worked for the then Member of Parliament for Walthamstow as the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill—later the 2002 Act—was going through this place. These debates were happening here in this place at that time, a full decade before I was elected to Parliament. They were happening when I was working for Centrepoint, the fantastic organisation to which Members have paid tribute today. Parliament was debating how too many people were being ignored and overlooked, and these arcane and archaic, feudal models of tenure were still being defended by some, even though they had clearly and completely outlived their usefulness.
Almost every country in the world apart from Britain has either reformed or abolished this archaic, feudal model. I believe there is now cross-party consensus on the need to do something about it. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State acknowledge that we are right to say that we must have legislation to deal with this, but I say gently to him: where is it? He says legislation will be forthcoming in this parliamentary Session, but it was not in the Queen’s Speech. There are five Bills from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the Queen’s Speech; surely time can be found to ensure that we deal with this problem once and for all.
We need new legislation to end the sale of new private leasehold houses, effective immediately after Royal Assent is given; new legislation to replace private leasehold flats with commonhold; and new powers for residents over the management of their own homes, with rights for flat owners to form residents’ associations and simplification of the right to manage. Why do the Government not hand leaseholders the right to extend the lease to 990 years with zero ground rent at any time or to cap ground rents when extending a lease to 0.1% of the freehold value up to a maximum of £250 a year? The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, which my hon. Friend Mr Betts chairs, has done incredible work on that. The proposals are there and ready to go.
Where are the Law Commission’s proposals to reform the process of enfranchisement valuation for leaseholders, including on marriage value and prescribing rates for the calculations of the premium? Surely, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, it is a no-brainer to crack down on unfair fees and contract terms by publishing a reference list of reasonable charges, by requiring transparency on service charges, and by giving leaseholders the right to challenge rip-off fees and conditions or poor performance from service companies.
I started by saying that a group of people were rendered invisible to decision makers only a few miles away, which is completely unacceptable in modern Britain. How can we accept that these rip-off companies, on behalf of owners who we often do not know and do not have the right to find out about, are allowed to tell people whether they can change the doorbell on their own home or make minor changes that would make a big difference to their lives? How on earth is it right that we are siding with those rip-off management companies and opaque owners over people who live in their own homes, have a stake in this country and their communities, and deserve the right to something better?
If the Secretary of State can secure time for the second part of the leasehold reform Bill that was promised, we could end these arcane rules and give power and a voice back to people in their own homes and communities. Was levelling up not intended to answer that clamour for more control and agency, and give people who have a stake in the outcome a greater ability to make decisions about their own lives? That is the legacy that we should seek to build in honour of those who lost their lives in Grenfell: everybody everywhere in the UK, regardless of the type of tenure that they happen to end up with, has the right to a decent, secure, safe home—full stop. We will make sure that that is delivered.
The Grenfell community has steadfastly campaigned not just for justice but for change, and it is humbling to welcome some of the relatives to the Gallery. I share the Secretary of State’s view that that has come too slowly and that their long fight for justice has for too long been paved with broken promises. Those lives mattered, and if we believe and mean what we say when we honour them, we must build a better system in the wake of that appalling tragedy. His Department has five Bills in the Queen’s Speech, which is five chances for us to get it right. We will move heaven and earth to help him do that, but let us not waste them.
Tuesday is the five-year anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy and I start by paying tribute to my constituents—the 72 men, women and children who lost their lives in such appalling circumstances. I also pay tribute to the bereaved, the survivors, the residents and the broader community in north Kensington and Kensington, who have borne so much with so much dignity. I welcome the families and residents to the Gallery; it is an honour to have them here.
We need a lasting legacy to come out of the Grenfell fire tragedy, which must be that everyone has a right to be safe in their homes, that all residents’ and tenants’ voices need to be heard, and that communities need to be involved in decision making when it comes to their communities. In the two and a half years since I was elected, I have said in this Chamber on a number of occasions that I have been frustrated by the length of time it has taken for some of the changes to building, fire safety and cladding remediation to be implemented. I say again that it is incumbent on all of us to have a sense of urgency when we go about this task.
I am glad to say that we have made substantial progress in the last few months. In April, we enacted the Building Safety Act 2022, which is a landmark piece of legislation. As part of that Act, we extended to intermediate buildings the statutory protection for leaseholders such that they will not have to pay for cladding remediation, which I welcome. I also welcome the establishment of a regulator for construction products. I have been shocked and horrified by some of the revelations that have come out of the Grenfell inquiry about the building products sector, so I am glad that that regulator has been put in place.
I thank the Secretary of State for his efforts with building developers and owners. It is good that 45 of the largest building developers have signed up to the new regime to provide at least £2 billion of funding for buildings in whose development they were involved. It is also positive that we now have the building safety levy, which will raise £3 billion-plus for buildings that have been orphaned. That is all good progress.
My constituents and I were pleased to see the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill in the Queen’s Speech, for which activists in my constituency have been calling for a long time. It is very important that social housing tenants’ voices are heard and respected, and that the regulator is given tougher enforcement powers. I am glad that there can be unlimited fines and that, for the big social housing providers, there will be regular inspections along the lines of Ofsted inspections.
We are making progress, but there is more to be done. In my constituency, there are buildings where the remediation is still in progress. We need a sense of urgency in addressing every single building in the country that has fire safety defects. Every building needs to be properly assessed. It is important that we are proportionate in that fire risk assessment—it needs to be accurate and to reflect the real risks—but once we have it, we need to get on with the job of remediating the defects. I understand that, in London, approximately 1,100 buildings would require simultaneous evacuation, and we need to get on with the job of remediating them.
It is also important to address the broader picture—not only the remediation, but the other attendant issues. I talked to a constituent this morning who lives in a building that does not require remediation, but the insurance companies believe there is sufficient risk for them to have put up the insurance premiums multiple times. That broader context needs to be looked at. We need to ensure that the recommendations of the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry are implemented. I understand that 21 of the 46 have been, but we need to ensure that the rest are implemented urgently.
We have made substantial progress, particularly in the last few months, but there is a lot more to be done. This needs to be a collective endeavour on both sides of the House, because we owe it to the Grenfell families and the Grenfell community that such a tragedy never be allowed to happen again. We as the legislators need to ensure that.
I join all Members in this House in sending our condolences to the people from Grenfell Tower in the Gallery and to all the family and friends of those they have lost.
My day today began well: I got a phone call from Merton Council housing department to tell me that Miss S’s case would go into band A on the housing register and she would be the highest medical priority. Miss S lives in a one-bedroom flat that is rodent infested and covered in condensation, which she shares with her three children, two of whom have autism. They are now in band A—great! Only it is not so great, because I calculate that she will be 37th in the three-bedroom category in band A on Merton’s housing register, and I know the other 36 because I fought to get them there. Last year, Merton Council had 32 three-bedroom properties to offer to the entire housing register. At that rate, I calculate that Miss S probably has another six or seven years before she will ever successfully bid for a property. That is the reality we face.
The word “crisis” is overused in this Chamber, but when it comes to housing it could not possibly be more justified. Every Friday at my weekly advice surgery, I meet family after family on Merton’s 10,000-strong housing waiting list to whom I struggle to offer any hope that they will ever get a place to call home. I reflect on how I deal with their cases: do I tell them the truth and explain the system, or do I try to leave them with some hope to make them feel better? I would welcome anybody’s advice, because I have become the citizens advice or housing advice authority giving the news to people that they do not want to hear, but I believe it is my obligation to give that advice in the best way I can.
When I bring those cases to Parliament, I cannot help but question the priority the Government give this issue, given that the average tenure for a Housing Minister over the last 12 years has been slightly less than a year. Maybe I am dreaming, but finally it sounds as though it is time for some housing policy—who knew Sue Gray’s partygate report would have such far-reaching consequences? —but, as ever, the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding costs money.
Let us start on a positive note. I am delighted finally to see progress for social housing tenants living in properties in disrepair and battling endless hurdles in their fight for a safe, habitable place to live. This would simply not have happened without the determination of my constituent—I am proud to say that—Kwajo Tweneboa, who is here today, and Daniel Hewitt of ITV News in shining a light on the appalling conditions in which Kwajo, his neighbours and thousands of social housing tenants are living. Disrepair is the biggest issue in my inbox, thanks in part to a complaints process so rigorous and so tilted in favour of the landlord that my office now holds a weekly meeting with Clarion Housing Association to go through cases one by one.
I say to the Minister that, if I had rain pouring through my roof, I really do not think my patience would withstand a call centre with nobody responsible for my complaint, a two-stage written process, an eight-week wait to begin a complaint to the ombudsman, who looks only at whether correct processes have been followed, and a regulator who signposts me back to the ombudsman. So a truly strengthened regulator would be unreservedly welcome, finally giving a voice to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. But we must be under no illusion: this would not build a single new home. There were just 5,955 new social rented homes last year—one of the lowest numbers on record—and at that rate, it would take 192 years to house everyone on the waiting list.
As I have always said, it is people’s real-life examples that bring this stuff home, and I would like to give two more examples. The first is Mr and Mrs B and their three children. Their eldest son has muscular dystrophy. He cannot walk or use a bathroom independently, but he lives in a house in which his bathroom and toilet are downstairs and his bedroom is upstairs. Each day, his tiny, diminutive mum puts him on her back and climbs the stairs to his bedroom. At night, she carries him downstairs on her back for him to be able to use the bathroom. She is in band A—the ubiquitous band A —on the register. Because I was so distressed at explaining the situation to her, I visited her home with the head of the Merton housing department, Mr Brunton, and together we tried to explain why she could not be helped. That is not something I would want to do too often. She is at the top of the list, but she will go no further.
There is Miss T, who lives with her three children in a combined living room-kitchen while her former partner, who is the tenant of the flat and has multiple sclerosis, is in the bedroom. Of those three children, one is severely autistic. Miss T herself has a neurological brain disorder. She is in band A on the housing register, but there are 32 families in front of her. Her wait has to be put into perspective: last year, Merton had 32 three-bedroom properties to offer to all the bands. Even though Miss T is at the top of the list, it will take until her children are teenagers before she is likely to be successful, so she and her three children will be sleeping in the living room until then.
How does the Minister intend to increase supply? One ambition appears to be reopening up current supply, with the Secretary of State vowing this morning to end the “scourge” of unoccupied second homes. If only rhetoric matched reality I would be dancing on the rooftops. Earlier this week, the Chancellor confirmed that he is handing out multiple energy bill discounts to those who own multiple homes. Aside from costing hundreds of millions to the taxpayer, does the Minister really think that this will discourage second home ownership?
Another suggestion is to give housing association tenants the right to buy, a proposal that categorically requires Government funding. However, the findings of the Government’s trial run in the midlands were indisputable: the number of replacement homes did not match the number of sales housing associations said they would likely need to be able to put their own resources into a part-funded replacement scheme, and the replacement homes were smaller and more expensive. Don’t get me wrong: I am a fan of home ownership. I am one of few on the Opposition Benches who regularly speak in favour of the right to buy. I know how liberating it is for people to own their home, and I know how it gives them independence and choice. As the daughter of a woman whose proudest achievement was not getting one daughter into the House of Commons or her younger daughter into the House of Lords, but owning her own home, I will never be a person who objects to home ownership. However, what we really need is the absolute copper-bottomed guarantee that there will be like-for-like replacement of every single property that is sold.
Finally, the Secretary of State heralded an ambition to return to a Macmillan era of housing—an era when 300,000 new homes were built a year. That is the very same target that the very same Secretary of State scrapped last month. Is it not about time that we stopped playing the hokey-cokey with the most fundamental human right—a secure place to live and bring up your children?
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I, too, pay tribute to the families and survivors of the Grenfell tragedy, and I think all of us who served in Government at any time before that tragedy would join both Front Benches in the apology that is offered to them; there was a systemic failure that let them and many others down.
As the shadow Secretary of State generously said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has shown real energy in seeking to address these matters now, and I pay tribute to him for that. We have therefore seen marked progress, which I welcome, but I also want to put on record some areas in which I know the Minister currently on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, will be keen to press for yet further progress.
The first of them relates to cladding. We have come a long way, and my constituents are very grateful for that. We have had campaigns, which I have raised in this House, for the residents of Northpoint in my constituency, and others are affected in other buildings, too: Iconia House and Azzura House in Homesdale Road; and William House and Henry House in Ringers Road. They happen all to be in the centre of Bromley, so this is not purely an inner-London issue; it affects town centres and suburban centres across the country. It is therefore all the more important that we get it right.
Eventually, after a very long campaign, the remediation work is starting at Northpoint, but it will take perhaps a year or so to complete. The landlord of the occupiers of Northpoint was a property company that was an offshoot of the Tchenguiz family trust, not an organisation noted for its generosity towards its tenants. It stood upon its legal rights and insisted upon the flat owners—the lease- holders—covering the costs, for example of a waking watch.
It is certainly to be welcomed that future costs of waking watches and remediation will be picked up, but these leaseholders are out of pocket to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds for the waking watch that they installed because the London Fire Brigade, in exercise of its duty, issued a notice saying that without it the property would not be habitable. They were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: what else were they to do but acquire that waking watch? Otherwise their homes would have been unsafe, which would have been unfair on them. The mental and health pressures on some of these people was immense. Their landlord was remote and frankly not possible to go after. It was not signed up to the scheme that the Secretary of State has worked so hard on and responsible developers have joined. The occupiers of Northpoint therefore had to dip into their own pockets when most of them already had mortgages, especially as many of them were first-time buyers, and when the flats were unmortgageable—they could not increase the mortgage on them because nobody would lend on them—and until this work was done they were effectively uninsurable too.
So these people had been left in a hopeless situation, and while it is right that the Government seek to recover every penny they can from developers and builders who fail to come up to the standards, where there has ultimately been a failure of governance in the broadest sense over a period of many years it is legitimate for the state to stand behind those who have lost out. Where there is such a corporate failure, the state must pick up the ultimate responsibility. So I hope the Minister will look again at means of coming to the aid of such people for retrospective costs where it is clearly not realistic to pursue the builder or developer. There will be a number of such cases. In this instance the freehold had been sold on many times. There will also be cases where developers who may be at fault will no longer be in business; they may have wound up or amalgamated. In those circumstances, the moral and corporate responsibility must fall on the state.
There are also areas where there has been progress but there is more to do. Members have referred to building insurance. There has been a marked increase in premiums across the board. People have had major—threefold or fourfold—increases in their premiums. Again, these people are often in flats that are unmortgageable and unsellable, and now, on top of their service cost charges to pay for steps such as a waking watch, they are facing massive increases in their insurance premiums. The question has to be raised—many of my constituents have done so—whether the market is operating effectively. How genuinely competitive is the market in these areas? There is a real concern that at the very least there is an excessive risk-averseness now: having gone from having too lax an approach in the past perhaps, now the insurers’ approach is too risk-averse, resulting in unrealistically and unfairly high premiums for many flat owners. That, too, is an area where it is legitimate for the Government and regulators to step in.
We raised the issue of insurers at the Select Committee. Premiums have gone up by ridiculous amounts, often for buildings that are now safer than before the premium increases. The Association of British Insurers could not tell us how much more the insurance companies have paid out in the last three or four years on high-rise blocks, so we have no idea how much has been paid out, but we do know there have been massive premiums increases. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should encourage Ministers to take further action with the ABI and others to start sorting out these unreasonable premiums increases?
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I hope Ministers will do that. Again, the Secretary of State—who I am delighted to see back in his place—and his colleagues have shown real energy on this, but we need to keep the pressure on; that is key.
I am grateful to Lord Greenhalgh, who has been in correspondence with me a good deal on these matters. He pointed out that back in January the Financial Conduct Authority and the Competition and Markets Authority had been called upon
“to conduct a review of the buildings insurance market for medium and high-rise blocks of flats to get to the bottom” of this concern. That is good of course, and the wider issue was recognised by Lord Greenhalgh, who wrote:
“Where the risk has demonstrably decreased, so should the premium.”
But that is not happening at the moment. While we want that review to be thorough, it must also be implemented in a timely fashion. I was advised by Lord Greenhalgh that the Department expects the FCA and the CMA
“to provide advice and recommendations within the next six months.”
He wrote that in a letter sent last month. I hope we can keep the pressure on so that it happens well within six months, rather than at the far end of that period. The risk, of course, is that some of the stakeholders in the industry will not have the greatest of incentives to move swiftly on this matter, so the duty therefore falls on the Government to do that. I know the Secretary of State has been more than willing to flex muscle with the sector when necessary to get movement, and I hope he will do so on this. I also hope that the Minister will confirm in winding up the debate that once the advice and recommendations from the CMA and FCA have been received, there will be prompt and urgent action to implement them in whatever form is necessary to address this genuine problem.
There is a related matter on the operation of EWS1 forms. In my constituency there is a firm called the Frankham Group. Steve Frankham MBE, a constituent of mine, has done a great deal of work in this field and has been recognised for his service in the industry and charitable works around these matters. His firm is anxious to do the right thing but it, and many others in the sector who have contacted me, are concerned about the real difficulty they are finding, as responsible contractors employed by the registered social landlord sector or the private sector to carry out the EWS1 surveys, in getting both accreditation and professional indemnity insurance.
At the beginning of the year, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors set up accreditation for technicians and surveyors who will be carrying out the scheme. Despite firms such as Frankham having participated in meetings and sent in assessment forms as required, nothing as yet has been forthcoming from RICS to set the scheme properly in place. At the same time, insurance premiums have increased exponentially, which is, in some cases, making large contracts less viable than would otherwise be the case.
The last thing we want is for rogue operators to come into the market and undercut the responsible contractors who carry out this essential work, so we need both a realistic and fair insurance market operating in the sphere and, in parallel, a proper accreditation scheme in place. Otherwise, the temptation for the cowboys to undercut responsible people will be the greater. We need urgent action on that. I will happily share with the Minister and the Secretary of State the correspondence that I have had from my constituents, with the technical detail that they set out on what they have been doing to try to get the scheme working. I had a look at an EWS1 form myself, and it is quite complicated. We could not expect a group of residents to deal with it—they need professional advice to do it properly—but we must ensure that the professionals are accredited and insured properly to be able to undertake the work. I hope that we can flag that up, because I am not sure that enough attention has been given to it.
The other matter that relates to specific building safety issues is the position of small landlords, who are sometimes referred to as portfolio landlords. I appreciate that there has been movement to improve the number of landlords included in the Government’s support schemes for remediation, but the current definition for those who can come into the scheme is those who have their own property but own only one other property, which they do not live in. Constituents have contacted me about that.
Let us say that a retired couple have bought four small flats, as many people may have done, all in their joint names. In retrospect, I suppose they could have put them in their sole names and had two each, but, perfectly straightforwardly, they chose to put them in joint names. Had they bought two larger flats, they might well have fallen within the scheme. As it is, because they happened to invest in that type of property, they fall outside the scheme’s scope. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could think again about the definition of a portfolio landlord. Most of us might think they are someone with 20, 30 or 40 flats for whom that is their principal business and think, “Well, they will have to take the commercial risk on that.” They are not the large-scale landlord chains that we see, either. They are generally small investors, often moving into semi-retirement, who are not in anything like the same position to bear the costs. The principle behind the scheme is admirable, and it would be a shame if the ship was spoiled for a ha’porth of tar, meaning that entirely straightforward people who were caught out are left bearing a cost when someone with a slightly different configuration of their retirement investment would be able to benefit.
Finally, I turn to a broad point that echoes one made by Siobhain McDonagh. As well as dealing with the building safety situation, we need to look at the maintenance of much of our social housing estate. Constituents have been in touch with me repeatedly about the difficulty they have in particular with some of the large RSLs. They have also been in touch with the Secretary of State’s Department in relation to the largest RSL in my area, Clarion. I deal with Clarion, and I see that the shadow Minister, Matthew Pennycook, has come across it as well. We have also recently seen it in the press. It is one of the largest social landlords in the country, but, I am sorry to say that, despite sometimes having had constructive dealings with it, many of my constituents who are its tenants do not find it constructive to deal with. There is a continual issue of poor maintenance, with contractors who simply do not do the job properly and have to revisit time and again. In one estate in Mottingham in my constituency, we have had problems getting things done, which have been running for about four years—they are only partially done, then revisited and more is done. Clarion is quick to send removal notices for pot plants and garden sheds that may have been put in place without permission. It is sharp in doing that. It is also quite quick to serve statutory notices for the costs of significant capital works such as renewing roofs and other matters, but I am sorry to say that it is remarkably slow to sort out basic repairs, never mind some of the more serious issues such as when damp gets in.
That makes me wonder whether some of our RSLs have not in fact become too big to be accountable. The stock in Bromley was originally transferred by Bromley Council to an RSL called Broomleigh. Actually, it was one of the first RSLs, and that was one of the first stock transfers to take place. The whole point of Broomleigh was that it was locally based, with local directors and local offices. What we have seen over a period of time is a series of RSL mergers, so they have become much larger.
Does the hon. Member agree that the drive for merger is directly due to housing associations’ funding, their lack of capital funding, their greater reliance on the equity in their own stock and their ability to borrow? We have the housing associations that our legislation and funding deserve.
I think that we must look at the funding model for RSLs. There is no doubt that the ability to leverage more capital is a significant driver in mergers, and we must be aware of that. The hon. Lady is quite right that it is a bit odd that organisations that started off as charities now operate, in effect, in the same way as large-scale commercial developers, but actually without some of the shareholder and other comeback that those in the commercial sector might have. We do need to look at that. The concept of RSLs can be excellent and they can do much good work, so the reverse can also be true. I have some very good, local, small RSLs in my constituency, much closer to the original intention, who do brilliant work. I therefore agree that it is time to look across the piece at the RSL market.
This is an important debate, and I am grateful to have taken part in it. The Secretary of State is an effective Minister and has shown real energy and determination throughout all of this, and my constituents have reason to be grateful to him for interventions in our area in the past. I am sure that he will take those points on board, because we have done a lot, but a few extra bits and an extra push could do so much more. We also need that bigger-picture look at our social housing market.
I welcome the reflections made by the Secretary of State in his opening remarks on the Grenfell tragedy and, along with Members across the House, I welcome the bereaved family members who are here to witness the debate. It is a reflection of the horror we all felt five years ago in seeing those pictures on our television screens that we are here, five years later, still debating in a thoughtful and cross-party way what more can be done. I welcome the progress already made and value the commitments made by all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, to further change. I hope that that will be the legacy of that awful day. It is a reflection of how profoundly it affected us all that we are working together thoughtfully, much against the prevailing wind of political debate in the Chamber. We are all committed to fixing some of the problems revealed.
We welcome the progress made, but I want to mention the amendment tabled to the Building Safety Bill by my hon. Friend Daisy Cooper that would have made social landlords exempt from the financial burden of the building safety levy. That levy, which is being charged to fund the cladding remediation work, is burdening social landlords and having the direct impact of disincentivising new house building. Some providers are reducing their development pipelines by between 20% and 40%. My hon. Friend tabled an amendment to exempt social landlords, which I believe was welcomed by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and the Local Government Association. The Secretary of State and the Department have said they will consult on providing an exemption. I therefore press him to give us an update on progress. It is very important that, while we attempt to fix the problems with cladding that we have identified, we do not create new problems. We know there is a housing supply crisis. That was articulated in a heartfelt speech by Siobhain McDonagh and I think we all identify with that—as a fellow south-west London MP, I very much identify with some of the problems she raised—but we must not allow an attempt to solve the remediation problem to create problems in the building pipeline.
I was struck by the weight the Secretary of State put, in his opening remarks, on the need to listen to residents and on how key that is to avoiding a repeat of Grenfell. When I reflect on the housing issues I experience as a constituency MP, they fall into two camps. I will confine my remarks to social housing and my social housing tenants, but I just want to take a moment to reflect on what the shadow Secretary of State, Lisa Nandy, said about private leasehold. That is a huge issue—a huge issue—in my constituency, too. I welcome any moves to try to address those issues and I very much look forward to hearing more about that.
For my social housing tenants, the biggest issue—it was referred to by Sir Robert Neill—relates to conditions and maintenance. We have talked a lot about the huge tragedy of Grenfell, but for many of my social housing tenants it is the everyday misery of living with mould, drafts and leaks and living in conditions that, frankly, they should not have to endure. I am glad the Secretary of State highlighted the work of ITV News and Kwajo Tweneboa. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden also mentioned their work. I have seen some of their content on Twitter. It is very, very disturbing. I would not wish for anyone to have to look at it, but I am very glad to hear that the Secretary of State is paying attention to it. It really does highlight this issue, which as I say is, above all else, the issue for my constituents in social housing. We also have issues with asbestos.
As a constituency MP, I talk to my colleagues on Richmond Council. They experience the same issue when talking to our residents and constituents about their housing issues: how hard it is to speak to housing associations, how hard it is to get them to act and how difficult it can be just to even get basic communication going. It really bothers me that, as their elected representatives, we cannot make housing associations more accountable to us. I welcome attempts to strengthen residents’ groups, but I am slightly resentful on behalf of my residents that it is up to them to organise, pressurise and push for change for something that they ought to be able to expect as a right. They should just be able to pick up the phone and get somebody to come and fix their issue. For me, it is that lack of accountability that is the issue.
I want more local authority involvement in housing associations. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned the housing association in his area. We have something similar in Richmond, where we have the Richmond Housing Partnership. There is a good relationship between councillors and the housing association, but so much depends on that good relationship. There are no levers. There is no formal process by which councillors can make representations. There is no way for us to put pressure on housing associations or require them to deal with even the worst examples of mould, damp and asbestos. We have no lever by which we can require a housing association to take action, so I would like much more to be done on that.
In days gone by, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned, we had councillors sitting on the boards of housing associations. However, now we have huge housing associations. PA Housing also provides housing in Richmond. It provides housing across 19 local authorities, so it is simply not feasible for individual councillors from all those local authorities to be able to provide leverage. There needs to be some way social housing tenants can—either through themselves, their properly convened and officially supported residents’ groups, or their local representatives—put effective pressure on housing associations to fix the issue of maintenance.
I want to briefly mention energy efficiency. Net zero targets, and how they are another pressure on housing, were touched on very briefly. When I talk about maintenance, I want a lot more investment in energy efficiency, particularly in our social housing and particularly for those on low incomes. It could make all the difference in the world right now as we see ever-rising fuel bills. A real commitment to improving the energy efficiency of our social housing stock is something the Government could invest in to achieve real results and really deliver for some of our most vulnerable and low-income families.
On fuel bills, I want to highlight a number of socially rented homes in my constituency in Kingston Borough which are directly owned by the council. Back in 1991, the properties were valued for council tax purposes. They are in a relatively wealthy area. Despite the fact that they do not have a market value because they are socially owned, they were assigned the market value of the privately sold homes around them. As a result, they now have a council tax band, in 2022, that is too high to qualify for the Chancellor’s council tax rebate for fuel bills. The houses have some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in my constituency, yet they are missing out on this crucial fuel rebate. I have written to the Department on this issue and I would like the Government to look at it again. It is a massive issue in constituencies like mine that generally have very high housing values, but also low-income households.
In conclusion, I welcome the progress made on building safety in response to Grenfell, the continuing energy from everyone across the House to ensure we get these issues right, and the work of the Grenfell inquiry to ensure that all decision making is well informed. The Liberal Democrats look forward to playing their part.
As others have reminded us, next week will mark five years since the Grenfell fire which claimed 72 lives. I want to add to the tributes to the residents and campaigners for the work they have been doing to keep the issue alive and call all of us involved to account.
Despite progress to some extent since the Secretary of State has been in post, we should not be under any illusion that the building safety crisis has somehow been fixed. Years before the Grenfell fire, the coroner’s recommendations relating to the Lakanal fire were not acted on by the Government, regulators or the building industry. The Lakanal inquiry report was one of many, many warnings that went unheeded. The building safety crisis triggered by the Grenfell fire has had a huge impact, not least on so many of my constituents living in buildings that would be safe and secure had those warnings been acted on. Instead, they are living in fear.
The worst incident in my constituency relating to the building safety crisis is that experienced by the shared owner leaseholders and students of the Paragon building in Brentford. They had to be evacuated, with a week’s notice, in October 2020. The cladding had already been removed but the inspections revealed fundamental flaws in the system-built housing blocks. Hard-working leaseholders and students just starting university were cast out. As shared owners, the hard-working leaseholders struggled to get back on the housing ladder, as the Notting Hill housing partnership could not afford to give them the current value for something they would be buying now. They were given only the deemed value of their property at the time, and it was too low to buy another property as a shared owner in west London. Their salaries had not increased significantly, but the values of alternative properties had. Meanwhile, all the costs of the compensation, the legal and organisational costs, had to be covered by Notting Hill housing partnership from its building and maintenance budget.
That was the most severe example, but I have had hundreds of emails in the past five years from other constituents. Leaseholders have had to pay for replacement cladding and waking watch and they may not get recompensed, depending on the situation. Residents were told that they needed a completed EWS1 form to sell their home, yet only about 300 trained professionals across the country could do those checks, so constituents had to put their lives on hold while they waited for a survey. Once the surveys took place, many residents in blocks across my constituency—in Hounslow, Isleworth, Brentford and Chiswick, and indeed, across the country—found that other major problems were apparent in their flats, such as inadequate fire breaks, incorrect insulation and more. In Richmond House in south London, a fire ripped through a small four-storey block of 32 flats. There was no flammable cladding but it was built wholly inadequately. Luckily, no lives were lost. That fire took hold in 11 minutes.
The consequences of all that mean that my constituents face life-changing bills, which can ruin them, and the uncertainty of having to put their lives on hold. The former Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, refused to act. At least this Secretary of State acknowledges that the Government have some responsibility and that the response of Government since Grenfell has—I think his words were—“occasionally been insensitive”. I thank him for being honest enough to acknowledge that at the Dispatch Box today.
After months, we finally saw the Government taking action, but it is still too little, too late; and, as Members have said, what support there is applies only to certain defects and not to many others, including structural defects, fire breaks and non-fire defects. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg in regard to defects, thanks to systematic failures across the construction and regulatory sector. Meanwhile, my constituents still face bills for non-cladding defects. There is no help for those mired in the mortgage crisis and unable to sell their homes, and building insurance charges are skyrocketing. One of my constituents saw a 500% increase this year.
Furthermore, social rent landlords were not recompensed for the cost of the building safety crisis imposed on them in places where they house social rent tenants. They have had to dip into their capital budgets, further undoing any growth in the number of social rent homes that we need and adding to the irrelevance of the Prime Minister’s announcement today.
To me, the announcement that personal emergency evacuation plans will not be mandatory in buildings at risk was particularly shocking. The plans are crucial for residents with disabilities and their families to ensure that they can escape buildings during a fire. That was a recommendation from the first report of the Grenfell inquiry. I recently spoke to a constituent whose husband needs a PEEP. In this case, he needs a special chair to ensure that they can get him out of their flat and down the stairs. My constituent rightly said that the Government’s position is “woeful and discriminatory”. It is outrageous that the Government refuse to ensure that residents with disabilities are given the support that they need to escape during a fire. As we know from the past decade, if this is left to the invisible hand of the market and private companies in the sector are relied on to do the right thing, they will not do so.
I will finish by touching on social housing, particularly after the Prime Minister’s announcement. I thank my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh for her graphic and emotional descriptions of the plight of her constituents in housing need in band A. I have many similar stories—I wish they were just stories, but they are lives.
After 12 years of Conservative Government failure to fix the housing market, Ministers are recycling and reheating old pilot programmes, with no new funding and no real plan. The Government know what they need to do: support councils such as Hounslow that are building more council homes and homes for social rent. The Government need to do far more. Hounslow is doing what it can with the resources that it has available. In the past three or four years, it has built more than 1,000 new council homes. It has also bought 500 homes, brought them into council ownership and allocated 20 of those to local care leavers. That was done with the help of the Mayor of London. Labour-led councils and Mayor Sadiq Khan are doing the right thing. If only we had a Government with the same commitment, they could do so much more.
With those 1,500 new homes, Hounslow Council is finally, after 10 years, achieving only level pegging on social rent and council housing numbers. Since the Conservative Government reinstated the 70% price discount for right to buy more than 10 years ago, Hounslow has steadily lost far more social rent homes than have been delivered. Nationally, as the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, said, only 2,500 new social rent homes were built and 11,000 were sold. The gap is massive and growing. Most of the homes that have been sold through right to buy are now owned by private landlords, who are charging tenants three times the rent paid by the council tenant living next door. With many of those tenants on housing benefit to meet the gap between their salary and rent levels, that is a massive bonanza for private landlords, at a cost to the taxpayer.
Although I welcome proposals to give more of a voice and more rights to social rent tenants, in my view that only covers one set of people. Council tenants often feel frustrated. They are not always happy, but at least they have elected councillors who can support them with management and maintenance issues. Also, management, maintenance and investment decisions are taken by the council in public, but that is not true for housing association tenants. Many of my constituents are tenants of the larger registered social landlords. They are distant and opaque and often do not even respond to me and my caseworkers, let alone to their tenants. Legislating is therefore the right thing to do, but it has to be done properly. And what about private tenants? Too often, they are bullied and even evicted by rogue landlords, rather than listened to and supported. There is very little to actually improve the voice of leaseholders in private blocks. And there is, of course, the other subset: shared owners.
After 12 long years in power, it is clear that the Government still have no real plan to fix the housing crisis, no plan to end the injustice facing leaseholders and no plan to ensure that we build the good, high-quality, truly affordable homes that families in my constituency want and need.
I begin by joining others in expressing my condolences to the families who are here—and others who are not—whose loved ones died in the Grenfell fire. Their pain is never, ever going to go away. The very least we can do, and the essential first step, is to apologise for the failures. We heard that from the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend Lisa Nandy, who spoke for the Opposition.
Looking back, it is incredible that combinations of materials were allowed on the outside of buildings as cladding and were declared safe when no one had ever set fire to them to see what would happen. It is extraordinary that that transpired, and it is incredible that so many buildings were not constructed in accordance with the building regulations in force at the time. As the Secretary of State will know, as cladding has been inspected, people have peeled stuff off, peered inside and said, “Uh-oh—where are the fire breaks?” It is also shameful that the people responsible for this generation of jerry-built blocks thought that they could get away with it. That is what we are confronting.
There is no doubt at all—I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in saying this—that the Secretary of State has applied great determination and energy to the task that confronted him when he came into the post. However, he will be acutely conscious that thousands of leaseholders still do not know what will happen to their block. With each passing day, they remain trapped: trapped in their life, trapped in their building, which they are told is a fire risk, and paying additional costs. They do not know when it will all be brought to an end.
I have raised with the Secretary of State the particular case of the Gateway building in the centre of Leeds. Three types of cladding were submitted to the building safety fund. The fund said that it would pay for the render, but that the two types of zinc cladding—zinc is applied to battens with various other materials—were not eligible for funding, even though the specialist fire safety adviser to the managing agents and the freeholder has said that in their professional opinion such cladding does not comply. The leaseholders are currently debating whether to spend £70,000 or £80,000 and another eight months on it. There is a great waiting list—after a generation or two of failure to set fire to materials to see whether they were safe, there is now a long queue for the small number of institutions that can make up a particular combination made up at height and set fire to it to see what happens.
I raise the case because one of the considerations that my constituents and the managing agents are weighing up is that if the material is not found to burn in a way that breaches the regulations, a fire safety adviser will be able to issue an EWS1 certificate in respect of the building. But what if the material does burn in a dangerous way? Is it all worth doing unless they are sure that if they provide incontrovertible evidence, the building safety fund will say, “Okay, we will now cough up for a replacement”? That is a very important question. It may relate to a relatively small number of blocks, but they deserve reassurance that if they provide the evidence, they will get a change in the building safety fund’s decision.
The problem is immensely complex, as the Secretary of State and his officials, who have been working so hard, know better than anybody. Also complex is the liability waterfall that he has created to deal with it, but leaseholders are still not sure how the waterfall will work. To extend the analogy, I suppose they hope and pray that the water will never fall on them because others higher up the chain will have taken on the work and the liability.
I have great sympathy for the managing agents, some of which are quite small. They have dealt with lift contracts and ground maintenance. They never thought that the task of being a managing agent would mean being asked to manage a multimillion-pound contract to, in effect, pick off the outside of a building and rebuild it to be safe. They are sitting with leaseholders and trying to work out where the funding will come from, out of multiple sources. It is a very difficult process.
Sir Robert Neill raised a point about buy-to-let landlords. Apart from the unfairness of saying to people who have bought flats in good faith that somehow they are not entitled to the same protection as leaseholders, there is a practical problem. I can think of blocks in my constituency in which a goodly proportion of the flats are owned by buy-to-let landlords. If they cannot come up with the money to contribute to fixing the problem, that will affect all the leaseholders living in flats that they have bought in the same block, because the work will never get done. There is a pragmatic reason for ensuring that that does not come to pass.
This debate has not touched on the alternative approach of having a building works agency, rather like what has happened in Australia, where a central body has taken on this complex task but then gone after the people who should pay. With hindsight, that would have been a better approach. Of course, costs are rising all the time.
Before I come on to social housing, I want to make one other point to the Secretary of State. I do not know whether he has taken this up—I apologise if he has—but I wrote to one of his predecessors to propose convening a standing roundtable, if that is not a contradiction in terms, made up of representatives of leaseholders, managing agents, fire services, fire surveyors, insurance companies and mortgage lenders. The Minister and his team and officials may be having conversations with each of those bodies individually, but such a roundtable would be a place where individual problems that may be happening elsewhere could be worked through in aid of a speedier outcome.
The real test, as with the debt of obligation that we owe to the Grenfell families who are here today, will be how soon the day will arrive when all my constituents and every other hon. Member’s constituents can finally breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the problem has been sorted, and can get on with the rest of their lives.
I have a brief point to make about the social housing crisis. I listened with great interest to what my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh said. In the 1980s, Leeds City Council had about 94,000 council properties; today, it has 54,000. The big fall in the numbers of new council houses being built across the country, along with the sale of council houses, means that the stock available to let to people in need is falling at a rate of about 600 a year. Many other councils around the country will see the same picture. What is more, turnover is falling because people are thinking, “I think I’ll hang on to the council property I’ve got at the moment,” and demand is ever rising. In Leeds, 26,500 people are on the housing register, 6,500 of whom are in band A.
The maths is really terribly simple. There is growing demand, with people living in overcrowded accommodation —increasing numbers of people are coming to me and telling me, as their Member of Parliament, about the difficulties that they are experiencing in overcrowded, unsuitable accommodation with medical and other needs. They are chasing a diminishing number of properties. In one case, when new council houses were advertised—Leeds is doing its best to build them and has a choice-based lettings system—more than 1,000 people applied for one new council property. Anyone who is not absolutely at the top of the priority banding does not have a hope in hell of getting a property.
I listened with interest to the recent announcement about the right to buy. In all honesty, I have to say to the Secretary of State that we have heard about one-for-one replacement time and again, but it has never happened. That is why Leeds City Council’s housing stock has gone from more than 90,000 to just over 50,000. We have ended up in the absurd position that in an effort to increase the number of council houses for rent, councils including Leeds are buying back council houses that they originally built but which were sold. So they are paying twice over for one property, and that does not make sense.
I do not know whether the Government would ever consider this, but one approach would be to say, “I support the right to buy, but if the person who has bought the house then wants to sell it on to someone else, shouldn’t the council have the right of first refusal to take the property back?” We know what has happened: as has already been pointed out, many of those houses, as they have been sold down the chain, have ended up in the hands of private landlords charging—as we heard a moment ago from my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury—rents that are way in excess of those that applied when they were council houses. It is an absurd system, at a time when we know that there is such basic housing need.
It is not as if new homes had not been built; loads of new homes have been built in the centre of Leeds. However, they are mainly one or two-bedroom flats—some of them in the blocks that are currently affected by the cladding crisis—whereas, in Leeds as in many other places, as families grow the need is for three and four-bedroom housing. There has been a terrible mismatch. It is not as if there were no space in which to build, and it is not as if there had been no resources with which to build. The problem is that the wrong types of properties are being built, and the people in the greatest need are unable to get their hands on the properties that would enable them and their families to look forward to a better future.
The time has come for this acute housing crisis, which is causing great suffering to people, to be addressed by the Government.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker. I did apologise for being late for the beginning of the debate, for reasons that I explained.
Let me first welcome the Grenfell residents who are with us today. We must never forget those who died, those who were injured, and those who were bereaved by that tragedy. The Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has done a great deal of work and produced a great many reports about building safety since Grenfell, and indeed we carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill, now the 2022 Act. That, I think, shows the strength of Parliament working together, with the Government presenting legislation and Select Committees scrutinising and trying to improve it. However, Grenfell did not just highlight problems relating to building safety; it highlighted fundamental attitudes towards social housing.
Essentially, social housing was believed, by some in positions of authority, to be poor housing for poor people, and that was an attitude that stuck. I remind the Secretary of State that there was a time when the Government’s approach was to sell off high-value council housing, because if it was high-value the presumption was that it was too good for council tenants to live in. I hope that we have moved on since then, but there are lessons to be learned. As the Grenfell residents have told us time and again, when they approached their landlords with problems and concerns, they were ignored—because they were just council tenants, and they would not know what they were talking about, would they? Unfortunately, that attitude is still present to some extent among social housing landlords, whether they be councils or housing associations: it is a case of “We will do things to you, as tenants; we will not do things for you and with you.” That attitude needs to change fundamentally.
We have made some progress. Hopefully some of the moves towards ensuring that tenants’ voices are heard, both locally and nationally, will bear fruit. This is not a new development. When I was chair of housing in Sheffield in the 1980s, there were a number of widespread tenants associations and a tenants federation. Sheffield still has the unique system whereby tenants pay a levy on their rents, voluntarily, towards the funding of their tenants associations. They are not reliant on the council’s benevolence: they are entitled to that money to run their own associations, and I think that that is a good approach that might be looked at more widely.
We have clearly made progress on making buildings safer throughout, and the Secretary of State has made further changes. However, when the Select Committee looks at the numbers, we will see gaps in the legislation whereby some properties are not covered by it. As my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn pointed out, lower-level properties are still not covered. There is also the question of the speed of our progress. Are we really achieving the speed that is necessary to make people safe in their homes? They have been under such pressure over the last few months. This is not just about the buildings; it is about the people who live in those buildings and the mental stress and strain that they are experiencing, not knowing whether their home is safe and whether they can afford to make it safe. Those matters ought to be of fundamental concern to us all.
Let me return to the point that I made earlier about social housing and the need to find the necessary resources. If we really believe that social housing tenants are as entitled to good homes as anyone else, we must recognise that they are entitled as anyone in the private sector to receive Government help, and help from those who were responsible for the problems in the first place, to make their homes safe; or else the landlords should pay for the work by diverting money from other sources. The tenants should not have to pay for it out of their rents.
If we want to ensure that social housing tenants have safe homes, we must also ensure that they have good-quality homes. We heard some appalling stories from my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh about her problems with housing associations in her constituency, and the Select Committee has heard from Dan Hewitt from ITV News and from tenants about the conditions in which people are having to live, which are completely unacceptable. We need to make buildings safe and more energy-efficient; we need housing associations and councils to ensure that they are fit in live in; and we will need to address the decent homes standard when it is introduced; but the money simply is not there to do enable all those things to be done, and it is certainly not there to pay for building safety work on top of that.
The Committee heard from Placeshapers, a group of middle-ranking housing associations that are more locally based in their communities, but none of them can afford to make their buildings into zero-carbon homes by 2050. They do not have the budgets; the money simply is not there. We have to listen and learn from that. We have heard from the National Housing Federation that it will cost at least £10 billion to deal with fire safety building work. That money will have to come from somewhere in the budgets unless the Government find it. All those challenges, which social housing providers will have to meet, will not be met by the current budgets. Once again, social housing tenants are being treated as second-class, second-rate citizens, which is simply not acceptable.
Then there is the issue of new housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden described the devastating position in which so many of her constituents find themselves, but we are all seeing those circumstances. People who are in desperate need of housing cannot get a home to live in from their councils or housing associations. It was interesting to hear the council house figures from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central. We are seeing exactly the same in Sheffield. When I was housing chair in the 1980s we had more than 90,000 council houses, but the number is now down to 45,000. By and large, it is the nice family homes in the suburbs that have been sold under the right to buy; not many inner-city flats have been sold. When I was housing chair, we would not let a flat to a family with children and ask parents to lug prams up the stairs to a second or third-floor flat or maisonette; they would be given a family home. That is not possible now. People come to me and say, “Mr Betts, we have a family and we need a house with a garden”, and the answer is “There are not any to let.”
Hilary Benn made this point. In the London borough of Barnet and other London boroughs, there are no three-bedroom houses. So many people come to me, and to other Members of Parliament, seeking such houses, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, only flats are available. Sometimes councils, including the previous Conservative council in Barnet, were accused of social cleansing, but the reality is that people were encouraged to go to other parts of the country because there was no stock available in Barnet.
It is a problem that is replicated nowadays. At one stage it was just a London problem, but it is now a problem in many other places as well.
Although Sheffield Council has an ambitious programme to build 3,000 council homes, which was pioneered, eventually, by my good friend and colleague Councillor Paul Wood, the cabinet member for housing, that will not address the problem quickly. More money needs to be provided, and more needs to be done.
We did another report in the Select Committee in which we said we needed to build at least 90,000 social houses a year in this country, but that to do that, the Government would need to put in funding of £10 billion a year, which is much more than they are currently putting in. That is the reality. Unless we build those 90,000 homes a year in the social sector, we are not going to hit the 300,000 target nationally, because the private sector is not going to build anything like 300,000; historically, it has not done so. So there is a challenge on these issues as well.
I want to say one or two words about the right to buy. I have mentioned the consequences of the right to buy in the past. If the Government want to go ahead, and if they genuinely feel that it provides the best value for the Government’s money to subsidise discounts for housing association tenants to buy their homes, I would like to see the impact statement that goes with that. I would like to see where that Government money is going to come from. Will it be diverted from existing housing budgets? If so, instead of the extra money for social housing that I am arguing for, are we going to get less money in those budgets? Will the Government provide a replacement for the discounts given to housing tenants when they buy their homes, and will they also make the money available for the full cost of replacing each home sold? Talking to many housing associations, I understand that the cost of replacing is greater than the market value of the homes when they are sold. That point is often lost. I am not sure where those assurances will come from, but hopefully we will get them.
Are housing associations going to be allowed to say no to this? They are private organisations—some of them are charities—and they have to meet particular requirements. In the past, there was a voluntary agreement with the National Housing Federation when the pilot scheme was introduced. Is it going to be a voluntary agreement again? I am not aware that NHF has been consulted about this scheme or its details. I assume that those conversations are going to happen, but it will be interesting to see what the approach actually is.
I would like to make one completely separate, important point. It goes back to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report on the Grenfell disaster. One of the things she said was absolutely fundamental: she talked about the golden thread running through all housing developments and construction and said that there had to be absolute transparency. The Select Committee has had a disagreement with the Government about building control. We believe that building control inspectors should be independently appointed and not appointed by the developer. The Government have conceded that point—or, I think, proposed it—in relation to the highest-rise, most vulnerable buildings, for which the new building safety regulator will be responsible for appointing building control officers, but not for the rest of the sites.
I have a problem in my constituency at a development called Owlthorpe Fields, about which I have challenged the Housing Minister before in relation to non-compliance with planning conditions. Some residents were concerned about the way the foundations were going in, so I asked the National House Building Council, the appointed building control organisation, whether it could give me some information about the number of visits it had made, the number of inspections it had carried out and the history of its work on the site. The answer I got from the NHBC stated:
“I am sorry to inform you that NHBC is not able to provide this information. The information we hold in respect of Owlthorpe Fields is not a matter of public record and cannot be released without prior approval from Avant Homes.”
Avant Homes is the developer. In other words, everything is secret unless the developer decides to make it transparent.
That is not acceptable. If we are in favour of transparency, as I believe the Secretary of State and the Housing Minister are, this issue needs addressing. If something goes wrong in the future, everyone will ask why, and the answer will be that no one was allowed to see what was happening in the process. I am just raising that as an issue. Thank you for the opportunity to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker.
This has been a very thoughtful debate. I come back to the point that we need to start treating social housing and social housing tenants as a priority for investment in order to build more of the decent homes that they ought to be able to live in.
It is a privilege to be able to wind up this important debate on behalf of the Opposition, and I commend the Government for their willingness to facilitate it. I also commend the tone that Members have adopted throughout; I agree that it has been a good debate. Before I respond to some of the issues that have been raised, I want to echo what others have said in welcoming those in the Gallery and in putting on record once again our admiration for the survivors and the bereaved of the Grenfell Tower fire and for the wider Grenfell community.
As I have said before from this Dispatch Box, the horror of that dreadful June night nearly five years ago was the product not only of pernicious industry practice but of state failure: the failure of successive Governments in presiding over a regulatory regime that was deficient and in ignoring repeated warnings about the potential legal implications of that fact. Having suffered the awful consequences and having to live with the trauma forever, the fact that those who survived, those who were bereaved and those residents of the wider community continue not only to seek justice for their families and neighbours but to campaign for wider change commands enormous respect. I know that that sentiment will be shared across the House.
Week in, week out, the Grenfell Tower inquiry continues to expose a catalogue of malpractice and negligence in relation to building safety regulations, but, as others have said, it has also shone a light on attitudes to social housing more generally, and on how tenants with a social landlord are treated. My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh—who is currently not in her place, having had to leave the debate for personal reasons—made it clear in her incredibly powerful contribution that far too many people still live in cold, damp, leaky and fundamentally unsafe homes, that they wait months, if not years, for repairs to take place, if they do at all, and that their concerns are routinely ignored or dismissed by their landlords. Those landlords frequently write them off, as Simon Lawrence, the individual who led the work on Grenfell Tower for the contractor Rydon, did, as “rebel residents” who want to make unfounded complaints at the drop of a hat. I pay tribute to the many individuals and organisations who have sought to draw attention to the plight of social tenants across the country over many years, and I would like to highlight the contribution of the campaigners Kwajo Tweneboa and ITV’s Daniel Hewitt, who have done so much to that end recently.
As this debate has highlighted, there are genuine points of disagreement between those of us on the Opposition Benches and the Government when it comes to social homes. As several of my hon. Friends have pointed out, we believe that successive Conservative-led Governments have not only singularly failed to build the social homes we need over the past 12 years but have overseen their loss on an unprecedented scale. A staggering 134,483 social homes for rent were either sold or demolished without direct replacement between 2010 and 2021. That is an average net loss of over 12,000 desperately needed, genuinely affordable homes a year. That is a trend that the measures announced this morning on extending the right to buy would almost certainly exacerbate, in the unlikely case that they are ever implemented, because we know that only 5% of all social homes that have been sold under the right to buy have been replaced. We also know that, while there are many social landlords who routinely fall well short when it comes to repairs and maintenance and could do better, social landlords do not operate in a vacuum. Years of swingeing funding cuts to local authority budgets, as well as the four years during which a Conservative Government imposed a 1% social rent cut on them, have inevitably taken their toll, and covid has hit housing revenue accounts hard too.
However, the debate has highlighted that we are in broad agreement on the objective of driving up standards in what social housing stock remains, and on ensuring that tenants’ concerns are heard and acted upon. That is why we welcome the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which I understand has been published while this debate has been taking place. It is good to see that Ministers are on their toes in responding to these concerns in such short order. However, we regret that what is essentially a narrow and largely uncontroversial piece of legislation took so long to materialise. We will support the measures in the Bill, but given the scale of the problem that we know exists, we will press the Government to go further in key respects, so that standards in social housing markedly and rapidly improve and tenants are able to seek redress effectively in practice.
For example, it is almost certainly the case that the social housing regulator will be unable to act on the volume of individual tenant complaints it will receive, and that it will be inadequately resourced to perform its new inspections role. So why not allow it to retain the proceeds of any fines levied to help fund its work? Why not look to give it more teeth than presently proposed, for example by giving it the power to order compensation to tenants? Why not do more to enable tenants to enforce repairs themselves, so that the regulator is not the sole effective means of redress? And why not allow the resident panel, the establishment of which the Government have finally conceded, to be put on a firmer footing, with its agenda and its terms worked up with a direct input from tenants, rather than just by Ministers? We will be pressing the Government to answer those and other vital questions over the coming months as the Bill makes its way through the House, because tenants deserve the most robust piece of legislation that this House can possibility deliver.
I turn now to the other subject under consideration today, namely building safety. The House will know that the Opposition welcomed the Secretary of State’s decision in January 2022 to abandon the failed approach of his predecessors and to ensure that industry pays its fair share to resolve the crisis. Hon. Members will also know that while we tried our utmost to amend it to ensure that all leaseholders were fully protected from the costs of remediation, irrespective of circumstance, we supported the passage of the Building Safety Act. Yet despite the change of approach and the fact that the legislation comes into force imminently, as others have said the nightmare that so many affected leaseholders have endured over recent years appears far from over.
It is true that significant numbers of large developers have now pledged to remediate “life critical fire safety works” in buildings over 11 metres that they played a role in developing or refurbishing. Yet I have to tell Ministers that there are a growing number of examples of developers seeking to reassess affected buildings as less dangerous than previously reported, or to evade the commitment they made altogether to avoid paying.
That is not the only outstanding problem. Sir Robert Neill and my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn both made the point about leaseholders living in buildings where there is no developer or freeholder who can pay, and the fact that leaseholders in those buildings still have really no idea how their non-cladding remediation works will be funded. The Act presumes that litigation will play a role but redress by that means, even if it comes, would entail significant costs and take many years.
Similarly, those leaseholders who own the freehold of their building still have no idea what, if any, support they will receive from Government. They have no protections whatsoever under the Act, as Ministers acknowledged during its passage; and the promised consultation on enfranchised buildings clearly will not now occur before it comes into force, so they have been left in an extremely difficult position.
Then, as Felicity Buchan and my hon. Friend Mr Betts, the Chair of the Select Committee, said, there is the issue of the overall pace of remediation, which is still agonisingly slow. There remain serious problems in relation to the time it is taking to process building safety fund applications; and the Department’s own data, released in April, makes it clear that there still exist, nearly five years on from the Grenfell tragedy, 58 residential buildings with Grenfell-style ACM cladding on them, 16 of which have not even begun to remove or replace it. Leaseholders across the country are still receiving invoices to fix historic cladding and non-cladding defects and they are still being hit with exorbitant secondary costs.
To take just one example, which has featured prominently in the debate: soaring buildings insurance premiums continue to push countless blameless leaseholders toward financial ruin. Hon. Members from across the House have pleaded ad nauseum with Ministers, over many years, to address this issue and still nothing has been done. We are told repeatedly by Ministers that they are talking to both insurers and mortgage lenders with a view to finding a solution, but it feels as far away as ever. In short, when it comes to many of these issues, there is what feels like a shocking lack of urgency, and these are issues that must be addressed at pace because they are blighting the lives of those caught up in this scandal.
Finally, there remain a range of wider fire safety issues that are entirely unresolved. And far from making progress toward doing so, the Government appear content to leave them as such. My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury mentioned the Government’s shameful decision to reject the Grenfell inquiry phase 1 recommendation that it be a requirement to produce personal emergency evacuation plans for disabled people in high-rise buildings. I think that is shameful.
The fire at Grenfell Tower was an unspeakable horror and one that rightly exposed systemic failings in our country’s building safety regime and how we treat social housing tenants. The Government have a duty to comprehensively address those failings and it is right that we continue to debate progress towards that goal. All of us acknowledge the need for deep-seated change, but despite the steps that have been taken we still have a very long way to go, and we need to get there much, much faster.
We have heard many powerful, heartfelt and emotional contributions from hon. Members in today’s debate. There is an understanding that Governments of all persuasions have been at fault over the years, and that we should now work together, and I greatly welcome the comments to that end by Opposition Members and those on the Opposition Front Bench. The contributions reflect the seriousness and significance of this five-year anniversary—not least for the bereaved and the survivors whose courage and dignity continues to inspire us all. From my meetings with them and the wider Grenfell community, I have been humbled by their tireless patience and dedication in the pursuit of justice and truth. They have bravely given testimony at the Grenfell Tower inquiry and they have diligently listened to the testimony given by others—forced to relive their harrowing experiences each time. They have engaged with Government every day to challenge us and make sure that we reform the system that so badly failed them and the 72 people who sadly died in the tragedy.
We in this House can only hope that, as individuals, we would have acted with the same compassion and dignity as the Grenfell community has over the previous five years. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that much of the progress we have made on building safety, on fire safety and on strengthening tenants’ rights in the social housing sector is owed to their heroic efforts. We are forever in their debt.
Let there be no doubt: industry must pay to fix the building safety problems that they themselves create, and signatories to our building safety pledge have undertaken to give us, within a month of signing, their proposals for contacting the owners and leaseholders of buildings with a clear plan on next steps Where building owners are failing to make acceptable progress, we will not hesitate to take further action, including naming and shaming developers who are dragging their feet, along with tougher enforcement action by both councils and fire and rescue services.
Hon. Members may also be aware that we have also established a joint inspection team to help councils clamp down on building owners who hold up vital remedial works.
On that point, I have many constituents in a newly constructed property at Mar House in Colindale who have not only paid for a very costly fire alarm system, but are now being subjected to demands for a waking watch because it is alleged by the managing agents that it is a requirement of the fire service. It is not appropriate for a Minister to intervene in what the fire service decides or not, but it appears to be a random request, and it is imposing a disproportionate charge on my constituents to address an issue that they did not create. Would the Government fund that waking watch for my constituents in Mar House?
The Government have committed to £62 million of funding for the installation of fire alarms with regard to waking watch. I think it would be best if we exchange correspondence; would my hon. Friend be good enough to write to me? I fully accept that it is not the Government’s job to intervene, but it is certainly our job to consider and assist.
I can also reassure hon. Members and ministerial colleagues that we have not shied away from calling in developers, alongside local authorities, to discuss individual cases and ensure that remediation works begin without delay.
I just wanted to consider some of the points that have been raised today. Lisa Nandy suggested that the voices of tenants had not been heard. This is one of the things that emerged most starkly out of the Grenfell inquiry for me—that a number of problems were raised time and again and yet seemed to be ignored. We have heard contributions from Members across the Chamber who have reflected similar circumstances. The expression I have been using is that we are turning up the volume on the tenants’ voice. We are making sure that they will be heard in a number of ways.
I fully appreciate the comments that have been made with regard to our putting our resident panel on a statutory footing. We can talk about that and see ways collectively, across the House, to improve the Government’s legislation in the future, but we have advertised that panel and over 1,000 people have applied. We are currently assessing them to make sure that the 250 people we identify give a broad demographic and geographical representation to make sure that they have a direct line to speak to Ministers. We have a commitment to reduce the number of non-decent properties by 50% by 2030, and we are working on that commitment across both the social and private rented sectors. Our private rented sector Bill will address that.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Wigan welcomes the powers we are giving to the regulator to make sure it has the teeth to act. I commend the work of the housing ombudsman, whose paper on damp and mould is so important in ensuring that social housing providers do not start from the premise that problems with damp are caused by how the property is occupied. That is a dreadful position to take, and providers should consider each case on its merits.
The best commitment I can make is that the regulator will be properly funded to discharge its duties. We can discuss what mechanism will be used to arrive at that position, but we are determined to make sure it has the staff and resources to deal with the problems it faces.
There has been considerable discussion of the voluntary right to buy. I insert the word “voluntary” because I understand that is how it would have to operate given that the Government do not own or control the housing associations. I fully appreciate some of the points that have been raised, but the pilot was in the west midlands and I have spoken to a number of my constituents who took the opportunity to buy their property. Home ownership is a significant aspiration for people across the country, and we should not shy away from the idea of considering any and all mechanisms to make it work.
I thank the Minister for always being courteous in giving way. Is it not true that in the pilot there was nothing like a one-for-one, let alone a like-for-like, replacement of the property sold? That is one of the reasons why the pilot was stopped, is it not?
Far be it from me to heap praise on my boss, the Secretary of State, but given that he has years of experience of sitting at the Cabinet table and is well known for making things happen where others before him could not, I think the Chair of the Select Committee should have faith and wait to see how the scheme develops. I am sure he and I, perhaps in the Tea Room or at the Select Committee, will discuss this further as we develop the proposal.
My hon. Friend Felicity Buchan has been a tremendous support to me as I have increased my engagement with the Grenfell community, and I have nothing but admiration for the great work she has done since her election. I look forward to continuing to work with her. She spoke about tenants’ voices being heard. Again, she is an active campaigner on behalf of those tenants, and she is determined to make sure they have the opportunity to have their voices heard in their own right.
I have tremendous respect for Siobhain McDonagh. I am a housing enthusiast so, before I became a Minister, I crossed paths with many of the Members who have contributed to this debate because of our shared concerns. I respect and admire the hon. Lady’s work, and I have already met her all-party parliamentary group on temporary accommodation. I will continue to work with her.
The Secretary of State has signalled his intention to consider how we can build not just more social housing but more housing for social rent, which I particularly welcome as the Minister with responsibility for rough sleeping. I look forward to working with him on that.
It is good to hear that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden supports the right to buy, although I fully accept some of her reservations. Hopefully we will get to a point where she feels we are delivering an appropriate scheme with the expected level of replacement.
My hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill is delighted that remediation has already started. We need to see more remediation work, and we need it to continue at pace. On waking watch, as I have mentioned previously, the Government are providing £62 million to install fire alarms in all buildings with a waking watch, regardless of their height. We are trying to remove the need for waking watches wherever possible.
On the EWS1 form, we are setting up a professional indemnity scheme, and I understand the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is running an EWS1 training course. We need to make sure that as many people as possible are competent to operate that scheme.
Is my hon. Friend prepared to meet me and representatives of the industry to discuss some of the practical issues in operating and bringing forward the EWS1 form?
I am delighted to make that commitment. My hon. Friend mentioned the complexity of the EWS1 form and, as a civil engineer and a member of the Chartered Institute of Building, I am a keen enthusiast for such technical detail. I look forward to that discussion.
It was good to hear the valuable observation from Sarah Olney that Members in all parts of the House are committed to tackling these problems together. She is right that we often do not have consensus, so it is welcome that we have it here. I will continue to consult on and consider remediation costs, and I will make sure we have discussions with social housing providers to come to an appropriate conclusion on how those costs can be covered.
The hon. Lady referred to the work of Kwajo Tweneboa and ITV. To a degree it is sad that we need people outside the House to highlight these points to us, but I am grateful to them for doing so. A number of housing providers are ahead of our legislation and are already upping their game. Many housing providers provide excellent service and high-level accommodation in safe and secure properties for their tenants, but just one case such as we have seen highlighted by Kwajo Tweneboa or ITV is one too many. We need to address that so nobody feels it is appropriate to provide poor-quality accommodation.
Ruth Cadbury mentioned PEEPs. The Government have now committed to undertake a new consultation. This will include a proposal called “emergency evacuation information sharing,” which would require persons responsible for high-risk buildings to assess the needs of their most vulnerable residents and to consider what might reasonably be done to mitigate any fire safety risks.
Hilary Benn mentioned problems experienced by residents in the Gateway building, which I understand has made a successful application to the building safety fund.
Rather than attempting to discuss that across the Chamber, it would be good to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss the specifics of his case in more detail.
The Secretary of State is keen to see more social housing supply generally. I fully appreciate that Matthew Pennycook says the direction of travel has not been positive, and we need collectively to turn that around.
I will finish on a positive note. The hon. Gentleman welcomes the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, but he says he will push us further and faster. It will be good to work with Members from all parties to discuss how we can enhance that Bill and where there are opportunities for us to go further. We need to take this opportunity to make sure we get it right and to make long-lasting changes.
As a Parliament and as a nation, we must never forget what happened on
Working with colleagues from across this House and with campaigners throughout the country, we have already come a long way together. Our Building Safety Act 2022 created a tough new regulator and an even tougher regulatory regime to match, with an “accountable person” held responsible for a building’s safety and the residents who live in it. The Fire Safety Act 2021 has strengthened assessments and improved safety standards across the board. And our charter for social housing residents, developed in close consultation with the Grenfell community, has empowered social housing tenants everywhere, ensuring that they are listened to and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
We know that we still have a long way to go, but, as my right hon. Friend stated in his opening remarks, we are now doubling down on our efforts to finish the job we started, by forcing the industry to take collective responsibility for the safety defects it created, and through a new Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, which places tenants’ concerns at the heart of everything that landlords do. We will be judged not by our words, but by our actions to fix this broken system for good and to make sure that everyone in our society lives somewhere that is safe and secure, and that they are truly proud to call home. Let that be Grenfell’s enduring legacy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered social housing and building safety.