Building Safety

– in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 26 March 2024.

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Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing) 1:59, 26 March 2024

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the continuing work to fix buildings with unsafe cladding across England, and the Government’s increasing determination to enforce against those who fail to take responsibility.

Since the beginning of 2023, there has been a step change in all aspects of remediation in England, from a limited programme to full coverage of all residential buildings over 11 metres; from developers not taking responsibility to their now being responsible for £3 billion of remediation across more than 1,500 buildings; from just over 1,600 buildings in remediation programmes last year to over 4,000 now; from 783 buildings having started or completed work in February 2023 to over 1,800 now; and from only 461 having completed last February to 863 now. Every month more buildings are identified, and more are beginning and completing works. That means that for some, albeit not all, the end is in sight.

From the start, we have prioritised the remediation of the highest risk buildings. Ninety-eight per cent of high-rise buildings with the most dangerous Grenfell-style aluminium composite material cladding have either started or completed work. Of the 10 occupied buildings remaining, two will start work this month and enforcement is being taken against a further six. Substantial progress can also be seen for buildings over 18 metres, with over half of known buildings having either started or completed work. The much more extensive work required for buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres is well under way. Since the full launch of the cladding safety scheme last July, over 400 buildings in the scheme have live applications. Grant funding agreements have been completed or are being signed for 152 buildings, and works have started on site for the first building. A further 4,000 buildings are being investigated and, where necessary, will be invited to apply to the scheme in the months ahead.

Further transparency is being brought to the social housing sector. Registered providers report that work has started on 525 buildings as of the end of November 2023, up from 394 at the end of August 2023. A further 200 have now been completed. For the first time, last Thursday we published detailed information on a provider-by-provider basis, which will be updated quarterly to ensure that residents can track what their individual provider is doing on remediation. While many buildings are being fixed or, better still, have completed remediation, there remains a reducing core of building owners who continue to hold up remediation. That is unacceptable. The Government continue to do whatever is necessary to change that.

All building owners must step up, do the right thing and fix their buildings without delay, or face the consequences of their inaction. The Government are leading the way on enforcement, with strategic interventions by our recovery strategy unit targeting the most egregious actors who are unwilling to make their buildings safe. The RSU was key to forcing Wallace Estates to agree to four remediation orders, ensuring that 400 leaseholders will be safe in their homes. Our legal action forced Grey GR, a subsidiary of Railpen, to fix building safety defects at Galbraith House within three weeks. The first trial against Grey GR for Vista Tower in Stevenage is imminent. Nine remediation contribution orders were taken out against three further organisations last week, including developers, to recover funds paid out by both taxpayers and leaseholders to fix buildings. We will continue to take action against those who do not step up to their responsibilities.

Colleagues in the fire and rescue services and local councils are critical to the fight to ensure that residents are safe, and we are working with them to increase action. Many councils and fire and rescue services are doing a good job, but some need to do more. Over the last year, the additional funding that we have provided for councils has meant that the pace of enforcement has stepped up markedly. Councils are informing us of enforcement action at a rate of four per week, compared with one per month in 2022, and we expect that to accelerate further. To support that, today we are publishing our first league table, outlining where enforcement is being taken so that residents can see exactly what is happening and where. We will regularly update the league table to ensure that the public remains sighted on their authorities’ enforcement activity.

Our focus now is on more, and more consistent, enforcement. Last week, I met the Building Safety Regulator and sector leaders to discuss how we can build a shared plan to increase the pace of remediation further. Today, I am announcing a number of initiatives to boost enforcement: a further £6 million to council enforcement teams, the development of a new regulatory protocol for greater consistency and a new fund that partners can access for legal support in complex cases.

For a task as big as this, remediation of buildings with issues was always going to take time. There is no doubt that in some parts of the sector it is still taking far too long. Yet already, almost 60,000 homeowners have peace of mind that remediation is complete, and a further 300,000 dwellings are well on the way to the same.[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 2WC.] (Correction) Every week that goes by, more is done: there are more starts and more completions and, vitally, more of those who are unwilling to do the right thing are being exposed. We will not stop until we have fixed cladding issues. Today, I hope the House can see the real and accelerating progress that is being made.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:05, 26 March 2024

Let me start by thanking the Minister for advance sight of the statement. I must be clear that I do not share his enthusiasm that the end of the building safety crisis is somehow near, and neither do campaigners up and down the country, including End Our Cladding Scandal. Just last week, new Government figures, to which the Minister referred, showed that only 21% of high-rise blocks have been fully—I stress, fully—remediated. We are now nearly seven years on from the Grenfell fire, the tragedy where 72 people lost their lives, yet hundreds of thousands of families and individuals are stuck in flats with dangerous, flammable defects, whether cladding, missing fire breaks or wooden balconies. The toxicity of this crisis goes on and on.

Everybody deserves to feel safe in their own home. Despite years of reactive policies from the Government, and now billions of pounds committed through a plethora of funds to fix unsafe homes, progress remains painfully slow for far too many. All of that means that far too many people are living in fear of their lives every day. What those families need is action now to speed up remediation and to hold all those responsible for the building safety crisis to account. Action is needed for all those trapped in unsafe buildings facing eye-watering bills, whether for the black hole of service charges or for insurance premiums. They simply have no control over their future. Action is needed to let the residents of these buildings finally turn the page.

I am disappointed that today’s statement is not much more than a rehashing of statistics and data points that were put in the public domain last Thursday. I am particularly disappointed that it does not include the second staircase guidance, which is desperately needed. The Minister will know that the absence of that guidance has held up the construction of thousands of safe homes across the country. In London alone, the Mayor has said that the botched implementation has stopped at least 38,000 homes from being built. During the delay, key design details have been missing, and both house builders and local authorities have been left in limbo. What is more, some sites have completely ground to a halt. What exactly is taking so long? How many buildings nationwide does the Minister estimate have been held up? It would be useful if the Minister could provide an update on the position on personal emergency evacuation plans, which many campaigners continue to push.

Moving onto the specifics of today’s announcement, I welcome the new initiatives to boost enforcement, but they would more effective if they were part of a broader strategy instead of being reactive, piecemeal announcements. The initiatives are just a drop in the ocean of what is needed. While I welcome the support for council enforcement teams, the Minister and the Government simply cannot pass the buck. The Department needs to play a more active and robust role. I welcome the new regulatory protocol for greater consistency, but I would like to see the details and a timeframe. The Minister rightfully calls out some owners and developers, but will he also call out the manufacturers and make all those responsible for the building safety crisis pay?

Finally, I want to mention the scale of the problem with insurance premiums, which the Minister will have seen reported in The Independent earlier this week. It is constantly raised with me and I know it is raised with the Minister, too. He will be aware of allegations of profiteering and the many thousands of pounds being paid in premiums, in some cases going up by 1,000%, even when buildings have been remediated and made safe. He previously mentioned pooling schemes. The industry has put forward its own scheme, which will go live on 1 April. Residents and campaigners are not convinced that it will bring premiums down, so I would like an update from the Minister today.

The Minister will not need reminding that today’s announcement is just one cog that needs to be turned to solve the building safety crisis. I look forward to working constructively with him to do the right thing for the hundreds of thousands of people still trapped in the building safety crisis. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I welcome the elements of his remarks that confirm that we are making progress. I will comment on some of the others in a moment. I take it from his reference to the statement being just a “rehashing” of stats that he is pretty content that the stats are moving in the right direction. Indeed, part of the point of today’s statement is to highlight that we have made significant progress in recent months and over the past year, while still recognising, as I did in my opening remarks, that there is much more to do. There are clearly actors who are not doing the right thing, and we are trying to take systematic, consistent and coherent action against them.

I just caution the hon. Gentleman that I did not indicate that the end of the building safety issues is near, despite both of us sharing the desire for that to come as soon as possible. I did, however, say that progress was being made. To get to the end point, we must make progress. I think what the statement demonstrates, just like the written ministerial statement in October, is that we continue as a Government and as a country to make progress.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights that this has taken time, but if we look at individual funds, we can see that those that were open the earliest are now coming to a conclusion. For the ACM fund, 98% of known buildings are remediated or on the way to being remediated. That was opened in 2018-19. For the building safety fund for buildings over 18 metres, over half are either completed or on the way to being completed. That was opened in 2020. So, again, there is progress. These things take time. They are often very complicated. Unfortunately, we often have to drag freeholders to do the right thing, for example to encourage owners of buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres to get involved in the fund. We are doing that as actively as we can. There is work to do, but further progress is being made.

The hon. Gentleman raises the specific question of second staircases. The statement is an update on building safety, but I will extend the scope slightly. We have committed, having already provided some information in recent months, to providing further information on second staircases by the end of the month. I can confirm that that will occur this week.

On enforcement, I gently say that it is absolutely incorrect to talk about reactive, piecemeal announcements. If we go down the list of what is being announced in the league table today, we can see clear evidence of progress being made all across the country: London Fire Brigade, 94 statutory enforcement notices; Greater Manchester, 32; East Sussex, 26; West Yorkshire, 14; and Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, 11. I could go on and on and on. There are multiple pages here where we can see progress. The Government are making the information as transparent as possible, so that residents who are impacted can understand where their individual local bodies are and hold them to account where necessary.

Finally, on insurance premiums, the hon. Gentleman and I share a great deal of focus on trying to make things move as quickly as possible. I completely agree with him that progress needs to be made. I am pleased that the industry has announced the launch of its industry-led insurance premium scheme, from 1 April next week. Bluntly, it has taken too long. I have spent an awful lot of time over the past few months encouraging the sector to do that. From the moment it opens, we will monitor extremely carefully what the impact will be on the most affected buildings. I hope we will be able to say more about that in the coming months. I encourage colleagues who have insurance concerns—many Members in the Chamber have already raised them with me—to continue to raise them. Where remediation is under way or has concluded, we would expect some form of accommodation to be made against the premiums in those buildings unless there was a good reason not to do so. If hon. Members have individual examples of where that has not occurred, I would be very grateful to receive them.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

It is some years since our late colleague, David Amess, led a few of us who were interested in fire safety even before Grenfell.

We must remember that in the months after Grenfell, everyone backed away thinking that residential leaseholders would be the only people who would have to bear the £10 billion to £15 billion cost of remediation—and that was before we knew all about the other fire defects, which our building control standards and inspections had allowed to accumulate over the decades. We should all hang our heads.

The Minister rightly talked about needing more transparency. I say in passing, although it is a very serious point, that anyone who looks at page 3 of the Financial Times today, on the possible future policy on ground rents, will see an indication that people who own such buildings—the pension funds, the Long Harbours of this world, the Tchenguizes’ interests and others—ought to be looking at their own social and environmental responsibilities, getting rid of ground rents and spending their money on making buildings safe for everyone to live in.

Cladding groups and leaseholders’ groups deserve praise, as do the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and the present chair of the Government’s Leasehold Advisory Service, who can point out some of the things that have not yet been done. This is an interim statement and we look forward to hearing more, whether by written or oral statements, but may I say to the Minister that the one group that seems to have been let off is the insurance companies who backed the developers, architects, surveyors, builders and component suppliers?

The Government should find a way to take together the potential claims of all the residents, tenants, leaseholders and owners of properties, and have a roundtable with insurance companies and get the billions of pounds out of them that they would have to pay if it went to court, without paying the lawyers half the money.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He has had a long-standing interest in this issue and in leasehold on a broader basis. He is absolutely right to highlight the tireless work of so many people across the country, including the groups and organisations that came together, both on the leasehold side, which he is involved in, and on the cladding side. They did not want to have to come together and spend so much time to make progress and end our cladding scandal, but they work incredibly hard to ensure that we make progress. I am grateful for all their constructive work with us. It is absolutely the case that more needs to be done, but as the statement outlined, week by week and month by month, we are making progress. I hope we can do more in the months ahead.

Finally, my hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on leasehold and highlights his thoughts very clearly. No decisions have been taken. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has been clear about his own personal views. I know my hon. Friend’s views will have been heard as a part of the discussion.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Labour, Battersea

One of my priorities in Battersea is to ensure that everyone has a safe, decent and affordable home. However, seven years on from the devastation of the Grenfell fire, many of my constituents are still living in unsafe buildings. Government support has so far been available for buildings 11 metres or over. It beggars belief that that is the case. Can the Minister be clear about what the Government are doing to ensure that prioritisation for funding is allocated according to risk, so that all households are protected, including the many in my constituency that are below 11 metres?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

With the greatest respect, I do not think it does beggar belief that a line has been drawn at 11 metres. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is chuntering from a sedentary position; I had hoped that she would listen to my answer in the first instance before making comments on it.

This is a relatively recognised and relatively long-standing position. Following the commitment given by my predecessors back in 2022, when we have received concerns about buildings under 11 metres we have taken action. We have looked at those buildings and have commissioned reports when that has been necessary, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it has subsequently been confirmed that they do not require remediation. If any Members have outstanding concerns about buildings less than 11 metres high, I encourage them to get in touch and we will happily look at them in more detail, because if the trajectory that we have seen in the cases that have been raised with us so far already is followed, it is highly likely that life-critical safety concerns will not be visible once we have done so.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean The Minister of State, Home Department

There is a complex interplay between what the Minister has said today about building safety, cladding and remediation and the agenda relating to the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, which, of course, many of us in the Chamber are still right behind. Will the Minister please reassure us that the Government as a whole remain committed to this vital transformative and conservative agenda?

As the Minister himself has said from that Dispatch Box, there is no prouder word in the English language than “freeholder”. We want to see more freeholders liberated from the tyranny of the ground rent grazers and some of the deep-pocketed people in this so-called sector who are now trying to make out, if the reporting is accurate, that if we press ahead with our reforms to reduce ground rent to a peppercorn, the whole sector will be destabilised and the Minister’s vital work of remediation will somehow be affected. I, like many others, do not accept that assertion in any shape or form—it is, of course, complete nonsense—but will the Minister please reassure me, and many others, that we will continue to reform this sector and liberate the leaseholders so that they can own their properties, while also continuing to make them safe?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

My hon. Friend is right to say that the work that has been put into the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, and the measures that we have introduced in it, will be transformative for leaseholders. I know that, and I know she knows that, because she was the person who put in the work in the first place, and I pay tribute to what she did in this role previously.

My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the link between those who have been impacted by cladding and leaseholders in general. It is through reforms such as those in the Bill that we will be able to bring even more transparency, including on insurance, which Mike Amesbury rightly raised. That applies not just to leaseholders who are impacted by cladding remediation, but to leaseholders in general. We will ensure that they know what they are paying for and can fully recognise whether the arrangement is fair or not.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I thank the Minister for meeting leaseholders from Barrier Point in my constituency last week.

During a Zoom call last night, leaseholders from Waterside Park made it clear that although the original builders and the current freeholder had agreed on the specification of the work to be carried out, the work itself was being held up by quibbling between their respective lawyers over details. Is there anything that the Minister or his Department can do to knock heads together and get this long-awaited work under way?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting the inherent challenges that may feature in processes that involve a lot of actors, a lot of complexity and often a lot of money, but it is absolutely the Government’s view that they must proceed as expeditiously as possible and that the organisations and actors involved in them should not hold them up unnecessarily. There must be a reasonable accommodation for reasonable discussions, but the overarching objective to ensure that buildings are remediated, and to allow leaseholders to get on with their lives even more than they are able to do at present, is paramount. If there are particular concerns or particular issues from which the right hon. Gentleman, or any other Member, thinks we can learn in order to improve the policy, I shall be keen to hear about them.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

The cladding safety scheme is meeting the cost of addressing fire safety risks associated with cladding on residential buildings over 11 metres high, but that does not include low-rise buildings. The Minister has been contacted by Barnet Council following an investigation of a fire at a low-rise residential property last year, which established that 459 properties in my constituency constituted a category 1 hazard as defined by the Housing Act 2004. The council says that the remedial works will cost each homeowner £23,000, an unaffordable amount for many of my constituents. While low-rise buildings pose less of an escape hazard than high-rise buildings in the event of a fire, the widespread existence of cladding defects is a result of regulatory and industry failure and was not caused by actions taken by my constituents. Does the Minister agree that that is simply not fair, and will he draw up proposals as a matter of urgency to assist my constituents in this endeavour?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter of low-rise blocks. According to the evidence that the Department has seen when looking at properties less than 11 metres high, it remains the case that the overwhelming majority do not require fire safety remediation, but I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about that in more detail. It is important that we continue to highlight the lower likelihood of a problem such as we are discussing today, but it is also important that there are routes to redress. The extension of the Defective Premises Act 1972 provides an opportunity in that regard. It is important for residents, leaseholders and others to be aware of such avenues, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those further as well.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

I thank the Minister for his statement, and for the meeting I had with him and his staff recently about an issue facing my constituents. It concerns Galliard Homes and residents of Drayton Park in my constituency, who have been denied access to necessary information. Galliard Homes claims that the fire safety regulations have been adhered to, but that is hotly disputed by just about everybody else. As a result the residents are paying vastly enhanced insurance rates and are unable to move, unable to sell their homes, and unable to move on with their lives in any way. That is causing unbelievable levels of stress, of which many Members are well aware from events in their own constituencies.

The Minister is engaged with the issue and fully understands it. May I ask him to do two things? First, will he release all the information about the fire safety assessment so that an air of transparency surrounds all this? Secondly, will he ensure that the developer, Galliard Homes, steps up to the plate and does the remedial work that is necessary to bring down insurance costs and enable the residents to move on and get on with their lives?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting this issue, and I am also grateful for the meeting that he arranged with the representative of the leaseholders and the time that he gave for us to go through it. It is very useful to work through individual cases: although they are often the trickiest, the knottiest and the most challenging, it is important for us to understand the policy implications.

Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman—without going into the details of the individual property, which I should be happy to discuss with him separately—that in general we seek to be as transparent as we possibly can, hence the publication of some of the additional data today. We remain committed to making progress on both individual buildings and properties as a whole, and I hope that both the property and the developer that the right hon. Gentleman has highlighted will make progress as soon as possible.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I thank my hon. Friend for his update, but it appears from his statement that there are still two tall buildings with ACM cladding on which no work is going on and on which the Government have taken no action; I should be grateful if he could clarify that. Another issue that arises directly from his statement is that there are now 4,000 homes between 11 and 18 metres high whose residents will probably not be able to get a mortgage, insure their properties or sell them. Will he speed up the process of assessing those blocks so that the residents can feel safe, and if work is required on them will he ensure that it is carried out speedily, so that homes are made safe for the residents and for whoever they sell them to?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

I am grateful for the question. On my hon. Friend’s first point, there are 11 buildings that have not started or finished their ACM remediation. One is not occupied. Of the remaining 10, work will commence on two in the next few weeks. Eight buildings will be remediated at a further date, and the remaining two have enforcement action being taken by the relevant authorities. Although I would like the number to go down to zero at the earliest possible opportunity, the situation is better than it was when we provided the update in October, and I expect the number to continue to move on a positive trajectory in the months and weeks ahead.

On my hon. Friend’s point about the 4,000 buildings that are being reviewed, we provided a further 1,000 potential leads to Homes England, which is leading on the cladding safety scheme, a number of months ago. A significant number were found to not require any remediation. Although I cannot comment on where the 4,000 will land, it is likely that a large number of them will not require remediation in the end, so I encourage residents not to worry about the number, but to see what comes out of the process.

Since December 2022, we have also taken action to make sure that we are starting to separate the need for remediation on properties from people’s ability to get on with their lives. The mortgage sector has been freed up to allow people to take mortgages, to remortgage and to move properties when big life events happen, and we hope that that will continue. I am monitoring, on a month-by-month basis, the large banks and building societies that are providing mortgages, and I can see that progress is being made.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Master Gunner Place in my constituency is in need of remedial work, and the residents have been supplied with a letter of comfort from the developer to say that it will cover the costs. My constituent has written to me to say that his service charge has gone up by 360% in the last eight years. In the last year alone, it has gone up by 107%. He is now paying a £6,000-a-year service charge, even though Hamptons says that the average cost in London for a similar-sized property is £1,700. My constituent says that the additional costs are building safety-related. What does the Minister have to say about that? Can anything be done to stop developers recouping their costs in this way?

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Minister of State (Minister for Housing)

The first thing we need to do is bring greater transparency to service charges, which is what we are trying to do through the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill. Assuming that progress is made in the other place, I hope that it will be on the statute book as quickly as possible, and then it will be clear exactly where such costs come from.

The second thing that is that our colleagues in the Financial Conduct Authority are bringing in the fair charging regime to make sure there are no inappropriate commissions and that, from an insurance perspective, exchanges are not under way with brokers, which will hopefully reduce the costs.

The third thing is the industry-led insurance scheme, which should hopefully bring down insurance costs for those who are most exposed. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need greater transparency and a greater understanding of where these costs are going, and we need to make sure that freeholders and managing agents are following the law, which is very clear about the kinds of costs that can and cannot be allocated. If there is something specific about the building he mentions that the Government can look at, I will happily talk to him separately.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Deputy Speaker

I thank the Opposition Front Bencher and the Minister for their participation in the statement.