New Clause 14 - Agency to manage building safety works and funding

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 26th October 2021.

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“(1) Within six months of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must create an agency referred to as the Building Works Agency.

(2) The purpose of the Building Works Agency shall be to administer a programme of cladding remediation and other building safety works, including—

(a) overseeing an audit of cladding, insulation and other building safety issues in buildings over two storeys;

(b) prioritising audited buildings for remediation based on risk;

(c) determining the granting or refusal of grant funding for cladding remediation work;

(d) monitoring progress of remediation work and enforce remediation work where appropriate;

(e) determining buildings to be safe once remediation work has been completed;

(f) seeking to recover costs of remediation where appropriate from responsible parties: and

(g) providing support, information and advice for owners of buildings during the remediation process.”—

This new clause would create a new body set up to oversee a programme of cladding remediation, including assessing the need for remediation, overseeing the process of remediation, managing funding of remediation and recouping costs where possible from appropriate parties.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have had the same strategy for at least 35 years. The Government’s laissez-faire approach simply picked at the edges of a scandal threatening to engulf the whole housing market, mimicking the deregulation and the lack of accountability that caused the scandal in the first place, and leaving leaseholders caught up in a perfect storm. The individuals least able to bear the costs are not responsible for those mistakes.

We have tabled a lot of amendments and new clauses because although in many ways the Bill represents a step forward—at last—we want to highlight the large areas of this ongoing scandal that are not covered and will not be fixed by the Bill. It is clear, from looking at the amendment paper and considering all the aspects of the crisis that we are trying to address, that what is really wrong with the Government’s approach is that there is no central plan. By tabling the new clause, we repeat our call for the Government to act across the piece to solve the crisis, to put in place a building works agency, and to do what should have been done in 2017. We need a more interventionist, hands-on approach.

We propose a team of experts to do what the Government have not done: to go from building to building to assess real risk and decide what needs to be fixed and in what order, use the building safety fund to get those buildings fixed, and oversee the work. Crucially, the Government could then sign off the buildings as safe and sellable, bringing certainty back to the market.

Finally, the Government could then take on those who are responsible for creating the crisis and who need to pay. That approach was put in place by a cross-party group of politicians and experts in Victoria, Australia, after the fire in Australia and, later, at Grenfell Tower. It requires our Ministers and the new Secretary of State to be prepared to step up, look afresh, as the new Secretary of State said, and lead from the front, rather than rely on a broken market and leaseholders on the precipice of bankruptcy. I hope that the Minister can accept the new clause. It will not be the last time that a variation of it is brought before the House.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West 2:15 pm, 26th October 2021

It is a good to see you in the Chair again, Mrs Miller, on our final day of deliberations. I agree with the sentiments behind new clause 14, and what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale said about ensuring that, going forward, we do not face such issues. He mentioned the example of Victoria in Australia, which we have heard about a lot today. We have to be mindful that in the state of Victoria the number of properties that would fit within the category that we are talking about is 2,000, while in England it is 100,000. Although I see what he is saying, we cannot use the Victoria example as a direct crossover.

We also have to look at the structures in which the current remediation programme sits, because ultimately the new clause will effectively centralise the programme through the establishment of a building works agency and the prevention method. I agree with the sentiment: in the longer term, we will need to have a prevention mindset, as was touched on in the deliberations on previous clauses in this important Bill. However, we need to be mindful of the process in which remediation already sits. Clearly, enforcement is being done by local authorities at present.

Members from across the Committee have been very insistent, and we have had a lot of cross-party support—particularly from myself and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby—when we have said that local authorities need to have the funding to follow through. I know what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale is trying to do with the new clause, which is effectively to say that, if we centralise it with a building works agency that not only deals with remediation but goes further to prevent the problem before it happens, we streamline the process. I can see the logic, but my concern is that we might end up, as an unintended consequence—we have talked a lot about unintended consequences in our deliberations—detract from the work that is already being done.

The new clause could come in within six months of the day on which the Bill is passed, but I am conscious that work is already happening to remediate ACM cladding in particular, which is obviously at the heart of this. My understanding from research is that 95% of the cladding either has already been remediated or is in the process of being remediated. As I said, from a philosophical point of view I am relatively comfortable, but we also have to be mindful of this measure being able to be utilised operationally. My concern is that we have a scheme in place at the moment that is not perfect and needs scrutiny but is working in its aim around remediation.

A big concern that the new clause attempts to address is the lag within that. Perhaps that is something that we need to be mindful of. It could be argued that centralisation, which is what the new clause seeks, could streamline the process, but we also have to be mindful of the reality that there will always be a delay between application and a decision on works and funding coming through. That is a practical reality. I do not know whether a new building works agency would completely eliminate that. That would concern me as well. We have got a process in place already, but does it really achieve the aims?

The Building Safety Regulator has been established. When we build new regulatory landscapes, we do not want to make them inaccessible and convoluted by bringing so many different players to the table.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

It is a pleasure, Mrs Miller, to serve under your chairship. I thank the hon. Gentleman for letting me intervene. He talks about this being “convoluted”, but we talked last week about a diagram to help the leaseholder understand where to go for help. Would not a single agency or body with oversight of funds, grants and levies, that controls the various streams of money and approves the schemes once completed, make it easier for the leaseholder to tap into what is there and have an innate understanding of what they can actually do? At the moment, as he rightly says, there are many agencies, and the aim of the new clause is to bring them all under one body.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

The hon. Member makes an interesting point. On the face of it, we could say that the new clause streamlines the approach, but I still have a concern. For example, why could the agency not sit within the BSR or within the new regulator that we have just established? Why do we need to establish another one? I get his broader point—

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Unless I have missed something, these are two entirely separate proposals for two entirely separate bodies that have two completely different functions. The Building Safety Regulator is there to regulate. The building safety works agency would oversee the remediation works. One regulates and one does the actual building work. They are two separate bodies. There is no confusion at all. A further amendment could put the building safety works agency within the regulator, but there is no need for that. They are two completely different bodies with two completely different remits.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I can certainly see the hon. Lady’s point, but my point is: why do we need to bring so many actors to the table? We are trying to build a system that is accessible. I get what she says, but we both know that for vulnerable leaseholders, things might not seem straightforward. When someone is in distress and difficulty, they will not know the difference between the building works agency and the BSR. I can show her that from my casework.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I think it became incredibly clear in our evidence sessions that there are many innocent leaseholders who have effectively become lawyers. They understand the legislation in great detail, and it is hugely disappointing that the hon. Gentleman thinks that many of these innocent leaseholders would not be able to understand the difference between two different bodies when they themselves have effectively become experts on the legislation. As I say, they are two different bodies. Leaseholders themselves are calling for a programme of find, fix and fund, and the building works agency would be there to do the fixing.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

We did see that, and I certainly do not want to undermine the work that individual leaseholders have done to get a grasp of the system. That is not what I am trying to say. I want to see a system that is as easy as possible to navigate. Yes, we have seen those examples and I completely get that, but I could equally refer to individuals in states of absolute emotional distress who would have to deal with this system, as we have touched on under previous new clauses.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We have the Building Safety Regulator, as the hon. Member rightly pointed out, centralising what works in co-operation with the other stakeholders, including local fire services and local authorities, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby advocated for. We also have the building safety fund. However, there sometimes seems to be a black hole in things. Things disappear and drift, and there is dither and delay. The new clause is about turbocharging the process, providing that leadership and drive that not only leaseholder residents require, but us collectively as legislators of the nation require to deal with this scandal.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

I think that we agree with the idea of turbocharging and streamlining the process, but where we disagree is on how we go about doing that. I question whether a building works agency in the form prescribed in the new clause would do that. My other slight concern is that we are already part way through a process of remediation. I want to see that process improved in the ambits in which it already sits. That is the point that I am trying to hammer home.

My concern is about the practical application. The hon. Member for St Albans rightly said, and I do not disagree with her, that many people have had to learn to navigate these difficult systems. On the flip slide, there will be many people who are totally lost and because of the circumstances they find themselves in, they may not be able to navigate these systems in the same way—notwithstanding her point, which I totally take on board; she is right.

To reiterate, I do not disagree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and other hon. Members who have intervened. We do need a system that is accessible to those who have been most affected. My concern is about the practical application of new clause 14 and how it would work. I am conscious that we are already going through a process of remediation. The focus should be on ensuring that my right hon. Friend the Minister gets it absolutely right in the first instance.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

This is an emergency and an urgent crisis. We have a new Secretary of State, so we can look afresh at the matter. We have looked across the water at something that works. I know that Ministers, shadow Ministers and other stakeholders have spoken to governments in Victoria and New South Wales, looking at what has worked and sharing notes to take things forward. This is a crisis, so I would hope that the new Secretary of State can work with all stakeholders and politely bash heads together at almost a building safety summit. I hope that the matter will be looked at seriously to drive the process forward.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

The hon. Gentleman is right in what he says about moving things forward in the longer term, which is how I took it. It is incumbent on me and him to get the new Secretary of State to ensure that this works in the way that those who have been affected would expect. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister is waiting with bated breath for the representations that I will make to him to ensure that this works.

The hon. Gentleman has drawn on the example of the Australian state of Victoria and the conversations that have taken place. Of course, it is important that we look at international examples when we are deliberating the best way to solve this problem—he is right to label it as a crisis, because it is a crisis. I have already articulated this point, but my concern about drawing direct parallels with Victoria is the quantity and scale involved. As I said in my opening remarks, there are 2,000 properties in Victoria that fit the criteria and would fall within new clause 14, as opposed to 100,000 in England alone. My concern is about how we ensure that this system is practically operational, but I do not disagree with the philosophical sentiment behind new clause 14: the idea of streamlining the process, of having a culture in the longer term that is about prevention, and ensuring that those individuals who need to access the system can do so.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I think the hon. Member for West Bromwich West can continue, and then when we come to the vote, I will note that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale wishes to withdraw the clause. Mr Bailey, do you want to finish your remarks?

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

In light of the hon. Gentleman’s decision to withdraw the clause, I will conclude my speech. I would just like to get it on the record that I am very grateful for his intervention, and to all Members who have intervened. I do not disagree with the sentiment they have expressed: it is incumbent on all of us to work together to put pressure on Government to ensure that the Bill develops a system that works and looks after the most vulnerable.

Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I will be brief. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West: I do not think I have ever before seen the official Opposition withdraw an amendment at the behest of a Back-Bench Member. They usually wait until the Minister has spoken. That has put me in my place, if nothing else. [Laughter.]

I thank the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for withdrawing his new clause. I understand what he is attempting to achieve by it; I think I am right in saying that it was a manifesto commitment that the official Opposition made, and perhaps at the time it was a sensible and appropriate thing to do. However—it is sad to recall—that general election was nearly two years ago, and things have moved on.

A well-established remediation programme is already in place, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West has mentioned: some 97% of buildings clad in ACM have either been remediated or are being remediated, and we believe that all ACM-clad buildings in scope have now been identified. As a result of the joint inspection team that we developed, which works with local authorities and housing associations to identify buildings with unsafe cladding that are in scope, that work is now over 80% complete, so it is hard to see how the time, effort and expense of setting up a new body to do that work would be well used.

I welcome the interest of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale in this matter. He raised the issue of Victoria, where—as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West has said—there are something like 2,000 buildings above three storeys. In England, we have something like 100,000 buildings above three storeys, and the hon. Member for Weaver Vale’s new clause calls for an assessment of buildings over two storeys, so we are talking about a very significant extra degree of effort that would take time, expertise and expense that would be better served pursuing the mechanism that we are presently utilising.

However, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I do not propose to spend any more of the Committee’s time debating this point, because I appreciate that we may vote very soon. I am sure we will come back to this point in future. Yes, we must knock some heads together and move rapidly to ensure that remediation is done as expeditiously as possible.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale has already indicated that he wishes to withdraw the new clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.