[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on
Before I call Mr Reed to open our debate on this important matter, you can all see that there is a cast of thousands. This is a very important subject. When Mr Reed has sat down, I will let you know exactly what the time limits will be. You should plan for three or four minutes, and we will see how we go.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered cladding and remedial fire safety work.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful so many colleagues have turned up to the debate, which emphasises how significant this issue is for so many of our constituents.
I first came to the issue because of a block called Citiscape in my constituency. A group of residents came to see me because the block has the same kind of cladding on it as Grenfell Tower: aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding with a polyethylene core. Polyethylene is a kind of compressed paraffin. At Grenfell, this cladding had the equivalent combustibility to 32,000 litres of petrol over the outside of the building, so it is understandable that Citiscape’s residents were so concerned.
The residents were told that it would cost them as leaseholders up to £31,000 per flat to remove the cladding—a bill many of them simply could not afford—and that if everybody did not pay, none of the work would start. One older resident had to cancel his move to a care home because the flat he was going to sell to pay for that move was unsellable because of the cladding on the building. These people are stuck in a building that they describe as a deathtrap, unable to move and unable to afford the cost of making their homes safe.
The industry estimates that some 800 blocks across the country have flammable cladding: 300 are council-owned and will eventually be made safe, although it is worrying that nine months after Grenfell only three have so far been completely re-clad, and around 500 blocks are privately owned, but the Government are doing nothing to help the people living in them.
The hon. Gentleman has made a good start to an important debate. Does he have ideas for what more could be done to encourage owners and landlords to improve or replace the cladding on the buildings that they own?
I am grateful for that question; I intend to cover exactly that in my speech. I am going to argue that it is the Government’s responsibility to remove the cladding because their flawed regulatory system is what allowed it to go up in the first place.
When I challenge the Secretary of State on this, he justifies doing nothing by pointing the finger at freeholders, whom he claims have a moral responsibility to replace the cladding. The problem is that a moral responsibility is not the same as a legal responsibility. Freeholders, like leaseholders, developers, managing agents and insurers, all deny legal liability, and so do the Government. It could take years for the courts to resolve this and all that time people would be left living in fear. On average, there is one fire every month linked to this kind of cladding. Eventually, one will not be put out in time. Is the Minister really going to do nothing and risk a second Grenfell Tower fire?
I completely agree. I hope colleagues will forgive me if I restrict the number of interventions I take. There are so many people trying to get in on the debate that I would like to leave room for them if I can.
The Housing Minister told the House of Commons last month that he recognises no systemic problem with the fire safety regime. Let us look briefly at what he thinks is good enough. The Building Research Establishment’s fire testing system is so weak that manufacturers can design the testing rigs that test their own materials, and can then keep quiet about how many tests their materials fail before they eventually get a result they want. Developers, builders and buyers are never told, because the test results are treated as commercially confidential. Conflicts of interest are everywhere in this system. The BRE makes money by running tests on flammable materials—
The interim Hackitt report asserted on fire safety:
“Those responsible for high-risk and complex buildings should be held to account to a higher degree.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that after nine months the Conservative Government have shown no willingness to act?
I agree, but I hope that we will hear from the Minister that things have changed.
The BRE makes up to £40,000 per test that it conducts for manufacturers. As it also drafts the guidance, as an organisation it has a financial interest in permitting the use of combustible materials that it then tests. The fire safety tests after Grenfell were carried out by Kingspan, which manufactured part of the materials on Grenfell in the first place. Some individuals from the BRE who drafted the Government’s flawed guidance are now advising Ministers that there is not a problem with the regulations that they drafted. What a surprise! It is even possible to bypass safety tests completely by paying somebody to carry out a desktop study, which does not involve doing any testing whatever. The privatised National House Building Council makes money by signing off flammable cladding that has never been tested, and because flammable materials—combustible materials—are cheaper to make, the industry has a perverse incentive to keep costs down by using combustible cladding.
No other country in the European Union permits a system this lax. Many EU countries do not permit the use of combustible cladding at all. The UK building industry has alerted the Government to materials authorised by the BRE that subsequently failed fire safety tests in other countries. The Government chose to do nothing. The Association of British Insurers, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of Residential Managing Agents and other building industry groups all want flammable cladding banned.
Back in 2013, the coroner investigating the deadly Lakanal House fire in Southwark told the Government to amend fire safety guidance
“with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of a building”.
She said that BRE Approved Document B, which relates to fire safety, was unclear and needed to be reviewed. However, the Communities Secretary at the time, Eric Pickles, did not do that. Nor have a string of Housing Ministers—every one since then—taken any action, including the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell. The current Housing Minister is relatively new in post. He could take a different course. I hope he will, but it is a worrying start that a consultation is under way on further weakening these already weak fire safety regulations by extending the use of desktop studies instead of insisting on rigorous, independent fire safety tests every time.
The industry has repeatedly asked the Government for clear and unequivocal advice on how to deal with the various forms of flammable cladding being found on hundreds of buildings. I wrote to the Secretary of State in January asking for the same on the industry’s behalf. As of today, the Government have given no direction at all on how these cases are to be dealt with.
After Grenfell, the Government said that cladding with a polyethylene core, like that on Citiscape in my constituency, does not comply with the guidance. The Prime Minister repeated that claim, yet I have here a certificate signed by Sir Ken Knight, chair of the Government’s independent expert panel on fire safety and a director of the BRE Trust, that says that it does comply. Quite simply, the Government are all over the place. They do not have a clue what is going on. Every single loophole and error that led to Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower is still in place. This is no one else’s fault and no one else’s moral responsibility except the Government’s.
Thousands of frightened people living in blocks with flammable cladding need to hear from the Minister today that it will be taken down without delay. They do not need any more buck-passing. They cannot afford to spend years in the courts while the cladding remains on their buildings. The Government’s flawed fire safety regime created this mess; the Government must now clear it up. We cannot risk a second Grenfell Tower. The time for the Minister to act is now.
Thank you, Mr Reed. Colleagues can do the maths for themselves. I am going to impose a voluntary time limit of three minutes to start, but let us see how we get on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate Mr Reed on securing this debate on an important issue that affects my constituents in Bromley.
Let me say something about the tone of the debate. It appears that there have been failings in relation to regulation, perhaps partly because technology has moved on and awareness is greater, but the building that I am concerned with is Northpoint on Sherman Road in Bromley, a block of 57 flats that were converted from offices 15 years ago, and to suggest that responsibility lies with any one party is inaccurate. When the flats were converted in 2003—under a Labour Government, as it happens—the cladding was considered acceptable according to what was known at the time. A subsequent inspection in November 2017 led the fire brigade to conclude that it was not acceptable, so an enforcement notice was served.
Whatever the history of the 57 flats, the residents are now placed in an impossible financial situation. The flats are on lease from a private freeholder, a commercial company. The leaseholders have spent some £80,000 on a two-man, 24-hour “waking watch” on the premises, and if the building has to be re-clad, the costs are likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. They are in a difficult situation, because the developer’s 10-year guarantee is out of date and the freeholder is a commercial company.
I understand the Secretary of State’s point about a moral duty, but as the hon. Member for Croydon North rightly said, a moral duty is not legally enforceable. In any event, the directors of a commercial company have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, so they face a conflict. That creates a bind for the residents, who are forking out £6,000-odd a month for the ongoing costs of the waking watch. The normal sinking fund that they prudently set in place has long been exhausted. Their own funds will soon be exhausted, too, and the flats are unsaleable because no one will buy them in the circumstances. Many of the residents are young professionals; I received a letter from one constituent whose flat was the first home that she and her husband were able to buy. They have no chance of moving on—they are stuck with an asset that has turned into a liability.
I hope the Minister will come up with something more specific than what has been proposed. I understand that interest-free loans have been suggested, but a lot of these people are already suffering, so how will they repay the capital? I am glad that additional funding has been made available to the Leasehold Advisory Service, but again, that does not address the underlying situation. A failure of regulation is a failure of governance, whoever was in government at the time, so ultimately the Government need to stand behind those affected, rather than expecting the costs to be picked up by individuals who did nothing and had no control over what happened.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on securing this important debate.
I will be brief, Mr Streeter, as you have told me to be. I have two questions for the Minister. First, who should pay for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding and for the interim remedial measures, such as fire marshals and temporary alarm systems? Secondly, when will we see progress on the review of Approved Document B, and can we have an update on the BS 8414 test?
On the first question, the Government are clear that they want landlords to pay, as they have repeatedly exhorted them to. In the social sector, with registered social landlords and local authorities, they have been largely successful, but in the private sector the opposite is true. Many freeholders and property management companies take the view opposite to the Government’s. As the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership has reported to my hon. Friend, it is leaseholders who are picking up the tab.
One thing is for sure: leaseholders have no blame in this. They did not design the buildings, choose the construction materials or draft, monitor or enforce the defective regulations, so why are they the victims? As the Minister has rightly said:
“We have been very clear that, morally, such costs should not be passed on to leaseholders.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 635, c. 1237.]
However, that is exactly what is happening. Leaseholders are financially stretched to the full to meet mortgage payments for years ahead. They face huge bills, as we have heard. The Government need to do something for them now.
On Approved Document B, the all-party fire safety rescue group has sought a review of the statutory guidance and the building regulations. The last review was in 2006. Historically, reviews were carried out every five years, or at least every 10, but it has now been 12 years. New materials and construction methods mean new risks.
The Government must do more. The interim report of the Dame Judith Hackitt review called for a complete cultural overhaul. Dame Judith’s work has been widely praised and much has gone on behind the scenes, but we have heard nothing from the Government on simple matters such as the BS 8414 test or the ban that the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of British Insurers and the Fire Protection Association have called for on using combustible materials on the outside of buildings.
In conclusion, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the BS 8414 test, on the review of Approved Document B and the building regulations, and on how the Government intend to protect leaseholders, who are in such a vulnerable position.
I, too, will keep my comments brief. I welcome this debate and agree with the contributions of other hon. Members. I particularly support the emphasis on leaseholders of private blocks, whom Inside Housing described this week as being stuck in the middle of a battle between freeholders, the insurance industry, developers and lawyers about who will keep their blocks safe.
There are 283 high-rise residential blocks in Manchester City Council’s area, of which 223 are in private ownership. The social sector and the council are to be commended for their quick response to the need to remove and replace cladding, but the response in the private sector has been woefully poor. It has been very hard to get hold of many of the owners of the blocks, and it has been hard to get answers from managing agents about what they will do. Leaseholders and homeowners have been left to bear the brunt.
I want to highlight two specific cases in my constituency. The cladding on the Chips building has been deemed non-fire-retardant. That was known at the time, but it was still signed off, and leaseholders are now being charged well over £5,000 each to put it right. The cladding on the Little Alex block was within regulations at the time, but following an inspection it has now been deemed to fall outside them. A prohibition notice has been issued; again, it falls on leaseholders to meet the costs, which will be well in excess of £175,000. That is just unacceptable. It is not the leaseholders’ fault, yet they are footing the bill.
Who foots the bill is one issue, but I really hope the Minister recognises that this is not just about money. Leaseholders have no right of recourse. Who are they supposed to go to? The Government say that developers and owners have a moral duty to take action, but there is no body to which leaseholders can turn for recourse. Bodies such as first-tier tribunals are frankly toothless; they do not follow through and are very bureaucratic.
Hundreds of people in Manchester and elsewhere are now stuck between a rock and a hard place. As Robert Neill rightly said, this is a failure of governance and of regulation. It is our job in Parliament, and the Government’s job, to put that right for the people who are now stuck in unsafe buildings that they are unable to sell.
I hope that hon. Members will accept that I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate: I am on an extended convalescence from a bad leg. I welcome the initiative of Mr Lammy to address low standards—a point also raised by Mr Reed.
I have one or two points to make to the Government. First, the cost of remedy, especially for the leaseholders I am concerned with, in addition to everyone else affected, could be reduced if the Government waived the VAT on the cost of remedial works. That would reduce a £120,000 charge to £100,000, which would be worth while for all concerned. The second point is that leaseholders, apparently, do not have a right to get in touch with anybody legally about these issues; they are not party to the insurance or to the building and they are not written in anywhere. I ask the Government to find some way of deeming that leaseholders do have an interest and retrospectively have had an interest in the people who put up these blocks and the people who run them.
I have a third suggestion; many of my suggestions come from the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which has already been mentioned by Jim Fitzpatrick. It is that every freeholder of every block affected should declare who they are and how they can be contacted. There must be no more hiding behind offshore entities. The managing agents should make sure they declare who these people are. Let us have them in front of Select Committees talking about who they are and how they will respond to this issue.
We accept that there will be many legal disputes. My suggestion is that the Government should get all the parties together and try to get a test case in front of the Supreme Court as quickly as possible, preferably within the next six months, to determine who has what liabilities. Once that is settled, it will be easy to see the people who are left out.
Whether the developments are the converted office blocks mentioned by my hon. Friend Robert Neill or purpose-built residential blocks, we ought to be able to recognise an analogy with cars. Even if a car passed the tests for it to be sold new, if a defect turns up the car manufacturer still has the responsibility to put it right. Martin Boyd of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership has made that point very clearly—I make it, too, on behalf of the all-party group on leasehold reform.
The leaseholders are particularly stuck. In social housing, we know that the tenants will not have to pay. We also know that by law a leaseholder is a tenant. I think we should put leaseholders in the same situation as social housing tenants, otherwise we will freeze too much of our housing.
I am grateful to have had the chance to make some of these points at length; one could make them at greater length. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Croydon North has done a favour to the House and to the country in securing this debate, and I hope that the Government will be able to move forward today and in days to come.
Someone living in a high-rise flat in Hammersmith or Shepherd’s Bush looks at Grenfell Tower every day; a year before the Grenfell Tower fire, they will also have seen the very serious tower block fire at Shepherd’s Court on Shepherd’s Bush Green.
There has been a response from the local authority and from public landlords to what has happened. Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group told me today that it has spent almost £1 million so far on remedial works post-Grenfell. It will not charge its leaseholders for those works, but ultimately the money for them will come from its tenants. The Government should be responsible for funding this work, but they are showing a lack of leadership and of responsibility in this regard.
Let me be specific and give the example of two blocks, both of which were built in the last 10 years. One is owned by Shepherd’s Bush Housing Group and is called Kelway House. After initially failing the Buildings Research Establishment test, it passed it. However, residents do not know whether those tests are robust or not and they are still concerned about them.
The second block is Cranston Court in White City, which is owned by Notting Hill Housing, and it failed those tests. Notting Hill Housing is removing the cladding on Cranston Court and it has acted responsibly in doing so. It is putting up temporary cladding, so that it can remove fire wardens, but it does not know what to do next. It has now resolved that it will put up non-combustible solid aluminium panels. However, that is because there is no guidance; it is taking what it hopes is the safest option.
There are some simple remedies. However, like my hon. Friend Mr Reed, who secured this debate, I do not know why we allow combustible or limited combustibility cladding and insulation to be used any more. It is not used in other European countries, as has been said. That is why I am glad to see that public landlords have taken the advice not to use such cladding and instead are using mineral wool or other forms of cladding or insulation that are available.
However, I am afraid that these issues have to be addressed, and addressed now, by the Government. As we have seen in the trade press recently, the idea that “desktop studies” will be extended, and will become the norm rather than just being used occasionally, is horrifying.
Also, regarding the conflicts of interest at the BRE and the inadequacy of Approved Document B, some of us have known about them for many years and we have all known about them since Grenfell. As I understand it, although the Hackitt review is good as far as it goes, it does not look as if the final report—let alone the interim one—will give us clear guidance on these issues. It will say that the culture is wrong, but what it will not do is tell landlords—responsible landlords—what they should do. Has that review of Approved Document B got under way and, if it has, when is it due to report and when can we actually tell our landlords what should happen?
I commend the all-party group on fire safety and rescue for the work that it has done on this issue. I have attended a number of seminars on it. However, the Government have to act on it. It cannot be left to the industry alone or to us alone. We must have a solution.
I will speak very briefly, because a great many lives were lost and that always makes debates run hot. Also, given that there is an important theme to this debate about who is going to pay for works, I have no wish to divert the Chamber’s attention from that.
However, I wish to follow Andy Slaughter, who has just made comments about insulation, because BS 8414 is a tough test. It also failed cladding that was non-combustible. The reason for adding this observation to the debate is that the situation is not as clear cut as we would all like it to be. This is an extremely difficult subject.
For that matter, Mr Reed, who opened the debate, said that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was made by Kingspan. Kingspan has a factory in my constituency and that cladding was not made by Kingspan—it was made by a company called Reynobond and the majority of the insulation in Grenfell was made by a company called Celotex. I feel that it is helpful, given that all the experts are here, just to put a few of those facts on the record.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on securing this very important debate.
I will highlight the plight of leaseholders in Heysmoor Heights, Liverpool—it is a 16-storey building. Those leaseholders are now being presented with bills for £18,000 each to replace dangerous cladding and to provide fire safety measures that have been deemed essential following the Grenfell Tower disaster. I commend the very swift action taken by Merseyside fire and rescue service; it acted very quickly. The dangerous cladding has now been removed from Heysmoor Heights and alternative covering is now in the process of being put up. However, as I say, the leaseholders are facing these bills.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about this issue and on
“I urged those with responsibility to follow the lead from the social sector and private companies already doing the right thing, and not attempt to pass on costs to leaseholders.”
That is simply not happening. At Heysmoor Heights, leaseholders of modest means are being asked to find £18,000 each, and the fact that payment plans are being discussed does not make any difference to that essential figure. That is a bill for £18,000 to keep people safe in a situation that they could not possibly have anticipated.
Is that situation not an illustration of the terrible leaseholder landlordism, which treats leaseholders as tenants when it is convenient for the landlord and as property owners when it is not?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I call on the Minister to honour the commitment that the Secretary of State made in his letter to me. This issue is about leaseholders. They face paying bills to keep them safe and they could not possibly have anticipated this situation. I call on the Minister to honour what has been said. Leaseholders should not face these bills.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on securing this debate. I would also like to show my appreciation of all the work that my hon. Friend Emma Dent Coad has done since this terrible, terrible fire, which brings us here this afternoon.
The fire was a moment when I think that most of us across the House thought there would be a cross-party response showing huge urgency. We should keep in mind the 72 people who lost their lives and also keep in mind two very real issues. The first is genuine fear. There is very likely no one in this Chamber this afternoon who lives in a council tower block estate or who is a leaseholder of a former council building that they have bought. So there will be no one really in the Chamber who can speak to that issue, other than perhaps those of us who have grown up in council homes.
The second issue is trust. The Secretary of State said on
What has happened in relation to the dignity of those souls and lives lost? What has happened in relation to the successive reviews of and inquiries into fire regulations in this country? Why are we going to dismiss what came out of the Hackitt review? How do we breach that trust? How do we meet the fear of those who are in these buildings at this time? How do we keep it in our minds that we are talking about mothers on the 20th or 22nd floor who are worried about how they will get their children down and out of the building? We are talking about some councils that had a policy of putting old-age pensioners in those buildings. How do the Government live up to those expectations? That is what we wait to hear from the Minister.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on securing this important and timely debate. I have heard from many of my constituents in Battersea, including leaseholders, who are concerned about the fire safety of their homes, and the answer to those concerns is clearly stronger regulation and better enforcement by the Government. Many leaseholders are discovering not only that their buildings do not meet fire safety standards but that they will incur eye-watering bills to remedy the failings. It cannot be right for the Government to allow leaseholders to pay for failures that are not of their making.
This is not the first time I have raised the issue. In December last year, I asked what plans the Government had to ensure that private sector leaseholders were not held to ransom by freeholders over fire safety repairs. The Minister for Housing responded by talking about increased funding for the Leasehold Advisory Service, and about how the Secretary of State would “encourage” private sector freeholders not to pass on their costs, but gentle encouragement has achieved nothing, and that is a potential catastrophe for the leaseholders of the blocks. Constituents have told me that they felt physically sick when they heard that they might have to meet the costs.
In Battersea, the leaseholders of Sesame Apartments—a block completed only in 2014—face the prospect of being asked to pay an eye-watering £40,000 per flat to ensure that their block meets fire safety standards, news that came after a fire there last year revealed that fire safety standards were not being met, as did subsequent testing of the cladding. That cladding must now be replaced; a fire alarm system is due to be installed and a round-the-clock warden has been introduced. However, the block’s safety should never have been in doubt, and the cost of remedying the failures should be borne not by the leaseholders but by those responsible for them.
The London Borough of Wandsworth is seeking to retrofit sprinklers in all blocks of 10 storeys or higher, which is a good thing, but they wish to pass on the costs to the leaseholders and have sought guidance on how to proceed from the first-tier tribunal. While the legal questions remain unresolved, people are still living in unsafe buildings, and every day that goes by there is the risk of a disaster. It is only right that the Government do everything they can to ensure that repairs are carried out as soon as possible, but we need more than Government loans that leave leaseholders footing the bill. That is why, for the second time in four months, I ask the Minister what concrete action the Government are taking to ensure that homes are safe and that families and leaseholders are not held to ransom. The Government cannot go on simply applying gentle pressure on freeholders and talking about learning the lessons of Grenfell. Nearly a year has passed. Residents deserve to live in safe buildings and we need to find a way of protecting leaseholders from being hit by life-shattering bills. The Government need to accept that they are responsible and that they must take action.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Reed for securing the debate.
Last June, the nation was horrified to see images of smoke billowing out from Grenfell Tower, with residents trapped inside. It felt as though what was a national tragedy would be met by a national response, to ensure that such circumstances would never happen again, in London, or in Devon. In Mount Wise, in Devonport in my constituency, we have three tower blocks with combustible cladding, housing both leaseholders and social renters and, eight months on, too little has been done by the Government to prevent a similar tragedy from unfolding.
The grime artist Stormzy made his views clear at last month’s Brits. I think he spoke for most of us here when he said, “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” I have a similar question for the Minister. Where is the money that was promised to support local authorities and housing associations in the removal of combustible cladding and the re-cladding of tower blocks in Plymouth? The most outrageous thing about this injustice is that there is money to pay for it. We know that, because last week the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government gave £1.1 billion of the money in his budget that could have been spent on re-cladding back to the Treasury, as reported by HuffPost on
“The Department has surrendered £817 million of budget that is no longer required in 2017/18”.
I think that residents of Lynher House, Tavy House and Tamar House in Mount Wise would say that the money was urgently required and that it should have been spent on re-cladding tower blocks. I think that hon. Members right across the House will agree that the money was required and that it could have been used by Ministers.
Small housing associations, such as Plymouth Community Homes, have done a fantastic job of securing and making safe as much of the tower blocks as they can—we have 60-minute fire doors, sprinklers being installed and 24-hour fire marshals—but Plymouth cannot afford the £13 million to £20 million it will cost to re-clad the three tower blocks. Will the Minister confirm that his Department returned that money to the Treasury, and will he ask for the money back, so that it can be spent on re-cladding tower blocks, not only in Plymouth but right across the country, to ensure that people can live in safe homes?
In her statement on
“We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 626, c. 169.]
However, that is precisely what will happen if money is not spent to take action. There is an opportunity here, as was mentioned earlier, for this to be a cross-party moment, with all parties uniting to ensure that everyone lives in a safe home. That opportunity has not yet been taken by politicians, but it is being taken by people in communities who are fighting to secure their homes. Minister, please get that money back and let us spend it on cladding.
I congratulate Mr Reed on securing the debate and on laying out the scene so very well, and also right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed so passionately on an issue that they have lived.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for healthy homes and buildings and the issue is of great personal interest. Moreover, the tragedy of Grenfell continues to resonate with me and with all Members of the House, and some of them have said that several months later they are wondering just what is going on. That is the question. This is one of those times when actions speak louder than words, and what would be better than to see the actions of people who are in a position to change things? That is why I am sincerely grateful that the hon. Member for Croydon North has brought the debate to Westminster Hall.
Most of us typically live and spend 90% of our time inside buildings of one sort or another, so our homes and buildings should first and foremost be designed for people and have the safety of residents at their heart. I am all for beauty and aesthetics, but as the good book so aptly puts it, man looks on the outward appearance but God looks at the heart. The outside might be the first thing that people see, but the important thing is what the structure is below the outer core, and we are here today to see what is happening down below.
The dangers of constructing substandard buildings were tragically demonstrated in Grenfell last year. The fact that the aesthetics that were put in place to pretty the building up made the danger much worse makes it clear that we must have stricter controls in place to ensure that the frame and design is not compromised or scrimped on for any reason. Although we understand that the aim of fitting exterior cladding was to increase the lifespan of the tower blocks and improve their thermal efficiency, it also provides a protective outer skin to protect them from the elements. However, the results of that have been horrendous—that is a fact—and we must find another way of elongating the lifespan of the building and better insulation.
Such cladding appears to have health ramifications, with numerous examples of residents experiencing the stress and anxiety of living in dangerous accommodation —some Members have referred to that—and facing the financial burden that that has the potential to impose on them. All those issues, aside from the cladding, need to be taken on board. A key recommendation by the all-party group for healthy homes and buildings—I look to the Minister for his response, please—was that the Government commit to making housing and building renovation a central infrastructure priority and develop plans for retrofitting the current housing stock that take a holistic approach to maximising health and wellbeing. Events such as those that took place on
In Northern Ireland, an independent report suggested that social housing, or local housing authorities as they are called here, must consider installing sprinkler systems in tower blocks. Again, I look to the Minister. The report concluded that the housing body’s four Belfast tower blocks that have cladding are safe and comply with regulations, but that there were some contraventions that hamper smoke extraction and ventilation. Automatic fire suppression systems such as sprinklers are mandatory for high-rise residential buildings in Scotland and Wales, but not in England and Northern Ireland. That must change. I look to Northern Ireland to make the changes as much as I look to England to make the same changes.
A terrible tragedy occurred, and I do not want to see anything similar on the shores of Northern Ireland. The report carried out by the University of Ulster on social housing also noted November’s blaze at the 14-storey Coolmoyne House in Dunmurry, outside Belfast, where four people were treated by paramedics, and indicates that communications with tower block residents must be improved. I look to the Minister to make sure that that happens.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on securing this important debate. Like him, I have in my constituency of Slough a residential building with aluminium cladding material. The building is called Nova House, a privately-owned seven-storey block of 68 flats in the town centre. Post the Grenfell horror, in the summer of 2017, that aluminium composite material cladding failed two of the tests conducted at the BRE on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government. In August last year, the Secretary of State wrote to all local authority chief executives about residential tower blocks with ACM cladding, telling them to take active steps and stating:
“If private sector building owners do not comply with your requests, I will look at what further action can be taken to support you in carrying out your responsibilities.”
To protect the safety of residents, Slough Borough Council has spent half a million pounds in making the building safe and funding a qualified and staffed fire vehicle at the building 24/7. The council’s work has avoided the need for the evacuation of the building. Further, Slough Borough Council developed an ambitious plan to take ownership of the block’s freeholding company, which will allow it to ensure the cladding is removed quickly and to carry out other critical safety work without delay.
Such a move by a local authority is without precedent, and I am sure the Minister will join me in commending Slough Borough Council for its commitment to the safety of constituents. The council has not hesitated to act. Now I want to see the support promised by the Secretary of State. That should include contributing towards the costs incurred in protecting the safety of residents, rather than those extraordinary costs falling on the local council tax payer.
What would have assisted the council is the disclosure of documents from the building control inspector. However, approved inspectors are not required to provide anyone other than their client with copies of approvals or the reasoning behind them. What happens where a client no longer exists? Such documents might never be made available. Information in those documents might be critical for safety. Local authorities and other agencies should surely have sight of everything they need to protect residents. Will the Minister therefore introduce measures to ensure that critical safety information in relation to privately owned buildings is shared with local authorities carrying out their responsibilities?
In the meantime, what support and advice will the Minister give to local authorities when they need to secure vital documents? Will the Department write to building control inspectors and stress the importance of liaising with local authorities? In addition to the cladding, survey work has established that there are other serious deficiencies outside Nova House, calling into question whether it met building regulations when it was converted.
The Minister knows that wider concerns about the current system of building control have been raised by the Local Government Association, which might be a hindrance to effective inspection. The LGA warned that pressure to lower costs can lower standards and lead to fewer, less rigorous inspections. Will the Minister now commit to a review of the system of approved inspectors for building control checks, including the control and supervision of them, as well as the quality of their work?
Finally, building and fire safety are crucial for public safety and go to the heart of the purpose of Government. An increase in the effectiveness and quality of inspection regimes is crucial. Again, I commend Slough Borough Council for its proactive and innovative stance. Now let us see the support promised by the Secretary of State.
I thank my hon. Friend Mr Reed for securing this important debate. I will be brief. Lots of people have said things that I agree with, so I will not repeat them.
The cladding situation is deeply concerning. Remediation work is very limited, and where it is occurring it is failing the tenants involved. The Grenfell Tower fire happened on
For all the sympathetic noises, the Government’s inaction is clear. The tragic fire at Grenfell has not pushed the Department into action. I find the pace of the Government’s action extremely questionable, as do other people. At the heart of the matter is the Government’s complete lack of direction. Ensuring the public’s safety would undermine their austerity project and be averse to their cuts in every other sector. I urge movement on this issue as it is their moral duty to demonstrate clear leadership and ensure the matter is resolved in the interests of tenants’ safety.
I went to Grenfell last June and laid flowers. I went on the silent vigil last month. The last thing that people see when they get to the end of the march is the tower —a truly shocking and haunting sight. For the sake of those who died in the fire and for the people left in the area who have to get up every morning and look at that tower, it is the Government’s duty to act now.
We all certainly felt the terrible tragedy at Grenfell. I remember waking up, watching the television and seeing the appalling conditions. I have not been to visit the tower, but I have seen it from a distance and it is an appalling sight. I certainly agree with Karen Lee about that.
Many Members have rightly spoken about local authority properties, but I want to raise the issue of leaseholders. In my constituency, just over two years ago, Premier House was converted from commercial to residential with 121 flats. We all know what it is like to raise the money for a mortgage and stamp duty, and in the first few months or years money is often quite tight, so I was shocked to find that at the beginning of January this year the people who had just moved into those properties were told that the service charge in the block had doubled from £2,200 a year to £4,200 a year because the cladding has to be removed, just two years after the property was converted.
In addition, the managing company is also hiring four fire marshals to patrol that building constantly. That is causing my constituents huge concern. Many are self-employed or have only just got a mortgage. Some are one-parent families and are struggling to keep up with their payments. A lot of them have formed an action group and want to take the matter to a first-tier tribunal. The problem is that, if the tribunal rules in favour of the freeholder, residents will be forced to pursue their solicitors and surveyors on the question of what the problem was with the building. Ultimately, if they refuse to pay the service charge or fall into any arrears, the freeholder can take the property back.
I sympathise with those in local authority housing, but those in the private sector, equally, face a difficult situation, which I want to bring to the Minister’s attention.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on bringing the debate to the House, and on all the work he has done in his constituency. His constituents are lucky to have him fighting their corner; I am sure they know that.
I will mention once again Stormzy’s intervention at this year’s Brit Awards, which secured headlines not just because of his profile, but because he articulated how the British people feel about many of the issues that have been discussed today and how, nine months on, as many hon. Members have said, many questions remain unanswered and the victims of Grenfell have not received justice.
I want to talk about a case study in the Borough of Camden in my constituency. It relates to the human experience at the heart of the cladding question and the enormous financial burden being placed on local authorities in dealing with the matter. Many hon. Members will know that Camden Council took the urgent decision to evacuate more than 3,000 people from the Chalcots estate following tests on cladding. The tragedy at Grenfell prompted the tests, but it was the London fire brigade that ordered immediate evacuations following an assessment. The evacuation was carried out throughout the night, and has caused serious distress to residents. The upheaval of decamping to a hotel for several weeks was difficult enough, but cladding removal during the bitter cold of winter was even more difficult. Many residents’ heating systems are not strong enough to heat their homes, now that they are so exposed.
I raise those experiences to underline the need for action on building regulations, but also to stress the trauma that my constituents on the estate have experienced owing to cladding replacement. They live with cold and with seemingly endless construction. Compensation is missing, and there is a 24-hour security presence months after buildings were declared fit for purpose. That is not a normal way to live, but it has been the reality facing nearly 3,000 of my constituents since July 2017. I am speaking on their behalf today.
Replacement is a protracted process. According to a recent Camden housing scrutiny report, the new cladding will not be fully fitted across the estates until August next year, so it is not hard to understand why councils are begging for the kind of political will that would confront contractors and create a clearer set of standards on fire safety practices.
Good financial management means that Camden has taken on the costs without cutting frontline services. I commend its decision to stop payments to the company that put up the flammable cladding on the Chalcots and endangered residents’ lives. Camden hopes to spend the millions of pounds saved from abandoning the previous contract on safer cladding. The operation has cost more than £50 million and breaks down as £12 million for evacuation and safety management, including fire marshals; £9 million on repairs, including emergency repairs and doors; £10 million on cladding removal; and £22 million on cladding replacement. However, as my local newspaper, the Camden New Journal, put it, the council should not have had to do that. Had the Government kept their promise after the inferno at Grenfell, the council would not have had to drain its reserves and foot the bill.
At the heart of the debate is the question of how we make our constituents feel safe in their own homes. Replacing combustible cladding is an obvious and immediate place to start, but so too is addressing the reduced resources of the emergency services and local authorities. In the days following the Grenfell disaster, many promises were made about rehousing vulnerable residents and recouping the cost of new cladding, but that has not been the experience in my constituency. It is possible that the promise made by the Government has been forgotten, but proactive campaigners, MPs and councillors will not let it drop.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour Mr Reed on his speech and on securing the debate. I welcome the contributions that have been made so far. Many thousands of residents face huge legal fees and potentially thousands of pounds of costs to remove ACM cladding from their buildings. Freeholders, developers and insurers will not take responsibility, nor will the Government. We are here today because the buck stops with the Government to sort the mess out.
In my constituency, there is a block of flats built nine years ago with ACM cladding. At least, we are as sure of that as we can be; residents were told that one set of cladding was ACM, and then that another set was ACM. They have been confused and let down from the start. The cladding needs to be replaced. There is a 24-hour waking watch, but residents are understandably nervous and of course anyone who wants to sell their flat clearly has no hope of doing that. The freeholder—Wallace Estates —has washed its hands of responsibility. The director told me in a letter that
“it is the case that the building is now deemed to be unsafe because of a belated recognition by those in authority that the standards governing building safety at the time of the development were inadequate” and that those with
“responsibility for setting the standards should be liable”.
The developers, Durkin, have also washed their hands. I wrote to them but have not received a reply. They rang my office—I am not sure, but perhaps they were being careful not to put anything in writing—and said they had not done anything wrong. The insurers, NHBC, are considering the claim, but it has been with them for months and nothing has been forthcoming.
The Minister, in a letter to me today, has also washed his hands of responsibility, saying:
“I am clear that the morally right thing for building owners to do is take responsibility for meeting the costs of remediation and interim safety measures”.
So my constituents, living in an unsafe block, are left to sit in it and pay the bill for the cladding removal and replacement. They have already been asked to pay thousands of pounds and have been told that they will face a bill for thousands more. They are having to club together to pay legal bills. They have all the tea and sympathy in the world from everybody, but they still have to pay. The system has failed, and when that happens it must be the responsibility of the Government to step in and provide clarity or resources, or both, to resolve the issue.
There are big policy questions: how can Government let the legal system take over when their own testing process has been shown to be insufficient? If leaseholders are found liable, are the Government really content that residents should be made homeless—something the LGA has warned about? What about desktop studies? They have already been mentioned, so I will not go into detail.
I want briefly to suggest some things that the Minister might this afternoon commit to doing. Will he meet my constituents to learn about the pressures they face? Will he start a proper dialogue with freeholders? I thank him for his response to my letter and his agreement to arrange a phone call with Wallace Estates. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North that the Government should take the lead, but if they feel that the moral responsibility sits with landlords, they have to act to ensure that action is taken on behalf of residents.
The Government should sit down with insurers to find out what is going on. There are many claims in play, and that is leading to months of uncertainty and legal wrangling, which does not help anyone.
The Government should look at ownership rules for property. As Sir Peter Bottomley said, there should be no more hiding behind offshore entities. One of the problems that we have had is working out who owns buildings and freeholds. There are shell companies and offshore companies that are impenetrable. Details cannot be obtained from the website. It is complicated to get through to them.
The Prime Minister yesterday addressed the issue of land banking, opening up the possibility that developers who sit on land might face restrictions in getting planning permissions. Will the Minister take a similar approach to developers, stopping planning permission being given to them if they sit on their hands and leave dangerous cladding in place?
The buck stops with the Government. If they believe that other people are responsible, they have to make sure action is taken. My constituents, who are the least able to pay and the least to blame, are in the firing line. The Minister must surely accept that that is not fair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed on securing this timely debate and on his wider efforts to co-ordinate Members who are concerned that the Government should step up and do more. Two hundred and sixty-four days have now passed since we watched flames engulf the Grenfell tower block in north Kensington, yet on private freehold developments across the country hundreds of thousands of residents still live with the knowledge that their homes are covered in lethal material. New Capital Quay, a vast 980-home development in my constituency, is one of hundreds of such cases, although it is perhaps the highest-profile.
Cladding on the site failed tests carried out by the Department in July last year, and eight months on that cladding and insulation remain in place with no timescale for their removal and replacement, and with an inadequate and expensive waking watch fire safety patrol still in place. Residents are left in limbo while the freeholder, Galliard Homes, and the National House Building Council tussle over whether there was a breach of building regulations at the time of construction, and about who is liable—this tussle might be settled out of court, but it might ultimately be resolved only through lengthy litigation.
Residents stuck in the middle of that messy squabble are terrified at the thought that their families are not safe, and leaseholders are anxious that they will be hit by the full costs of the work. At a public meeting last week, one elderly resident told me that she is resigned to the fact that she will not make it out of the building if there is a fire, even with the waking watch in place.
What has been the Government’s position throughout? It has amounted to little more than a muffled and infrequent plea to the private companies involved not to pass on costs to leaseholders. No attempt has been made to ensure that the dangerous cladding is removed as a matter of urgency. In many ways, however, that is no surprise because the Government are deeply compromised on fire safety. In 2013, they failed to act on recommendations made after the 2009 Lakanal House disaster, and they chose not to rewrite procedural guidance set out in Approved Document B. They did nothing to prevent the installation of combustible polyethylene ACM cladding of the type found on New Capital Quay.
Presumably on the basis of advice from the BRE Group, in 2006 the Government opened the door to combustible insulation material such as the K15 Kingspan insulation found on New Capital Quay. That was approved as compliant through testing, when previously it had been impossible to meet the guidance by that route.
The Building Control Alliance determined to introduce a new route to compliance through desktop studies, but as the market became increasingly competitive its members began to approve cladding without even the need for such a desktop study. It is hard to believe that the Government were not aware that that was taking place, yet they failed to amend Approved Document B to respond to it.
If one steps back from all the legal wrangling between private companies about cladding and insulation on private freehold developments, one notes the flawed nature of the building regulations regime, the inadequacy of procedural guidance within that regime, and the passive response of Government to the behaviour of the combustibles industry since 2014. That explains why dangerous, combustible cladding and insulation of the kind that surrounds the homes of my constituents were signed off as compliant.
Let me be clear: the fault does not lie only with Conservative Governments since 2010, because successive Governments have failed to ensure that the building regulation regime was fit for purpose. However, the Government have a duty to act—if not a legal duty, then certainly a moral one—and they can do so speedily in a way that will make a big difference to my constituents by issuing clear, prescriptive advice about the final date by which dangerous combustible cladding must be removed from developments such as New Capital Quay. That is the least my constituents, and others across the country in a similar situation, deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in this well attended and well informed debate. I am grateful to Mr Reed for securing it, and for his clear and detailed summary of the situation. The statistic that he mentioned of one fire every month is alarming, and it certainly focuses the mind.
It is essential that everyone has a safe, warm and affordable home, but following the tragedy at Grenfell last year, many uncertainties remain about how safe properties throughout the country actually are. Building and fire safety are critical components of public safety, not just in residential flats but in hotels, student accommodation and even hospitals—indeed, anywhere someone may be staying. It is concerning that so far only a fraction of that cladding known to be unsafe has been replaced throughout the country, and questions still remain about which materials are safe to use. The issue of flammable or combustible cladding must be clarified and, in my opinion, its use should be prohibited.
Further questions about who should pay—this is particularly an issue in privately owned blocks, where costs could be passed on to leaseholders—are alarming. That is not so much an issue in Scotland because the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2000 and the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004 effectively brought the last vestiges of leasehold to an end. However, the problem of owners being financially trapped in buildings affected by these issues does apply, and that has been further complicated by changes over the years to building regulations, and by responsible reconsiderations about the retrospective materials used. What may have been deemed acceptable in the past might not be now.
I represent a constituency that has no high-rise domestic buildings. Nevertheless, following the Grenfell tragedy there was considerable anxiety among many constituents living in lower level multi-story flatted accommodation. I am grateful to both local authorities in my area—Falkirk and West Lothian—for reviewing the fire safety arrangements after Grenfell, and for confirming that all council properties have appropriate fire safety arrangements in place, including both annual and five-yearly fire safety assessments. There are issues in other parts of Scotland. For example, Glasgow City Council has identified two buildings where PE ACM has been used.
Some Glasgow Harbour flats in my constituency have that ACM cladding. The residents have no recourse with builders or insurance companies, and they have to pay for fire wardens. They now face enormous bills for replacement of the cladding. With no one claiming responsibility, does my hon. Friend agree that residents should be receiving financial support for this remedial building work?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend—the issue of who pays has been raised yet again.
In Scotland, since 2005 building regulations have required all new build high-rise domestic buildings to be fitted with sprinklers. In January, Labour MSP David Stewart proposed a Member’s Bill that aims to make the installation of sprinklers mandatory for all new build social housing. The consultation document also considers the retrofit of sprinklers to social high-rise blocks. In September last year the BBC broadcast a programme that stated how out of 15 fatalities and 480 injuries in high-rise fires in Scotland since 2009, only one of those casualties occurred in a flat fitted with a sprinkler system. That is a significant statistic, although sprinklers are only one of a number of fire safety measures that may or may not be installed in any particular building.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has commissioned research into a targeted approach to fire safety, based on a detailed analysis of Scottish fire deaths and serious injuries between 2013 and 2016. That research will include a forensic assessment of whether residential sprinklers would have been effective in preventing death or injury. The outcomes of that research will help to inform future Scottish Government and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service policy, and to reduce fire deaths and injuries in the future.
This issue does not just affect residential buildings. The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital and the Royal Hospital for Children in Glasgow will have a small amount of cladding panels removed and replaced at a cost of £6 million. That work will be completed early next year, and the Scottish Government have committed to pay for it.
In conclusion, many issues of fire safety guidance have been raised from Members across the House. I was particularly interested in the point raised by Sir Peter Bottomley about the possibility of excluding VAT from remedial works. I would support such a measure, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and the fact that you managed to allow 19 people to contribute to this debate is significant. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Reed. He spoke only briefly today, but I know the assiduous work that he has put into this issue over a long time. His constituents should be proud of what he is trying to achieve. This has been a rightly challenging debate, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board. He is relatively new in office and has the capacity to begin to effect a change and recognise that this challenge is legitimate. This is not moral panic or outrage; this is a basic safety case that we must take on board.
Many years ago we had a major fire in Manchester—the Woolworths fire—and those of us of an older disposition, like myself, remember it well. People died and as a result the law was changed and polyurethane foam was banned for use in domestic furniture. We must be prepared to be radical if we are to make our safety case. My hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook made a point about fire marshals. It is good to see those marshals, but they cannot be a permanent solution—it is a short-term safety case. We must look towards the longer term, which is about ensuring that those buildings are safe from fire as far as is humanly possible. That will mean the removal of existing cladding where that is inappropriate, and its replacement with more suitable materials.
I want to begin by talking about the question of responsibility, which has engaged Members from all parts of the Chamber. It is important to say that leaseholders cannot seriously be expected to foot these enormous bills. I think it was my hon. Friend Sarah Jones who quoted from the Minister’s letter, which used words identical to those of the Secretary of State in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North. I say this kindly to the Minister, but it is not enough for him to write that
“I believe that the morally right thing is for the building owner to take responsibility for meeting the cost of remediation”.
The Minister is a lawyer, so he will know that moral rectitude will not stand up in court or pay the leaseholders’ bills. I am not sure whether this still applies, but in the early moments of the situation with Citiscape, the freeholder was saying to leaseholders that unless they were prepared individually and collectively to agree to pay for the remedial works, no remedial work would take place. That is not moral responsibility; that is an outrage. We collectively have to do something about it.
On this issue of moral and legal responsibility, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we can learn lessons from the private rented sector? It has taken legal measures to force landlords to bring properties up to basic safety standards, with fire alarms and improved insulation for energy-poor households. Does he agree that in this matter, moral responsibility will not work? Legislation from the Government is needed to sort the problem out.
I hope the Minister is listening, because that demand is coming from all parts of the House. At this level, the matter is not party political; we have a recognition that we need the Government to act as the Government. They are the only responsible agency that can begin to show the determination.
We cannot wait for the courts. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North said that the property managers had referred the Citiscape case to the first-tier tribunal, but as a lawyer the Minister knows that the matter could be with the courts not for weeks and months, but years—it could be years before we get resolution. We cannot wait for some sedentary legal process; we need action to determine where the responsibility lies.
I have great sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter made: that it is unreasonable for social landlords, whether they are local authorities or housing associations, to have to pick up the tab. That would mean we were saying to a subset of British society—tenants of a particular landlord—that they will pay for the cost of remediation, when the responsibility does not lie with the tenants or the social landlords any more than it lies with the leaseholders.
Importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, the responsibility comes back to failures of Governments of all descriptions. The reality is that the failure is recognisable here and now, and the responsibility has to be picked up here and now. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the matter is resolved. It is not about moral responsibility, but practical action that says to leaseholders, “You will not have to face bills of £40,000-plus.” That is what the amount is in some cases, and frankly people cannot afford that.
Has the Minister had any contact with the insurance industry? That is not about the responsibility for paying for the work that needs to be done, but about whether it will be prepared to insure buildings in the longer term. It would be significant if the insurance industry walked away from insuring buildings that we know have difficulties. We have to sort out the question of responsibility. In the end, that falls on the Government because of the past failure of the regulatory system.
We need to look at some of the wider issues that have emerged. This month the Peabody Trust found that one of the cladding materials it was using to replace the Grenfell tower cladding—Xtratherm—is no longer an acceptable material, as it is flammable. Peabody faces the bizarre situation of having to remove things that it used to replace what it had already removed. Who picks up the consequences of that? In the end, we have got to give people living in our tower blocks some certainty that their homes are safe, and that brings us to the question of how quickly we will see removal and replacement. Fire marshals are useful, but removal and replacement has to be part of where we move to.
Do we now have absolute accuracy about which materials are potentially affected? Do we have absolute accuracy about the number of tower blocks that may be affected across the country? That basic information will determine whether we can move forward. I may be wrong, but I am not certain that the Ministry has knowledge of all the private buildings out there that may be affected. That is a significant challenge. It means that people are living in blocks and do not know that they may be affected. Indeed, there may be private owners who do not know that their property is affected.
We have got to begin to go beyond the question of the building regulations and bringing them up to standard. A report said:
“Advice from the independent expert advisory panel set up to ensure buildings are safe and published by MHCLG in December 2017 tells building owners they can still rely on desktop assessments.”
It is not enough for the Ministry to say that to the world. Desktop assessments are only credible in this country; I understand that they would not be allowed anywhere else in Europe. Also, the building regulations are only advisory. We cannot have a situation where people can pick and choose which bits of the regulations they apply.
We have to move on to something that takes us away from the failures of the past. As some of my hon. Friends have said, we need transparency about what has happened to know what the technical specifications should be. We need to ensure that we do not have this conflict where the Building Research Establishment is taking money from its clients to be part of the testing process. We have got to ensure that the regulations are fit and proper for the future.
This has been an important debate. When we look to the longer term, the question of cost arises. A number of Members—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North raised this issue with the Secretary of State—have asked whether the cost could be removed from recladding. While there may be legal issues around European legislation, the Government can get around that by simply putting that 20% back into the pot where remedial work is taking place. Government can do that.
I come back to the point that my hon. Friend Luke Pollard made. When the Government can return hundreds of millions of pounds to the Exchequer, the money is there to do this kind of remedial work. We owe it not simply to those who died in Grenfell tower, but to all those living in tower blocks to say that the time has come for the Government to act. Only the Government can act. We look to the Minister to say now how they will act.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to Mr Reed for securing this debate and speaking powerfully about the situation his constituents find themselves in. I am very grateful for the contributions of Members from all parts of the House. I will try to address as many of them as possible in the limited time available.
Before I address squarely the issues facing residents in Croydon and people in other residential buildings we have heard about today that have rightly been raised, I want to give a little bit of wider context. The fire at Grenfell Tower was a terrible tragedy—a tragedy that should not happen in 21st-century London or anywhere in this country. The Government are committed to learning the lessons from Grenfell and ensuring that nothing like that can ever happen again. Like Karen Lee, I have been down there and seen the devastation. I have talked to residents of the Lancaster West estate. I am personally committed to learning the lessons.
Immediately after the fire, the Department set up a building safety programme with the aim of ensuring that all high-rise residential buildings are safe from the threat of fire and crucially, as Members have rightly said, that residents can feel safe and can rest assured in their homes. To support that, the Secretary of State appointed an expert panel to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to ensure the safety of residents of high-rise buildings. We have consistently relied on that expert advice, because the issue of public safety is central to what we need to achieve.
Through screening tests, we swiftly identified social housing blocks and public buildings with unsafe cladding. Working with the expert panel, the Government provided advice to building owners on the interim measures that they should put in place to ensure the safety of their residents. Of course, that depends on the individual property, as hon. Members have rightly said, but interim measures can include warden systems, measures to prevent the spread of fire to or from car parks, and all sorts of other things. All the affected social sector buildings that have been identified have those measures in place. We are confident that that addresses the immediate issue of safety for residents. I do not think that that should be elided or confused with the wider remediation efforts that, quite rightly, also need to take place. We can give that assurance to residents.
At the same time, we tested different combinations of cladding and insulation to see which met the building regulations guidance. We published consolidated advice last autumn confirming the results of those tests, with advice for building owners, as Andy Slaughter discussed. Since then, we have been working with building owners and the industry to support remediation work. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government have not provided clear guidance on the materials for remediation. Actually, the expert panel published advice on
We have been working with local authorities to help them identify private residential buildings with similar cladding, and to ensure that they, too, are made safe. At the same time, as hon. Members know, we have asked Dame Judith Hackitt to undertake an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, to ensure that buildings are safe in the future, in recognition of the clear flaws that have been discovered in relation to the previous system. We welcomed her interim report, which was published in December, and have committed to implementing all her recommendations.
The suggestion that we are sitting on our hands, that we have not looked at this matter soberly, properly and carefully, or that we are not taking action is quite wrong, as the action in relation to Dame Judith’s review illustrates. We look forward to the publication of the final report later in the spring. Obviously it is a detailed piece of work, which needs to be done carefully and properly.
The hon. Members for Croydon North and for Hammersmith asked about the role of desktop studies. We will consult on that shortly in response to the recommendations from the Hackitt review, so we are already taking some of the findings forward. The hon. Members for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) and for Croydon North mentioned the tragic Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009. Just for the record, and as a matter of balance in today’s debate, it is right to point out that the shadow Housing Minister, John Healey, refused extra funding for fire safety measures when he was the Housing Minister, because he did not deem them necessary. I am not saying that to score political points. [Interruption.] I am making the argument—
I am saying it for balance. Any hon. Member in the post of Minister would look at the matter carefully and responsibly, and take the expert advice. That is what the right hon. Gentleman did, and that is what we have done.
Let me turn to some of the specific points that have been raised today, starting with the identification of buildings with unsafe cladding. We believe that we have identified all affected social housing blocks and public buildings, and interim measures are in place as and where necessary, suitable to the individual buildings, as I have described. With regard to private sector buildings, the Government made the testing facility at the Building Research Establishment available free of charge. We continue to urge all building owners to submit samples for testing if they think that there is any reason to believe that they may be unsafe because of cladding.
In addition, the Secretary of State wrote to local authorities in August asking them to identify privately owned buildings with potentially unsafe cladding. It is their statutory responsibility to do so. The majority of local authorities recognised the urgency of that work, and provided relevant information. We are very grateful for all their hard work, and I pay tribute to Mr Dhesi, who talked about some of the good work that has been done by his local authority.
This is not a straightforward task. We have been in continual dialogue with local authorities ever since that point. The collaboration is close and constant, and it continues. In fact, an event is taking place a few hundred yards from here as we speak, bringing together the Ministry and its experts, local authorities, officials and the fire and rescue service to discuss best practice.
In response to the question asked by the hon. Members for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) and for Slough, just last week we announced a financial support package of £1 million to assist the most affected local authorities in identifying private high-rise buildings with potentially unsafe cladding. We are also looking at the statutory guidance and the statutory operating directions for local authorities in their relationship with those private sector building owners. Those measures will reinforce local authorities in carrying out that work. I assure hon. Members that as soon as we are notified of buildings with potentially unsafe cladding, we will work with the owners and the relevant fire and rescue service to ensure that those interim measures are put in place.
I will make a bit more progress, given the time available, and the need to allow the hon. Member for Croydon North a bit of time to wind up. Our No. 1 priority is the safety of residents, and the interim measures ensure that that is the case.
I want to address not just the points that the hon. Lady has made, but those made by all hon. Members in the debate.
The Government have been very clear that the remediation should be done as swiftly as possible, but it must be done properly—precisely because we are talking about the long-term public safety of residents. Let us be clear: the remediation of buildings with aluminium composite material cladding is a complex process. It involves major construction work that needs to be planned, consulted on, and carried out professionally and carefully.
Planning alone can take up to a year. It is not just a case of ripping down the cladding then deciding what to do next. I am encouraged that remediation is already under way in 58% of affected social housing buildings, and that seven have finished their remediation work already. Clearly, there is a long way to go, but that is significant progress. At least one or two hon. Members in today’s debate seemed to be blithe about the work that is under way, how difficult it is, and how important it is to do it properly.
Let me turn to the issue of funding.
I am not going to; I will address the direct questions asked by the hon. Member for Croydon North and others about funding. In the social sector, all the local authorities and housing associations that we have spoken to have indicated that they are choosing not to pass on the costs of essential remediation to individual flat owners within their buildings. We will also consider financial flexibilities for local authorities to fund essential fire safety works to buildings that they own. We have not yet declined a single request. We are taking this very seriously, and have engaged in protracted dialogue with those people who have come to us.
In the private sector, of course, the allocation of responsibility depends on the terms of the leasehold arrangements, as qualified by general law. The determination of the legal position will obviously need to be settled ultimately by a court. Proceedings are under way in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North, as I am sure he knows. I took the point that my hon. Friend Dr Offord made: that it cannot be right for a Minister to pre-empt or prejudge the legal determination of a relationship, where it is not only spelled out in the leasehold arrangement, but qualified by general law.
In some cases, the costs fall, in practice, to landlords or building owners; it may be clearer in some leases than in others. Where the costs do not fall to landlords or building owners as a matter of strict law, we continue to urge those with responsibility to follow the lead of the social sector. We urge those private companies to do the right thing, and not to attempt to pass the costs on to residents. They can meet some of those costs—hon. Members asked about this—through alternative routes such as insurance claims, warranties or legal action. It is rightly for them to pursue those avenues. They have the financial means, the relationship—legal or otherwise—and the wherewithal to do so. The Secretary of State and I have been clear about that in direct conversations, including with those who own the property in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North. Where building owners are seeking to pass on remediation costs to leaseholders, it is important that leaseholders are able to get specialist advice. The Government have provided free legal advice and support through a range of measures, including the Leasehold Advisory Service, or LEASE—a free and tailored service.
In the time available, I hope that I have illustrated not just the complexity of the challenge that we face across the private and social sectors, but the Government’s concerted effort to deal with the immediate issue of public safety and to ensure that the allocation of responsibility sits in the right place, which in our view is with the building owners.
I am grateful to everybody who has taken part in today’s debate and provided such powerful testimony from across the country. The Minister seems to be heavily relying on the expert panel that he mentioned, but that panel is chaired by the man who signed off the kind of cladding on Grenfell as safe—I have the document that shows it here, and will give it to the Minister afterwards. I wonder whether he should question a little more, rather than just listen to the advice that he is receiving.
The industry is still very confused about what it needs to do when this kind of cladding is found on buildings. The Department needs to issue clearer advice. Finally, we bailed out the banks when they broke the banking system. Why can we not bail out leaseholders, who are innocent victims of the Government’s failed, flawed fire safety regime?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered cladding and remedial fire safety work.