Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Members should send their speaking notes by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly, officials should communicate electronically with Ministers.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered reducing fire risk in high rise social housing.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairship, Ms Rees, and to speak about the subject at last, because I have been trying to obtain this debate for some time. It is a shame it clashes with the Building Safety Bill evidence session, but that shows how important these issues are to the House, and they will remain so for a considerable time.
The human tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire was apparent from the morning of
Much focus has rightly been on the priorities for action, such as the removal of flammable cladding from the exterior of tall buildings and who will pay for the huge remedial costs, in particular whether the costs should fall on leaseholders given they had no knowledge of the risks they were taking on and do not have the means to meet bills that, in some cases, are higher than the price they paid for their homes. Members may wish to raise these issues and others today, but my purpose in requesting the debate was to highlight two aspects of the crisis exposed by Grenfell that have not received sufficient attention. It is not by coincidence that they both relate to social housing.
Anyone who watched Daniel Hewitt’s distressing documentary, “Surviving Squalor: Britain’s Housing Shame”, on ITV on Sunday night and saw some of the conditions social housing tenants are living in in 2021 would have been sickened by how far the sector has fallen from its post-war pride and ambition. I am sure every Member present has horror stories of neglect, under-investment and poor service to relate, but Grenfell has exposed how the failure of some Governments to invest and of some landlords to show a duty of care has become a threat not only to the quality of life of millions of tenants and leaseholders, but to life itself.
In the second part of my speech, I want to deal with the causes of fire in social housing, especially electrical fires, and why more is not being done to prevent them. First, I want to comment on the consequences for social housing landlords and tenants of the costs of undertaking fire safety works. This morning, Inside Housing—all of us, particularly the Government, should be grateful for its investigative work throughout this crisis—published a story that One Housing, one of the G15’s supersized housing associations, recorded a deficit of £25 million for the last financial year. In the same year, it spent £27.3 million on fire safety work to its stock.
Over the next five years, One Housing expects to spend £200 million on such works. Clarion, another of the G15, estimates it will spend £150 million in the next four years, and in total the 12 biggest housing associations will spend an estimated £3 billion over the next decade. Yes, that is right: 12 housing associations will spend £3 billion when the Government’s total building safety fund stands at £5 billion, and the National Housing Federation says the total bill for the sector will be £10 billion. Clarion told me that it expects to receive £5.4 million from the BSF of the £150 million it will spend. That shortfall is significant, not only for the association as a housebuilder and landlord, as we shall see, but for its leaseholders. Like most associations, it will try every other source of revenue, including builders, developers and the BSF. If all else fails, it will bill the leaseholders. Tenants lack even that mitigation; there is no BSF for them. The majority of the costs social landlords must bear will come from their existing income streams—mainly rents—or from diverting funds from other services, from repairs to new developments. Expect more Daniel Hewitt documentaries in the years ahead.
I contacted the main social landlords operating in my constituency that are tackling significant remedial works with a series of questions, including how much they were spending on remediation. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham said it will apply to the BSF but
“the remainder is from the Housing Revenue Account.”
To its credit, it added that
“leaseholders are not being charged”.
Catalyst says that
“overall, we expect to invest over £109m remediating our high-rise portfolio”.
It has secured £22 million from the BSF, but will charge leaseholders where grants are not available. Shepherds Bush Housing says that
“the total cost of our building safety programme is estimated to be over £40m”.
For buildings under 18 metres, or where grant is not forthcoming, it is concerned that it may have to pass on costs to leaseholders. Notting Hill Genesis estimates a bill of £41 million for the last financial year, and will pass on costs where third-party funding is not forthcoming.
Almost every landlord said the unrecovered costs of fire safety works will impact significantly on core functions and other duties. That means fewer, slower repairs and fewer staff to manage properties and to liaise with residents. Members who already have a full inbox of housing casework will groan, as will tenants and leaseholders, at the prospect of a continued rapid decline in the resources and services available.
The most shocking effect will be on development programmes and new home building. Shelter estimates the need for 90,000 new social homes a year. Last year, 6,000 were built. Earlier this year, the Financial Times carried a report based on evidence from Clarion, Peabody, Network Homes and the L&Q group—four of the biggest landlords—that the number of affordable homes built over the next five years would fall by 40% as a direct consequence of fire safety works. Small and medium-sized associations have even less room for manoeuvre. Shepherds Bush Housing estimates a 50% cut in the development budget and less planned maintenance spend.
My hon. Friend is quite right to focus on the implications of these costs and how they will affect the repairs and development programmes. Does he also recognise an additional issue that the Government have not addressed over a number of years? Local authority housing contains a high proportion of leaseholders within that stock. Even where a local authority wishes to carry out fire safety works, as was the case in mine, the fact that there is no clarity about the right to go into leasehold properties and to require leaseholders to have the works done means that it does not even get the fire safety works carried out, and many tenants are left at risk as a consequence.
As always, my hon. Friend is on top of her brief. That is a very important point that the Minister and shadow Minister may wish to address. Many people who looked at the Building Safety Bill think that the provisions for access are inadequate or overly bureaucratic, and simply will not work. We have already seen that happen with the problems that Wandsworth Council has had with retrofitting of sprinklers, where there is resistance from leaseholders. There has to be a way, as with gas safety and so on, of ensuring that where the safety of the occupants of a block as a whole is at risk, it is possible to carry out works in a comprehensive way.
I want to make a point about mental health and the impact of the cladding scandal. I would like to read something from one of my constituents who lives in a dangerously clad building:
“When I look outside my window, I see Grenfell Tower on the horizon. I have lived in this area for years and what happened on that night pains me very much to this day...And now to think that I, like them, live in an unsafe building and that I face an unknown but certainly very high bill to fix it gives me great anxiety.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a hell that no one should go through?
That is absolutely right. It is a triple whammy. There is the fear of living in an unsafe building with one’s life potentially at risk; there are the huge, unaffordable costs I have already mentioned; and there is the extra feeling of being trapped because one’s property may have a nil value, so it is impossible to move on with one’s life, start a family and so on. It is difficult to imagine a previous crisis with such an impact on so many people, and frankly that is why the Government’s response so far has been inadequate.
As usual, my hon. Friend is making some excellent points, and I totally concur with the comments made by my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq about the mental health impact—I have heard similar things from my own constituents. In that regard, I praise the work done by Cardiff Council, particularly Councillor Lynda Thorne, in responding very quickly to the crisis in the council-owned blocks by taking action and carrying out the additional tests necessary to identify the problem; I also praise the Welsh Government for making £10.5 million available for social housing, which has benefited 12 blocks, including some in my constituency. But the problem remains, in that the Welsh Government still do not have clarity from the UK Government on the available funding for consequentials. As a result, they are unable to move forward with the wider building safety and fire safety funds that would operate for other social clients and those in the private sector affected by the same mental health difficulties as those social clients.
That is another excellent point. I realise I am being quite critical of social landlords. We have to be, because sometimes they fall down on their duty quite spectacularly, as the documentary showed. However, I am glad that my hon. Friend has reminded us that most social landlords—councils and housing associations—are trying their best for their tenants and leaseholders, some of whom are very poor or have particular vulnerabilities. Whoever their tenants are, those landlords can only work with the tools at their disposal. The systematic cut in the housing subsidy over the last 10 years and the additional pressures that will continue, not just from fire safety, but from retrofitting in relation to carbon reduction, mean that we are often asking them to do the impossible—you cannot get a quart into a pint pot.
It is very easy for the Government to pass the buck, and that is exactly what the Housing Secretary did in the Hewitt documentary. “Nothing to do with me, guv”, he said, when asked about the fact that he, or his Government, had cut the budget of local authorities by 40% over the past 10 years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the sources of anxiety that others have referred to inevitably lead to mental health problems? And does he agree that it is time to bring this to an end by introducing a scheme to address all of the concerns people have as comprehensively as possible?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We are talking about very large sums of public money, but we are also talking about both a moral duty and resolving a practical problem, which we seem to be very bad at in this country; look at the contaminated blood scandal, and how it took decades for the inquiry to take place and, hopefully, to reach an outcome. The Grenfell inquiry is under way. I hope that the Government will accept its recommendations and that they will provide a full response not only to that individual tragedy, but to the problems we are talking about today. However, there is a lot that the Government can do in the meantime. The Building Safety Bill is supposed to be a major tool in that respect, yet there are major gaps in it.
I said I would have very few questions for the Minister. The deal is that he answers them, but we will wait and see what happens. I have just one question in closing the first part of my speech. What will the Government do to prevent the effective collapse of the social housing sector as a provider of new homes? That is what we are looking at over the next five to 10 years if the full costs, apart from the small amounts that are payable from the current building safety fund, fall on to social landlords, tenants and leaseholders.
Electrical safety is an issue that has particularly concerned me for some years. Grenfell Tower, Lakanal House, Shirley Towers and Shepherd’s Court—the last in my constituency—were among the worst fires in high-rise buildings in the past 12 years. All were social housing, and the first three led to the deaths of residents or firefighters. They had something else in common: they were all caused by electrical appliances—a fridge freezer, a television, a light fitting and a tumble-dryer. That should not be a surprise. Each year in England, 54% of all household fires are caused by an electrical source of ignition. This is not unique to social housing. Private sector rental property also has a poor history of providing and maintaining safe electrical items. Fires in the home can be fatal for the people who live there, but they can quickly turn into a catastrophe when they happen in high-rise blocks.
Increasingly, hard-pressed families across the UK rely on cheap or second-hand electrical items in their homes. They seek out deals for electrical goods online. Retailers such as Amazon, eBay and Wish host independent sellers, some of which have been found to be selling fake or faulty electrical goods. Just as Grenfell exposed the poor standards of building regulation and inspection, events such as the recall of more than 5 million Whirlpool tumble-dryers have shown that consumer safety in this country is in a parlous state.
With trading standards services cut to the bone and almost no national co-ordination, in 2018, mainly as a result of the Whirlpool fiasco, the Government set up the Office for Product Safety and Standards. However, that body has a budget of only £14 million a year. In the words of the recent National Audit Office report,
“There are gaps in regulators’ powers over products sold online, local and national regulation is not well coordinated despite improvements, and the OPSS does not yet have adequate data and intelligence…Until it establishes a clear vision and plan for how to overcome the challenges facing product safety regulation and the tools and data needed to facilitate this, it will not be able to ensure the regime is sustainable and effective at protecting consumers from harm.”
That simply is not good enough. Consumers are put at risk at every point by unsafe electrical goods, and less well-off people suffer the most as they rely on cheaper models and second-hand or reconditioned equipment.
The Shepherd’s Court fire on Shepherd’s Bush Green on
Private tenants are protected by a legal requirement that landlords ensure all electrical items are tested for safety every five years, but social tenants are not. That needs to change. Given what I said earlier, I am not advocating inflicting additional costs on social landlords. I know from its brief for this debate that the Local Government Association is concerned about that, and thinks that the onus should lie on manufacturers. I do not disagree with that—if we manufactured safer products, we would not have so many failing inspections and so many recalls—but in the absence of that happening, the Government must support social housing providers to carry out these essential tests. They must make that a legal requirement and recognise the costs involved.
I am pleased to say that there are some positive signs here. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee recommended five-yearly checks in its prelegislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill, and the Government’s social housing White Paper last November conceded that,
“Safety measures in the social sector should be in line with the legal protections afforded to private sector tenants.”
That is all we asked, but the Government did not accept amendments to the Fire Safety Act 2021 on those lines when I proposed them in Committee. Undaunted, I introduced a presentation Bill earlier this summer—the High-rise Properties (Electrical Safety) Bill—and no doubt we will try again in the Building Safety Bill. When I say “we”, I mean in particular Electrical Safety First, which has led on this issue, but I should add my thanks more generally to the London Fire Brigade, Which?, Leigh Day Solicitors, and the all-party parliamentary groups on fire safety and rescue and on online and home electrical safety, which have also been active and vocal on many of these issues.
All I ask from the Minister today is an indication of the Government’s intent, or otherwise, on introducing electrical checks in social housing to prevent future Shepherd’s Courts or, indeed, future Grenfells.
Much more could be said about the type of modifications needed for social homes that go beyond cladding. Many tower blocks were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Social housing providers recognise that those homes must be brought up to current standards, but they need support to do that. Fire doors need to be replaced, sprinklers installed, windows inspected, fire alarm systems updated and new evacuation routes for disabled people established.
It is also important to think about the people who live in social homes across the UK. Due to the stability that social housing can provide, along with affordable rents and adaptable properties, elderly and disabled people make up a large proportion of social tenants. Evacuating a burning building is difficult enough, but for tenants across the UK who are elderly or disabled, it can become impossible.
Much social housing is overcrowded, especially in London, which is also the location of 55% of buildings over 11 metres in height. Where someone lives and who their landlord is should not be risk factors when it comes to fire safety. If the Government do not increase the building safety fund to include funding for all necessary remediations, including to social housing, the cost of such remediations will primarily fall on leaseholders and tenants, and social housing providers will be forced to use money that would have been ring-fenced for the building of new social homes.
At a time when the housing crisis is growing, it is scary to think that some of our biggest providers of social housing may not be able to afford to build homes in the future. It is clear, therefore, that the issue of fire safety in social housing is not an isolated one; it will have far-reaching consequences if we do not get this matter right.
On behalf of the tenants and leaseholders of Factory Quarter, Sharp House, Ainsworth Court, Oaklands Court, Invermead Close, Fraser Court, Kelway House, Sulgrave Gardens and many other blocks in my own constituency and many, many more around the country, I ask the Minister, and indeed the Government as a whole because this issue goes across several Departments, to ensure that we are at least moving in the right direction—that is to say, to ensure that social housing provides good quality, affordable and safe housing for people across the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I congratulate Andy Slaughter on securing this debate.
In my constituency in 2019, we experienced a terrible fire at the Beechmere retirement complex, which destroyed the building and left more than 150 people without their homes and with their belongings ruined. I pay tribute to Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service for its work in tackling the blaze and to the local residents who stepped in to help evacuate people. We still do not know the cause of the fire and I regularly meet Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service to push it to conclude its investigation, but I also understand why it wants to take the time to make sure that if anybody needs to be held to account, they are.
Although the debates about fire safety have rightly focused on high-rise buildings and cladding, we must not miss opportunities to improve fire safety more widely, and I will focus on two things today: the use of timber in buildings and going further with building safety in certain types of building.
The use of timber in buildings has increased enormously in popularity in recent decades, because it is seen as being more eco-friendly than other materials, and certainly there will be social housing developments that are made from timber-framed buildings. The building that burnt down in my constituency—the Beechmere retirement complex—was a timber-frame building and what happened seemed to reflect what has happened in many other fires in similar buildings made of timber.
There is a wealth of long-standing concerns about the use of timber, and not just in relation to external frames. In 2002, the newly built Yarl’s Wood prison was half burnt to the ground after a small fire started by rioters spread out of control. In their submission to the inquiry into the fire, representatives of Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service made it clear that they thought the timber-framed nature of the building made the fire difficult to control. That same inquiry found that the decision not to install sprinklers at Yarl’s Wood was wrong, specifically because of the wooden frame.
Blazes in Croydon and Peckham in 2007 and 2009 caused severe damage to blocks of flats with wooden frames. In 2010, a London Assembly report recommended tighter regulations on timber-framed buildings. A 2012 Department for Communities and Local Government review identified clearly that fires in timber-framed buildings result in more fire damage, and an insurance industry review claimed that fires were more likely to occur in such buildings.
In 2014, the Health and Safety Executive released an open letter to everyone involved in timber-framed construction after a spate of fires, including at the University of Nottingham, where a £20-million laboratory burned down mid-construction. The HSE is clear that fire risk for timber-framed buildings is particularly high during construction and during any post-construction work.
Where are we now? When it was built in 2008, the Beechmere retirement complex held the record for the largest timber-framed construction in Europe. This country now holds the record for the world’s largest timber-framed building: a 10-storey, 121-unit development in Hackney. There are particular concerns about how post-completion works and modifications in timber buildings can easily destroy fire safety measures. We must ensure that that risk is properly managed.
I urge the Government to go further by mandating additional safety measures for timber buildings, beyond those that apply just to buildings of a certain height and to buildings with timber in external walls: a wider use of sprinklers, extra precautions at even lower heights, more prescriptive measures for safety checks after any work is carried out on a building, and any further measures that we should be taking.
We have to think more carefully about restrictions based on building use. It is proportionate to make specific mandated additional requirements for buildings such as schools, care homes and social housing complexes that house vulnerable people, when we know that people will struggle to evacuate. One such requirement would be for sprinklers. I and my colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue have highlighted that automatic fire sprinklers are compulsory in new care homes in Wales and Scotland but not in England, and the same is true of schools.
Research conducted by the National Fire Chiefs Council found that, in almost 1,000 fires over five years in buildings where sprinklers were fitted, the sprinklers controlled or extinguished blazes in 99% of cases. When it comes to schools, it is not just about the loss of life; it is about the loss of time in a classroom that occurs when fire damage means that repairs have to be made or new facilities installed.
Finally, I would like to make a brief point about the work of the APPG. It has advised me that the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 states that the premises’ risk assessment should adapt to technical progress and reduce the overall risk within buildings. However, we have much simpler non-worsening conditions under regulation 4(3) of the Buildings Regulations 2010, which states that, when the work is complete, it should be
“no more unsatisfactory in relation to that requirement than before the work was carried out.”
Those two measures are contradictory. I am of the opinion that the Building Safety Bill and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 need to be harmonised, so that the principle of risk assessment adaptation over time is incorporated.
I know that the Secretary of State wants a dynamic, responsive system that is not overly prescriptive. However, at this stage, when we cannot yet know what the new regime is going to deliver in terms of better decision making on a building-by-building basis, we should be more cautious and risk averse. We should have an approach that mandates specific measures, such as sprinklers, for certain building types and additional measures for certain building materials, such as timber, regardless of building height. High-rise social housing is one area where that can apply, but there are many others. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter for securing this important debate on fire safety in social housing—a vital but often overlooked element of the building safety crisis.
It is hard to know where to start my reflections this afternoon, other than with the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. The images of the fire are seared into our national consciousness, and they serve as a painful reminder of the decades of negligence towards social housing in this country. My thoughts are with all those who lost their lives.
As somebody who grew up on a council estate in Brixton, I know how important it is that safe and good quality accommodation is considered a basic human right. Yet for years, too many social housing residents have been expected to live in substandard housing and buildings that fall into gradual disrepair, while their pleas for improvements go unheard. The fire at Grenfell, in which 72 people lost their lives, was a direct result of callous inaction. That must never be allowed to happen again, yet more than four years on, I still fear that it could.
My constituency of Vauxhall is one of the most densely populated in the country. It has many similar high-rise tower blocks with social tenants. Just since being elected in 2019, I have been approached by residents in over 32 separate developments who have been told that their block poses a fire risk. The scale of this fire safety crisis remains enormous. With every passing week, more and more people are plagued with the uncertainty of finding out that their home is potentially unsafe. Imagine having to live in a home like that. However, the Government’s refusal to take control of identifying unsafe buildings means that we still do not know how many there are in this country, or where they are.
The current building safety crisis, which goes far beyond the cladding system, is a consequence of decades of regulatory failure under Governments of different political compositions. Figures from Electrical Safety First highlight that electricity caused 14,000 house fires in England alone, accounting for more than half of all accidental dwelling fires. Every year, thousands of people are injured in their homes due to electrical accidents or incidents, which, in some tragic incidents, mean that people lose their lives. The Building Safety Bill is a welcome opportunity for the Government to strengthen electricity safety protections for social tenants in high-rise buildings.
I hope that the Minister will agree that, in order to reduce the risk of fires in high-rise residential buildings, it is essential for all those properties to undertake mandatory electrical safety checks. Currently, private tenants in high-rise buildings benefit from this check, whereas social tenants do not receive the same legal protections. That is a scandal. Electrical safety requirements should not be based on someone’s tenure.
The LGA has been calling for councils and the fire service to be given effective powers, with meaningful sanctions, to ensure that all residents are safe, including those in social housing. The first duty of any Government is to keep their citizens safe. I therefore urge Ministers to lay out a plan to ensure that, as a national priority, every potentially dangerous building is identified and fixed. We are the sixth-richest nation on Earth, and there can be no more excuses. We cannot sit by as people continue to live in unsafe buildings. We must end the scourge of unsafe housing once and for all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I commend Andy Slaughter for securing this especially important debate.
Like many others, I want to briefly reflect on Grenfell Tower. My partner has recounted to me, very emotionally, the impact that the fire had on her, on her colleagues and on the pupils who she taught at a nearby secondary school. I want to put on record a declaration of interest because of personal friendships that I have with David Benson, the principal of Kensington Aldridge Academy, which is at the foot of Grenfell Tower, and with Adam Whitlock, its head of sixth form.
Fire safety in high-rise buildings is also incredibly important in places such as Stoke-on-Trent. We have 18,000 properties on the council books, of which 3,200 are apartments. I am very lucky in Stoke-on-Trent to have a council led by Councillor Abi Brown and one of the very best fire services in the country—Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service, led by our fantastic chief fire officer, Becci Bryant—due to their forward thinking and dynamic work. Staffordshire fire service and Stoke-on-Trent City Council have been working hand-in-glove to retrofit sprinklers in all the high-rise blocks of flats managed by Unitas, the council’s housing company. I was delighted to host a delegation of MPs from the all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group in Stoke-on-Trent just last week, to show them what they have been working on.
It all kicked off in 2016, when Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service launched its community sprinkler project. Its end goal is to see sprinklers fitted in all five-storey blocks of flats across Staffordshire. Working with councils, social housing providers and charities that provide accommodation, such as the YMCA, the project has been going full steam ahead: 15 high-rise blocks have been retrofitted so far across Staffordshire, with a commitment to install sprinklers in a further 16 buildings.
That is great progress when we consider that in 2017, only one high-rise block had been retrofitted with sprinklers. Obviously, the impact of the tragedy we saw at Grenfell Tower, which, as Florence Eshalomi said, is burned into all our memories across the country, meant that charities and other partners came forward to push ahead with the scheme.
In the Potteries so far, seven of the high-rise buildings that Unitas manages have had sprinklers retrofitted, and the council has committed to installing sprinklers in the other 11 high-rise properties that it manages. I am pleased to say that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is already looking ahead to the medium and low-rise blocks of flats across its area. Encouragingly, because some of the groups that Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service has been working with own properties around the country, such as the housing association Bromford, the best practice adopted in Staffordshire is being copied elsewhere and enhanced fire safety is being spread around the United Kingdom.
Of course, fire safety is not just about sprinklers, but they are an effective and low-cost option. I understand from Becci that on average it costs £3,000 to £5,000 per flat to retrofit a sprinkler, and research done by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the National Fire Sprinkler Network also showed that they are incredibly effective. In 99% of cases, they were able to control or extinguish fires.
Sprinklers save lives. People are only half as likely to be injured in a dwelling fire where sprinklers are present, and sprinklers greatly reduce the chance of serious injury, with the data showing that people are 22% less likely to require hospital treatment if they are in a fire that is controlled by a sprinkler system.
The case for getting sprinklers installed could not be clearer. I urge councils and fire services around the country to follow what Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service and Unitas have been doing in Stoke-on-Trent.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate Andy Slaughter on securing this important debate. I know the amount of work he has done in this area, as well as on electrical and white goods safety.
When we speak about the Building Safety Bill, we often focus on ensuring that no unfair costs are passed on to leaseholders. I am grateful that this debate shifts the spotlight back on to residents in social housing, such as those in Grenfell Tower whose tragic loss of life is the reason we are debating this matter today.
Like many of us, last week I watched the Channel 4 documentary “Grenfell: The Untold Story”, and found myself struck by how preventable the tragedy was. To see it unfold, immortalised by film, as residents’ concerns were waved away was heartbreaking with the benefit of hindsight. One resident tells us that we cannot describe what happened as an accident, and he could not have been more right. Sheila, who lived on the 16th floor of the tower and sadly perished in the fire, had confronted the tenant management organisation, telling them she was so exhausted from fighting with them that she had collapsed in the hallway.
Sheila’s words truly struck home with me when she said:
“Whoever runs this place, you never see them;
they become faceless. But never ever once have you heard them mention a human being who lives there. It’s all about the building.”
How could we have ever allowed anyone to feel that pieces of brick and mortar were valued more than the human lives within them? Grenfell showed us that these tower blocks are more than just a collection of people living nearby each other. They are communities: neighbours who know each other and look out for one another, who have built meaningful friendships and who care deeply for those friendships.
Most overwhelmingly, there was a clear feeling that this had happened because the tenants lived in social housing. They were unseen, less important, less valuable because of their tenancy arrangements. Social housing is a great privilege in the UK, and who is anyone to judge a life based on their home?
It is undeniable that Grenfell happened because corners were cut to keep costs down. How do you put a monetary value on a human life? But Rydon did just that when it chose the cladding by Celotex, which as we now know was on the market as a result of a fraudulent fire safety test. I would like to know what steps the Government are taking to ensure that future tests of products can never be bypassed or rigged.
The documentary tells us that Rydon was saving about £375,000. If we break that down by the 72 lives lost, we arrive at a little over £5,000. Rydon valued those people’s lives at £5,000. Even worse, we now know that the actual saving was much higher and Rydon intended to pocket the rest. It is the most horrific case of profit before people.
Grenfell was a case of failure after failure—a failure to ensure that safe materials were used, a failure to ensure that the building was properly compartmentalised and a failure to put the residents at the heart of the project. What is imperative now is that the lessons are learned and absorbed into the consciousness of every person with fire safety responsibilities, be that architects, builders, construction product manufacturers, developers—anyone with a part in building and refurbishing these homes. It is important that the Government fund the removal of cladding on all high-risk buildings. Crucially, that funding must be provided to social housing landlords. Not doing so risks unfairly pushing the cost of remediation on to social tenants or, worse still, it could take so long for remediation to happen that we see another tragedy. Regardless of what the monetary cost might be, it will never be as high as the value of the people living in these high-rise blocks to their families, friends and neighbours.
May I say what a real pleasure it is to serve under you in the Chair today, Ms Rees? I also thank my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter for a genuinely excellent speech, both in its range and its detail. I do hope that the Minister—I say this kindly to him—will dwell on every word, even if he cannot respond to every word today.
I want first to pick up on the important point that my hon. Friend made about the impact of this new generation of costs on social landlords and, indeed, on landlords more generally, because these extra costs were unanticipated. Whether rightly or wrongly, they were unanticipated; they are not built into any cost programme. And certainly at the margins they would make a material difference in terms of the capacity for social landlords to make a decision, as is the case at the moment with tower blocks in my constituency, between demolition, which the social landlord would like, and retention and improvement, which the tenants of those tower blocks would want. If the extra cost is of such a nature that it causes these things to tick over, it is the wrong kind of financial matrix for housing policy. Equally, my hon. Friend is right when he says that if now we see huge tranches of money having to be devoted to remediation and that then is at the cost of improvement and new build, we simply exacerbate what is already a housing crisis in my constituency and across the country.
I shall take a couple of moments to discuss the Seven Sisters tower blocks in Rochdale. Sometime in the early part of last year the housing association discovered, because it was able to do work or investigation not previously available to it, that unlike Grenfell and equivalent types of cladding, there was a problem in the nature of work that had been done, probably in the late 1990s, that meant that any fire in any individual flat risked spreading to flats on the same floor. That kind of risk was, again, unanticipated, but it is qualitatively different from the situation at Grenfell and other places.
I have a very specific question for the Minister. Is any information available about the range of such challenges to our housing stock? Do we have that analysis—that national picture? I ask because of course that must inform any debate about what is available in terms of funding the remediation work necessary. Equally, because this is qualitatively different, as we look at remediation for cladding solutions—and, post Grenfell, we must look at that—will that also cover problems of the type that arose in Rochdale with the Seven Sisters? Again, that is different; nevertheless, the work is equally vital, if we are to ensure that tenants and residents feel safe in their homes.
When that was discovered, the social landlord quite rightly introduced a waking watch scheme, in negotiation with the fire and rescue service in Greater Manchester. That is a system whereby people tour the estate to ensure an evacuation if a fire is identified, and to enable the fire and rescue service to take the necessary action. That did happen: a fire broke out in the tower blocks, sometime after 2 o’clock one morning. The fire service was there within four minutes of being informed by the waking watch, which is excellent. The system worked, leading to the evacuation of a small number of tenants, and it put people’s safety first, which is the right and proper way.
Since then, the social landlord has installed an alarm system in every flat, which again is the right way forward. However, in the end, this is about evacuation in the event of fire rather than prevention of fire. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and others about the need to maintain or improve electrical standards. Certainly, the operation of sprinklers is one demand that people would inevitably have, but fires will take place. My own mother, rather sadly, caused her own house to catch fire. She was a heavy smoker, she dropped her cigarette, and the result was a house fire—in her case, not with the kind of results that we would fear. Nevertheless, that kind of action will take place in the future. We cannot guarantee that we can stop fires; we have to make sure, though, that the homes that our residents live in are safe, because safety is paramount.
My final question to the Minister is simply this. Four years on from Grenfell, what progress can we expect in the coming months that will make a material difference, so that the residents in my tower blocks and those up and down the country can see their homes as a place of safety? That is what they expect, it is what I expect for them, and it is what every Member of this House should believe is right and proper.
May I say what a real pleasure it is to serve for the first time under your chairpersonship, Ms Rees? I congratulate Andy Slaughter on securing this important debate, on his usual thoughtful and thorough contribution, and on raising the real concerns of his constituents with his usual passion and commitment.
Before I say a bit more about what the hon. Member had to say, I would like to start by paying my respects to all the victims and bereaved of the Grenfell fire, and also paying tribute to the doughty campaigners for justice that have grown up from that bereaved community. I was very moved by the various contributions by hon. Members about the impact on mental health of living in substandard social housing. It is something that most of us have probably not experienced, but most of us have constituents who have, and that is most unfortunate.
The hon. Member also raised the issue of electrical safety and left us very much with the message that where someone lives and who their landlord is should not determine their safety from fire. That point was picked up on by Florence Eshalomi, who is my MP when I am living in London—I do not think I could hope for a more assiduous MP. She said that Grenfell was a result of callous inaction and should never be allowed to happen again, but she fears that it will.
Dr Mullan made a thoughtful speech about various risks, including from the increasing use of timber in properties, and how we counter that. He also mentioned the importance of sprinklers, as did his colleague, Jonathan Gullis, who spoke movingly of the impact of the Grenfell fire on people he actually knows, as well as the importance of sprinkler installation.
Margaret Ferrier, who I know is a hard-working constituency MP, spoke of the careful attention she has given to the rights of her constituents who are tenants of social housing. I know she will bring to their cause the energy and vigour that she brings to fighting for all her constituents.
I had a constituent case recently that has raised some questions about how the Scottish Government are dealing with this across the border. My constituent is trying to sell a flat. As we know, Scotland does not have a leasehold system. Non-ACM cladding has left the property in limbo with disagreement from all involved parties about its safety and, therefore, the need for remediation. I do not doubt that this is a widespread issue in private and socially-owned properties, but will the hon. and learned Lady shed some light on the Scottish Government’s plan for funding remediation for such buildings?
I will come to that and am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue, because I will address the position in Scotland. Before I do, I would lastly like to refer to the speech by Tony Lloyd and say what a pleasure it is to see him back, fully restored to health and making his usual thoughtful contribution on how we avoid exacerbating the housing crisis—again, mentioning the importance of sprinklers.
I now turn to the position in Scotland, where housing and local government are a devolved matter. Decisions on building materials, the removal of cladding and fire safety are the remit of the Scottish Government. This has enabled Scotland to require that buildings are constructed in a certain way that will aid the prevention of fires, which has contributed to Scotland’s having fewer properties with Grenfell-style cladding. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government are not complacent around the issue of cladding and have recently made a series of announcements in that regard.
The single building assessment programme in Scotland was launched in August and safety assessments are commencing on a number of properties. It has been welcome across the board, particularly because the cost for the assessments is to be borne by the Scottish Government, not homeowners. The assessments will be undertaken by suitably qualified professionals working to a common standard and will encourage collaboration between individual owners, residents and factors.
These assessments are available for all buildings, regardless of tenure. That includes local authority and registered social landlord buildings, although the remediation of local authority buildings is a matter for each individual council. Clearly, this assessment procedure and the funding available will cover the social sector. As I said, the Scottish Government have not yet been given clarity about how much or when they will receive further funding promised by the UK Government. I would like to press the Minister for any clarity that he can give on that today.
Finally, before I leave the floor to other speakers, as we have heard there is far more to fire risk than cladding alone. We must have a holistic approach to address the overall issue of fire safety, particularly in high-rise buildings. That is an approach that my colleagues in the Scottish Government have endeavoured to follow.
In October 2019, the Scottish Government introduced new regulations that lowered the height at which combustible cladding could be used from 18 metres to 11 metres, to align with firefighting from the ground. They tightened controls over the combustibility of cladding systems on hospitals, residential care buildings and entertainment and assembly buildings, regardless of building height. They introduced a regulation requiring two escape stairs, evacuation alert systems and floor-level indicator signs in all new high-rise domestic buildings.
They have also recognised the importance of the installation of sprinkler systems. A requirement to install sprinkler systems in all new-build flats, new social housing and certain multi-occupancy dwellings was introduced from
The hon. and learned Lady is coming to the end of her speech, but she is making a very strong point about the factors that are missing—the lacunae—in what the Government are proposing at the moment. Maintaining the height at 18 metres allows new buildings to be constructed that are already potentially dangerous. I have 20-storey buildings being constructed in my constituency that have a single staircase. We must get all these things right. As she correctly says, this is not just about cladding.
I entirely agree. We must get these things right and we must base new regulations on evidence. In particular, the Government need to liaise closely with the fire service, which has happened in Scotland. The Scottish Government have provided funding of £870,000 per year for the last two years to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to support its home safety visits to ensure that vulnerable and high-risk people can get the necessary alarms installed at no cost to them, so that they are safe in their homes.
To draw to a close, it is grossly unfair and unjust for any tenant or leaseholder to be left with the burden of removing cladding that they were not responsible for installing and to be left with the weight of fear and worry, and the impact on mental health that hon. Members have described, particularly since the horrors of the Grenfell fire. The UK must deliver the necessary funds for the remediation of cladding for all, and not leave tenants and leaseholders responsible for paying for the removal of this dangerous cladding. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in his summing up about the consequentials of funding that will be available for the devolved Governments.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship today, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter on securing this important and timely debate. As ever, he gave an excellent, knowledgeable, forensic and right speech.
We heard some other excellent contributions. Dr Mullan made some important points, as did my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi, Jonathan Gullis, my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, Margaret Ferrier and the Scottish National party spokesperson, Joanna Cherry. Given her excellent speech, I look forward to working with the hon. and learned Lady on the Building Safety Bill, and I hope that the SNP will play a full and active role in that Bill.
It is timely because we are very much in the midst of the building safety crisis post the terrible events at Grenfell Tower four years ago, and timely because, as mentioned, we are in the Committee stage of the Building Safety Bill, which has come about because of that tragedy. This week Parliament will be lobbied by leaseholders and others calling for justice for leaseholders and to end the building safety scandal. I want to put on the record my admiration for those campaigners and their tireless work while suffering from mental health and financial anxiety and worry that has a life-defining toll.
I praise my hon. Friend for her work on this topic in the months since her appointment. I, too, will be meeting leaseholders from my constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth on Thursday. There are huge concerns about mental health and finance. One of their great frustrations is the lack of clarity on the money from the UK Government to the Welsh Government and the lack of clarity on the consequentials. Is it not right that the UK Government now explain what is going to the devolved Administrations so that they can move forward with their plans?
Absolutely. As I will come on to say, the Government’s handling of the crisis has been characterised by delay, a lack of clarity and uncertainty.
I also want to put on the record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith for his campaigning on fire safety in social housing blocks. He has campaigned tirelessly for many years—before the tragedy at Grenfell Tower and following the fire at Shepherd’s Court. I hope that the Minister and the wider housing sector will take on board many of his proposals for the inspection of electrical goods by social landlords and will look further at the regulatory regime. I will come on to some of his wider questions about the impact on the social housing sector.
What began as a cladding scandal after Grenfell, as we have heard, has now led to a total breakdown in confidence in most tall and multi-storey buildings in this country. The building safety crisis, as it has now become, affects hundreds of thousands of people. Buyers and tenants who dreamt of a safe, stable home to live in, who often spent their lives working towards that, are now living in a waking nightmare.
I am sorry to say that the Government’s approach has been characterised by dither and delay. They are leaving it to the market, which caused the mess in the first place, rather than intervening strongly to get a grip of the crisis and resolve it. They have managed to get a £5 billion fund from the Treasury, which I applaud them for because that is not a small amount of money by any means, but they are not giving effect to the money as they stand back and watch costs soar while the remediation works required get out of control. They limit the scope and the timetables, and they are not doing anything to ensure certification and assurance. Leaving it to the market and those that created the crisis in the first place will not resolve anything. As we have heard, social landlords are inexplicably excluded from the fund.
We now face a total breakdown in the approach to risk. What are reasonable risks? Who decides that? Who will certify risk proportionately, and who can ensure that insurers will insure reasonably and that lenders lend? Nobody is standing by to do that at the moment. What are the appropriate policies to mitigate the risks, such as evacuation plans, sprinklers, and the capacity of fire services and so on? Is waking watch worth the costs that people pay for it?
Does my hon. Friend agree that there has to be an evacuation plan for disabled residents, who feel that their voices have not been heard on this really important issue?
Absolutely. I was going to mention that later in my speech, but I will say it now. Evacuation plans for disabled people are pretty poor in most cases, leaving them especially vulnerable, as others have said.
At the moment, there is an absence of clear and reasonable guidance, process and professionally indemnified experts. The result is that people are standing back and letting others pay the price and take responsibility for the risk. Ultimately, that leaves leaseholders, social landlords, those in shared ownership and others with the financial responsibility and risk. It leaves them living in fear, as we have heard.
More could be done on prevention, as many hon. Members have said. We have heard that waking watch patrols have been necessary in some cases, but they are extremely expensive. The Government’s own data estimates that they cost £130,000 a year for just one building. They are supposed to be a temporary measure, but many are still trapped with them. The Government keep talking about the problems with the lack of proportionate risk and the lack of confidence in the system, but what are they actually doing about it? Perhaps we will hear a little more on that today.
There are similar issues when it comes to regulation, accountability and oversight. The Building Safety Bill, which is in Committee, will set up a new building safety regulator. That is a long-overdue and much-needed step, but there are a number of areas where it falls short. The Government have stuck to their crude height limit of 18 metres to define higher-risk buildings. They are right to say that, for buildings over 18 metres, the choice over which building control body to use leads to serious conflicts of interest. That is one of the key issues that has got us here, so why is that not the case for buildings under 18 metres, for which developers can still choose their own building control bodies?
The fire service, which we have heard much about today, used to play a much greater role in inspecting buildings. The Fire Brigades Union has raised the alarm about the fact that the building safety regulator will still be able to contract out that advice to the private sector. What are the Government proposing to do about that?
As many leaseholders and tenants have discovered in recent years, since Grenfell and before, the bodies that exist supposedly to provide recourse and accountability very rarely do, and are largely toothless and totally inadequate. Fire safety issues have shone a light on that, but yet again the Government seem incapable or unwilling to act with the necessary true leaseholder reform, and are not giving voice to tenants.
We have heard about some particular issues affecting social housing. In contrast to many private developers and freeholders, social and council housing providers were the quickest to react post Grenfell. Analysis has shown that housing associations have paid six times more than developers to remediate dangerous cladding. Given the huge profits in the private sector, it is a scandal that it is not doing more to pay for the faults it created. The Government have been incredibly slow in using the stick they kept threatening, leaving many to disappear before they are made to pay.
According to the G15—an umbrella group of the biggest housing associations in London—associations have set aside nearly £3 billion for historical remediation costs. In contrast, the UK’s largest developers have collectively set aside half a billion pounds—the difference is stark. Housing associations have warned that building safety costs will put at risk their ability to build much-needed affordable housing. With an estimated required subsidy per affordable home of £50,000, nearly £3 billion for remediation costs could mean 58,000 fewer affordable homes over the next 10 years. That is a huge number, and that is before we even get to the impact on quality and much-needed investment in existing stock and things such as the zero carbon agenda.
Housing associations and local authorities have been all but excluded from the Government’s building safety fund. To be approved, they must demonstrate that the costs would otherwise have been borne by leaseholders, which they have not been able to do in many cases. This approach is wrong, and it ultimately falls on the shoulders of tenants and potential future tenants, who will no longer be able to get social housing because the stock will diminish. We have called for a building works agency to fix this problem. Our mantra has been “assess, fix, fund and certify”; that is what needs to be done, and we need a team of experts who are given the power to do all of those things. What will the Government say about that?
Leaseholders and tenants will be shouting from the rooftops about building safety on Thursday. However, as we have seen from the excellent reporting of Dan Hewitt and “ITV News”, social tenants are often not listened to by housing providers. “Surviving Squalor” was a shocking reminder of the conditions that some people are forced to live in, their pleas for action ignored by social housing providers. It is just not acceptable. It is a mark of shame on the sector, which should be putting tenants’ experiences first, not ignoring them. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is the importance of home, and that housing is a public health issue, a mental health issue, and an economic issue, as well as a bedrock of success.
It is a shocking indictment of our country’s housing system, and the blame should be laid at the doors of some of these providers, as well as the Government. They have diminished and defunded social housing, and they have reneged on the promises made after Grenfell to bring forward legislation to provide a real voice and teeth to the views and needs of social housing tenants. When is that coming forward? We still do not know. We have been tabling amendments on this matter in the Building Safety Bill.
The building safety crisis is having a profound impact on the lives of so many, and the impact on social housing providers worsens the measly number of social homes already being built. The building safety crisis requires the serious leadership and intervention that it is not getting, and we need major reform to give tenants and leaseholders trapped in these situations a real voice, recourse and accountability. It really is about time the Government got a grip on this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship and to be back in Westminster Hall, Ms Rees. I thank Andy Slaughter for securing this important debate; he gave an incredibly thoughtful, forensic and detailed speech that really showed his passion for the issue. I also thank the other Members who have spoken—there have been some really thoughtful, important contributions.
This issue impacts so many of our constituents. That is why we are taking action, as has been described, by providing that £5 billion of grant funding for the remediation of unsafe cladding, to support building safety. The hon. Gentleman noted at the start that the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend Christopher Pincher, and the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing, my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, are currently on the Building Safety Bill Committee. I know that they would like to be here to respond to his points, but it is my pleasure to respond on their behalf. I want to give an overview of the work the Government have been doing, but I will try to come to the points he has raised and give him satisfactory answers.
The £5 billion of grant funding specifically supports the remediation of unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings. This means that we will fund the cost of replacing unsafe cladding for leaseholders in residential buildings 18 metres and over in England. Work to remediate unsafe aluminium composite material cladding has progressed: 100% of high-rise buildings in the social housing sector identified as having that unsafe cladding at the start of last year have already been made safer or have remedial work under way. To date, the social sector ACM cladding remediation fund has approved £277 million of funding for the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM in England.
The tragedy of Grenfell was as a result of a specific type of remediation of those buildings. Other types of work have had a similar but different effect, such as the example I gave in my constituency. Is the Minister telling us that they will not be covered by the £5 billion fund—that they will be outwith—and that there will be no funding available for other types of necessary fire prevention work?
If the hon. Gentleman could be slightly patient, I will address the points raised today, including that one. For social sector buildings with unsafe, non-ACM cladding, we will meet the cost of remediation where a registered provider of social housing becomes financially unviable due to the cost of remediation. We will provide funding equivalent to the amounts that providers would otherwise have been entitled to pass on to leaseholders, including shared owners.
I heard the point made by the shadow spokesperson, Lucy Powell, about local authorities approving some of the burdens placed upon them. I am happy to take away any examples she wants to investigate and raise with my colleague the Housing Minister, or I will speak to them myself as the Minister for Local Government Finance.
Social housing owners, with private sector leaseholders, may also be able to benefit from the finance scheme, which the Government have announced for all buildings from 11 metres to 18 metres in height. In the small number of cases where unsafe remediation may be necessary on buildings of that height, the scheme will protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs, by ensuring that no leaseholder will pay more than £50 a month towards the cost of cladding remediation.
Of course, in all of those cases, Government funding does not absolve building owners of their responsibility to ensure that their buildings are safe. They should consider all routes to meet costs, protecting leaseholders where they can. It is also right that the industry that caused this legacy of unsafe buildings contributes to setting things right. That is why we have consulted on a new residential property developer tax, which aims to raise around £2 billion over the next 10 years. We will also introduce a building safety levy on developers of high-rise buildings, which we plan to introduce at the gateway 2 stage of the new building safety regime.
Will the Minister be clear about when the Welsh Government will get clarity? The fund was announced in February and, more than eight months since, there is still no clarity on the funding consequentials, nor has there been adequate co-operation on the tax and levy he refers to, as I understand it. When is that going to happen? They want to work in co-operation, as this is affecting leaseholders across the UK, but they are not getting that co-operation.
Regarding consequentials, I was coming on to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point and that made by Joanna Cherry later in my speech. On co-operation, I am always happy to meet with them on finance matters and to raise the issue with my relevant colleague in Government, if that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to colleagues in the devolved Administrations.
Looking forward, the package of changes that we are making through the Building Safety Bill will help to ensure that the problems identified with the current building and fire-safety regimes are rectified. Those responsible for buildings where they are occupied, will be required actively to manage building safety risks, evidenced through a safety-case regime. The new regime will allow fire and structural hazards to be effectively and proportionately managed, mitigated and remedied, through effective steps that consider both safety and costs.
Building owners, including local authorities and social housing providers, will need to appoint a building safety manager, who will be responsible for the day-to-day management of fire and structural safety in the building, and must have the relevant competence to perform the role for that specific building. Residents of high-rise buildings will no longer be ignored when they raise safety concerns about their building, and the Bill will make securing resident and building safety a critical objective of the accountable person. The new building safety regulator will give residents a strong voice through a statutory residents’ panel.
We will also use the powers in the Bill to make regulations that place duties on those who procure, plan and manage to undertake building work. That will ensure that the designs, as well as the building work, comply with building regulation requirements. That more stringent regulatory regime will apply to the design and construction of high-rise residential properties that are at least 18 metres in height or have seven storeys. It also applies to hospitals and care homes. The new regulator will also have new powers to ensure that those who are responsible for building safety are held to account if they fail to do the right thing.
We take electrical safety extremely seriously. We have introduced electrical safety regulations, where it is proportionate and practical to do so. The building regulations require work to the fixed electrical installation in homes, regardless of tenure, and to be carried out safely to protect people from fire or injury. The accountable person for occupied high-risk buildings that come under the scope of the Building Safety Bill must take all reasonable steps to mitigate or control building safety risks, the spread of fire and structural failure, regardless of the cause.
All landlords must ensure that electrical installations and any electrical equipment provided are safe at the outset of a tenancy, and kept in good working order. Last year, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith highlighted, we introduced regulations requiring private landlords to ensure that electrical installations in their properties are inspected every five years.
The social housing White Paper that we published last year sets out the actions that we will take to ensure that residents in social housing are safe, are listened to, live in good-quality homes and have access to redress when things go wrong. In the White Paper, we committed to consulting on measures to keep social housing residents safe from electrical harm; subsequently, we formed a working group to help develop proposals for the consultation. Clearly, it is too early at this stage to say what the outcome of that consultation will be, but I am happy to confirm that we will consider introducing the five yearly checks to bring about parity with the private rented sector. I will ensure that the views of Florence Eshalomi, who raised this in a very powerful way, are fed into that thought process and raised with the Housing Minister.
Alongside the social housing White Paper, we published a consultation on smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. The proposed changes would make smoke alarms mandatory in all social rented homes and extend requirements for carbon monoxide alarms in both the private and socially rented sectors. The reforms that we have set out will drive real cultural change throughout the social housing sector. Everyone, from board members and councillors to senior officers and contractors, who has direct contact with residents will listen to what they say and treat them with the courtesy, dignity and respect that they deserve. The regulatory proposals will help to create a culture of accountability and compliance on health and safety requirements.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith asked for assurance that we are moving in the right direction, and I believe that we are. We will consider the point that he made extremely carefully. I hope that he feels that we are moving in the direction, and with the intention, that he suggests. The hon. Gentleman also asked what actions the Government are taking to deliver affordable housing. We will be delivering the £12 billion affordable housing programme over five years, the largest investment in social housing in a decade. It will provide over 180,000 new homes, and 32,000 of those will be for social rent. That is more than double the current programme. We do think that we are making progress there.
My hon. Friend Dr Mullan spoke movingly about his own constituency and the experiences of his constituents. We recognise that timber has some environmental benefits, but we have always tried to be clear that the material should be used only when it is safe to do so. We have commissioned some work on this particular point, so perhaps I can suggest that he and I meet and discuss that in more detail. It would be interesting to hear the views of his constituents on the issue.
Tony Lloyd raised the issue of a forum to bring all of this together and make sure it is available. Perhaps I can write to him after the debate to try to bring that together in the most appropriate way, so that he can share it with his local authority, constituents, housing associations and others. I am afraid that I have to say to him and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West, on the point about consequentials, that I will raise it today with the Housing Minister and get back to them as soon as I can.
I know that there is a united desire to ensure that those living in high-rise social housing feel safe in their homes. We will restore the right for everyone in our country to live somewhere that is safe, decent and secure—a place that they are proud to call home. We want to drive meaningful change in the building industry and ensure that residents know that they are being properly supported and listened to. We can do that, and help drive the biggest improvements to building safety for decades: improvements that restore public confidence in our housing sector and that together create a robust, strengthened building safety system that has the welfare of residents at its heart.
I genuinely thank everybody who has contributed today, including the Front-Bench spokespeople, for the thoughtful, measured way in which these issues have been addressed. We are not going to agree on everything, but I hope we can find some common ground. Perhaps, in the few minutes I have left to wind up, I will say, politely, where the areas are that still need some work and that are currently not being addressed by the Building Safety Bill, whose consideration is running in parallel with this debate.
I will just mention three areas. First, we need a more holistic approach to building safety, very much as the SNP spokesperson, Joanna Cherry said. This is not just about cladding or about buildings over 18 metres; we must look at medium-rise buildings as well. Responsible landlords, which includes most social landlords, are looking at those and making no distinction in relation to them, and it is artificial for the Government to continue to make that distinction for no other reason than additional costs.
The same is true for other defects. It is about not just cladding but, as we have heard, the way buildings are constructed, escape mechanisms, alarms, compartmentalisation, sprinkler systems and other things. There is a whole range of defects, and fixing those must be funded in some way. This is not even just about residential buildings; it is about schools, care homes, hotels and other places where people, for one reason or another, will find themselves vulnerable.
Secondly, we do not have, and neither has there been proposed, adequate law or enforcement of that law, whether we are talking about building safety or electrical safety. This is the opportunity to get those things right so that people can feel safe and secure in their homes. The most poignant thing that came out of the documentary on Sunday that we have all been talking about was people feeling that they were vulnerable in their own home, whether through extreme disrepair or lack of fire safety.
Finally—I hope everybody would share this view, including those on the Government side, but I noted it particularly in the speeches of my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi and Margaret Ferrier—we should really champion social housing. Let us no longer have the Conservative party as the party that bashes social housing. If the Conservatives genuinely care about levelling up, they have to care about social housing.
That means housing conditions, planned maintenance and housing development cannot be the victims here. It cannot be that they have to fail in order for fire safety to be addressed. That is vital for millions of our fellow citizens. I hope the Minister understands that; from the tone in which he as addressed the debate today, he appears to understand it, and I hope that is true of him and his colleagues. If so, we will not have wasted an hour and a half in Westminster Hall today—although in any case, Ms Rees, it has been a real pleasure to be here under your chairship.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered reducing fire risk in high rise social housing.