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Grenfell Tower

Volume 635: debated on Monday 5 February 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will make a statement on the implications of the withdrawal of the Building Research Establishment’s safety test results for insulation materials used on Grenfell Tower.

I wish to respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s question and the decision by the Building Research Establishment to withdraw a building cladding safety test from its website.

The BRE was contacted by the insulation manufacturer, Celotex, after it identified anomalies between the specification for a particular cladding system it had submitted for testing and the actual system tested. It was alerted to the issue last week, and we were informed by the BRE last Wednesday. As a result, the BRE has withdrawn the classification report relating to that specific test, which was carried out in 2014. That is clearly the right thing to do. The cladding system in question included a fibre cement board, rain screen and Celotex RS5000 insulation. Celotex will now schedule a retesting of that system as soon as possible, as detailed in the relevant test report. It is important to make it very clear that this was not a test of the aluminium composite material cladding system that was widely reported and understood to have been present on Grenfell Tower, and it would be wrong to conflate the two.

In the meantime, we understand that Celotex is contacting all its customers who have used this material. We have published advice for building owners on the fire safety of cladding and insulation materials, including this type of insulation, and that advice still stands. As it makes clear, building owners should take professional advice on any further action they think might be necessary, reflecting their buildings’ particular circumstances. More broadly, we continue to expect building owners to progress any necessary remedial works and, where necessary, to implement interim fire safety measures to make sure that residents and their buildings are kept safe.

The Government’s fire testing system is in chaos, yet the Minister offers no fresh advice, let alone fresh action, to deal with the problems. More than seven months on from the Grenfell Tower fire, only three out of 300 high-rise blocks confirmed to have unsafe cladding have had it removed or replaced, so thousands of families across the country are still living in homes that are not safe, and other privately owned blocks with the same suspect cladding have not even sent it for testing, despite the Government’s saying they should back in August.

On Friday, the Government’s test centre, the BRE, was asked to withdraw the 2014 safety test results that approved the insulation materials on Grenfell Tower. How many other residents are living in how many other high-rise blocks with that same insulation, which now has an invalid approval? Are any other BRE tests similarly flawed? In particular, is the Government’s own testing programme sound? The industry is now saying that Government-commissioned cladding and insulation tests used different standards from those in official guidance, with cavity barriers three times more fire-resistant. Is this the case? What does the Minister say to insurers and landlords who tell residents that the Government’s tests are not sufficient to show they breach building regulations, despite what the Secretary of State has said, and that therefore they will pay no removal or replacement costs, leaving leaseholders liable to foot the full bill?

Seven months on from Grenfell, the national testing regime is in tatters. After this national disaster, people look to national leaders for action. Only Ministers can act to make sure that all high-rise buildings are tested, that all tests are sound and that all dangerous cladding or insulation is removed. When will the Government sort this out?

I am somewhat disappointed that from this case and the detailed specifications that need to be retested, the right hon. Gentleman has jumped to conflate a much wider range of issues relating to Grenfell. I think that he has done it deliberately, and it is not a responsible thing to do. [Interruption.] Let me now answer his questions directly—and perhaps the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) would like to listen rather than commenting without understanding the facts.

The right hon. Gentleman asks why there was no new advice. There is no new advice because the existing advice is sound. He said that there had been no action. I gave details of the very specific action that has been taken in relation to Celotex. Indeed, on first hearing of this, I ensured at director level in my Department that the managing director of Celotex was contacted. We understand how seriously the company takes the testing issue, and we understand that it will act as soon as reasonably possible to have the product retested. I know the right hon. Gentleman would not suggest that that should be done in a rushed way. We want it to be done correctly, properly and responsibly, so that we understand and can give the reassurances for which he fairly asked.

The right hon. Gentleman suggests that homes were not safe. He already knows that as part of the building safety programme, inspectors have identified 284 buildings with cladding that does not comply with the requirements in the regulation, and the fire service has visited every one of those buildings. There are interim measures in place, including measures relating to car parks and ensuring that fire wardens are present, so that we can confidently say that every home is safe.

The right hon. Gentleman asks why the renovations had not been conducted more quickly. We need to engage with construction services responsibly to ensure that the renovations are carried out correctly, accurately and in a way that can reassure tenants and the wider public, and that obviously cannot be done in a hurry. We have reviewed the advice regularly, and it remains sound. We are taking every action that is necessary, both in relation to this case—which was the pretext on which the right hon. Gentleman based the urgent question —and in relation to the sensitive and important wider issue of housing and cladding as it affects local authority and housing association tower blocks and those in the private sector. That is exactly what the public would expect.

I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. I welcome the Minister to his post. May I ask him how many local authorities have sought financial flexibilities to help with essential fire safety work, and whether he can confirm that no requests for such flexibilities have been turned down?

I have had personal conversations with local authorities that have been affected. We have made it clear that carrying out the necessary remedial works is the responsibility of the building owner, whichever sector it is in, but that when they need financial support or flexibility, they can come to us. As my hon. Friend suggests, we have not declined any such request.

The Minister has accused the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) of conflating issues relating to Grenfell. If the Government wanted to keep the House informed and if they were on top of the situation, the Minister would have made a statement rather than our having to rely on an urgent question. The Government promised to keep the House updated on all developments associated with Grenfell, and they have failed badly in that respect.

What steps have been taken to establish how many properties may be affected by the loss of a certificate for this product, and how many other products may be affected in the same way? What investigations will the Government undertake to determine how the wrong information could be supplied to BRE and how tests could have proceeded on the basis of that wrong information? How will the Government ensure in future that correct end-to-end processes—from start to finish—are followed properly and that safe materials are installed in buildings? Will the Government consider giving BRE a wider role, involving more than just carrying out fire tests? How will the fire testing regime feed into future design and product specification? There needs to be a circular procedure. Given that BRE and Celotex seem to be blaming each other, when will the Government get a grip and take a lead?

The reason why it is a conflation of the two issues is that the system that was tested in a way that has been found to have been flawed is not the same system that is widely understood to have been the one used in relation to Grenfell. We have no expectation or reason to believe that there is a fire safety issue as a result of this flawed testing, but the responsible thing to do is make sure it is retested as swiftly as possible; then we will know the facts and we can give advice. But if any building owner, let alone tenant, has any concern or question in relation to their property, the existing advice about how to get it tested as soon as possible and take interim measures to protect the property stands; that is the most important thing. There should be no suggestion in this House—on either side—that those living in their homes are anything other than perfectly safe if they followed that important guidance.

Residents want to know that their safety is paramount, and they want clear information on what is a complex issue, so does my hon. Friend agree that it is irresponsible for others to draw a connection between the recent coverage about Celotex and the Government’s building safety programme? Does he agree that this must not distract from the vital work of making the buildings meet the required standards in London and across the country?

My hon. Friend is right. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how the Celotex case happened, and in relation to the firm and BRE and the action we have taken, it is clear what needs now to be done as soon as possible to get that retesting done, to make sure those questions are answered. The leap into the wider Grenfell issue is deeply sensitive, and a wholesale programme on that is under way to make sure, first, that the interim measures are taken, so that people are safe in their homes; secondly, that the renovations are made, so that we have the proper cladding and systems in place around those buildings; and thirdly, in relation to the wider review of building regulations undertaken by Dame Judith Hackitt, that we learn the wider lessons for building regulation. That is the responsible thing to do. My hon. Friend talked about leadership; we are providing it.

Why is the Minister refusing to take action to make the residents in social housing tower blocks safe by backing Labour’s pledge to set aside funding to retrofit sprinkler systems, as fire chiefs have asked the Government to do? People are afraid.

We are taking the technical advice, we are making sure we have the interim measures in place and we are making sure that the renovations that need to be done to keep those tower blocks safe are done as soon as possible, although that takes time because that requires construction services that have to be contracted. We are making sure that all that work is done. As I have said in relation to the wider question of building regulation, the review conducted by Dame Judith Hackitt will make sure that all those lessons are learned. We have already had the interim report. We have accepted those recommendations and we look forward to the full report.

Decent people up and down the land will want to know that the Government, both centrally and locally, are doing all they can to ensure that people are safe in their homes. The Minister has set some of that out this afternoon. Does he agree that decent people up and down the land will not be expecting party political points scoring on this and people grubbing around for a vote or two?

My hon. Friend is right. As I said, I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about the testing system and how we get it right. It is the leap into the other sensitive issues on which a range of concerted action has been taken that is wrong.

There are leaseholders living in blocks all over the country, including One Brewery Wharf and Quay One in my constituency, who, having discovered that their homes are covered in unsafe cladding, now face the prospect of having to pay for its replacement, and they are facing difficulties in remortgaging and selling their properties. Since the Secretary of State’s urging freeholders to do the decent thing and pay is not working, what are the Government now going to do to ensure that the recladding of those blocks takes place without the cost falling on leaseholders, who are entirely blameless in this matter?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a number of points. First, he talked about cladding that might be unsafe. He did not specify which, but any concerns can be sent to the Building Research Establishment for sampling. We can get that checked in the right way.

In relation to the issue between freeholders and leaseholders, we have been clear all along that it is for the owner of the property to conduct the required renovation and to bear the cost. On local authorities, wherever financial flexibility is required, they can come to us. We have not said no to one yet. Housing associations should go to the regulator. In relation to private sector landlords, we have made it very clear that we believe they should bear the cost. It will depend on the specific leases, and of course the legal question of whether costs are being unreasonably handed over to tenants can be determined by the first-tier tribunal. That is a legal issue and we cannot interfere in that, but morally, we know that there are plenty of freeholders in the private sector who should be doing just as local authorities and housing associations are doing, and who should not be passing on any unreasonable cost to leaseholders or tenants.

It is interesting to contrast some of the comments made at the Opposition Dispatch Box today with the reactions of that individual to previous issues when he was a Minister. Will the Minister tell me what is being done to ensure that social housing tenants will be listened to in future? That is one of the big things that has come out of this. People put forward their concerns, but they were just not listened to, even by those who were supposed to be representing them.

My hon. Friend makes a broader point. We have two important streams of work under way to ensure that lessons are learned. The first relates to building regulations. We have had the interim report from the Hackitt review and we look forward to the full report. We are also conducting a series of workshops for social housing tenants across the country. We have held something like 100 events, and I have attended two of them, in Basingstoke and in relation to Grenfell. That is the right way to proceed. We must ensure that we listen to social tenants with an open mind and an open heart, and that we learn the lessons as we take forward our reform proposals.

The Minister has said that no local authority has been refused assistance when it has asked for help to keep its tenants safe. He will know that Birmingham City Council requires £31 million to ensure that its tenants are kept safe. It has asked the Government for £19.4 million towards that. Will the Government agree to provide it?

We are in conversation with that local authority, as we are with others. We are continuing to talk these issues through, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have not declined any requests for financial flexibility. We will make sure that we get it right so that the residents in his constituency are kept safe.

As I have said, the building regulations review is under way and we have had the interim report. We have accepted all its recommendations and, when the final report is published, we will look at it carefully and consider how to take it forward.

The Minister says that he is “in conversation” with a number of councils. After Grenfell, the Secretary of State said that he would leave no stone unturned and take every precaution in relation to anyone living in a building with similar cladding. On 22 June, the Prime Minister said that every resource would be made available. Why is the Minister still “in conversation”? Why is he not providing the funds? Why is it possible that there could be another Grenfell in this country tonight?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that using that kind of language on an issue that we are all trying to grapple with is quite irresponsible. We have offered the financial flexibility—[Interruption.] He can point his finger in a jabbing manner all he likes, but we are taking this forward as effectively as we can. Some of the technical issues cannot be addressed overnight. We need to get this right and not act in haste. We have made sure that the interim arrangements are in place so that no one sleeping in their home at night is unsafe. The wider renovations will take time to get right because this is a complex technical undertaking.

As one who served for 31 years in the fire service, I realise the urgency following the events at Grenfell. I should like to compliment South Ayrshire Council, which retrofitted all its high-rise flats some 10 or 12 years ago. I take comfort from that. We are aware of Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report. It is a good report; it is frank and open. Does the Minister intend to drive forward some of the recommendations that she has made, rather than waiting until the publication of the final report? Surely there are things that we can do now and I ask him to identify which ones they are.

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on being on the front foot. We encourage all local authorities to do their best to ensure that they address such issues in the same way. As for the Hackitt review, we have accepted every single one of the interim recommendations. We obviously want to consider the final report carefully, but the swift action and decisiveness that he wants are already under way.

The fire risk is obviously the single most important issue, but there are others. Local authorities such as mine are in the process of removing cladding. In one estate alone, the removal, the fire watch and the replacement will cost £6.5 million. Will the Minister assure me that the confusion over the tests will not mean that any local authority, private provider or housing association will face a delay in the decision making on the replacement of cladding? If they do, will the Government ensure that any interim costs, such as to cover waking watch or damage to buildings from water penetration when cladding is removed, will be fully met by the Government?

There is absolutely no reason why the testing and retesting of Celotex should have any impact on the wider re-cladding exercise that is under way. I am happy to speak again with the hon. Lady’s local authority, just as we have with others, to ensure that we get things right.

The Government are guilty of inexcusable delay. Acting upon the advice of the West Midlands fire service, Birmingham City Council wants to carry out extensive works to 213 tower blocks containing 10,000 households. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, the council has put specific proposals to the Government and has repeatedly asked for a reply—not one peep, not one penny. The Government are treating the city and worried tenants with utter contempt. When will there be a response so that the necessary works can start straightaway?

We are in constant dialogue, so the suggestion that the council has not heard a peep out of the Government is not accurate or responsible. I will chase up the hon. Gentleman’s specific question and ensure that we get a resolution as swiftly as possible. We are having detailed conversations. We often ask further questions of local authorities and they come back with the specifications. We then know how to get the issue resolved properly.

I fear that the Minister has been misadvised. Government guidance in paragraph 12.7 of approved document B still permits the use of cladding with a polyethylene core, which industry experts advise is dangerously combustible. It is still being put on buildings today, including on one block in Lewisham, because Ministers have consistently ignored professional advice from the building industry. Hundreds of other buildings across the country are affected, and an average of one fire a month is already being linked to such cladding. When will the Minister issue clear advice on what action should be taken in all circumstances where limited combustibility cladding is in place? When will he order its immediate removal from every residential block where it is present, which includes Citiscape in Croydon?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that we have not taken the expert advice. We have consistently done that and have acted on it, but I am happy to look again at the material he mentioned. I have been involved in relation to the Citiscape case in Croydon and we have made it clear to the freeholder there, just as we have done everywhere else, that there is a moral case for avoiding any unreasonable costs to leaseholders or tenants. The leaseholders and tenants also of course have the option of going to the first-tier tribunal to settle an issue legally, and it would be wrong for Ministers to interfere in that process.

The Minister has constantly referred to financial flexibility for local authorities, so does that mean an additional borrowing allowance? If so, does that come from the housing revenue account or the general fund, or are the Government going to fund it?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the flexibility relates to local authorities’ borrowing. Quite how that should be done will depend on the individual circumstances of particular local authorities, but we are willing to discuss that. As I mentioned earlier, we are yet to decline a request, so the support is there.

The New Capital Quay development in my constituency is just one of hundreds of private freehold developments across the country where cladding has failed and where the freeholder in question—Galliard Homes in this case— has washed its hands of all responsibility for interim fire safety measures and remedial works. Does the Minister agree that it cannot be right for leaseholders to pick up the full costs in such cases? Will he urgently set up a working party to consider the matter and give proper guidance as to who is liable under the law for the costs on such developments?

It is not just in relation to local authorities and housing associations that the freeholder is responsible for renovations; it is also the case for private landlords. The question of the allocation of responsibility for funding and financing the renovation is partly determined by the terms of the leasehold arrangement, but my understanding is that, as a matter of general law, a freeholder cannot pass unreasonable costs over to leaseholders. There is always recourse to the tribunal and we know plenty of leaseholders have taken such action. We have been very clear that, morally, such costs should not be passed on to leaseholders.

At the last Housing, Communities and Local Government Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) and I both asked about the review of technical documents. We did not get an answer. To be clear, we are talking not about the Hackitt review, which is doing some good work on the wider issue, but about individual types of cladding and what document B says. We cannot go ahead with the replacement of cladding —we may still put up partially combustible materials on those buildings. The review of technical documents has not yet started.

If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about that, I will follow it up. There is detailed dialogue with any local authority that raises such issues. If he wants me to follow it up, he should write to me and I will be very happy to do so.

How much have the Government spent so far on assisting local authorities and the private sector to deal with this situation? Let us have a figure, let us know how much money is available and let us stop this argument about negotiating to borrow so that local taxpayers have to pick up the tab.

The financial responsibility is different in all of those cases, but if the hon. Gentleman has an example of where he thinks that has been badly handled, like others, he should write to me and I will look into it personally.