Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Welcome to Westminster Hall from the Boothroyd Room. I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before using them and before leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered residential leaseholders and interim fire safety costs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall and to be able to debate such an important topic today. When I became the MP for Vauxhall in 2019, two and a half years after the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, I did not expect to find so many of my constituents still living in unsafe buildings, blighted by dangerous cladding and other fire safety defects. To date, I have received correspondence from and been contacted by more than 250 individual leaseholders living in 27 different unsafe building developments in my constituency. And that is just in Vauxhall. The sheer scale of the cladding scandal is truly shocking, and it has revealed the full extent of what can only be described as a systematic failure in building safety in this country. But because of the tireless efforts of campaigners and their supporters up and down the country, we know that safety is only one part of this story. Leaseholders who bought their homes in good faith now find themselves saddled with the financial responsibility and liability for problems that they had absolutely no part in creating.
Much has been said recently about this injustice, and I am grateful to colleagues across the House who have called for urgent action to protect innocent leaseholders. Understandably, much of the debate has focused on who should pay for the cost of the remedial works to remove and replace the cladding. However, I want to draw attention to an equally urgent but much less talked about financial aspect of this crisis. That is the eye-watering charges that are being passed on to leaseholders for compulsory interim fire safety measures while they wait for the remediation work to be completed.
Interim costs have life-changing impacts. The sheer feeling of hopelessness is shared by many leaseholders I have spoken to. One constituent wrote to me and said,
“I have worked hard. I have contributed to the communities in which I have lived. I have paid over £100,000 in taxes over the past three years. And yet I now find myself facing potential bankruptcy, homelessness and the collapse of my business through no fault of my own. My future is utterly bleak, and my life feels worthless.”
As soon as a building is assessed to be unsafe, residents are told that they must immediately introduce additional fire safety protocols or face an evacuation order from the fire brigade. The requirement for those interim measures can be met in two ways. One is by appointing a waking watch, whereby trained wardens continually patrol the building in order to be able to detect a fire. The second is the installation of specialist alarm systems. Faced with homelessness, leaseholders have little choice but to assume the costs for those measures.
Interim measures have become a frequent occurrence as the fire safety crisis has unravelled over the last three and a half years. Every week, new buildings have been discovered to be unsafe. Worryingly, a fire safety assessment is generally triggered only when the leaseholder tries to remortgage or sell, which in turn triggers the external wall survey or the now-infamous EWS1 process. It means that the true scale of the problem is still unknown, and it will only grow in the months and years ahead.
There is currently nothing in law to protect leaseholders from the financial responsibilities for such interim measures, which are typically passed on through increased service charges. The data on interim costs are patchy and incomplete. Government figures show that the average estimated cost of a waking watch in England is £17,000 per block, rising to over £20,000 in London. Per household, that translates to a bill of approximately £500 a month for each affected household. Alarm systems are not much cheaper as an alternative, with estimates ranging from £50,000 to £150,000 depending on the size of the building. Those figures are eye-watering, and they will recur month after month, year after year, until the cladding is removed and the building is deemed completely safe.
In February of this year, the Minister told Parliament that
“we are clear that waking watch regimes should only ever be used in the short term”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 690-691.]
On one development in the Kennington area of my constituency, however, they have been paying for a waking watch since July of last year, at a cost of £10,000 per flat. The remediation works are not expected to be completed before the end of next year, and the alarm system is deemed insufficient to meet the danger. The total cost of the interim measures for this one development is currently estimated to reach over £1 million. What really sticks in the throat for my constituents is not just that the interim measures are expensive and mandatory, but that their effectiveness has been called into question. One constituent told me:
“These guys add little practical value and sit around watching TV on their phones, and yet we have to pay for them under the threat of being evicted if we don’t. In a fire, they are not really going to be able to make a blind bit of difference through evacuating residents.”
We have to remember that such interim measures are a daily reminder to our constituents that the buildings they live in are unsafe. The amounts are unaffordable for most people at any stage in life, but many of those affected are young, first-time buyers whose dreams of home ownership have turned into an unaffordable nightmare, with their homes literally unsellable. Industry experts estimate that it will take between five and 15 years for all affected buildings to be remediated. The truth is that the costs are anything but interim.
Ministers have known about this problem for almost four years. They have repeatedly acknowledged that fire safety defects are not the fault of leaseholders, and yet it took the Secretary of State until December last year to announce any sort of help for interim costs. The waking watch relief fund, which offers a grant to pay for the installation of fire alarm systems, was a welcome step in the right direction, but it remains the only form of Government assistance that is available for interim costs. In their current form, the fund’s provisions are partial and insufficient. Leaseholders living in blocks below 18 metres are excluded from applying. The Government claim that this is because the risk of a life-threatening fire in lower buildings is smaller, but any building that faces an evacuation order if the interim measures are not established is, by definition, clearly not safe, regardless of whether it is 18, 15 or 12 metres.
One such block in Vauxhall, which is under 18 metres, failed its EWS1 assessment in October 2020, and its leaseholders have had to find more than £170,000 to pay for interim safety measures. It is estimated that the remediation work will cost in total £1.4 million. The developer of the building has gone out of business, and leaseholders were all excluded from any Government support schemes. I simply do not know how this situation can ever be fair.
Even if we focus our attention on just the buildings over 18 metres that can apply for the fund, the £30 million that the Government have allocated is drastically short of what is needed. The Government estimate that that will pay for a maximum of 460 buildings, but there are at least 560 eligible buildings in London alone. Lord Greenhalgh told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday this week:
“We recognise that the £30 million goes some way, but not all the way.”
Finally, the fund pays only for an alarm system purchased and installed after December 2020. That totally ignores the thousands of pounds that leaseholders have already spent on compulsory and expensive but ineffective waking watch systems. How can that be right or fair?
The Government, including the Minister, have repeatedly said in the House that no leaseholder should pay, so I ask the Minister whether he agrees in principle that innocent leaseholders should not be responsible for solving the problems that they did not cause. Why are we asking the same leaseholders to pay extortionate sums for interim costs?
I am grateful to the Minister for attending this debate today. I want to conclude my remarks by focusing on what can be done to fix this appalling situation. I have four questions for the Minister, which I hope he will answer. Will the Government agree to the principle that no leaseholder should have to pay for interim fire safety measures to mitigate the problems that they did not cause? Will the Government commit to including provisions within the upcoming draft Building Safety Bill to protect leaseholders from such costs, and ensure that they are picked up by the people who were responsible for causing them in the first place? Will the Government immediately extend the waking watch relief fund to match the number of buildings that we know are affected, and make sure that all leaseholders facing these costs can apply regardless of building heights?
The Minister has previously said that interim measures should be used only temporarily,
“because they are an entirely inadequate substitute for remediation.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 691.]
With that in mind, will the Minister ask the Government to mandate a timetable for the completion of the remediation work in all unsafe blocks to make sure that the interim costs do not have to be paid by leaseholders for years to come?
The debate will last until 10.55 am. I intend to call the Opposition spokesman no later than 10.32 am and the Minister at 10.42 am. Florence Eshalomi will have two or three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are 16 Back Benchers seeking to contribute. I want to make sure that everyone gets in, so I am afraid that I will have to impose a time limit. If we aim for three minutes, everybody should have their say. All Members participating virtually should have a countdown clock on their screens. We will start with Stephen McPartland.
I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing this very important debate. She spoke eloquently and movingly about some of the tragic stories that she has heard about in her constituency in London. Sadly, those stories are reflected in my constituency and in constituencies up and down the country.
The costs of intermediate waking watch measures and of insurance premiums going up by thousands of per cent are just heartbreaking. Even as we speak in these debates, people are going bankrupt, and the Government do not seem to be listening to the howls of pain from leaseholders up and down the country, as they beg for support and assistance.
We are almost four years on from Grenfell and we are not getting this matter right; we are not helping. Unfortunately, the Government are actually making the situation worse by not working with leaseholders and the relevant groups, such as the UK Cladding Action Group—End Our Cladding Scandal. A variety of brilliant recommendations have been made by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which is chaired by our wonderful colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who is taking part in this debate. It is imperative that we help these leaseholders.
When we look at insurance premiums as a measure, which a lot of people do not recognise, we see that they may have gone up by 2,000% or even 3,000%. The Government are taking 12% in insurance premium tax on those rises, so the insurance premium tax take on those insurance premiums is currently higher than the insurance premiums themselves were a year or two ago. That is astonishing.
On waking watch, the fire services have told us that they have almost no control over it. Waking watch is not new; it was introduced years ago and was used, for example, if a hotel fire alarm did not work. At the moment, however, waking watches are being used by management companies as the first resort instead of the last resort. As a result, our local fire services do not have any ability to go in and help the leaseholders, who are being told, “Well, you need to have a waking watch”. There are no other options for them. The fire services should be given some powers to be involved in a responsible waking watch, when it is needed, or to consider what other evacuation orders or measures could be put in place. And the costs are just staggering. I have constituents in Vista Tower in Stevenage who are paying £15,000 a week and they just cannot afford it; that sum is impossible for them to afford. They are paying almost as much as some of their mortgage payments and they are now going bankrupt.
I urge the Minister—please listen to the pain of leaseholders up and down the country. Stop talking and start doing. Start helping my constituents and those in a similar situation up and down the country.
I am always pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I look forward to doing so again today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this important debate. My constituents in Edmonton who live in Prowse Court, Golden Lion Court and Brickland Court watched the Chancellor’s speech last week and were left feeling very disappointed. There was not one mention of cladding or fire safety in the Budget.
Leaseholders such as my constituent Jason and his wife moved into their flat in 2007 with their daughter. In January this year, a fire safety assessment concluded that the cladding on Jason’s building needed to be removed. Jason and his fellow tenants have no idea about how long they are going to be waiting for the removal of the cladding or who will meet the costs of that work. All they are certain of is that the interim safety measures must be put in place, including increased fire risk assessments and additional heat detectors. The freeholder of Jason’s building has already begun passing down the costs of these measures, in the form of increased insurance and service charge costs. That has left Jason in debt, unable to move and stuck in an unsafe building that is costing him more and more money. Jason goes to sleep every night knowing that his family is not safe and that there is no end in sight to his worry. To put it simply, Jason’s family are trapped.
I have raised identical cases with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ask that the Government fully fund interim fire safety costs. In their reply, the Government seemed focused only on ensuring that remediation work is completed first. It is incredibly unjust to penalise those who did not cause this cladding scandal to have to wait for remediation work to be completed first, while allowing the property developer to walk away, bearing no interim costs and seemingly no long-term costs.
I hope that the Minister will carefully consider what has been said in this debate and will ensure that in the future the Government will not only meet their obligations and fully fund interim fire safety costs, so that not one leaseholder is left out of pocket, but will fully acknowledge that the cladding scandal needs to be treated as the national emergency that it truly is.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) in highlighting the concerns arising in the debate.
Given the circumstances, I want to concentrate on two areas. The first is cladding on tall buildings. I congratulate the Government on securing funding to help to remediate that cladding, but the problem is that the cost of removing cladding on tall buildings is often dwarfed by the cost of the fire safety measures that must also be implemented. It is quite clear, as things stand, that leaseholders will be saddled with the costs of the fire safety measures that are required, as well as the costs of the cladding. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would respond to the issue of what exactly is included in the remediation of cladding. At the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, there was some confusion when it was suggested that external areas that are not involved in the cladding, such as different balconies, will now be included in the grant scheme.
The other problem is that we are now told that once a fire assessment takes place, the remediation grants will not be available unless leaseholders sign up to fixing the fire safety issues as well, but those involve eye-watering sums of money. The arrangements, of course, are complex. I think we all agree leaseholders should not have to pay for the remediation, but the issue then is who should. I take the view that the taxpayer should not pay for it. The developers, building owners and indeed suppliers of materials should pay for the fire safety remediation, as well as the remediation of unsafe cladding. There is no doubt that the testing regime was unfit for purpose at the time in question, but emerging evidence from the Grenfell inquiry suggests that manufacturers deliberately decided to use the position on testing to cheat on the system. If so, they should be forced to carry out the remediation at their cost.
Equally, there is the challenge of insurance, mortgages and the values of the properties that are affected. Clearly, at the moment, leaseholders cannot be expected to wait for the introduction of the building safety Bill. It will take more than two years for it to come into operation, and leaseholders cannot wait. We need clarity on the point that the fees and costs will be picked up and that the leaseholders will not have to pay them. We also know that it will take an extended period to carry out the works.
I will rest my remarks there. I hope that we will get a response from the Minister on exactly what the scheme covers.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this important debate.
In June 2019, a devastating fire tore through the timber balconies of Samuel Garside House in Barking. Residents lost their homes and possessions, and even their pets, and now live in fear, suffering sleepless nights and constant anxiety. Those residents were the first of many constituents impacted by the cladding scandal who have sought my help.
Leaseholders in Barking and Dagenham are not wealthy. Many live hand to mouth, and most cannot even afford contents insurance. Cladding has turned their dream of buying a home into a living nightmare. They face ongoing costs for interim safety measures, and cannot afford them. There are massive bills for waking watches, building insurance and EWS surveys, and the residents cannot sell or remortgage their homes.
At Academy Central, residents have paid £3,500 per household per year for a waking watch. Many cannot afford it and have been doing 24-hour control themselves, which places huge strain on their lives. At Rivermill Lofts, leaseholders have struggled to get an EWS survey. They have been quoted hundreds of pounds per flat, and only 70% of the households have paid up. In the meantime, their flats are worthless. At the Ropeworks, building insurance shot up from £70,000 to £650,000—that is 900%—in two years. At Barking Central, bills for interim measures have reached £6,500 per home. A third of leaseholders cannot afford that, and the cladding grant that they hope to get will not cover the costs of dealing with things such as flammable insulation or faulty firebreaks.
Many leases are buy-to-let, and the landlords often just do not care—at Arboretum Place, only five people turned up to discuss a way forward. The owner-occupiers cannot even begin to sort out the mess if the landlords will not engage. Responsibilities are diffuse, ownership is often shady and stakeholders shirk their obligations. I have had freeholders refusing point blank even to consider that they have a moral duty to help, developers refusing to turn up to meetings and insurers profiteering.
The Government said that leaseholders should not have to pay, but my leaseholders need Government action, not warm words. Developers, freeholders, builders, manufacturers and regulators should all contribute, but only the Government can force them to do so. The support package still has too many gaps—insufficient funding, arbitrary height thresholds, unaffordable loans and the ignoring of all the other defects. The issue will not go away—we will not let it—until the Government act comprehensively and thoroughly so that homes are made safe and leaseholders are not forced to foot the bills.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing this debate.
The Government have done a great deal—I recognise that—with the money and funding made available. Equally, however, it is not enough, because the quantum of money available is not adequate and does not cover all the consequences of the regulatory failure that has put many people, including constituents of mine, in an impossible situation. It will be necessary for the Government to look again. Let me explain why that is important.
We have already heard about the dire position that many flat owners are placed in. Many of them have done the right thing in many ways—they have sought to buy their own homes—and they have done the things that my party has urged them to do. Now, they feel cut adrift. Many are people at the lower of the income scale, and many bought these properties as their entry into the housing market. Key statistics show, for example, that some 59% of the homeowners caught in this situation have an income of less than £50,000, and 33% of less than £35,000; when they are being hit with massive bills of tens of thousands of pounds, that is not very much—on properties that are unmortgageable or unsaleable.
In Northpoint, in my constituency, residents have collectively paid more than £0.5 million on a waking watch, on top of £120,000 for the installation of a temporary fire alarm. In some cases, the evidence shows that people are paying up to £50,000 a month. Also, as has been observed, insurance premiums have shot through the roof. In one London block, for example, the premium increased from £130,000 to £690,000. That is despite the fact that, in some cases, those buildings have been approved by the Department for the ACM remediation scheme and have put alarms in place. None the less, the insurance industry has, frankly, made unreasonable and unjustified levels of profit, and it needs to put its house in order, too.
We do need to pursue those at fault in the cladding scandal—the contractors and the builders—but that will take time, and it may take years. The leaseholders need help with cash flow. That is why the Government should be making available not just grants but loans to be recouped from those who are ultimately responsible. Only the Government have the cash flow to enable these people to move on with their lives. There is not just an economic cost but a massive personal and social one, too, for the victims of the cladding scandal.
I do apologise.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on talking so passionately, as others have, about the unaffordable cost to our constituents of waking watches and insurance bills. We all know that those costs are to pay for the symptom of the problem; they will never remedy the problem itself, but they will eventually end up bankrupting people.
My constituent Hayley Tillotson saved up for four years to buy her flat. She called it:
“The proudest moment of my life.”
Just before Christmas, she had to declare herself bankrupt and hand back the keys to her dream home. Why? Because the waking watch fee was the same as her mortgage, and she did not have the money to pay it. The point I want to make is simply this: despite the steps the Government have taken, without something else happening, these so-called interim costs will continue to be demanded in the months and years ahead because the buildings will not have been made completely safe. Why is that? Dangerous cladding is only part of the problem. The other part is that wooden balconies and walkways, flammable insulation and missing fire breaks have been discovered time and time again as innocent leaseholders learn that their block was not constructed even to the building standards of the time.
The Minister knows perfectly well that leaseholders do not have the money to fix those other fire safety defects. When the Secretary of State was pressed on that, he said that the taxpayer could not be expected to meet the cost of fixing any safety defect on any building of any height. That is a fair point, although successive Governments do bear some responsibility because they presided over the scandal. But the people who really should pay—the developers, the builders and the freeholders—should be asked for the money. The Government have created the means through the tax and the levy announced by the Secretary of State, so they should provide loans to fix the problem and recoup the money from those three sources.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply to my written question about whether works to remove dangerous cladding that are funded by the building safety fund will be delayed if insufficient funds are available to fix the other fire safety problems. A press report suggested that that could happen, but his reply implied that it would not. Could he clarify that in responding?
The fact remains that until sufficient funds are identified, the costs will continue to drain the resources and the spirits of all the leaseholders caught up in this nightmare. The question to the Minister remains a simple one: he knows that leaseholders cannot afford to fix the other problems, so what is his plan for getting them fixed?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing the debate. May I say how impressive her introduction was? It is a reflection of the immense talent she brings to the House.
I will speak briefly, because I promised my constituents who live at the Ballymore development at High Point Village in Hayes that I would take every opportunity I could to raise their concerns. Like other Members, I find it virtually impossible to describe the distress that my constituents have experienced and are going through. It started the day after Grenfell, when they were concerned about their own safety, but it then took a long time to get a thorough inspection under way.
The developer has behaved totally irresponsibly and is failing to communicate effectively with my constituents. In addition, we are only now into the application stage for Government assistance to tackle the cladding costs and removal, and we have discovered that, as others have said, large measures will not be covered by the Government’s grant. I find it intolerable that the developer is now coming back and saying that all these other defects, which it is equally responsible for, including the wooden balconies, will not be covered in those costs. Therefore, my constituents feel that they will not be made safe, or, if they are, that it will be at a high cost to themselves and not the developers.
In the meantime, like other Members’ constituents, my constituents are being hit with increases in their service charges, particularly around insurance. There is no way that they can afford the waking watch costs that are being imposed on them. Like others, they feel lost. They are trapped in their homes. They cannot sell on. They are growing families. People are trying to move around the country to get a job, as a result of the job losses in my area, but they cannot, because they just cannot sell on. Their whole lives are being put on hold.
There has to be a sense of urgency from the Government now—a clarity about what is covered by the building grant put forward by the Government, to ensure that there is comprehensive cover. Secondly, all the interim measures have to be covered. Thirdly, there needs to be action from Government on the control of service charges imposed on many of our residents by some of these developers, whom most of us have lost confidence in, even if we had any in the beginning.
I close by re-emphasising the distress that this is causing my constituents—distress to the point that it is affecting their health. I think we have a number of mental health crises now as a result not just of what has happened to constituents because of the development of buildings that were not properly regulated or inspected and that were faultily built, but because of the distress caused by the laggard way in which the Government have handled this issue. I cannot stress enough the sense of urgency that there should be at the heart of Government about addressing these issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing this important debate. She has long been a passionate supporter of all those who have been so terribly affected by this issue, and I have no doubt that we are all immensely grateful for her tireless efforts. I also pay tribute to our nation’s heroic fire and rescue teams, who put their lives on the line every day to keep us all safe.
The fact that we have been forced to have this debate at all is a matter of deep regret. Nearly four years after the Grenfell fire, the Government are still to learn the lessons of that tragedy and to take the action that is so desperately needed to ensure that everyone is safe in their home. Too many people remain stuck in unsafe flats that they cannot sell, pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by the colossal costs of waking watches and cladding removal, and in fear of going to sleep each night. In Merseyside alone, there are 25 buildings with waking watches in operation, and there are 65 across the north-west.
With the Fire Safety Bill, the Government had the opportunity to draw a line in the sand, but that Bill failed to go far enough or fast enough, and will have done little to address the very real concerns of the many thousands of people stranded in unsafe buildings. Similarly, the £3.5 billion announced by the Communities Secretary simply will not address the scale of this crisis. While it may help people living in buildings over 18 metres, those stuck in smaller housing blocks still face being burdened with debts that many of them can never even hope to repay. Let us be clear: leaseholders should be not be forced to shoulder the costs of other people’s mistakes, but despite saying on no less than 17 occasions that leaseholders will not be forced to meet the costs of fire safety measures, that is exactly what the Government now expect thousands of people to do. The Government also said nothing about addressing the issue of non-cladding-related fire risks, such as wooden balconies, despite the considerable risks that these pose to tenants.
Finally, as we consider the Government’s failure to step up and ensure the safety of leaseholders, we must not forget the role that 10 years of sweeping funding cuts to frontline fire and rescue have played in the undermining of all our safety. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, 400 firefighters have been lost in Merseyside alone. Across the country, thousands more posts have been axed and hundreds of stations closed. The tragic consequence is that response times have fallen and our fire service’s ability to tackle incidents and save lives has been critically undermined.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for securing this hugely important debate and for her fantastic contribution, and for her tireless work on these issues, including on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, on which I serve alongside her.
Residential leaseholders are the only group involved in the cladding scandal who have no responsibility for the danger they are in every waking minute and when they are asleep. The Government, the regulators, property developers, builders—I could go on and on—all have their share of responsibility for the cost of interim fire safety measures following Grenfell, yet leaseholders still have to pay ever-increasing bills to cover these interim costs. As we have heard in heartbreaking testimonies to the HCLG Committee, many are experiencing an unimaginable toll on their mental health, from circumstances out of their control and not of their making. The lack of clarity from Government is also causing significant distress, so I hope that the Minister will today provide the further clarity that Members and campaigners are asking for. After two hours at a Select Committee on Monday, I was left with more questions than answers about who is actually responsible for this current chaos and who will pick up the tab for sorting it out.
Waking watch is one of the fastest growing service industries in England, but with no regulation and no cap on costs, there has been an increase in bankruptcies and bailiffs up and down the country. These costs are being passed on to leaseholders and come at the same time as Action for Children reports that 40% of families are struggling to feed their children. I hope that the Minister will outline exactly what support his Department is giving to those having to choose between paying for waking watch or a hot meal for their children. I also expect the Minister to clarify what further support will be provided to those leaseholders who receive universal credit and face the costs of waking watch. The uplift of £20 a week pays for less than an hour of a waking watch once a week.
It is nearly four years since the Grenfell tragedy and we are still talking about interim measures. The toxic mix of the fire safety crisis and covid is causing a public health crisis, which should be recognised by the Government. This is not only about an industry that needs reforming; it is also about a health crisis that needs addressing. Unaffordable costs heaped on top of the mental torment caused by living in dangerous buildings do not feel interim for those facing them. This has already inflicted irreversible damage on the livelihoods and wellbeing of many leaseholders across the country. I expect the Minister not only to acknowledge this injustice, but to commit to providing the urgent and immediate support needed for those leaseholders.
It is a pleasure to contribute in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on opening it so powerfully.
I represent several blocks across central Sheffield that are affected by the cladding and fire safety scandal, with leaseholders being destroyed by the failure of the Government to come up with a solution that matches the scale of the problem. The Metis building has gained a lot of public attention, and last night there was a meeting of leaseholders there. Five weeks after applying for the waking watch fund, there is still no money. Alarms take some weeks to install, so they face substantially more waking watch costs on top of the £120,000 they have already paid. There is no plan yet for missing external cavity barriers or insulation, which they are told will not come this year because of the cost, estimated at £6.2 million, for which they have been rejected by the building safety fund, meaning that they will not get an EWS1 form, leaving their properties unsaleable and them facing bills of up to £50,000.
Replacement of ACM cladding for Metis is being funded, but I have been contacted by a commercial leaseholder with a small business operating from the building who faces a bill of £327,000 to pay the shortfall on ACM remediation because of the cash limits in the scheme. She fears that will drive her out of business, after many years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall described the impact of interim costs really well. One of those interim costs is insurance, as the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) highlighted. In the Metis building, they faced a 60% increase in insurance costs. The situation is worse for residents in the Wicker Riverside complex, who were evacuated before Christmas because of multiple fire safety failings. Their building has become uninsurable, exposing them to huge risk and potential breach of mortgage agreements. They met the Building Safety Minister last week and it appears that the Government are relying on a market solution. No market solution is forthcoming. There is a precedent for the Government underwriting insurance in such situations to enable a solution. Will the Minister consider such a way forward?
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said that the Government should not foot the bill for the failings of others. He is right, but only the Government can act to hold those responsible to account, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) pointed out. Only the Government can ensure that these issues are dealt with with the urgency that is needed. We should also recognise that the Government have much more responsibility than the leaseholders, because they oversaw the flawed system of building inspections that signed off so many of these unsafe buildings. These leaseholders are the victims of comprehensive regulatory failure and that is why it is the responsibility of Government to step in, own the problem and resolve it, without any costs to leaseholders, either now or in the future, through any loans scheme.
We are talking about unbearable pressure and unimaginable strain on the young people and families who are trapped in homes that are unsafe and unsaleable. The Minister knows that this is a grave injustice. He must assure us that he will remedy it.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing it. We simply cannot raise this issue enough, as it affects so many of our constituents’ lives across the country.
I have constituents who write to me, and parents and friends who write about their loved ones; about how they feel trapped, how they have fallen into severe debt, how they are living in overcrowded situations because they cannot move home, and how they are desperately worried about their safety. Residents have been paying waking watch costs. They have seen insurance costs rocket. They have seen service charges increase. They should not have to contribute to replacing cladding, when all of this is no fault of their own. What was once their dream home has become a nightmare. I have said this before, and I am saying it again: this nightmare is their reality. This experience is something they live with daily, in real financial and emotional terms.
The Secretary of State’s long-awaited announcement last month about support for residents in dangerous buildings fell short of what is needed for the people of our country who are affected. Why was the Minister so short-sighted? Why was this whole issue absent from the Chancellor’s Budget? If residents live with unsafe cladding and fire defects, that is through no fault of their own; the height of the building should not matter either. The Government are not meeting their duty, but they are protecting developers, freeholders and insurance companies. That is what we surmise from this gross inaction.
Financial support should not be non-existent for people and their families living in housing blocks beneath six storeys. The Grenfell disaster took 72 precious lives. I have to ask: what are the Government waiting for before they are motivated to act decently? The actions recommended by both the phase 1 report of the Grenfell Tower inquiry and Dame Judith Hackitt’s review are clearly not being carried out at pace. Where did the sense of urgency go?
This is not a situation where the Government can choose what to remedy and what not to remedy. In my constituency, residents of the Parkside development have been told by Peabody housing association that its remediation work will take approximately five years. In this half-decade, the residents will be made to pay for short-term solutions. I join my colleagues in saying that is entirely unacceptable. Leaseholders should not have to pay for any shortcomings that they are not responsible for, even for a short period.
I implore the Government not to allow my words and those of others to fall to the ground. This is about protecting lives, securing a home for people and families, and doing the decent thing up and down our country.
I am very grateful for the extra 30 seconds, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for organising this debate and speaking so brilliantly in opening it. In West Ham, we have the highest take-up of furlough and unemployment is up 240% since the pandemic began—it is grim. That is what people in Newham already face, and the costs and stresses of so-called interim fire safety measures come on top of that really difficult reality. Interim means that until the blocks of flats have been certified and, if necessary, remediated, people are in limbo, and that is proving to be a really long time. Because of these measures, residents are still living with the constant reminder that their building is not safe. It preys on their mind, and they are paying through their nose for the privilege.
Zain’s block was found to be unsafe, but the original developer of his building is now operating another company. It has refused to take responsibility, so the costs will inevitably fall to Zain and the other residents of his block. The Minister knows full well what I think about that. I would be grateful to him if he touches on what he can do to help Zain and other residents in similar circumstances.
Before the expensive remediation work even begins, Zain has been faced with massive bills. The insurance premium for the block has rocketed from £3,500 to £280,000. Unbelievably, Zain was asked to cover 2021’s bill with one day’s notice. Then there is the cost of the new alarm system, round after round of surveys, a new managing agency and even the dreaded waking watch. Overall, that could cost Zain £20,000—probably more. His building is not a high rise, so unless the Government change tack, the estimated £40,000 per household for the cost of remediation will not be covered fully either. Zain is terrified. He is going to have a bill of £60,000 and upwards in total.
I cannot emphasise enough what a strain this issue is putting on my constituents’ lives, their relationships, their ability to move on, and their mental health. It is so unfair. Time and again, Ministers have promised that leaseholders trapped in these situations will not have to pay to fix problems that they did not cause, but as I said before, with the interim costs, leaseholders are already paying. That is why so many people were bitterly disappointed when the Government rejected Labour’s amendments and the McPartland-Smith one-two. I really hope that today the Minister will provide us with fresh assurances that we can pass to Zain and the thousands of others that this seemingly endless awful situation will finally be resolved, and that the Government will step up.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) for her powerful opening to the debate, and all colleagues from across the House, whose speeches reflect the frustrations, anger, mental health worries and financial worries experienced by my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth. I have many of these buildings with a huge series of defects—not just fire safety, but the wider building defects that have been referred to. My constituents’ experiences reflect those shared by other hon. Members.
I will give some examples away from the fire safety issues: compartmentation, cladding, foam inside the walls of the buildings, and balconies have been touched on already, but there are other issues. I discovered in one of my blocks issues with the foul water system. It had not even been connected in one leaseholder’s flat, and as a result, sewage flooded into her flat. It was found later that it had been propped up on a Starbucks cup. That is what we are talking about; those are the defects in buildings that people are having to put up with. It is completely unacceptable, and residents simply should not have to put up with the cost of remediation. It is not their responsibility; it is the responsibility of the original developers who built the buildings, as I have maintained throughout this. Government must step in to act because the time it will take is clear, as many colleagues have said.
My residents have also been hit with many interim costs, such as waking watches, investigations into materials and the state of walls, or insurance costs, which have been mentioned. I have met the Association of British Insurers and the wider industry to raise concerns about that. The Government must work with insurers to ensure that we do not get to a situation where insurers pull out and residents, such as those in one of my blocks, are suddenly hit with thousands of pounds in additional insurance premiums that they simply cannot afford, not least in the current pandemic. Many of these residents are key workers and are struggling. Some have retired and do not have the money to pay these bills.
I welcome the investment that the Welsh Government have promised to deal with these issues. In their Budget, in contrast to the Chancellor’s, there was a specific section on support for leaseholders. The Welsh Government are going to make an additional £32 million available to deal with fire and building safety defects, on top of the £10.6 million that they have already promised. They are very clear about their position and have been putting pressure on developers. I am pleased to say that in recent weeks we have seen some movement from Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey, which have both announced different funds. I am due to meet Taylor Wimpey in order to understand the full details in the days to come.
I want to come to the Minister. There has been a lack of co-operation with the Welsh Government, where there is need for co-operation across the UK because this is a UK-wide scandal. I have repeatedly asked the Minister for details on the new levy, the new tax and what new money will be made available for Wales, and I have had one-line answers from him. I hope he will get around the table with his officials and the Welsh Government Housing Minister, Julie James, who wants to work in a constructive way on the Building Safety Bill, as we have done on the Fire Safety Bill, so that we can get a solution that works for the whole UK, including my leaseholders and residents in Wales, and get them the answers they need.
At the moment they are left in the dark, with additional worries because they see the Secretary of State making big announcements and then brushing away anything to do with Wales. That is not the way to handle the situation. My leaseholders want answers, they want them now, they want justice and they want to work co-operatively across the UK, to find a solution to their terrible circumstances.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on bringing this important debate.
As the cladding scandal rolls on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Government are not concerned enough with the physical safety or financial security of my constituents who are living every single day in unsafe housing. The Government’s position on the waking watch measures are just one example of that. Committing to the use of waking watches, as the National Fire Chiefs Council suggests, would mean committing to temporary measures that would go on indefinitely. In its written submission to the Public Bill Committee on the Fire Safety Bill, the Fire Brigades Union stated that it was unable to support the use of waking watches in that way, for fear that it would become
“a de facto permanent state of affairs.”
Temporary measures such as those have been in place since the Grenfell Tower tragedy in 2017. The word “temporary” is losing its meaning and I would be grateful if the Minister would address that in his response, because constituents are now faced with bankruptcy, with the cost of waking watches placed at their door.
The other matter I would like to raise is the overwhelming financial burden being placed on leaseholders who are also legally freeholders. I draw on the example of the Limehouse West estate in my constituency, to bring the matter to the Minister’s attention. Limehouse West was owned by the Canal & River Trust until November 2019, when about 60% of the leaseholders got together to buy the freehold. They did that for a number of reasons. They wanted to take charge of their estate, as the Canal & River Trust was extremely slow to respond and do anything around the estate, and my constituents did not want to pay the ground rent.
In the context of the ongoing cladding scandal, for those constituents, being their own freeholders included some benefits. There was no risk of the Canal & River Trust choosing wildly expensive or unnecessary remedial works and then saddling leaseholders with costs, or the Canal & River Trust doing nothing for years and the flats staying almost unsellable while waiting for the EWS1 certificates.
Many of my constituents on that estate are both freeholder and leaseholder. The Government say that leaseholders should not have to pay a penny. Who pays for any cladding and remediation works at Limehouse West and similar estates in my constituency, including for interim measures? If it is the freeholders, 60% of my constituents on that estate will bear the cost of the work that will benefit all of them, without any means of recovering those costs. Many of my constituents who are freeholders-leaseholders feel that it is very unfair. If it is the original developers who should pay, there is the difficult legal problem of making this happen. In the case of the estate, the developer is the absolutely awful Bellway, which tells me that it will not pay for something that was completed over 20 years ago.
I would be grateful if the Minister could help distinguish where leaseholders are also freeholders in response to the costs of interim measures and the wider costs of remediation works. Does he believe there should be parity between the burden placed on freeholders-leaseholders and leaseholders only where the freehold has been bought out by a party that is not related to the original developer in any way? I really believe that the building industry should have to take a greater burden, but in the absence of that, it would be great to get clarification from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on the eloquent way in which she introduced the subject. She went through the eye-watering costs, and she powerfully made the point that the costs are there week in, week out, until the defects are removed.
I state for the record my co-chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on leasehold and commonhold reform, and I am a patron of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, which brings its expertise to the APPG and has helped to secure many of our experts, who between them have put together what I consider to be credible and fair proposals to try to deal with many of the issues that have been raised today. As things stand, what the Government are proposing is not credible or fair, and it will not deal with the plethora of building safety issues that leaseholders have been lumbered with.
When the Secretary of State made his announcement in the main Chamber, we were told that the Government’s plans would give certainty to leaseholders, but anyone who heard the Minister’s evidence before the Select Committee on Monday will have been left with the impression that certainty is one of the things that is clearly missing at the moment. We still do not know who will be the legally responsible body for the remediation, and it looks like there is still a huge risk that leaseholders will find themselves saddled with a debt that they have not consented to and should not be responsible for.
The reality is that we have moved from statements that Ministers have made in the past about the strong expectation on freeholders to put matters right, to the shameful position that we are now in, which is frankly a bit of muddle. However, it is looking more and more likely that freeholders will have their assets invested in and brought up to scratch at no cost and at no risk to themselves. I cannot put any other interpretation on Lord Greenhalgh’s statement on Monday to the Select Committee. He said:
“We are not asking any of the building owners to make any contribution to the remediation costs.”
I cannot take that to mean anything other than innocent leaseholders will end up picking up the bill. If that is where we end up, it surely means that the thousands of pounds that leaseholders are paying out to help keep themselves safe will be theirs alone to meet.
Despite two updates to the waking watch guidance and recommendations that interim alarms are installed, we have sites that have needed both a waking watch and interim alarms for years, costing the leaseholders a huge amount of money, which it seems they will never get back. After 44 months, there has been no impact assessment of the costs and benefits of such interim measures. Despite the Government producing data that they say would allow leaseholders to challenge the reasonableness of the costs, there is no evidence that leaseholders have been able to do so in the tribunal.
It is also worth pointing out that, in addition to the extra costs, leaseholders have found that their insurance premiums—even in buildings with no history of fire safety issues—have skyrocketed by an average of 400%, which is financially devastating. The money has to be paid by leaseholders every week, and they currently have no prospect of recovering it. These are people who, through no fault of their own, have been left in an impossible position. They deserve our support, and they deserve a solution. At the moment, they are having to pay three times: once for the property, once for the defects that we are talking about at the moment, and also for interim measures in the meantime. When the Minister responds, I want him to tell us where else people pay three times to get the same thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) on securing the debate and on her continuing fight for leaseholders across her constituency. I also thank her for focusing this debate on an aspect of the building safety crisis that has received less attention in the House but is equally financially crippling, as she has argued, for leaseholders up and down the country.
In fact, I thank the 16 Members who have contributed very powerfully to the debate today. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) referred to the astronomical insurance costs piling on to leaseholders in her constituency. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) argued that manufacturers that have gamed the testing system should contribute by paying for interim measures and more. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) spoke about the nightmare that is the EWS1 system, and debt piled on top of debt in the midst of the covid crisis.
The costs for leaseholders have dominated the headlines over the past few years. We are nearly four years on from Grenfell, where 72 people tragically lost their lives, but today’s debate demonstrates the importance of breaking the costs down to expose exactly what constitutes the unimaginable debt being imposed on leaseholders for defects that they did not cause. People are literally going bankrupt.
Across the country, leaseholders are trapped in dangerous buildings. They are unsure of when their home will be made safe or how much that will cost them, but as soon as a building is judged to be unsafe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall pointed out, the costs start piling up. Additional safety measures, often in the form of 24-hour waking watches, are put in place, and leaseholders have little choice but to foot the bill—they either do so or become homeless—which is £174 million a year. Far from being temporary, as the word “interim” would suggest, there are waking watches that have now been in place for years, and they will probably be in place for even more years to come. The cost for each leaseholder is more than £500 a month on average and, in many cases, much, much more, as we have heard throughout today’s debate.
After refusing repeatedly to help leaseholders to cover these costs, the Government have now provided some—I say “some”—funding to fit alarm systems in some buildings, those that are 18 metres and above in height. That will reduce the need for a waking watch, but once again, the Government’s actions have come far too late and fall far short of what is needed. We know that waking watches are present in about 800 buildings, but the £30 million provided by the Government will cover at most 460—a figure far lower than the number of buildings with waking watches in London alone, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Does the Minister think that, when it comes to safety, this type of funding lottery is right? I am also concerned by reports that even after fire alarms are installed, evacuation managers are required in some blocks and, again, it is leaseholders who are left paying the bill. Can the Minister say whether he has looked into how many buildings this actually impacts?
Safety costs are, of course, not the only interim costs that leaseholders are incurring. A survey from the Association of Residential Lettings Agents—my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) referred to this— has found that insurance costs have risen on average by 400%. For one in 10 blocks, the cost of insurance is now 10 times or more what it was just a year ago. This is a picture that takes us from Sheffield, where a building is uninsurable, to Manchester, to Birmingham and to London. Hikes of 1,000%-plus are not uncommon.
Lord Greenhalgh, the Minister responsible for building safety, is due to meet insurers in yet another roundtable this week. Can this Minister confirm whether that roundtable will be the one that finally sorts out the problem and intervenes in the insurance market? Ultimately, the only way to stop interim costs continuing is to get buildings safe quickly. Some are still left worrying whether, when that day comes, they will be left with a bill not just for cladding, but for a host of fire safety defects not covered by the building safety fund, as pointed out by hon. Members in this debate today. Many buildings below 18 metres will now be saddled with an unwarranted and unwanted loan on top of interim costs—mortgages, service charges and much more.
We were promised details of the Government’s new funding at the Budget by the Minister himself, but yet again leaseholders were let down. The Chancellor did not even bother to mention cladding or the building safety crisis. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to do what the Chancellor did not do and provide us with details of the new arrangements, and how about updating my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on co-operation with the Welsh Government? Costs for leaseholders go far deeper than the financial cost. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, mental health and stress are taking a toll. These are all consequences of the scandal as the bills pile up.
Nearly four years on after Grenfell, the very first step that the Government should have taken, which they still have not done, despite our repeated calls, was to establish the extent of the crisis and properly prioritise buildings according to risk. They have not provided sufficient upfront funding to start getting dangerous cladding and other materials off these buildings immediately. They have not protected leaseholders from the costs, as promised over and again. It is about time the polluter genuinely does pay for the building safety scandal. I hope the Minister will answer the questions asked by me and other hon. Members today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and all other Members who have spoken on behalf of their constituents and contributed so passionately and eloquently to this debate on a matter that we all care deeply about. The consequences of the Grenfell fire were catastrophic for the people and the community involved, and have been complex and wide ranging for many people across our country as a result. That is why—then, since and now—we are taking clear and decisive action to provide an unprecedented sum of money, more than £5 billion of taxpayers’ funds, for building safety to protect those most at risk.
In the short time that I have I will speak to the issue of cladding remediation and also to the title of the debate, interim fire safety costs. I will answer as many hon. Members’ questions as I can. If I do not complete that task in the allotted time, I am happy to follow up and write to Members subsequently.
The biggest cost facing leaseholders affected by building safety is cladding remediation. It is unacceptable for leaseholders to face those unaffordable costs. That is why we committed £1.6 billion of taxpayers’ money to accelerate the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding on the highest risk buildings—those over 18 metres in height—after the Grenfell tragedy. That was driven by the remediation of the most dangerous form of cladding, as the House will know—aluminium composite material cladding. I am pleased to say that as a result of that disbursement, 95% of those high-rise buildings with ACM have either begun or completed remediation work. It is also fair to say that the private sector has stepped up to the plate with respect to ACM, as something like 50% of the privately held buildings with ACM cladding have had the ACM removed as a result of the buildings’ owners, the developers or the warranty holders acting to replace the cladding.
However, we have not stopped there. We recognise that there are other forms of dangerous cladding on high-rise buildings and we have acted to remediate those through the building safety fund. Something like 500 registered buildings with other types of unsafe cladding are now proceeding with a full application to that fund, but we have not stopped there, either. We have allocated £3.5 billion to remediate all buildings above 18 metres that have unsafe cladding, an investment that totals over £5.1 billion. I suspect that when all of the taxpayer funds are added up, significantly more money will be spent by the taxpayer to remediate this problem.
I would also like to explain why 18 metres is the threshold trigger. It is because it is right that we prioritise those buildings that represent the greatest risk to residents in the event of a fire. Home Office analysis shows that buildings between 18 and 30 metres in height are four times more likely to suffer a fire with fatalities or serious casualties than any other apartment building. Building standards become more restrictive over 18 metres; the presumption on firefighting tactics changes over 18 metres. It is a well-established boundary used by the National Fire Chiefs Council in its operational guidance, it is used by the Building Research Establishment, and it is used in the independent expert guidance that we have received.
Why cladding? It is because we know that it acts as a fire accelerant and that is of greatest risk in high-rise blocks. That is a fact noted in the independent report by Dame Judith Hackitt and the independent advisory panel, to which Dame Judith spoke in a newspaper article, again just a few weeks ago. That is why we focus on cladding and why we focus on buildings over 18 metres in height.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members asked questions during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) asked for some clarification on what is covered by the remediation package that we have tabled. I can tell him that the remediation package includes works that are integral to the safe remediation and removal of cladding on buildings that are at risk, so it includes such things as fire cavity barriers. They, too, are included in the package, if they need to be remediated as part of the safe removal of the unsafe cladding.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) asked whether I would clarify that no leaseholder will be required to fund additional works as a condition of receiving Government funding for cladding remediation. I was pleased to answer a similar question that he had tabled in written form and I am pleased to confirm here in the Chamber that, as I said then, no leaseholder will be required to fund additional works as a condition of receiving Government funding for cladding remediation. I hope that that answer helps the right hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked whether we are engaged with the devolved Assemblies in Scotland and Wales. Yes we are, and we will continue to discuss the Building Safety Bill with them; I think we meet them on a monthly basis to do so.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) asked about leaseholders who are also freeholders, and whether they would be able to benefit from the waking watch fund. The answer is yes.
As a result of the package that we have pulled together—as a result of the £5.1 billion in public money that we are spending, the tax and levy that we will impose on the developers, and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ announcing a few days ago, in addition to its announcement last November, that the scope of the EWS1 form is going to be significantly reduced so that in total nearly 1 million households will now no longer have to face an EWS1 form and are effectively de-scoped from the risks that they had previously thought they might face—we are trying, I think successfully, to persuade the risk industry and the lending sector that they need to get risk, lending and valuation back into proper proportion. They must put aside the “computer says no” approach, properly assess the risk of buildings and their fire hazard, and properly ascribe value to them again, so that people living in those properties can get on with their lives. We are confident that as a result of that package the risk and lending industry will do that, and that we can begin to move on—and the people in those homes can begin to move on.
We have also discussed interim measures in the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vauxhall for addressing the point so eloquently. As I said, public safety is our first priority. We want to target funding where it is needed most, removing and replacing unsafe cladding to make the homes and the people who live in them safer more quickly. We have followed the National Fire Chiefs Council’s guidance to support the installation of waking watch or a common fire alarm where we need to ensure there are proper measures in place to guard against tragedy in the event of fire. However, we are also clear that those measures are a short-term strategy. They are a vital first step in ensuring that a building remains safe, but not an alternative—there is no alternative—to remediation. That is the reason we have spent so much time and are disbursing so much money to ensure that the problem is properly resolved.
As we have heard, too many waking watches have been in place for far too long. Leaseholders are being left to pick up often exorbitant bills. Data has shown that the most cost-effective means of protecting residents’ safety is through a fire alarm system. That, again, is evidence-based, and guidance is published by the National Fire Chiefs Council. That is why we are providing £30 million for the costs of installing an alarm system in high-rise buildings—again following the guidance of Dame Judith Hackitt and others—which have waking watch systems, where the costs are being passed on to residents; because those buildings have the highest risk and those residents face the highest costs. The fund opened on 31 January in all areas except for private sector buildings in Greater London. The deadline for applications is 14 March and the objective is to install those alarms as quickly as possible.
In contradiction to what the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, we are moving quickly to disburse those funds: £22 million has already been delivered to local or regional authorities, because they are best placed to know the buildings that most need local support. In London, subject to a mayoral decision, the Greater London Authority will administer the fund in Greater London, and the fund will open to private sector buildings in London on 18 March. We felt it was wrong to delay the implementation of the fund and wait for London, which of course has the largest number of high-rise and at-risk buildings. We did not think that other areas should have to wait. In Birmingham and the west midlands, for example, Mayor Andy Street has been quick on the case, and other authorities have done the same, so I encourage the GLA and the Mayor of London to take advantage of the funds and disburse them as quickly as possible, to ensure that the people of London who are facing exorbitant waking watch costs can take advantage of this opportunity.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall also talked about the number of eligible buildings in London. We are taking sensible, clear advice, and the National Fire Chiefs Council has identified 400 buildings across the country that are at risk of fire and in need of support for waking watch remediation, 216 of which are in London. That is why we are confident that the £30 million we have allocated will be sufficient to deal with the challenge of waking watch in those high-rise buildings where the costs are being passed on to the leaseholder.
There is a shared desire across the House to ensure that residents are safe in their homes, and that leaseholders are protected from unaffordable costs. That is why we introduced the scheme and the generous financial package to support leaseholders in buildings less than 18 metres. I suspect that the announcements made by RICS in the past several months will also support them, and that the lending industry and risk industry, getting itself back into proper proportion, will also support them.
These debates are vital as we work together to protect leaseholders, so I thank the hon. Lady again for raising the issue and for speaking so passionately and eloquently in support of her constituents. I thank all other right hon. and hon. Members for doing the same. This is a crucial issue for us. We will continue to address it and we will bring forward the building safety Bill as soon as possible.
I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions; all raised excellent points. That highlights the consensus of all Members across the House.
I thank the Minister for his comments, but respectfully, his argument about prioritising the high cost of remediation work is a sideshow, a false economy and morally bankrupt. We need to look at how we can help our constituents now. These interim costs will not go away. I look forward to writing to him to highlight some of the questions I posed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered residential leaseholders and interim fire safety costs.