[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2019-21, Cladding Remediation—Follow-up, HC 1249; Fifth Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2019-21, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill, HC 466; and Second Report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2019-21, Cladding: progress of remediation, HC 172.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2022, for expenditure by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £15,676,146,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 14 of Session 2021-22,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £2,820,587,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £16,461,164,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Scott Mann.)
Before I call Clive Betts, the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, to open the debate, let me inform the House that, as there are clearly a lot of Members who want to speak, there will be a five-minute time limit on speeches, which will be on the screens.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this important debate. I realise that the whole of the nation will be watching their television sets this afternoon, totally interested in the proceedings in the House on this important issue—but, seriously, four years on from Grenfell, the one thing that we should be able to agree on is that we should do everything necessary to ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell never happens again.
We have had the Hackitt review and the draft building safety Bill on which the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee did pre-leg scrutiny, both of which are welcome steps forward. I will ask many questions this afternoon. I probably will not be able to put all of them on the record, but the Committee will write to the Minister afterwards and set out a list of questions in the public domain, if that is helpful. First, when will the building safety Bill in its final form be published? Can we have a timetable for that? Four years after Grenfell, thousands of families are still living in unsafe homes and facing bills they cannot afford. In many cases, their lives are put on hold because they cannot sell the homes they live in and move on. That puts enormous pressure on the mental health and wellbeing of those families.
The Committee has produced three reports about building safety and cladding issues, and I have with me the most recent one, “Cladding Remediation—Follow-up”, which we published in April. Because it is an estimates day, I will concentrate on resources and Government funding—or sometimes the lack of Government funding. Do the Government yet know how many homes are unsafe and what the estimates are to put them right? There is a second, general point that we have repeated over and over again in our reports. We ought to be absolutely clear that we establish
“the principle that leaseholders should not pay anything towards the cost of remediating historical building safety defects”
for which they are not responsible. One of the questions we will probably ask—the second question—is: will the Minister confirm that that is still the Government’s policy? It has changed from time to time.
In recognising that significant funding has been made available by Government, let me go through the funds. On the £600 million funding to remove aluminium composite material cladding—the cladding that was on Grenfell—progress has been a little disappointing. Could the Minister explain, probably with an answer in writing at some point, when the removal of all ACM cladding will be finished and why there are still 33 buildings with ACM cladding where remediation work has not started?
The Select Committee was also at the forefront of pushing for funding to remove other forms of dangerous cladding. The first £1 billion building safety fund was clearly not adequate: it was on a first come, first served basis, which was not appropriate. It is therefore welcome that the fund is now £5 billion, but why are only buildings over 18 metres covered? What risk assessment has been done to determine that? Has an estimate been done of whether the extra £3.5 billion will be sufficient? Why is the £3.5 billion not so far covered in the estimates? Has the funding profile for that money and the years that it will be spent over now been agreed? If so, can we know what it is? Why have 2,000 registrations for the fund not progressed? Are the Government satisfied that those buildings are safe even though their claims on the fund, having been registered, have not moved any further forward?
Have we any further information on how the loan scheme for buildings between 11 and 18 metres will work? Ministers have been unable to explain any of it in previous discussions. They have said that neither leaseholders nor freeholders will be responsible for the debt for the loan, so who will be responsible? Have Ministers any idea what the total cost of the loan scheme will be? How many buildings will it cover? Do they accept that for some buildings it will mean a debt of several thousand pounds, running over many years, before the final costs are paid off?
Does the Minister accept that buildings under 11 metres, which are not covered by the building safety fund or the loan scheme, could still be at risk? How many such buildings are there? What risk assessment has been done on them?
Why has social housing been excluded from all the funds apart from the original ACM fund? Does the Minister accept the National Housing Federation’s figure that it could cost £10 billion for housing associations to put right building safety defects in their homes? If that is to be done without any Government support, do the Government accept that that money will come out of commitments that would otherwise have been made to build new homes or refurbish existing homes? What assessment have the Government done of the impact of not allowing social housing to claim against the building safety fund?
One of the biggest issues is that, apart from cladding removal, the building safety fund does not cover building safety defects. We know that there are faulty balconies, faulty fire doors, missing fire breaks and faulty insulation. Why have those issues been omitted from the fund? What risk assessment has been done of that? Do the Government accept that some leaseholders are facing bills of £50,000 to put right defects in their home other than cladding? Does the Minister accept that buildings that have claimed and received money from the building safety fund to put right cladding problems are being left with other defects that make their homes unsafe? In some cases, we are spending enormous sums of public money and the end result will still be homes that are not safe, because other defects remain that the leaseholders simply cannot afford to put right. Is that an acceptable situation?
Does the Minister accept the Select Committee’s proposal that we should now have a comprehensive building safety fund that covers all safety defects, not just cladding; all buildings, not just those above 18 metres or above 11 metres; and all tenures, including leasehold and social housing?
We believe that where individual developers, architects or contractors can be held accountable for defects in a particular building, they should be held accountable properly in law and made to pay. However, we know that those legal battles can go on for years and years, so essentially Government have to step in first to fund this work, putting the money into a comprehensive building safety fund, although we believe that industry in general should also pay. That includes the development industry, as well as suppliers of products, because often faulty products have been a cause of these problems.
We welcome the principle of a tax and a levy on the industry, which the Government have announced. That is a good step forward. To confirm, will the tax and levy produce money in addition to the £5 billion, or are they part of that, reducing the Government’s cost? Do we know when the money from the levy and the tax will start to arrive? Presumably the tax will need legislation, and perhaps the levy will as well. Is it true that a levy, if introduced, will be applied only when planning permission is granted? If so, it could be years down the road before a building on which the developers are due to pay the levy is actually built and the levy is handed over; we could be years away from getting any money. Will the Government confirm the likely timetable?
This issue will not go away until all homes are safe in this country. It is an issue that we will come back to as a Select Committee and, I suspect, that we will come back to over and over again in this House. This is a major challenge, and so far, bit by bit, the Government are moving steadily towards addressing it. All I would say to the Minister today is that, although progress has been made, there is still an awfully long way to go. I hope we will get a positive response from him to the recommendations in the Select Committee report. We will write to him further to list all the questions we would like answers to following the debate.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, who is always thoughtful and well informed.
The building safety Bill will be a landmark piece of legislation. I would like to see it introduced as quickly as possible, post summer recess. It will transform the regulatory system for buildings and put the safety of residents in high-rises at the heart of the regime. It will make it clear who is accountable for the safety of buildings, all the way through their life, from design to construction and occupation. I would also like it to drive a change in the culture of the building industry, because I have been shocked by some of the revelations that have come out of the Grenfell inquiry, particularly about the conduct of the building products industry.
Given that this is an estimates debate, I want to welcome the funding that the Government have made available. Of the £5.1 billion, if we add the £3.5 billion announced in February to the £1.6 billion that had already been announced, and if we also include the subsidised loans scheme, the tax on property developers and the levy on high-rises, it looks to me like a package of £5 billion to £10 billion, and it could well be in the mid to upper end of that range. However, it is clear that there are still an awful lot of outstanding issues that we need to resolve with a sense of urgency.
First, leaseholders in intermediate-height buildings of 11 to 18 metres need clarity on the financing scheme, and they need it as soon as possible, because uncertainty is not good. I understand that the loan will go with the building, as opposed to the leaseholder, but sometimes the freeholds of these buildings are not worth a lot, so if the loan exceeds the value of the freehold, how will that work?
I have tremendous sympathy for the plight of leaseholders who are facing extenuating circumstances and who are in this position—let us never forget—through no fault of their own. Every time I talk to a constituent about a new building, it exposes another complex set of problems, so I beseech the Minister to get dedicated teams at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government drilling down into the detail, building by building, and trying to resolve some of these very difficult and complex issues.
I also ask that there is some discretion. To give a quick example, there is a building in my constituency where the leaseholders paid for the remediation of ACM cladding in the expectation that the building’s owner would then apply to the fund. They have now been told that the building’s owner does not want to do that, but they find that they cannot apply to the fund because they are a third party. I would love to see discretion in that situation.
My hon. Friend is making an outstanding case, and she clearly knows this subject from every angle. Does she agree that no matter how much money the Government allocate to this issue, unless it is combined with a resolution or rule that prevents leaseholders from being charged straight away, there is little chance of leaseholders escaping the unfair financial punishments that she described so eloquently?
What I would like to see is a rigorous approach, building by building, so that we can come to solutions, because there is no question but that we need a sense of urgency and that the situation is taking a huge toll on leaseholders.
I am conscious of the time, so I will make a few other points. I am very conscious that we need to hire and train way more professionals—building assessors and fire assessors—who can get on with the work. Insurance is another huge issue. I have talked to constituents who have seen their insurance bills triple or go up fourfold. We have the template of a solution with Flood Re and the solution that we got to flood insurance. Let us be creative and see whether we can do something similar with high-rise buildings and fire risk. It is incumbent on the industry to take a balanced and sensible approach, however; in reality we will not be able to nullify every single risk. I have called previously in the Chamber for the Government to consider a tax on the building products industry in the same way as they have done on the property development sector, and I make that appeal again.
In summary, I welcome what the Government have done, but there is so much still to be done. It needs to be done with a sense of urgency, and we need to resolve these issues for buildings and leaseholders once and for all.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of a Select Committee, who has made some excellent points that I wholeheartedly endorse. I recognise many of the issues that the hon. Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) has just raised, because they affect my constituents too. It is really important to recognise that this is of course a UK-wide problem and that many of the regulations under which these buildings were built predate devolution, so even though some of the responsibilities now sit with the Welsh or Scottish Governments, this is a legacy of failure within the building and construction industry, in the way that leasehold operates, and on many other issues that we have discussed in the House on a number of occasions.
I have been contacted yet again in the past few weeks by residents in Cardiff South and Penarth. I have thousands of apartment units in my constituency. Let us recognise that this issue is not just about new builds; it is also about conversions. I have many old docks buildings in Cardiff Bay and docks communities that have been converted into apartments, and I have heard from residents in a number of those buildings who are affected in the same way as those in new builds. That is why I am somewhat disappointed by the approach that the UK Government have taken in not working constructively, as they could be doing and as they have done on some related issues, with the devolved Administrations, and with the Welsh Government in particular. I will come on to that again in a moment.
I just want to reiterate here that leaseholders should not have to pay for this. Obviously the primary responsibility lies with the developers and those who built these defective buildings. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, this is not just about fire safety. I have heard horror stories about flats that have been flooded with sewage because a foul water pipe, which was not even connected, was propped up behind a wall on a Starbucks cup. I have heard about sewage flooding into apartments, balconies that are not safe to go on, windows that are not safe to open, rendering that is not suitable for the maritime environment of the Cardiff Bay area falling off buildings on to cars, let alone the whole litany of fire safety issues relating to compartmentation, doors, fire alarm systems and, of course, cladding and insulation.
This is an extraordinary situation and the issues are very wide ranging. The situation in which residents find themselves is completely unacceptable. It is worth emphasising the mental health toll that it is taking on many of my constituents—those who have bought properties in good faith and then find themselves facing extraordinary bills while they have been going through the same difficulties that everybody in the country has been going through in the past year. Many of them face difficulties around their own jobs and incomes, and this has been an additional pressure on top of that.
First, I would like the Minister to speak to his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and in the Treasury to urge them to sit down with the Welsh Government and answer some of the very reasonable questions that are being put to the Department by the Minister for Housing and Local Government in Wales, Julie James. On 23 June, she had to write again to the Secretary of State to get some basic answers. Let me quote from the letter that she sent:
“In my previous correspondence, I raised the importance of joint working and meaningful engagement on this topic. I urgently requested details of the level and timing of consequential budget allocations, following the large announcements that the UK Government made about the Building Safety Fund.”
The Secretary of State had previously replied and said that the Barnett formula would play in the usual way, yet the Welsh Government have not been able to get any details of the actual amounts of money, or when it would come through. The Housing Minister is rightly asking for the amount of consequential funding that Wales will receive from the additional amounts announced by the UK Government and when it will receive it. That is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, and I find it extraordinary that officials and Ministers have not been able to sit down with the Welsh Government, who want to work constructively with the UK Government on this issue for the benefit of leaseholders to answer those questions.
I hope that we will not only get an answer on that, but some further clarity on how the proposed tax and levy will work. Again, the Welsh Government are willing to work with the UK Government on this, as they did on the Fire Safety Act 2021. Again, we are not getting the communication that we would expect.
Secondly, on EWS1 forms, I recognise what the hon. Member for Kensington said. I am concerned that much of the new guidance is not flowing through. It came into effect on 5 April, but I am still being contacted by residents who are not getting the right answers on that matter from lenders, freeholders or estate management companies. What is happening on that? How many of the new chartered fire engineers and surveyors who are supposedly being trained are now in place and able to deal with the backlog of surveys?
I have two other points. One is that we need to look at the international examples. This situation faces many other cities and jurisdictions around the world. I think of Vancouver, which I know very well. The provincial government there had to pay out $3 billion to $5 billion to cover what was called the leaky condo scandal, with many similar issues around building safety defects. What are we learning from those examples around the world?
Lastly, just to be clear, this is not just about fire safety, critical as that issue is, but about all of those other issues, which is why we need to have the Building Safety Bill and answers to these questions as soon as possible.
The passage of time does not always heal wounds or lessen the pain and anger that people feel over wrongs done to them, to their loved ones, or even to their communities. Grenfell will not and should not be forgotten. The failure of Governments to ban the use of flammable cladding will be an issue that will echo for quite a while yet, and I hope that the Government now find that their conscience directs them to ensure that the people who have been adversely affected by that failure to properly regulate will be compensated adequately.
Stark, too, is the impression that profits have come before people. There have been reports that the less expensive cladding was used in some buildings in spite of concerns over its safety. I cannot quite decide whether the people making those decisions felt that fire was so unlikely that it was a risk worth taking so long as it was not their houses the stuff was going on, or they do not concern themselves all that much with possible future events in the buildings they are commissioning. This is perhaps one of the great divides in society and in politics —do you place people above profit or profit above people? Do you value people for the contribution they make to the economy or value the economy for the contribution it makes to society? I do not expect us all to find common ground in the near future, but we can at least agree that profits should not come at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing. Many of us have constituents who find themselves deeply affected by the shaking out of these issues—people who are finding it difficult to sell their flat, who need additional certification to get mortgage decisions in their favour, and who have found that some insurers are backing out of these properties or, alternatively, are demanding substantially increased premiums. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussions the team in the Department have been having with insurance companies on these matters.
There is a case to be made for people who find themselves stuck, through no fault of their own, being helped by Government and by the regulatory agencies. There is a case for the Government to provide moneys for the surveys needed to clear mortgage agreements and to provide the resources to clear the substandard cladding from buildings. It would also be good if those who decided that it was good business to install it were pursued to pay the penalty for it.
A good start from the perspective of good government would be to copy the example set in Scotland, where a programme of whole building inspections—it is being referred to as a single building assessment—is to be carried out, saving individual property owners the expense and worry of arranging their own inspections for an EWS1 clearance. That programme has been funded by the Scottish Government and the first phase is about to start. The safety assessments on buildings with flatted properties will provide the evidence needed of the extent of remedial works required. The programme covers low-rise as well as high-rise, and it will mean that people in whose properties no issues are revealed will be released from safety concerns and mortgage lending problems. The programme will then move on to remediation of the buildings in need, starting with those most at risk. It was not the Scottish Government who put these homeowners in this position—in fact, this cladding has been illegal in Scotland for some years—but the mark of good government is stepping up to solve a problem for people. I am at a loss to understand why there is not, or does not seem to be, a similar Government initiative in England.
That leads on to a point about making sure that the people who put this stuff on buildings in the first place are held responsible for their actions, not only where it caused death and injury, as in Grenfell, but where it has cost homeowners financially. All too often, any homeowner who seeks financial redress finds that the firm that built the properties is no longer in existence: the people behind the project are still building, but the company no longer exists. The company, firm or legal entity is dissolved at the end of construction, leaving no one responsible should problems become evident later, with homeowners having to pick up the tab or be stuck with negative equity while those who took their profits are in no way inconvenienced. Making it easier to pursue the companies or individuals who have built those properties would be a step in the right direction.
There is also a case for regulators to be given the powers to step up. The Prudential Regulatory Authority should be looking at the performance and behaviour of insurance companies when dealing with people in properties that may or may not have cladding of questionable flammability. I have heard of some demands being made that are simply not credible. The retrofitting of wider staircases stands out as a particularly ridiculous example. If the regulator needs to be given additional powers, that can be done. That is what this place is for, surely. Perhaps it is time to start asking for reports on the behaviours of the companies involved in the construction and maintenance of properties, including the insurance companies. Let us not leave it until there is another scandal. Let us not leave it to journalists to dig out the horrors that some families may be facing. Let us do the job here before it becomes another emergency.
I start by thanking all the builders who have continued to work on construction projects, including building safety measures, throughout the pandemic.
We need more homes in Stoke-on-Trent—affordable, safe and compliant with the strictest standards, as well as in the right places. I welcome the commitment of Staffordshire’s new police, fire and crime commissioner, Ben Adams, to develop and deliver a fire plan that addresses some of the urban challenges in Stoke-on-Trent. Sadly, those challenges include sunset landmark industrial heritage buildings, many left in a perilous, unsafe and sorry state. I hope that the heritage action zone partnership we have developed in Longton with the city council and Historic England will particularly help to address this and improve the condition of buildings in the town centre conservation area. I am particularly keen to see the redevelopment of the Crown works, a short walk from my constituency office in Longton, which are unfortunately in a very dangerous state. It is important to see new housing uses on the site, and I hope we can also preserve some of the most prominent historical features. I hope the levelling-up fund bid that we have put in to catalyse a safe and sympathetic redevelopment of town centre heritage sites such as that is successful.
Indeed, there are a number of such conversion schemes across Stoke-on-Trent, where we have opportunities to repurpose redundant industrial heritage sites that are currently in an unsafe condition and high street buildings to modern housing in historic settings. In addition, multiple hectares of brownfield sites need support to safely clean up the effects of past heavy industrial uses. We have the capacity to build without eating into the green belt or protected green spaces, and we have a strong track record locally, with 99% of new housing on brownfield sites in Stoke-on-Trent over the past year. This was particularly thanks to housing infrastructure funding, which has helped bring forward work on more challenging sites in in the north of the city.
We are only too happy as a city to relieve some of the pressures across the rest of the country, but we can do that only with the right sort of financial support to address the viability constraints we face: the higher remediation costs of contaminated heavy industrial land; the heritage deficit in converting historic properties; and the wider challenges of making development work in lower-value markets. Significant new development will happen in cities such as Stoke-on-Trent only with focused investment, but this will catalyse far greater private investment on top. The market, although starting from a lower base, is extremely buoyant—it is busier than almost anywhere else, according to Zoopla—with an increased appetite for good-quality, safe development. I urge the Minister to fully support our bids for levelling-up and brownfield funding for cities such as Stoke-on-Trent, so that we can deliver on the potential of our area as well as helping to relieve wider national pressures.
I particularly welcome the 5% mortgage, which will help more first-time buyers in Stoke-on-Trent South to own their own home. We need to keep this success going, providing better opportunities locally too, with good, skilled employment for good wages. We need to plan for the necessary infrastructure improvements as well. Let me take this opportunity to ask the Minister to support our Restoring your Railway fund proposal to reopen the Stoke to Leek line, as well as further developing our plans for a new station at Meir and increasing investment in local bus services. Of course, building safety is a fundamental concern and I welcome the £5.1 billion so far allocated to the safety remediation schemes. There is always a tension between the urgency of aims and the delivery of the right remedy, so I understand the need for the Government to get the measures absolutely right as far as possible.
One final issue I must raise is the danger posed by illegal cannabis farms in residential areas. The landlord guidance issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has rightly been focused on covid safety of late, but I hope the Ministry will look carefully at how building safety encompasses the prevention of illegal uses of buildings, including to farm drugs and fund wider criminality. Power supplies are illegally tapped into and fire hazards are caused, and the human cost is considerable. Landlords who are at best naive about it and at worst complicit in cannabis farming in their properties are a live issue in Stoke-on-Trent. One residential street in my constituency has seen two cannabis farms uncovered within nine days of each other, and in Longton town centre, for a second time in two years, the derelict Woolworths building has been busted by Staffordshire police, with 1,500 cannabis plants found. MHCLG, working with the Home Office, police commissioners and local authorities, must redouble efforts to keep communities safe from buildings that have been made unsafe through illegal uses.
In conclusion, the Government are committed to higher standards of building safety, and the draft Bill stands as a testament to that, but I ask that we also see that investment in places such as Stoke-on-Trent.
I welcome the opportunity to be part of this debate about estimated Government spending on building safety, which is of course essentially about public safety. It is a very timely debate, given that the deadline for applications to the building safety fund is tomorrow. It is a fund that, this time last year, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee found to be seriously lacking, and it falls far short of the estimated £15 billion needed to address all fire safety defects, not just combustible cladding, in every high-risk residential building.
The problem goes even deeper, however, and is equally about the current height and product-based approach. Fire does not discriminate between buildings based on their height. It is illogical and nonsensical to exclude buildings of under 18 metres in height from applying to this fund. Eight blocks in my Brighton, Pavilion constituency are under 18 metres, and many more right across the country fall into this category. No wonder the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee is advocating a comprehensive building safety fund, alongside remediation that applies to all high-risk buildings of any height, irrespective of tenure; covers all fire safety defects, including combustible insulation; and covers all associated costs.
The Minister will be aware that the Committee, in common with many MPs and groups such as End Our Cladding Scandal, is also calling for a holistic risk and evidence-based approach that prioritises occupants who are most at risk and for the cost to be met by Government and industry, not pushed on to leaseholders. Yet we have constituents left in limbo and in fear, waiting for further details of the flawed loans scheme the Government announced earlier this year. The sums needed to ensure leaseholders do not pay more than £50 a month, as has been promised, simply do not stack up. Leaseholders in a block of below 18 metres in Manchester have been sent bills of over £100,000 each. It would take 169 years to pay back a loan that size if payments genuinely are capped at £50 a month without interest.
The reality is that the Government’s so-called solution will saddle people with debilitating debt and push them into bankruptcy, so the loan scheme needs to be scrapped and the gaps in existing support closed as a matter of priority, with responsibility falling where it is due. For every day that passes without the Government keeping their promise to leaseholders about fixing historical safety defects that they did not cause, remedial work is still not happening and people are still living in dangerous homes. I have so much correspondence from residents who are struggling to get responses and clearer information from their housing providers, which in turn are crumbling under the volume of inquiries and struggling to get responses from the developers they are in dispute with about defects.
Back in 2019, it was simply good luck that none of my constituents lost their lives at a fire in a block of below 18 metres in Pankhurst Avenue in Brighton. Residents lost everything, and many are still displaced and living in temporary accommodation. They are rightly horrified, as am I, that the Government’s approach has been characterised by doing the bare minimum. I invite the Minister to meet some of my constituents to hear directly from them about the impact of the building safety crisis and how that makes them feel.
That brings me, finally, to waking watch. In my constituency, I am aware of 11 blocks, totalling 686 flats, where there are questions about building safety. Two blocks with waking watches have to date incurred costs that exceed £703,000 for waking watch patrols alone. That figure increases every day that the Government do not intervene in disputes over remedial work and liability between housing providers and developers. In any case, the name of the waking watch fund is, frankly, a misnomer, given that it often does nothing more than cover the cost of alarms being installed in blocks with unsafe cladding. It does nothing to help my constituents who have been unable to get alarms installed in their blocks, and instead continue to pay for 24-hour patrols to alert residents in the event of a fire. Put simply, the waking watch fund does not cover waking watch costs.
In conclusion, the Government must absolutely deliver on the removal of all dangerous cladding from buildings by 2022 at the latest, but building safety is about more than cladding. More than four years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Government must ensure people are safe in their own homes, that buildings are remediated when needed, and that those who are affected can move on with their lives without being saddled with lifelong debt.
First, I would like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) in thanking all the builders and construction workers who have worked throughout the pandemic in Stoke-on-Trent. It is great to see new affordable, social and Help to Buy properties being completed. We need more homes that are affordable, safe and compliant with strict standards, including on non-combustible cladding, to avoid another tragedy as we learn the lessons from the heartbreak of Grenfell. We all agree that safety must come first in legislating for improved building standards. However, measures must also be proportionate. I have raised the concerns of flat- owners in my constituency who were facing real challenges with the requirement for an ESW1 form, even though their building had no cladding, and I welcome the agreement that the Government have reached to waive the need for flat-owners to have an ESW1 form when selling their properties, if their building does not have cladding.
The homes that are built need to be safe and in the right place, and for that we need to shape places to make them right. Stoke-on-Trent has no equal for friendliness, and the city’s economy is growing. With the right investment, we can deliver plenty of brownfield sites both for housing and for modern industrial development, but there are up-front costs to brownfield regeneration, and in our relatively low-value property market it is not currently commercially viable for developers to meet those clean-up costs.
Part of the reason for low property prices in the city is that our place has lost its shape, by which I mean that a raft of our potteries has closed, including some of the very biggest names that were lost in the 2008-09 financial crash. Those heritage sites are now in urgent need of repurposing. What we do have is resilience and public support for regeneration that preserves and celebrates our unique industrial heritage assets. The regeneration of Spode works is particularly exciting, providing residential growth and saving much loved and authentic built heritage, including as a hub for the cutting-edge games industry.
The legacy of the pottery industry is also present in former clay pits, and in that context I must once again raise the ongoing saga in Etruria in my constituency of a terrible sinkhole in Boatman Drive and the safety of homeowners, many of whom have not been able to access their properties by road for over a year. There are several hundred houses built on the site of an old marl hole, or clay pit. Homeowners are facing increased insurance premiums or are unable to sell their homes while the situation remains unresolved. I have raised it with the Minister for Housing, and I regret to report today that the subsidence is getting worse.
Where multiple agencies are involved, a clear process for resolving such complex situations is needed. I have met Baroness Vere, the roads Minister, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss the matter, but regulations governing the residual and ongoing responsibility for the adequate remediation of brownfield sites and subsequent protections for new homeowners when catastrophic issues arise are within the scope of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Part of the task of levelling up is to address the legacy of the past. The scars of deindustrialisation continue to make the task of regeneration complex, as places such as Stoke-on-Trent address abnormal site issues, such as land contamination, decaying industrial structures and the enduring misuse of brownfield land and old buildings.
We used to have a specialist national organisation to support local areas in dealing with these sites. English Partnerships, set up by a Conservative Government, did fantastic work in supporting areas around the country in resolving these conundrums, unlocking latent commercial value. I am very uncertain where that help and support come from today, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government to consider whether there is a case for recreating an expert body that is properly resourced to support places like Stoke to resolve these problems and therefore accelerate economic recovery.
Cities like Stoke-on-Trent with lots of brownfield sites can be unlocked for affordable housing programmes. The city council is committed to powering up the city, and we are determined that our best days are ahead of us. We are already affordable, and with the right help for tackling site abnormals and connecting development sites, we could do even more. Building affordable and safe new homes and creating more and viable commercial sites; cleaning up and greening our city by repurposing even more brownfield sites; offering new homes and new employment opportunities locally; helping other parts of the country to protect their green belt—that is what levelling up is all about. I support the Government’s investment in building safety and welcome any future investment in ensuring the safety of developments on brownfield sites.
We learned this month of the anger in Chesham and Amersham over Government housing policy. My constituents who face massive bills for waking watch and to repair defects in their leasehold homes are angry as well. Their anger is well expressed by Liam Halligan in the current issue of The Spectator, which was once edited by the Prime Minister. Liam Halligan’s article explains how the big house builders—Barratt, Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon —have used their excessive profits from the broken housing market to buy off the Tory party with donations in order to successfully maintain the current rigged system. Those firms have built tens of thousands of shoddy, dangerous homes and are now passing the cost of fixing the problem to leaseholders, and the Government are refusing to stop them. And then there is Help to Buy, which The Spectator says is
“a government subsidy focused on new builds which has overwhelmingly gone to the big operators, juicing up both house prices and profits further, while making new homes even less affordable for the majority who are unable to access the scheme.”
All this has been compounded by Tory failure on regulation. In January 2012, David Cameron made it his new year’s resolution—with a frankly chilling phrase, in hindsight—to
“kill off the health and safety culture for good.”
Tory Housing Ministers, seeing growing evidence of the need to tighten fire safety regulation, steadfastly refused to do so; it would have upset the house builders. The upshot was Grenfell Tower. NHBC, the privatised building control provider favoured by house builders because it is easier to satisfy than local authorities, signed off shoddy, defective buildings with minimal inspection, if any. It has been utterly discredited. Far from killing off the health and safety culture, Ministers have had to hand the Health and Safety Executive—the embodiment of that culture, which the Tories fortunately did not manage to “kill off”—the crucial new building safety regulator role.
The Spectator article finishes by pointing out:
“Powerful vested interests benefit mightily from this high-price, low-build-quality gridlock”
and calls for
“a full Competition and Markets Authority inquiry into UK housebuilders”.
Unlike other Members in this debate, I do not want to thank those house builders. Competition is absent from this market. The Government must now finally side with leaseholders and would-be homeowners, and take on not the building products industry, but the house builders.
The deadline for applications to the building safety fund is tomorrow, but it is very clear to me and to many other people I have been speaking to—people who are leaseholders in affected properties—that there is a lack of information about the scheme and the deadline. Surely we should therefore be asking the Minister to look at flexibility regarding applications for those people who may be eligible but are not aware that they are.
The crucial issue is that the building safety fund has had £5.1 billion committed to it, but we recognise that the cost of making safe all the buildings that are unsafe because of their cladding is in the region of £15 billion. Of course, that means that nobody in a building smaller than 11 metres would get any support whatever. I point out that nobody in my constituency lives in any building as high as 11 metres, and that is also the case in many much more urban areas than mine. But when we think that there may be up to 1 million people living in affected properties and that a few tens of thousands may get something out of that scheme, we realise that this is surely a despicable state of affairs.
Leaseholders who have done what Governments of different colours, but especially of the blue colour, have encouraged them to do over the last few decades—become homeowners and specifically those homeowners—find themselves stuck in unsafe homes that they cannot afford to make safe, and which they have no chance of selling because of that. They are utterly stuck and, in many cases, as good as ruined. There has been lots of talk about whether things might get better through the Building Safety Bill, and there have been lots of hopeful remarks from colleagues, particularly those on the Government Benches, but do they realise the impact that waiting for any news, good or bad, is having on people in that situation—people who are stuck and cannot move, people facing ruin, people afraid that the place they live in is unsafe and unsaleable?
The Government could agree to the principle of the matter today by agreeing to underwrite the cost of making safe all those buildings and ensuring that those leaseholders are not punished for something that was not their fault, particularly given that we know whose fault it was. In the first instance, the fault lies with the developers that built unsafe properties and Governments of all colours who neglected to ensure that the regulations were good enough in the first place and that they were kept to. Governments of various colours neglected the people and did not stand up for their safety, so it is right that the Government should underwrite the cost of dealing with the cladding scandal and recoup the money from the developers thereafter.
I want to refer to another matter relating to building safety that is of enormous and growing importance in my constituency in particular—the issue of Airbnb. I do not want to denigrate that whole model, the company or the people who make use of it, but it is clear that the standards that apply to people who use their homes for Airbnb are not the same as those that apply to people who are offering a holiday let. As I said last week—this is so important that I will keep repeating it until the Government do something about it—there has been a 32% increase in the number of holiday lets in the Lake district over the past few months. As hon. Members can imagine, my constituency was pretty full of them to start with. Perhaps 80% of all houses bought in my community during the pandemic have gone into the second-home market, so there is an issue with the safety of houses and properties. We must ensure that those that easily get into the letting market are held to the same level of safety as those that were historically within it.
The Government need to get a grip of this growing crisis, because it is about not just the safety of the houses but the sustainability of communities. Villages and towns throughout Cumbria are becoming ghost towns. People who were paying an affordable private rent of £600 or £700 a month are being turfed out of their flats in Grange-over-Sands, Ambleside, Kendal or Sedbergh, which then go on the market for £1,000 a week. I referred to it last week as the lakeland clearances: the clearing out of our communities, because there are ways of making more money from them, rather than having a resident population.
I ask the Minister to take note of what I have said about the building safety fund. His Government must take immediate action to change planning use for rental and second-home properties. They should become a separate category of planning use so that local authorities and national parks can do something to save their communities before it is too late.
Between April 2019 and March 2020, councils in England spent almost £1.2 billion providing temporary accommodation for homeless families. There has been a staggering 55% increase in the past five years. Temporary accommodation is now big business: 87% of that taxpayer funding went to private landlords, letting agents and companies, and every single penny was badly spent. It went to places such as Connect House in my constituency —a converted warehouse in the middle of one of south London’s busiest industrial estates, which housed 86 homeless families at an astronomical cost of up to £40 per night for squalor.
In 2010, there were 50,400 households in temporary accommodation. Fast forward through 11 years of Conservative government, and that number has almost doubled, and it now includes almost 60,000 children. For families stuck in that so-called temporary limbo, the only thing that appears temporary is the revolving door of Housing Ministers who fail to bring the rocketing number down.
This taxpayer-funded industry is completely unregulated. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to four examples that emphasise the regularity with which temporary accommodation law is broken. First, the law states that families with children must not be housed in B&Bs for longer than the six-week legal limit. Why, then, will 490 families with children spend this evening in a B&B where they have already been for longer than six weeks?
Secondly, on out-of-borough accommodation, the homelessness code of guidance makes it clear that local authorities must secure accommodation within their own borough,
“in so far as is reasonably practicable”.
It seems a fairly obvious requirement to ensure that parents can still go to work and children to their school, and that any local support and healthcare can be retained. Why, then, are 28% of households—a proportion that has doubled in the past decade—moved away from their home borough? Ross Kemp’s ITV investigation found that homeless families travel approximately 400,000 miles each year to get to their temporary accommodation. That is 16 times round the globe—hardly so far as is reasonably practical.
Thirdly, when households are moved out to different boroughs, the receiving local authority must legally be informed of their arrival. That same Ross Kemp investigation discovered that 60 councils—and, I suspect, even more—are failing to notify the receiving council.
Fourthly, any authority must, by law, ensure that any accommodation is fit for human habitation, but when I highlighted the appalling conditions at Connect House to Bromley Council, it confirmed,
“we do not currently visit and screen each individual property that we use as temporary accommodation. I’m afraid the scale of the numbers involved means this has proven not to be possible.”
How on earth can the accommodation be deemed safe and suitable if it has not been checked in the first place?
I say to the Minister that the law on temporary accommodation is broken—constantly. Everywhere. That is why I am calling for a regulator—an Ofsted, if you like, for temporary accommodation. We need an authority that will proactively enforce the law and rules that are already in place, because we know that services respond when they know that somebody is watching. I am under no illusion that this would build a single new social house for all those families who so desperately need one, but I believe that the widespread failings that a regulator would identify would encourage adequate funding and support from the Government and ensure better practice from local authorities, to make sure that the law that currently exists for taxpayer-funded temporary accommodation is finally upheld.
I am going to talk about Sulgrave Gardens, a set of blocks of flats in my constituency, not because it is unique—if one goes round the country, one sees it is certainly not—but because it illustrates a range of perils that have not only emanated from Grenfell but ramified endlessly since then, beyond, I am afraid, the reach or competence of this Government.
One of the leaseholders wrote to me just in the past week and said this:
“Sulgrave Gardens, a modern purpose built eco-friendly development, the first large scale Passivehaus development in the UK. A modern day utopia where children can run and play, families live happily in a safe and secure setting, well it would have been had the developers and builders not…chosen to use the cheapest form of cladding, flammable ACM, they covered most of the development with it”.
He went on:
“Despite both blocks being over 18m high they fail the government requirement that the height of the floor of the top most habitable level be above 18m and so are not eligible for government funding. We have families living in terror and people’s lives put on hold due to unsaleable properties, the chaos this has created for residents of Sulgrave is immense.”
For many people—not just owners, but tenants—the hope of a dream home has been sold short by the appalling standards in the building industry. It is not just about cladding or other materials; it is about construction, design, inspection, the competence of a whole industry and its negligence over a period of time. Perhaps the Minister will explain what the 18-metre rule is about. How would he feel living, as some of my constituents are, on the fourth or fifth floor of blocks that are below 18 metres but clad in ACM cladding? They still live in terror every night. That rule has to go.
We have quite rightly heard a lot of about leaseholders who suffer the triple whammy of living in unsafe premises, having to pay up huge amounts of money and being unable to sell their properties and move on with their lives, but there is no guarantee that they will be compensated, even when they have responsible and identifiable landlords, let alone when they have freeholders who are offshore.
This identifies a separate problem, which is true of Sulgrave, because the owner of Sulgrave is Octavia Housing, a well-known and long-established social landlord. It has said that it will remove the cladding and that it will seek every way it can not to charge the leaseholders, whether that is done through the National House Building Council or the builder or the developer. Of course, it cannot apply for grants because the buildings are below 18 metres. However, if it fails in that, if the Government will not provide any money, and if it does not wish to charge its leaseholders—it does not wish to charge them, but it has not ruled it out—who will pay?
The answer is that its tenants will pay. They will pay out of their general funds, and the consequence of that, as the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), has said, is that their development budgets, their repair budgets and their operational budgets will go through the floor. The four largest social providers have already said that they will cut their programmes by 40%, and that is with only a fraction of the problems discovered, so could we have an answer to this as well? How is the already lamentably small social house building programme going to be assured as a consequence of this, or are the Government going to play divide and rule between leaseholders, tenants and social landlords, which is what they seem to be doing at the moment?
There are other risks that social tenants have to suffer as well. Social housing has a disproportionate number of vulnerable people in it. Also, a large number of fires start accidentally in those premises. They often contain cheap and unsafe electrical products. That was true of Grenfell, and it was true of Shepherd’s Court in my constituency, where there was a serious tower block fire almost five years ago involving a cheap Whirlpool tumble dryer. Unless the Government are prepared to get a grip on this situation, to at least admit the scale and variety of the problems and to take the course that our Front Bench and the Select Committee have taken in providing a comprehensive solution, they will be only tinkering and playing at the edges. That is a huge disservice to my constituents in Sulgrave Gardens, to many other constituents of mine and to hundreds of thousands of people around the country.
I would like to thank my fellow Select Committee member, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for opening the debate and for leading the Committee in its efforts to hold the Government to account on the national cladding scandal. There are many issues in the building safety crisis that the Government have failed on, and that failure is turning the lives of leaseholders in my constituency into a living nightmare, but today I want to focus my comments on one of the root causes of the problem: the requirement for an external wall survey, or EWS1. Buildings are deemed to be unsafe only when a leaseholder tries to sell their flat and they are asked by their mortgage lender to provide an EWS1 form to show that the building has passed its fire safety assessment. This assessment is not overseen by the Government; nor is it a legal requirement for building owners. This means that most unsafe blocks are discovered only by chance. Four years on from the Grenfell tragedy, the Government still do not know exactly how many unsafe buildings there are in this country.
The first step in solving any problem is to correctly diagnose it, but this Government have outsourced that task to individual leaseholders. As a consequence, the Government have consistently underestimated both the scale of the problem and the personal and financial cost to individual leaseholders. Costs are spiralling because the people who are deciding that the works are needed are not the ones paying for them. Private fire assessors have no interest in keeping costs down and managing agents have no incentive to complete the works quickly so long as they are still liable for any cost. Without anyone with professional experience taking charge, leaseholders are left to navigate the system alone.
Labour is calling on the Government to establish a building safety works agency: a team of Government-appointed engineers with an expert in direct charge of resolving the crisis, going block by block, assessing the problems, commissioning remediation works, paying for them and signing buildings off as safe and sellable so that homeowners can get on with their lives.
Without effective Government action to address this, I fear that an ever-growing number of leaseholders will have their lives plagued in crisis for years to come. That is why the Government must act now to end the cladding scandal.
I thank my fellow Sheffield MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chair of the Select Committee, for the excellent way in which he comprehensively framed the issues about building safety that we need to consider. I also thank all members of the Committee for their consideration of cladding and other safety issues in multi-storey buildings, many of which are in my constituency.
Today is the first opportunity to debate the issue properly since the Government ordered their MPs to vote down cross-party proposals to protect leaseholders. My hon. Friend was right to remind Ministers that the issue will not go away, partly because many Members on both sides of the House will continue to press it and also because of the impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
Only last week, I was contacted by a mother who shared her son’s situation with me. He is also one of my constituents. Trapped by owning a home in an unsafe building and facing unaffordable financial demands, he has considered taking his life to get out of that nightmare. Now in his late 20s, he was 14 when the building where he lives was built. How is he responsible for the faults of developers and the failure of regulators?
Colleagues will know that that is not an isolated case and that many of us represent leaseholders who face bills that they cannot afford and live in unsafe properties that they cannot sell. They are under intense mental strain, not just because of the huge financial pressures, but because their lives are on hold. They are unable to move, start families or begin new jobs.
The Prime Minister recognised the problem when he pledged in February that
“no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 945.]
Like so many of his promises, it was casually made and casually ignored when we debated the Fire Safety Bill. Ministers must recognise that the situation is untenable. Any settlement that requires people to pay unreasonable amounts of money will not only break them but is doomed to fail.
The loan scheme that Ministers proposed is unfair and fails to cover everybody in that situation, as others have pointed out. It is also unworkable. Remediation will not happen and buildings will remain unsafe. Four years ago, many of the risks facing buildings were not fully understood. They are now, so the continued failure to act is simply unforgivable.
I met affected constituents from across my constituency again last week. They had heard the Prime Minister’s promise and they watched the Fire Safety Bill pass unamended with bitter disappointment. They asked me to make it clear to Ministers that their campaign will not stop until they see the action they deserve. They are victims of comprehensive regulatory failure, which we have a responsibility to address. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East said, it should be addressed by using the full resources of the state and then recovering the costs from those responsible.
Ministers mark the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower every year, but then bury their heads in the sand in the hope that history will not repeat itself. It is not good enough, and it is time for the Government to act and put an end to the nightmare facing so many of our constituents.
My reason for speaking briefly in the debate is that I promised my constituents currently affected by the cladding scandal that I would use every opportunity I could to raise their plight. To recap my past interventions, the largest number of those constituents live in properties constructed by Ballymore—they are homeowners, private renters, leaseholders and housing association tenants—and as with many other high-rise properties around the country, cladding inspections have revealed a range of other safety risks resulting from the construction techniques used in the development of those properties, including a risk from the wooden balconies. That also reflects the regulation and inspection regime in place when the buildings were constructed.
My constituents bought, leased or rented their homes in good faith and with various assurances from developers, builders, landlords and regulators about the quality of their homes’ construction. Now, they remain trapped, fearful for their safety, unable to sell and move on and still facing potentially huge bills to make their homes safe. There are heartbreaking cases, and this is impacting on people’s health—their mental health in particular—and the stability of their relationships.
Ballymore informed my constituents that it has applied for building safety fund grants, but they will not cover the range of safety defects, which will cost thousands of pounds per property. After Ballymore residents staged protest demonstrations and there was a fire in a Ballymore property in east London, the company made noises that those additional costs would be covered. We await legally enforceable commitments from the company.
It is rumoured that Ballymore threatened to withdraw any assurances to cover costs if the residents’ demonstrations continue. I hope that is not the case, but let me make it clear to the Ballymore company that I will not tolerate any threat to my constituents and their right to expose and protest against the way in which it has treated them. I expect the company now to bring forward urgently legally enforceable agreements to secure the safety of my constituents, firmly based on the principle that the developer—the perpetrator—must pay.
Finally, in my constituency there is a massive construction programme of up to 4,000 new properties in central Hayes. I am concerned that the design and intensity of the developments, and, yes, the lack of community facilities, may well mean that we are witnessing the construction of the slums of tomorrow. I am also concerned that more than a decade of savage cuts in local government funding has resulted in a lack of planning officers and building inspectors to ensure that these new developments comply with basic environmental, planning and safety standards. I have a real fear that what is being stored up is the same risks we saw at Grenfell and elsewhere, and a new generation of hazards and potential tragedies. I urge the Government to take swift action to give my constituents the assurances they need, to join me in condemning Ballymore if it threatens to withdraw the assurances it gave simply because my constituents are publicly expressing their concerns, and to look again at local government funding so that we have proper building regulation and planning controls in place with sufficiently staffed local authorities to enforce whatever regulations are available to them.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). All the speakers today have been very clear in their request for improvement and for things to be done better. I know that the Minister will respond to that in a positive fashion; that is in his nature, and no doubt it is his intention too.
This is an important debate because we have all, undoubtedly, been watching the events unfolding in Miami, where there was a terrible tragedy last week when a high-rise apartment block collapsed. That brings home to us all how fickle life is. I understand that the death toll has risen to nine and that 150 people are still missing. What has happened in Florida is a human tragedy in what should be unthinkable circumstances, but as we here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland all know only too well, such tragedies are real. The memory of Grenfell and its impact is still fresh.
We have a duty to ensure that the Building Safety Bill meets not only current but future requirements and that there are no conflicts between its provisions, particularly regarding the gateways, and the proposals in the Government’s planning White Paper. The Local Government Association has expressed deep concerns arising from the draft Bill’s publication on the retention of the benefits of gateway 1. I support the LGA in urging the Government to ensure that those benefits also apply to developments under permitted development rights. The building safety system is broken, and it has been for a long time, so that legislation is long overdue. I believe that debating the move to reform this process presents opportunities to enhance the safety of the buildings that we live and work in.
The LGA has also expressed concern that there is a lack of expert capacity to address safety issues. Any reform and new legislation must call for risk-based assessments to be more robust than just “suitable and sufficient”. The problem with that is that it can be open to a level of interpretation. We need to set down the parameters and the criteria very strictly, because what might be suitable for one property may not be suitable for another. Assessments must be tailored to each specific premises, and resources must be proportional to the risk to life and limb.
I am particularly concerned by the LGA’s report of a lack of fire engineers, and there has been a chronic shortage of surveyors and assessors with sufficient knowledge of both high-rise structural safety and cladding systems. Fire risk assessments are easy enough to do, but they are hard to do properly. Almost anyone with a background in the fire industry can set themselves up as a professional fire risk assessor and visit premises around the country, giving out advice to building owners. Even though there has been an increase in the training and prevalence of certified fire risk assessors in recent years, there is still a need for this country—the UK—to invest in addressing that skills shortage as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister can give us an assurance that certified risk assessors will be recruited and that the dearth that there is at present will be addressed.
It is important that while we learn from past mistakes, any reform of the legislation is as relevant in the future as it is intended to be today, because it is the future of building safety that we are considering. I am my party’s health spokesperson, and I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on respiratory health and on healthy homes and buildings. I see a need to address the way that buildings are ventilated through air-conditioning and in general; I would like to see not only better ventilation, but measures for houses that are riddled with damp. Again, perhaps the Minister can give us some assurance that landlords of properties that are not up to standard will be required to do the upgrading that is necessary. I would like to see living standards raised.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America has made numerous recommendations for improving the ventilation of buildings during covid-19. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to look at those recommendations. We should also consider the risks from other airborne contagions, such as Legionnaires’ disease, as we look to reform the building regulations and make buildings safer for residents and workers. I believe that there is scope for making buildings not only structurally sound but healthier places to be.
Remember that we are looking at building safety for the future. Buildings must be safer in all respects. We know how strong the message was that fresh air was a key factor in fighting covid-19. Eventually, workers will move back into office buildings. I suggest that, as part of improving the structural safety of buildings, we should also consider investigating the link between ventilation and the spread of contagions via air-conditioning. I believe that we should be looking at that seriously, and that we should include it as part of any new risk assessment framework.
In the interests of transparency, I declare that my husband owns a flat that may potentially be affected by this issue.
This has been a very interesting estimates day debate on building safety. The cladding crisis, about which we have heard much in the debate, has made a mockery of the aspiration of a property-owning democracy, as families and young professionals find themselves literally trapped in unsafe buildings as they face life-changing bills to remove cladding that they had no say in installing. I know that the Minister will be keen to point out the £5.1 billion that his Department has announced to remediate this issue, but it is becoming clear with every speaker and every day that passes that this will fall woefully short of what is required to address this issue fully.
At this juncture, I congratulate The Sunday Times on its excellent campaigning on this issue and on showing the human cost to this crisis, because it is not about cladding. It is about people, and it is about families whose lives have been put on hold and whose plans to start or add to their families have been put on hold indefinitely—people facing eviction notices, people whose mental health has been adversely affected, and people who feel suicidal because they look to the future and cannot see a way out of a crisis that is not of their own making.
The Association of Residential Managing Agents and the Institute of Residential Property Management have published new data that looked at more than 750 buildings, concluding that leaseholders must still pay impossible sums of £20,000 each to fix smaller blocks, and more than £14,000 for unfunded fire risks in tall buildings. Although a fifth of those affected were contemplating bankruptcy, 23% had taken out loans. What is clear is that not enough due diligence has been done by the Government on the true costs of remediation; they seem to have reckoned the costs on the basis of guesswork. However, the real costs are now being revealed to those affected. The financial costs are life-changing; the human cost is incalculable.
The Government have said that their £5.1 billion fund covers only buildings that are taller than 18 metres or six storeys, with a 30 cm tolerance, because they wanted to prioritise unsafe cladding that was a greater risk in taller blocks. However, The Sunday Times reports that a key civil servant was recorded telling fire engineers that 18 metres was the cut-off point because the Government
“haven’t got time to come up with a better number.”
We are now seeing the reality for those who live in blocks that do not reach the 18-metre threshold. They face bills for stripping flammable cladding from their flats, which costs more than the flats themselves. As for those applying for a state loan to help cover costs, about which we have heard much this afternoon, leaked letters from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Treasury show that, under the plans, loans will be low-interest—they will not be interest-free—and that, at an annual rate of 1%, the interest alone on a £100,000 loan would cost £80 per month, which means that the loan would never be repaid but would grow over time, making such flats even harder to sell. In any case, it seems that the state loans, which were announced in February, will not be launched for at least another two years.
Additionally, there is the complication of flammable insulation, flammable balconies and faulty cavity barriers. There is no funding for those building dangers, despite the fact that properties cannot be sold, or even insured for a reasonable cost, until the remediation work is carried out. Will the Minister explain why those particular areas were not included in the funding? What is clear is that more urgent and direct Government intervention is needed. The Barnett consequentials in Scotland—£97.1 million to address the cladding issue—are woefully inadequate, just as the sums allocated in England are inadequate. Remediation of cladding must not be left to householders and leaseholders. With eye-watering bills, they cannot afford to remove materials for which they have no responsibility.
Following the publication of the recommendations from the ministerial working group on mortgage lending and cladding, property owners in Scotland who live in buildings where safety concerns had been determined submitted an expression of interest in participating in the first phase of the single building assessment. Over 300 expressions of interest were submitted. The selection of the buildings to be included in the first phase has been completed, and building owners are currently being notified.
The single building assessment will provide clear evidence of the total need for remediation. All flatted properties will be covered: 770 high-rise buildings and many more at lower heights. This approach allows the Scottish Government to identify buildings that are at risk. If no risk is identified, that will release people from safety and mortgage-lending concerns; it may also save home owners the hundreds of pounds that they might otherwise have faced paying for an individual external wall fire review form. The cost of the single building assessment will be met by the Scottish Government. Once it has been established, remediation can be targeted at the buildings most at risk.
It is also important to have a holistic approach and learn the lessons of the past about the use of sprinklers and interconnected fire alarms, which are important for managing risks and potential fire outbreaks. This process must ensure that support is delivered fairly and that remediation is delivered on a level playing field so that the risk of people being left out—as we know happened in England under the first support scheme—does not arise in Scotland.
In addition, there are ongoing concerns about extortionate building insurance costs. The Secretary of State is aware of them: he said on 10 February that
“as with the lenders, the insurers are faced with assessing a new and heightened level of risk. None the less the Association of British Insurers now needs to step up and take a proportionate risk-based approach...Insurers should be pricing that risk correctly and not passing on those costs or even profiteering”.—[Official Report, 10 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 341-42.]
Will the Minister update the House on the matter? Anecdotally, we have all heard about householders receiving letters telling them that their insurance is to be terminated or that its cost will be raised so dramatically that it becomes unaffordable overnight. The Secretary of State said in February that the Government were prepared to step in as a last resort if engagement with the insurance industry did not improve matters. Is that still the case? If so, how bad do matters have to become before the Government step in?
We need more funding. That cannot be said too often, because the sums set aside are simply not adequate to the task at hand. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee indicated as much in the report that it published in April, putting the full cost of fire safety remediation at up to £15 billion and calling for the establishment of a comprehensive building safety fund to cover the cost of all remediation works on buildings of any height, to be fully funded by Government and the industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) pointed out, it is really important that the industry takes its responsibility on the issue seriously. That sounds eminently sensible, and I hope that the Government’s response to the Committee’s report is positive; I know that it is due to be published soon.
I say to the Minister that this is one of the great scandals of our generation. How much misery do those affected have to go through before there is a fair and comprehensive solution to this crisis? When will sufficient funding be made available so that all who have been conned by poor cladding, flammable insulation and faulty cavity barriers can access the level of support that they need so that they can just get on with their lives?
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today, particularly the Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who introduced the debate very powerfully—and other members of my former Select Committee.
Before I talk about the building safety scandal on our shores, I want to echo the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and Grenfell United in recognising the horror of what happened at Champlain Towers in Miami last Thursday. My thoughts go out to the families of those who lost loved ones and to the rescue teams now tasked with working around the clock to find the 150 people who are still missing.
As we have heard this afternoon, four years on from the Grenfell fire in which 72 people lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of people the length and breadth of our country and in Wales and Scotland are living in buildings still wrapped in flammable cladding, constructed with missing fire breaks and insulated with inappropriate materials. They are still paying thousands of pounds for round-the-clock waking watch schemes, with insurance premiums out of control. These are just elements of the day-to-day nightmare that is the building safety scandal, a horror show amplified by the inertia of Ministers and the incumbent of No. 10.
Today’s debate, with passionate and informed contributions from 18 hon. and right hon. Members from across the House, has reminded me of two principal questions that I asked of Ministers some time ago. First, are buildings and the people living in them markedly safer four years on from the Grenfell tragedy? The answer, I am afraid, is again no. Secondly, has the Government’s response been extensive and at pace? We have heard from across the Chamber that that is certainly not the case. It seems that an intergalactic black hole has more transparency than the workings of the building safety fund. The fact that only 10p in every pound has gone out of the door adds another dimension to this scandal for leaseholders. Although, as has rightly been pointed out, social housing providers are excluded, the Government, quite frankly, need to get a grip.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) highlighted, residents in his constituency are faced with threats from the developer Ballymore and have been jumping through hoops to apply for the building safety fund. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who speaks very passionately on these issues, raised the heartbreaking cases of her constituents who are unable to sell flats; young families trapped by the EWS1 chaos, which still hinders over 1 million people, despite Government promises that that is no longer the case—just not reality. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) cited the mother of his young constituent who dreamed of buying a home, but is now faced with an unaffordable bill and has considered taking his own life—real stories.
In addition, we heard from the hon. Members for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), for Strangford and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), and my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). All echoed the same stories and everyday experiences, bringing hundreds of thousands of voices alive in the House and shining a light on those trapped in this scandal and crying out for justice.
Another real-life story is one that was highlighted by the Chair of the Select Committee, and which I am sure the Minister can only confirm today. The Government still do not know the number of buildings truly at risk because they have failed to create a risk register, a priority that the Opposition call for once again today. We also call for the establishment of the building works agency to turbocharge this process, with a crack team of experts to take hold of the crisis from start to finish.
The Government’s response to this crisis has been one of dither and delay, with legislation coming down the line—who knows when?—and the building safety fund as a reaction to determined campaigners and strong voices in Parliament from across the piece. However, the size and scope of the fund, as echoed across the Chamber today, is not sufficient, and the remediation of buildings has been carried out at a snail’s pace. Some 2,820 applications have been made to the building safety fund, with only 156 fully approved so far, and with the extended deadline coming to an end tomorrow. We have a system of first come, first served, with gagging orders and chaos hardwired into it. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people wait to hear about the details of the unwanted loans to pay for this toxic mess of deregulation. It is developers and donors—many to the Conservative party—who are responsible for this mess, not leaseholders.
To make matters worse, we now have the ludicrous situation where some management agents, from Manchester to Birmingham to London, are siphoning off up to £500 million in fees, which could fix up to 250 blocks. Others say that their experience of the application process has been like knitting fog. The Secretary of State is not just Bob the bad builder, but Captain Chaos when it comes to the public purse.
In conclusion, the Government have the opportunity today to reset their approach and get a grip of the building safety crisis; to respond to advice from the Select Committee and its Chair; to stand up for leaseholders and protect them with deeds, making good on the promises repeated 17 times that they would not pay historical remediation costs; to establish a building works agency, with experts in the field; to get a grip on this crisis from start to end, building to building; to provide holistic risk assessments; and to fund works up front, sign them off, and recover from what has been done by those who are responsible for this mess, including the donors who have given £11 million since the Conservative Prime Minister came to power. That is the way that we create pace while protecting the public purse and leaseholders. That is the way that we do the right thing to make people and buildings safe.
May I begin by putting on record my thanks to all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate? It has been a passionate and extremely well informed debate. I know that everybody here agrees that we all want every home built in this country to be decent, to be safe and to be secure, and that has been echoed right across the House today.
It also feels especially poignant to be speaking on this subject shortly after the fourth anniversary of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. No community should ever have to go through what victims and their families have suffered. That is why we have been taking action to ensure that remediation takes place as fast as possible, with funding targeted to where it is needed most. It is why we are taking action not just to make existing homes safer, but to fix the system to ensure that new homes are designed, built and kept safe to ensure that a tragedy such as Grenfell never happens again.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for opening the debate in such a rounded and informed manner. He did so in comprehensive style, providing a long list of questions, which he very kindly suggested that he might put to me in writing. I will try to address some of them in the course of my response, but if I do not catch all of them, I will ensure that they are answered in writing.
A number of colleagues raised the issue of cladding remediation. We believe that it is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about the unaffordable cost of fixing unsafe cladding systems, which, through no fault of their own, were put on their buildings. That is not proportionate and it is not fair. I understand the frustration, the worry, the heartache and the anger that the issue must cause to so many people. Wherever we are able, we will provide support to protect leaseholders from large-scale cladding and remediation costs. It will protect them from the costs of replacing unsafe cladding and make sure that people are safe and feel safe in their homes.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I must get through the many points that have been raised. I want to try to answer as many as I can and leave time for the Chairman of the Select Committee to sum up. If I get through all the questions, I will certainly give way.
We are trying to take a safety-led approach. We have prioritised high-rise buildings of 18 metres and above, a point that was raised a number of times today. We have put in place a funding package of more than £5 billion for the building safety programme. That is the largest ever Government investment in building safety and it has been designed particularly to accelerate the pace of work on remediating the highest-risk and most expensive defects related to unsafe cladding such as ACM cladding and high-pressure laminates, first filling in where developers or building owners have been unable or simply unwilling to pay. Despite many of the challenges of the past months, we have made significant progress. Over 95% of high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding identified by the beginning of last year have now been remediated or works are on site right now getting on with the job. Some 15,000 homes are now clear of unsafe ACM cladding, with the work finished.
Support goes well beyond ACM cladding removal. Where there are buildings that have other unsafe cladding systems, we are taking measures to protect residents’ safety and their exposure to disproportionate costs. Our building safety fund will remove unsafe non-ACM cladding on high-rise buildings, get that cladding replaced, and get it done as fast as possible. Over 1,000 decisions have been made. Despite many building owners failing to provide the basic information required, we have already allocated over £400 million, with 685 buildings now proceeding with a full application. With the announcement in February of an additional £3.5 billion of funding being made available, we will soon be able to extend that support to even more affected households. The public funding does not absolve the industry from taking responsibility for failures that led to unsafe cladding materials being put on these buildings in the first place. We expect responsible organisations to live up to their obligations. Where they have not, we have supported, and will continue to support, enforcement actions to compel them to do so.
We are also determined to ensure that these high-rise buildings are somewhere decent, safe and secure, and can be bought with a mortgage sold without unnecessary red tape and insured at a fair price. The lending and insurance industries continue to be risk-averse when it comes to high-rise residential buildings. That is why we are working to inject a more proportionate approach into the market, and that is bearing fruit. The majority of lenders—about 80% of the mortgage market—now take a less risk-averse approach to the assessment of high-rise buildings.
I am pleased that the guidance from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors means that nearly half a million flat owners will no longer need to go through the onerous process of requesting an EWS1 form. Recent data from one of the major lenders suggests that an EWS1 already exists for 50% of mortgage applications where one has been requested, and we are working to ensure that this picture continues to improve. Lenders are also reporting that fewer flats require an EWS1, and of that those that do, many do not need expensive remediation work to be carried out. This will make a huge difference to house owners and potential buyers as well.
For buildings that might need further investigations, we are making that easier by providing nearly £700,000 of funding to train up to 2,000 surveyors, working with the British Standards Institution to set standards and develop a bespoke insurance model to ensure that surveyors can continue to pick up this work. We recognise that access to affordable building insurance for high-rise buildings is an issue, and we are working with the industry to support market solutions. Some have already decided to step into the market for new customers, and of course we want others to follow.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) raised the issue of building industry contributions. We have been clear that building owners and the industry should make buildings safe without passing costs on to leaseholders. Owners should consider all routes to meet costs, protecting leaseholders where they can—for example, through warranties and recovering costs from contractors for incorrect or poor-quality work. We have seen many responsible developers and building owners doing this. Taylor Wimpey has set aside £165 million, Barratts £82 million, Persimmon £75 million, and Bellway £130 million. But where companies have not lived up to their responsibilities, it would be unfair for taxpayers, many of whom are not homeowners themselves, to foot the bill. That is why we have announced a new developer levy and a new tax ensuring that the industry makes a fair contribution to the cost of remediating historical safety defects. That will target developers seeking permission to build higher-rise buildings in England under the new regime that we are introducing through the building safety Bill, and we have already set out to consult on a new tax that would be levied on the largest housing developers.
I note the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) of a tax on building products. I thank her for that and I am happy to discuss it with her further. A number of hon. Members mentioned the building safety Bill, and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) asked when it will be published. I know he hears the word “imminent” many times, but this truly is imminent, and I can assure him of that.
We must ensure, as we look to the future, that nobody is put at risk by unsafe homes again. We must put in place proactive mechanisms for managing fire and structural safety risks, as well as ensuring that residents and leaseholders are kept safe and feel empowered to tackle safety defects and shoddy workmanship. That is what the building safety Bill aims to deliver through the biggest improvement to building safety for a generation. It will ensure greater accountability and responsibility for fire and structural safety issues throughout the life cycle of buildings.
Building on the Fire Safety Act 2021, the building safety Bill will establish a new building safety regulator to swiftly hold to account anybody who does not follow the rules. It will ensure that products used in the construction of buildings are bound by rigorous safety standards, and it will give residents a stronger voice in the system through the creation of a statutory residents panel, which will empower residents to influence and contribute to the work of the building safety regulator. Additionally, a new building safety charge will give leaseholders greater transparency about the costs incurred in maintaining a safe building in the new building safety regime, and the new homes ombudsman will improve redress for new build homebuyers, avoiding the need to pursue costly redress through the courts.
It is right that we have prioritised action on high-rise buildings, but where the risk to multiple households is greater when fire spreads, we are also acting decisively to remediate lower-rise residential buildings of between 11 metres and 18 metres. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington again raised this issue, among many others. We are establishing a finance scheme to ensure that that cladding can be remediated where that is needed. It means leaseholders will never have to pay more than £50 a month. We are working now to develop the details of the scheme to ensure that it protects leaseholders, prioritises affordability and accelerates remediation. We will provide more detail on the scheme as soon as we are able to, and we are working hard to make progress now.
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) talked about waking watch. We absolutely recognise that some leaseholders have been unjustly left picking up the bill for interim safety measures. That is why the Secretary of State announced a £30 million waking watch scheme. This is paying for the installation of alarms in between 300 and 460 buildings, benefiting over 26,500 leaseholders, who are expected to save over £137,000 a month.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) talked about engagement with the Welsh Government. The letter he sent on 23 June raised a number of issues, and I will absolutely make sure that it is responded to.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) talked about the need to invest in Stoke-on-Trent to make sure that regeneration opens up brownfield developments in the city. They took this opportunity to outline the components of their levelling-up fund bid. I absolutely note that and their enthusiasm for the success of the bid, and I thank them for it.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we have made progress. We have accelerated support to drive forward the remediation of unsafe cladding systems. Over 95% of high-rise buildings identified at the beginning of last year as having unsafe ACM cladding are now having it removed—the works are under way there. We have strong Government support to protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs. We want to be fair to taxpayers, while reassuring lenders that remediation costs will not become unmanageable. This will be a complete overhaul of the regulatory framework for fire and structural safety, led by a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety framework, with sanctions to tackle irresponsible behaviour to ensure people are safe and feel safe in their own homes. We will continue to work tirelessly to bring in the lasting change we need so that everyone in our country lives somewhere that is decent, safe and secure.
Perhaps we could hope for the same result for the Select Committee vis-à-vis the Government when we come to their response to the building safety Bill.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, and this is clearly a very important issue. We should also think back to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, in which she identified a legacy of building regulatory failures in this country, but also identified a fundamental problem of culture in the construction industry. That culture is about cutting costs, a race to the bottom and conflicts of interests, and that is fundamentally at the heart of many of these problems, which eventually will probably take longer to address.
When we debated the Fire Safety Bill, the Government said that it was the wrong Bill to be used for amendments to bring building safety matters to a conclusion. They said that the right Bill was the building safety Bill. I am pleased that the Minister has now said that the Bill is imminent. I hope that means it will be before the recess and is quicker than “soon” or “shortly”, which Ministers often say.
The first duty of a Government is to keep their citizens safe. The only way to keep people safe in their homes is to remove all safety defects, and I say to the Government that the only way to remove all safety defects is to adopt the comprehensive building safety fund, as recommended by the Select Committee.
Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (Standing Order No. 54).