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Fire Safety Remediation: Protection for Leaseholders

Volume 704: debated on Monday 29 November 2021

I have enormous sympathy with leaseholders who are being landed with bills for faults for which they were not responsible and for which the responsibility for remediation truly lies elsewhere. I and my Department are looking at every available means to ensure that the burden is lifted from leaseholders’ shoulders and placed where it truly belongs.

I am glad to hear that response. Hundreds of Putney leaseholders are facing agonising waits to get funding through the building safety fund. People in the Radial development have been waiting for 16 months, people in Hardwicks Square have been waiting for 17 months and those in the Swish building have been stuck at stage 2 for 11 months. Meanwhile, one constituent is paying more than £4,000 in insurance for a two-bedroom flat following a 500% hike, which is not unusual. What is the Minister doing urgently to speed up and simplify the building safety fund application process and also to prevent insurers from cashing in?

As the hon. Lady rightly points out, leaseholders find themselves caught in an invidious vice, whereby they are not only having to pay remediation costs, but also find that insurance costs and the capacity to sell on their flat are compromised by the situation in which we find ourselves. Making sure that individuals are in safe buildings is our first responsibility, and to do that we must make sure that the building safety fund pays out and that we get support for remediation from those in the private sector, who also have a share of responsibility. I hope to update the House on our plans shortly.

Leaseholders in Battersea should not be held responsible for paying for remediation works when their homes were sold to them with the assurance that they were safe. Due to the poorly regulated EWS1 assessments, there have been cases where homes were being awarded a B2 classification—the lowest category—leaving leaseholders expected to pay for the repairs. In one case, leaseholders in Battersea challenged that, providing evidence proving that the building was of A2 classification. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that leaseholders are protected from erroneous EWS1 assessment outcomes and that the process is not a barrier to selling or remortgaging, including properties below 18 metres?

The hon. Lady’s question emphasises the complexity of the issue, but that is no reason not to take action to help her constituents and others. One of the principal concerns that I know many leaseholders have is that lenders will require the EWS1 form. The EWS1 form is a consequence of previous Government acts and decisions made by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and others. We need to ensure co-ordinated action across the piece to ensure we are in a stronger position to free people from the position in which they currently find themselves.

A number of my constituents are facing terrifying bills for remedial works. One couple made redundant due to covid need to sell their apartment urgently, but are trapped because of the safety issues. They have since heard that the developers have gone bust. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State recognise how unfair it is to expect leaseholders to pay remediation costs, but they are expected to, and people are desperate. The Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill is a wasted opportunity to help them. When will this unjust mess finally be sorted out?

Again, the hon. Gentleman reminds us in the case of his constituents how widespread this challenge is. The leasehold reform Bill can play a significant part in ensuring that the position of those in the future can be safeguarded, but we need to take action even before that legislation comes forward, and I hope to update the House shortly on a series of measures that I hope will help bring some relief to his constituents and others.

I have a constituent in my constituency who has been severely affected by the lack of progress on building safety fund funding. He is an example of the complexity and the “invidious vice” that the Secretary of State mentions from the Dispatch Box. Will he agree to meet me to discuss the particular complexities of this situation?

My hon. Friend has been campaigning incredibly assiduously behind the scenes on behalf of those who have been caught in this vice. It is the case that 700 or so disbursements have been made from the building safety fund so far, but we realise that we need to take a number of measures to address this situation. He is right that we need to do so with a sense of urgency, but we also need to ensure that those measures are appropriately co-ordinated to have the beneficial impact we would all like to see.

I very much welcome the fact that a number of properties in Ipswich have been successful on building safety funding, but I am concerned about the conditions that many people renting flats are having to live through as the work is carried out. Yes, the work must be carried out quickly, but in one case residents are expected to live for 12 months behind shrink wrap with no natural light whatsoever. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must balance the need to do the work quickly and make buildings safe with the mental health and wellbeing of residents who are expected to live in properties while that work takes place?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I do not know whether the constituents to whom he refers are in private rented sector accommodation or social tenants. In the latter case, some of the changes that we hope to make with our forthcoming social housing Bill will help to ensure that tenants are treated as they should be by all registered social landlords. We are also looking at appropriate re-regulation of the private rented sector.

Residents at The Wharf, a building of below 18 metres, are being asked by the management company to foot large bills for works to their building next year. Will my right hon. Friend outline how he will support those residents? Time is of the essence, and some residents will simply not be able to pay.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is vital that we proceed as quickly as possible on 18 metre-plus buildings rendered unsafe because of aluminium composite material or other forms of cladding whose unsuitability the Grenfell tragedy laid bare, to make them safe. For some buildings of between 11 metres and 18 metres, it is important that we take a proportionate approach to safety and cost. Safety must come first, but for a number of buildings between 11 and 18 metres, the action needed can be taken quickly and may not be at the level or intensity—or certainly the cost—of action required in other buildings.

If I include the Secretary of State, Housing Ministers have promised 19 times to protect leaseholders from historical remediation costs, yet as we speak we know of thousands of people receiving invoices for astronomical remediation costs. Thirty-three such residents are in Oyster Court in London, and they could face bills of up to £80,000 each following an assessment using the Government’s new PAS 9980 form. We will hear a lot more about that in the media. Have the Government added yet another toxic layer to the mess? What will the Secretary of State do about it?

I do not believe that the Government have added anything that is toxic to this mess. We need to ensure that we are in a position to reassure lenders, leaseholders and everyone in the market that buildings are safe. We also need to ensure, exactly as the hon. Gentleman indicates, that leaseholders are not paying and not shouldering an unfair burden for the remediation required. As I mentioned earlier, I hope to say more about that in due course.

The Secretary of State, like me, has been in the House a long time. Does he agree that this scandal measures up to some of the worst that we have seen, whether it be contaminated blood or the wrongful jailing of innocent postmasters? While I welcome his change of tone, does he agree that people are constantly paying out colossal sums for things such as waking watch, and that this must be remedied?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In arriving in this role, I was struck by two things. The first was the combination of circumstances that come so unfairly on to the shoulders of people who bought their properties in good faith and now find themselves landed with wholly disproportionate and unfair bills. In fairness, to respond to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), I also realised that my predecessors had worked hard to deal with a situation that is intrinsically complex. That is not to take away from the urgent need to tackle it, but good people both in government and outside have been attempting to deal with an interconnected set of issues. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that they must be tackled, but, for a host of reasons, that requires not just Government but others to fulfil their responsibilities.