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Fire Safety

Volume 785: debated on Monday 9 October 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many bids from local councils for funding of fire safety measures in tower blocks have they (a) accepted and (b) refused since the tragedy at Grenfell Tower on the 14th June 2017.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In asking the Question, I refer the House to my registered interests, particularly as a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

My Lords, building owners are responsible for funding fire safety measures but, where works are required to ensure fire safety, we are ensuring that lack of financial resources will not prevent them going ahead. Thirty-one local authorities have contacted DCLG. We have invited councils to provide more detail about essential works and will consider requests as information is provided. Discussions are ongoing, but we have not turned down any requests for essential works.

Since 2007, the fitting of sprinklers has been compulsory in new blocks over 30 metres tall. The London Fire Commissioner has said since the Grenfell Tower tragedy that retrofitting sprinklers,

“can’t be optional … can’t be ‘a nice to have’”.

However, the Minister’s honourable friend the Minister for Housing in the other place has been telling councils that bids for sprinklers are additional rather than essential. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the Government to reflect on and review those decisions in the light of comments from the Government since the tragedy and the advice of professionals in the fire service and elsewhere, who regard these measures as essential and not additional?

My Lords, the position as set out by my right honourable friend the Minister, Sajid Javid, in his letter of 31 July, where he clearly indicated that essential local work for fire safety will not be restricted by financial resources, remains the position. We are currently in discussion with six authorities, one of which, Portsmouth, has now submitted all the documentation required—it is the only one to have done so so far and we are now looking at it. There are another 35 which we are still assessing, and 31 local authorities have responded in full. If they set out essential work, we will, as indicated in that letter, ensure that the resources are forthcoming.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for asking this Question, because there is considerable concern in local authorities about funding the costs of cladding replacements. Forgive my cough; I have caught the Prime Minister’s bug. It is shocking to me that the Government are failing to take full financial responsibility for the failures of public policy, the Grenfell Tower fire being the result of those failures. I have two questions for the Minister. First, I understand that 186 buildings have failed the more stringent tests by the building research laboratories on cladding and fire safety. Will the Government publish a list of those buildings so that those of us who are concerned can see the extent of the problem? Secondly, I asked in this House on 26 June about the Government taking full financial responsibility for funding local authorities’ costs for cladding. The Minister agreed that this was an important aspect for the Government to consider. I think that he ought to consider it now and let us know that they will be funded, so that those people will be safe.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. On her first question, I will certainly revert to her and to other Peers who have participated in this debate and put a copy of the list of the 186 buildings concerned in the Library. On cladding, I come back to the central issue, the subject of the Question, which is essential works. Essential works, which might include sprinklers or might not, will be assessed by the department on a case-by-case basis. As I say, until now we have had one completed documentation, which we have just received and which we are looking at. I do not think that there is anything unfair about that. There are five further authorities that we have asked for further information; they will, no doubt, come forward with it. Each case has to be assessed on what the fire officers are recommending and what the building owners think is required; there is no standard rule. We will look at it, but I repeat the undertaking made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in his letter in July that we will not stand in the way of the performance of essential work because of a lack of financial resources.

My Lords, will the Minister enlighten the House a bit more about how the word “essential” is being defined? From the answer he just gave it appears that it is a very mutable concept. Will he give us some idea of what criteria are being brought to bear when determining, even if it is on a case-by-case basis, what constitutes “essential”, particularly when it appears that the consistent advice of the fire service is that, for example, retrofitting sprinklers is essential? Is its advice being questioned, or is advice being sought from elsewhere?

My Lords, I come back to the basic point that no application has been turned down: every application that has been made is still open and there have been 31, covering roughly 10% of authorities. We are looking at those. Clearly, “essential” is going to depend on the circumstances of each case; I do not think that I can do fairer than that. It is what is deemed necessary by the building regulators and by the owners and it will be looked at by the department. I come back to the basic point that nothing has been turned down. We remain wedded to the central concept that safety is everything and we will not allow lack of financial resources to prevent essential building work.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that similar approaches in terms of financial recompense will be taken to requests regarding housing association property that was transferred from council housing structures originally? I declare my interests with two housing associations.

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an interesting and fair point. The application is made separately in relation to housing associations but exactly the same yardstick is used. Once again, we will not allow financial difficulties to stand in the way of doing the essential work. I do not know of any housing association which has made an application that has been turned down. I do not think that that is the case. If I am wrong about that, I will write to noble Lords.

My Lords, I remind the House of my registered interests. The Minister has just said that no applications have been turned down but at the weekend it was reported in the media that Nottingham City Council’s request to install sprinklers inside flats and communal areas in 13 towers had been turned down because, according to the Housing Minister:

“The measures you outline are additional rather than essential”.

Given that there is a public inquiry and, separately, a building regulations review, if either or both of those reviews conclude that works to fit sprinklers are essential, will the Minister guarantee that the Government will fund them?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a fair point. The position at the moment is that nothing essential has been turned down—I checked that with officials today. Clearly, an inquiry and a review of building safety regulation and fire safety are ongoing. It would make a material difference if one of those were to come forward with something that is essential forthwith. We will look at that situation. I do not think that is an unfair response. It is something that could happen and, clearly, in the light of changed circumstances we would have to look at that anew.

My Lords, rightly, the focus has been on housing associations and social housing generally but will my noble friend the Minister assure the House that with regard to high-rise buildings that are either in shared ownership or actually in private ownership, the Secretary of State has written to those developers to check that there are not safety concerns in those blocks? Some of the fires that we have seen in other countries have been in privately owned dwellings.

My Lords, my noble friend makes an entirely fair point. I think that has been the subject of a letter from my right honourable friend. I will double-check that, if I may, to ensure that that is the case, and if it is not we will certainly need to pick it up.

But, my Lords, there is no difference between a publicly owned block and a privately owned block. Over the months, in replies to these Questions that have been asked in the House, the Minister keeps drawing a distinction between where the work should be required by law to be carried out and it being left voluntarily to private landowners. How can the Minister carry on justifying this great inconsistency?

My Lords, that is not an inconsistency I have expressed. I think it must be a figment of the noble Lord’s imagination. I certainly have not said that at all. What I have said, just now in response to my noble friend Lady Berridge, is that we will look at it in exactly the same way. Anything that is essential to be done will be done. We will ensure that financial hardship does not stop that happening.