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Tower Blocks: Dangerous Cladding

Volume 791: debated on Monday 21 May 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, we are remembering those who lost their lives in the tragedy at Grenfell Tower today as the public inquiry opens. I know this will be an incredibly difficult time for those affected. The whole House will join me in sending them our thoughts and prayers.

I am determined to ensure that no community suffers again as they have done. To that end, in the days since the fire, my department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, ensure interim measures are in place to reduce risks and give building owners clear advice about what they need to do, over the longer term, to make buildings safe. Remediation work has started on two-thirds of buildings in the social housing sector, and we have called on building owners in the private sector to follow the example set by the social sector and not pass costs on to leaseholders. I will be holding the first round tables with representatives from the private sector this week, and I repeat what I said last week: if the industry does not step up, I am ruling nothing out.

My predecessor and the then Home Secretary asked Dame Judith Hackitt to also carry out an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. I welcomed her final, comprehensive report last week, which called for major reform, and having listened carefully to the arguments for banning combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings, the Government are minded to agree and will consult accordingly. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of potentially dangerous ACM cladding on buildings owned by social landlords, with costs estimated at £400 million. I will be writing to social sector landlords this week setting out more detail.

It is vital that people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe and feel safe. I am confident that the work we are undertaking and the important reforms triggered by the Hackitt review will help restore public confidence and provide the legacy that the Grenfell community needs and deserves”.

My Lords, I join the Minister in sharing our thoughts and prayers with the victims and the families and wishing the inquiry well. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question asked by my right honourable friend John Healey MP in the other place.

Following the woefully inadequate response from Kensington and Chelsea Council, does the Minister accept that the Government have been slow off the mark, as illustrated only last week by the Government giving a formal direction to local authorities to ensure that they know whether high-rise blocks in their area are safe, nearly a year after the tragedy? While the £400 million announced by the Prime Minister to remove that cladding is welcome, it also comes nearly a year after the tragedy. This is not an example of the Government acting with speed.

What action are the Government taking to ensure that blocks in the private sector are also safe and have all potentially dangerous cladding removed? What action are the Government taking to ensure that tower block residents have been told the correct course of action if a fire breaks out in their block? That could be either “stay put” or “get out”, but residents need to know about the action for their area.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, very much indeed for joining in the thoughts that I am sure we all share as the inquiry gets under way and as tributes are made by the bereaved. We can fully understand the angst that that must be causing. I had the privilege of meeting some families last week and I fully understand what they must be going through.

The noble Lord referred to the £400 million announced by the Prime Minister last week, which I think is significant. Of course, that is an estimate of the full funding of the work necessary for the measures in the social sector. The noble Lord also asked what else we are doing. Of course, there are interim measures in place while the replacement of cladding is carried out. We expect that work to be very effective—for example, patrols to make sure that the building is safe while the work is carried out—so it is not as if we are not doing anything. This is a very complex area, as I know the noble Lord appreciates, and we are doing a great deal to ensure that people in high-rise blocks are safe.

The noble Lord asked, quite rightly, about the private sector. We have, along with local authorities, identified 101 private residential blocks. We have made money available to help local authorities identify the blocks that need assistance. They have the testing available in just the same way as the social sector; there is no cost attached to the testing of the ACM cladding in those situations and interim measures will apply in just the same way. As the Statement made clear, we are expecting landlords to step up, as some have done—Barratt, for example, for Citiscape in Croydon—to ensure that they are meeting the costs. As the Statement also made clear, the Secretary of State is holding round tables to look at these remediation issues with a view to ensuring that those that can bear the costs do so and those that cannot bear the costs do not. Those round tables will start this week.

My Lords, I remind the House that I too am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I want to join these Benches with the other Front Benches in expressing our sympathy and support for the bereaved residents of Grenfell.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, Dame Judith Hackitt said on the news at the end of last week that she was perfectly happy with a ban being placed on all combustible materials on blocks. The Minister has said that there is going to be consultation about that. My question is: how long will that be? There seems to be a unity of view that combustible materials should be banned, so I very much hope that the consultation will not take a long time.

I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the £400 million is an estimate. I raised this matter in the debate on the Statement last Thursday. Inevitably, it cannot be a fixed sum. I hope the Minister will confirm, for the avoidance of any doubt, that the Government will reimburse the full costs, which I understand they have to agree with local housing authorities, even if the full costs exceed £400 million.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his comment about our thoughts being with the people affected. He had two specific questions relating to Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into safety and fire measures. He is absolutely right: Dame Judith did say that she was not necessarily opposed to a ban. I think her point in the review was that the whole building system needed to be looked at; she did not want it to be felt that this is, as it were, a silver bullet. The consultation on the ban we are considering will be of appropriate length. Of course, there is a process to be gone through, as the noble Lord will appreciate, and I have not got the exact measure of how long that will be. If it becomes available, I will certainly write to the noble Lord and share that with other noble Lords, but there is a process to be gone through and, although we do not want to hang about, we do want to do the right thing. We obviously do not want to be called to account for not doing this appropriately.

I can confirm that £400 million is an estimate of the cost. We are unable to know exactly what it will be, but essential work for councils and housing associations will be covered. Our best estimate is in the measure of £400 million, but it is an estimate.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the APPG on Fire Safety and Rescue. I echo the thoughts of my noble friend and the noble Lords towards the families and survivors of the Grenfell tragedy, particularly today as the other inquiry gets under way.

I am very concerned that the length of time that this might take for private sector blocks will put leaseholders under real concern. There are already reports that some builders are talking about £4 million-plus for very large buildings. How long will the consultation last, and what will the Government do, and by when, to step in if private sector freeholders still try to pass costs on to leaseholders?

Secondly, it is quite clear from the Hackitt review that increased inspection powers for both fire and building control will be required. Will the Government look at ensuring that local government and fire services have increased funding specifically to cover this? They cannot do it out of existing resources.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for her thoughts for the families and the bereaved. Clearly, today must be a very difficult day, more than usually so. I commend the work that she does on fire safety and rescue, which I know is considerable. She had some specific questions about leaseholders and how long we would be consulting in relation to private buildings. It is not a formal consultation but a series of round-table meetings that the Secretary of State will be holding, the first of which is coming up very shortly. We will see how that goes. But as the Answer that I repeated indicated, we rule nothing out and we are determined that those who can bear the costs should do so. I commend what Barratt has done, for example, in relation to Citiscape in Croydon. We hope that that is repeated.

The noble Baroness also asked about the increased funding that may be necessary in light of the consultation that we will have in relation to the reform of the regulatory system, and so on. Obviously, there is a doctrine of increased burdens having to be funded, if increased burdens there are, and we would expect that to apply in the normal way.

My Lords, is it possible for a private landlord simply to refuse to carry out remedial work or to remove the cover? If the private landlord was to do that, knowing that the material was dangerous, what would be the position of the Government?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, raises a very interesting point on the powers that exist in relation to local authorities and private landlords, which are considerable under the Housing Act, as he will appreciate. I do not think we have come up against that particular position. There might also be a fallback in common law on particular powers if that were to be the case. But we anticipate—and obviously we will be looking at how the round tables go; the early evidence is there—that landlords are stepping forward with interim measures and doing what they can. But we want to understand the position in the round by speaking to both the landlords and the leaseholders to see exactly how this plays out. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has indicated that he will issue a review in July of how things are proceeding. I am sure that that will include the points that the noble Lord has quite rightly raised.