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Tower Blocks: Cladding

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 12 May 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to a fire at a tower block in Poplar, London which left two people hospitalised and others injured, what plans they have to remove flammable cladding and ensure buildings are fire safe.

I would like to express my deepest sympathies to the residents affected by the fire at New Providence Wharf and pay tribute to the swift response by the London Fire Brigade. We are providing an unprecedented £5.1 billion to fund the remediation of unsafe cladding, with expert support for those who need it. New Providence Wharf itself has received £8 million.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register.

I join the Minister in expressing my sympathy to the victims of the fire and expressing my thanks to the London Fire Brigade. The fire in the tower block in Poplar is another devastating reminder of the dangerous, stressful, worrying and wholly unacceptable situation that thousands of people find themselves in today. Leaseholders and tenants are the innocent victims in a scandal that the Prime Minister promised they would not be picking up the bill for. So why are the Prime Minister’s words and promises to the victims so far removed from the reality and actions of the Government? When does the Minister expect the Government to start delivering on the repeated pledges and promises that the Prime Minister has made?

My Lords, I start by pointing out that on 95% of the buildings that were identified at the start of last year as having the same cladding as Grenfell Tower either the cladding has been removed or work has started to remove it. We have made great progress in the past year, with some 159 starts on site. The building safety fund is open and continues to approve a number of works that will ensure that other forms of unsafe cladding are removed.

[Inaudible]—the management companies for their blocks are refusing to sign up to a grant from the building safety fund unless leaseholders also sign an agreement that commits them to pay for all other remediation works. As a consequence, essential and urgent fire safety work is not being done. Leaseholders cannot commit to pay when they have no means to do so. How do the Government intend to break this impasse in the interests of fire safety?

My Lords, we have to be clear that the agreement is with the building owner and not with individual leaseholders. No leaseholder will be required to fund additional works as a condition of government funding for cladding remediation. Of course, where building owners voluntarily decide to carry out works at the same time, we need assurances from them that this can be covered.

My Lords, had there been any engagement with Ballymore at official or ministerial level regarding the remediation of the ACM cladding prior to the fire at New Providence Wharf, given the vital importance of interaction between government and the housing sector on the urgent measures which require funding and implementation?

My Lords, my department has been engaged with Ballymore for more than two years to progress the work to remediate unsafe cladding. We are also paying for expert construction advice for this particular site, which has been available since July 2020. Earlier this year and prior to the fire, I had two ministerially led meetings with the senior leadership of Ballymore and other members of London government to try to get the work started. Sadly, it only started this Monday.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a lessee of a top-floor flat in a four-storey block. In February, the Prime Minister said 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, Commons, 3/2/21; col. 945.]

The Government have undertaken to indemnify those who live in blocks over 18 metres tall, but this leaves leaseholders who live in smaller blocks out in the cold. The Government have offered loans to help them meet the cost, but they are no more at fault than those who lease flats in taller buildings and should not have to pay either. Many cannot afford to pay the interest, which merely saddles them with extra debt. What do the Government intend to do to help them?

My Lords, I have mentioned the unprecedented level of funding that has been put forward towards the remediation of cladding, but the risks inherent in a medium-rise building are far lower than in high-rise buildings, some of which go well over 30 metres—the higher the building, the greater the risk. However, it is a significant commitment to ensure that leaseholders in these medium-rise buildings do not have to pay more than £50 per month to enable the remediation of unsafe cladding.

My Lords, the Government have said that it is not right for the taxpayer to bail out leaseholders, but taxpayers’ money through the building safety fund could be bailing out developers for building substandard developments. What plan do the Government have to investigate whether developments met fire safety regulations at the time of construction and, in those cases where regulations were not met, to apportion remedial liability to the developers, so that those responsible actually pay?

My Lords, we made it a condition of accessing any form of government funding that building owners should go through all the routes of redress, in terms of looking at warranties and taking on areas where there has been poor construction practice, to ensure that remediation costs are not passed on to leaseholders.

The Minister’s replies are entirely unsatisfactory. It is now nearly four years since 72 people died on the altar of private profit. Since then, there have been three further instances —in Barking, in Bolton and now this one in Poplar. It is not just a matter of cladding over 18 metres; it is much more than that. When will the Government fully fund all the measures necessary to make these buildings safe before more lives are lost?

My Lords, I note the point that has been made, but it is interesting to note that, four years after Grenfell, two authorities are still discovering the existence potentially of additional buildings with aluminium composite material. Those audits are being conducted by Sheffield, which is looking at nine buildings, and Tower Hamlets, which is looking at a further six. The discovery of ACM-cladded high-rises four years after Grenfell is also a matter that is, frankly, beyond the Government’s control.

The Minister says that it is beyond the Government’s control, but, of course, safety is a matter for building regulations set by government and inspected by building regulators. It is not the fault or responsibility of leaseholders. It is a great mistake to assume that because one fire was caused by cladding there are not other issues that need remediation. Why are the Government refusing support for those where the inspections now taking place show that the cavity blocks behind the insulation are the problem and not the insulation itself? So the same system is in place but with a different fault—yet it is a fault none the less and they are being refused support.

My Lords, it is very clear from our independent expert advice that the greatest risk in terms of fire safety is the cladding system that accelerates the spread of fire. It is clear that there are other defects, such as internal compartmentation, that are designed to stop the spread of fire, so our focus is to remove the riskiest element to ensure that we protect people’s lives.

My Lords, given that the original developer still owns and manages the building, what steps are being taken to ensure that the leaseholders are not being saddled with historic building safety remediation costs that are no fault of their own?

My noble friend is right: we want to protect leaseholders and we are funding £8 million. Our understanding is that the total remediation bill is some £12 million, and we have been pressing Ballymore to stump up the rest of the cash. When I initially met the company, it pledged £500,000, and it has increased that this weekend to £1.5 million. Frankly, it should not be passing on any costs to leaseholders.

Will the Government explain why the principle of responsibility that applies to cars, domestic appliances and so on, which may be dangerous and even kill people, whereby companies are required to recall and remediate whatever the equipment is, does not seem to apply to the construction industry?

My Lords, I have to say that on taking over this ministerial brief I was shocked by the weakness of the redress available to people who put all their life savings into a building. That is something that we want to improve through the building safety Bill; we need to improve the ability to get redress for people who buy these properties then discover these defects.

I am not sure that the Minister takes the urgency of the problem to heart. I have talked to people who are absolutely desperate, who have told me that in their blocks there are people who are virtually suicidal because they cannot afford to pay the cost of remediation and cannot afford to sell, because their property is unsaleable. We have a major crisis on our hands. Surely we need much more urgent action than the Minister is saying that the Government are taking.

My Lords, I meet the cladding groups regularly, and I understand the need for urgency, which is why we are moving very quickly to ensure that we dispense the first £1 billion of the building safety fund and why we have pledged a further £3.5 billion. We understand the need to get moving.

My Lords, I live very close to Grenfell, and I shall never forget that terrible night and the following day. It is worth our pausing for one moment to pay tribute to the many people there who were affected. In the spirit of that statement, does the Minister feel, or have the Government made an assessment of whether, there are buildings where safety procedures are being held up because of this problem with leaseholders?

My Lords, all I can say is that we are making great progress in dispensing our funding. We continue to recognise the urgency of removing the unsafe cladding, and we have made a commitment whereby costs will not be a factor in removing it from high-rises.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is the basic duty of government to protect its citizens from harm? That includes having building and other regulations and having the necessary means of enforcing them to deliver this; these are all within the Government’s control. This debate on blame will go on for years, but now it is surely time for the Government to commit to funding all the works to replace all substandard and non-compliant materials, and ensure that the owners, tenants and leaseholders are not asked to contribute.

My Lords, we recognise the duty of government to do something about the regulatory system failure that we saw, but also the very poor practices that we have seen from construction companies, through the Grenfell inquiry. That is why we are bringing forward the building safety Bill to bring about a revolution in how we regulate high-risk buildings and establishing the building safety regulator in statute. We have made very clear our commitment, by putting forward an unprecedented sum to ensure that remediation of unsafe cladding can be carried out.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, mentioned the fact that the Prime Minister has not honoured his promise so far on this issue. Is there anybody in government or in the wider Conservative Party who can either make the Prime Minister honour his promises or stop him making any further false promises?

I simply do not accept that personal attack on the Prime Minister. This is a Prime Minister who has committed an unprecedented sum of money. Let us remember that, when I took office, only £600 million had been committed to the remediation of unsafe cladding. In the first Budget in his time as Prime Minister, £1 billion was committed—and now a further £3.5 billion. This is a Prime Minister committed to ensuring that the tragedy of Grenfell Tower never happens again.