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Building Safety Defects

Volume 817: debated on Wednesday 5 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that victims of building safety defects are not liable for the costs of rectifying those defects.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and in doing so refer the House to my interests as set out in the register.

A new levy and tax will ensure that industry contributes; building owners and industry should make buildings safe without passing on costs to leaseholders. We are examining the support offer for residents in 11 to 18-metre buildings where the fire risk is lower. The Government have stated that leaseholders should not be paying for excessive building safety costs and the Secretary of State is looking into the issue closely.

My Lords, we come to this issue again. Will the noble Lord set out to the House what actual measures additional to those previously announced he intends to take to protect the innocent victims of this scandal?

My Lords, it is for my right honourable friend to set out this approach. It is entirely proper that he should do that, and he has undertaken to do so. He has set out the principles around greater proportionality, protecting leaseholders and getting the polluter to pay, as I have said previously at the Dispatch Box. We must wait for that detailed announcement, but I am taking a personal interest. I have called in registered social landlords who seem to be passing on costs to shared owners and leaseholders, and held them to account. The chief executive of Optivo has indicated to me that it is now not proceeding with costly remediation for Oyster Court or Mill Court. I am also calling in another RSL—Shepherds Bush Housing Group—which seems to be considering passing on costs on a medium rise to shared owners who do not have the bandwidth to be able to pay it. Actually, Shepherds Bush Housing Group was the original developer and was subsidised to do the development; I think it wrong that these registered social landlords are in some cases seeking to pass the costs on to people whose shoulders are not broad enough to bear them.

My Lords, one of the very serious results of this problem is that many people are desperate to move, but simply cannot sell their properties any longer. This is causing huge difficulties for people trying to get jobs in other parts of the country. What assessment have the Government made of the Welsh Government’s proposal to start buying some of the properties that cannot be sold for the moment and turn them into affordable housing and social housing and so on, as a way of trying to break the deadlock?

My Lords, I have always loved a magic bullet, but the reality is that the scale of the cladding and building sector crisis in Wales is a fraction of that in England. That is just a fact: I could give the right reverend Prelate the statistics if he is interested, but we are not going to solve it that way. We need to have a greater sense of proportion. We have made this a bigger scandal than it needs to be because too many buildings have been declared unsafe that are perfectly safe. Frankly, there is an industry profiteering on the back of this, and we need to do something about that. There needs to be a call for innovation to encourage mitigation, more often than not, rather than full-scale costly remediation; we need to make sure that there is an adequate, sensible, proportionate approach to this crisis.

My Lords, we have been very silent on these Benches so far, so I hope that I might intervene at this stage on behalf of my noble friend Lady Pinnock, who cannot be here. The Government intended that Grenfell-style cladding on social housing would be removed by the end of 2019—yet another broken promise. It is reported that the earliest that this will be achieved is 2024. Can the Minister confirm that report? What action are the Government taking to speed up the process and support those affected?

I know that there is a “broken promises” line, but the reality is that 95% of ACM buildings have been remediated. Actually, we have accelerated at pace while I have been Building Safety Minister, despite the global pandemic. The reality is that for many of these buildings—about 20, and a lot of them happen to be in the London Borough of Southwark—it was literally discovered only months ago that they had ACM cladding. I am not blaming the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, but we are doing our best. This is tough, and we should not be trying to score points. We are absolutely committed to remediate these buildings, especially those with aluminium composite material, the most deadly form of cladding. Very shortly, we will have that removed from all buildings in this country.

My Lords, since we last discussed this matter, on 1 January, thousands of leaseholders will have received service charges from the freeholder demanding very substantial remediation sums—sums which are not affordable for many of these leaseholders—which will lead to either repossession or bankruptcy. While the Government have provided substantial support, which I welcome, does the Minister recognise that this is insufficient to prevent hardship? Will he have urgent discussions with a view to raising more resources, possibly through a levy on those developers and other builders responsible for the defects in the first place?

My Lords, my noble friend has decades of experience in government, and he knows that levies and taxes are a matter for the Treasury. However, not only my department, but others as well, have gone through countless numbers of fire risk assessments and external wall surveys. The results are littered with examples of people who did not build to building regulations, who cut corners and who, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will know if he is here, used value engineering to make a bit more profit. The reality is that we cannot keep looking to the Treasury to keep bailing everybody out—we have to get the polluter to pay.

My Lords, I appreciate the Minister’s frustration that he is not in a position to launch a magic bullet or even to make an announcement today, so might he instead share some of his own developing thinking? Following on from the very constructive suggestion from his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, why not produce a legislative scheme to immunise the victims and take from those who have been unjustly enriched?

I take that as a helpful interjection. We need to think about how we protect leaseholders, and sometimes statutory protection is a good thing. We know that the Building Safety Bill, that will have finished Committee in the House, provides a vehicle to do precisely that, but I cannot say any more on the subject.

What is the Government’s response to the statement on 10 December from the chair of the board of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, in which he calls for the EWS1 checks not to be scrapped for buildings under 18 metres and estimates that there are 77,500 low-rise buildings that urgently need fire remediation work, at an estimated cost of £15 billion?

We have quite a lot of the data on the number of medium-rise buildings, and there are far more medium-rise buildings than there are high-rise ones. The figure of 77,000 is broadly correct, but the number within that requiring remediation is very small indeed. I cannot give the noble Baroness those statistics, but I have seen our survey work. The number requiring mitigation is also very small. Frankly, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors seems to be more interested in how it can raise money for surveyors than being proportionate in terms of the approach towards this crisis.

Nevertheless, does my noble friend recognise that there is great hardship for significant numbers of people who are stuck in the middle? I speak as a former chairman of the housing committee in the London Borough of Islington. I am sure that local authority housing departments would, if it were put to them properly, be willing to look at taking over a limited number of flats to ensure that those who have to move can move.

Sorry; that is north London. Someone who has served in local government will have experience, obviously, of public housing. I was leader of Hammersmith and Fulham for six years and a councillor there for 16 years. Of course, when it comes to public housing or social housing, there are things that you can do, but this is something that goes right across the built environment—both private housing and public housing. We will look at measures, obviously driven through local government, but that will not solve this crisis in the round. Noble Lords have to await the announcement from my right honourable friend in the other place.

My Lords, do the Government not agree that the arbitrary line of 18 metres has led to much of this confusion and the fact that people feel they have been trapped? Can the Government please give us an assurance that they will not make that sort of arbitrary line in future?

It is not arbitrary; it is well established that 18 metres is the cut-off point for a high-rise building. It helps us to categorise buildings. We do it in storeys as well. We have had The Cube, which I think was 17.5 metres in height rather than 18 metres, so it is anything above six storeys. But it helps us to understand the scale of the problem. The reality is that the scale of the problem is far greater in high-rise buildings; you cannot get ladders up tall buildings. As many will know, when it comes to firefighting— I happen to be the Fire Minister as well—it is much harder to help evacuate high-rise buildings than medium or low-rise ones. Therefore, I think it is right to have this line. But we will have something called a PAS 9980 that will help to risk assess the problem, irrespective of height, and that will be introduced shortly.

My Lords, the Minister has effectively conceded that this has dragged on for far too long. He said in reply to the question from my noble friend Lord Kennedy that his right honourable friend—not him, as the responsible Minister—is going to make a detailed announcement soon. Could he tell the House when that announcement will be made? People want to know.

When it has happened, people will know. But it is important to understand that this department, under the leadership of the Secretary of State, has worked incredibly hard to come up with a comprehensive response to this crisis. As I have said already in this House, it has taken decades to come to this point, and we have needed some months to come forward. That announcement will be happening very soon; I will not use the “in due course” line.