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Building Safety Defects

Volume 818: debated on Monday 7 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to their announcement on 10 January that property developers must pay for remedial work to fix unsafe cladding, how the new measures will help residents of properties with building safety defects that are not related to cladding and for which the residents are not responsible.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating Her Majesty on her 70 years on the Throne and her service to our country and the Commonwealth. I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, industry must fix the buildings that it was responsible for developing. The Building Safety Bill will protect leaseholders from remedial costs beyond the removal of dangerous cladding by providing a legal requirement for building owners to exhaust all ways to fund essential building safety works before passing on costs to leaseholders. Building owners must provide evidence that this has been done. If this does not happen, leaseholders will be able to challenge these costs in the courts.

My Lords, I have been raising these matters for some considerable time, so I thank the Minister and acknowledge that progress has been made. Having said that, more needs to be done. I heard what he said about the courts, but I want to hear what the Government are going to do. What specific enforcer measures will be deployed to deal with building owners and developers who refuse to take reasonable action to correct mistakes and poor construction, to deal with fire safety failures, to make their buildings safe and to protect the people living in them—whatever tenure they hold?

My Lords, I salute the tenacity of the noble Lord. He will understand that next Monday will be a very special day: it will be the day he writes a card to his wife, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, but it will also be the date when we will see a series—a slew—of amendments from, I am sure, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Cross Benches, my noble friends behind me and also from the Government as we reach Committee on the Building Safety Bill. We have two objectives in mind: to protect leaseholders and to ensure that the polluter pays. We are starting a process to encourage voluntary contributions, but we are very clear that, if they do not pay up, there will be measures in law to make sure that they do.

My Lords, I welcome the very positive statement that my noble friend has just made, and his personal role in making the progress that has just been announced. On 10 January, the Secretary of State said in another place:

“First, we will make sure that we provide leaseholders with statutory protection—that is what we aim to do and we will work with colleagues across the House to ensure that that statutory protection extends to all the work required to make buildings safe.”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/21; col. 291.]

Can my noble friend confirm that that is the case and that protection extends beyond cladding replacement?

My Lords, I do not want to pre-empt 14 February, but it is very clear that, from Florrie’s law, which sought to protect leaseholders from high-cost building safety and remedial works, there will be a principle which protects leaseholders. I thank my noble friend for raising this issue.

But there is still nothing in law, is there? The Government are talking large and saying, “From round the House, there’ll be lots of good ideas and householders can take these companies to court”. But why does the Government not set the law? Instead of expecting us to do their work, why not do the work themselves and make the rules?

My Lords, I am used to the interventions from the noble Baroness. I had four years of it in City Hall and it is nice to join this great place and continue where we left off in 2016. However, I believe there is a process, which is getting Royal Assent. It is very clear that the passage of the Building Safety Bill is critical to ensure that we have those protections for leaseholders and that the polluter pays.

My Lords, there is a big difference between protecting leaseholders and ensuring that they do not pay a penny piece for wrongdoings that were none of their making. Will the Minister give an absolute guarantee that leaseholders will not have to pay a penny piece, whether or not it is after the Building Safety Bill has passed into law? As for leaseholders who have been forced into bankruptcy or those who have already paid their bills, will they still have to pay or will there be compensation?

My Lords, it is very clear that we must differentiate the need to protect leaseholders from finding the funds to pay for these buildings. That is why my right honourable friend in the other place has sought to raise, voluntarily in the first instance, some £4 billion for medium-rise cladding. But we need to look at how we protect the leaseholder and get the polluter to pay. For the detail, as I say, noble Lords will have to wait until Valentine’s Day.

My Lords, have the Government learned their lesson about being so dependent on the industry when they are making building regulations? Is there not a need now to increase the public ability to set these regulations and not depend on the industry itself?

My Lords, that is a very good point, in the sense that we need to have a proper relationship with industry. We need to recognise that, in order to build homes—frankly, we do need great developers and good construction companies to do that—but we need to ensure that the regulatory system works. One of the reasons for Grenfell was the total failure in the regulatory system, from Whitehall right through to local authorities. Again, that is why we need the Building Safety Bill.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has indicated her wish to speak and this may be a convenient moment.

My Lords, while we all hope that the Government will hold developers and industry to account for paying for the remedial work, not just in due course but promptly, will that include and be backdated for waking watch payments that were and are required because of the unsafe cladding and other safety defects and which do not appear to be covered by the Secretary of State’s announcement of £27 million for fire alarms on 27 January?

My Lords, I cannot give a guarantee around retrospective application, but through these measures we are ensuring that many hundreds of thousands of leaseholders do not face eye-watering bills. These measures are about ensuring that that does not happen.

Is my noble friend aware that this problem has been with us for over four years? Is he confident that this demand that Her Majesty’s Government are making on the construction industry is the right way forward? Using the law, as every Member of this place knows, takes an awfully long time. Would it not be better if everyone sat down round the table and found an answer without implying the use of a new law?

My Lords, that is an incredibly helpful point, because in fact it is exactly what I did on Friday. On Friday we sat down to a virtual meeting with the developers and sought precisely that: to understand how we could ensure that we brought resolution to this crisis, which has taken over 30 years to evolve. In seeking voluntary contributions, that is precisely what is happening: engagement at every level.

My Lords, has the Minister consulted Barratt Developments? At one time, it found the premises where I live full of cladding defects and, having removed the cladding, found structural defects. The result of all this was that Barratts paid full compensation for almost all 70 tenants who were living on the premises. If it is possible for Barratts, why is it not possible for others?

There are examples where Barratt has behaved very honourably and provisioned quite a considerable sum of money. A number of the other major developers have also put provisions forward and acted, to the tune of some £1 billion. But that is not nearly enough—£1 billion will not deal with a crisis that extends far beyond that. Some estimate that there has been £15 billion or more in costs. We have to recognise that this is a failure and that the polluters are very much broader than the Barratts of this world. We have to make sure that they pay.

Would the Minister accept that many of us in this House would not take the same view that he has taken about the plethora of amendments that the Government feel obliged at this stage to make to their own proposals, or about welcoming the many other amendments that have been presented by other Members of this House? Surely it is the Government’s job, when they face a problem as acute and long-lived as this one has been, to produce legislation that is implementable almost immediately.

My Lords, I respectfully disagree. The original purpose of the Building Safety Bill, which remains its primary purpose, is to fix the regulatory system that patently failed in 2017 for future buildings, and essentially to create in law a high-risk regime for high-rises, where we have seen these tragedies approximately every 10 years. We also recognise, as has been raised by many noble Lords, that we need to ensure that we protect leaseholders and get polluters to pay. That is why we are bringing forward these amendments at this time. They are two wholly different matters.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, although some progress has been made for England under the sustained and excellent pressure of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, there is not the same kind of progress in Scotland, which is falling behind? Will the Minister have a word with Ministers in Scotland and use his—I was going to say use his not inconsiderable weight.

There might be some pots and kettles there, especially from me. Will he use his considerable powers of persuasion to see whether Scots Ministers can follow the lead that he has given?

My Lords, this problem extends to all four nations. I meet regularly with my counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In fact, there is quite a lot to be learned from Wales, I have to say. Indeed, I will engage and take that advice forward.