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Tower Blocks: Dangerous Cladding

Volume 653: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will update the House on the action taken and planned by the Government with respect to high-rise residential blocks with dangerous cladding.

There is nothing more important than ensuring that people are safe in their homes, and we remain determined to ensure that no community suffers again as the community did so tragically and appallingly at Grenfell Tower. Within days of that tragedy, a comprehensive building safety programme was put in place to ensure that residents of high-rise blocks of flats are safe and feel safe now and in the future. Our Department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding and to ensure that interim safety measures are in place until issues are permanently remediated. Measures have included waking watch, which has been put in place in all high-rise buildings with ACM cladding, with the oversight of the National Fire Chiefs Council. As of 31 December last year, interim measures have been in place on all 176 high-rise private residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.

Permanent remediation must rightly now be our key focus. On 18 December, we published our plan to implement the recommendations of Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, which will create a stronger regulatory framework and fix the issues for the long term. We have repeatedly called on private building owners not to pass costs on to leaseholders who find themselves in this position through no fault of their own. We have also warned private building owners that, unless they remove and replace unsafe ACM cladding from their high-rise residential buildings now, local authorities have the power to complete the works and recover the costs from the owner. As a result of our interventions, we have secured commitments from owners of 268 privately owned buildings, 212 of whom have either started works, completed them or have commitments in place to remediate. There remain 42 private residential buildings for which the owner’s plans are unclear, so we are maintaining pressure and rule out no solutions.

This is obviously a matter of great importance to many colleagues and, indeed, to many constituents, and that is reflected in the huge amount of activity that is taking place both within the Department, externally within the industry and, critically, in this House. There is an Adjournment debate tomorrow, and I will appear at oral questions and before the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday.

It should be a cause for national shame that, over 19 months after the Grenfell Tower fire, I am having to drag Ministers to the House because there are still buildings in this country cloaked in Grenfell-style cladding and residents who do not know whether their homes are safe, as the Daily Mirror has revealed today. It is shocking that the Government’s own figures show that there were 437 high-rise blocks with the same Grenfell-style cladding and that 370 are yet to have it removed and replaced. It is shocking that the Minister knows every one of those blocks but will not name the landlords or tell the residents. Whatever he says he is doing, it is not working. For over 19 months, any progress made has simply been too slow, too weak and always following pressure from this House and from Labour. If the Government cannot fix problems this serious and urgent, what on earth are they in office for?

Here is a six-point plan to sort out the problems, and this is what we have been arguing for months. First, widen the Government testing programme to cover all suspect cladding, not just ACM cladding. Secondly, set a deadline for all blocks to be made safe. Thirdly, make clear the legal duty for block owners to get this work done, and to pay for it without passing on the bill to hard-pressed leaseholders. Fourthly, set up a loan fund for private blocks. Fifthly, name the landlords and tell the residents so that the public know the safety status of all high-rise blocks. Finally, toughen the sanctions, up to and including taking over blocks to get this vital fire safety work done.

For more than nine months, as the Minister has repeated today, the Secretary of State has said that he is not ruling anything out. It is time to rule things in, and it is time to reverse the refusal to act on all these fronts.

In the days after the Grenfell tragedy, the Prime Minister promised the nation:

“My Government will do whatever it takes to…keep our people safe.”

When will the Minister finally be able to come to this House to tell us and the public that the Government have honoured that pledge?

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has sought to make this such an antagonistic exchange in what is a difficult and complicated situation that requires significant amounts of engineering and construction work, which will necessarily take time. He will know that the response from both the Department and the Government in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy was immediate and wide-ranging. The commissioning of Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct her inquiry was an important step forward in tackling this issue.

Since then, significant resource and effort have been injected into the need to remove this cladding, but the vital first step was to make sure that people living in high-rise blocks with ACM cladding were safe immediately, and those steps were put in place immediately. We now know, and can tell everyone in tower blocks with this cladding, that they are safe tonight. The Government’s primary focus was to make sure there were enough interim measures in place and that local fire and rescue services were satisfied that the buildings were immediately safe, while at the same time providing the resources, assistance and support—and, yes, cajoling some in the private sector to do their duty and replace this cladding.

That is what we continue to do, and we are making significant progress. However, the right hon. Gentleman is correct that we will get to a point where, for a small number—we are now down to a small number—of owners or contractors who put this cladding on buildings, we will need to consider more assertive measures, and those measures are under active consideration at the moment. All the while, in all of this—he may present himself as an expert, but I am certainly not an expert—we are guided by expert opinion, which includes Dame Judith Hackitt’s review and the independent expert advisory panel that was constituted in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell. We follow their advice in making sure that we can guarantee people’s safety tonight.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is not a very bright idea to be partisan about this, given that the majority of the non-private blocks are probably in Labour-controlled councils.

Has the advice on fire and evacuation changed, and is the policy of staying put still right for these blocks? How will my hon. Friend take advice from the representatives of leaseholders? They are the ones who are made to carry the can, but they are regarded as only tenants for most legal purposes.

The advice on evacuation procedures is for the local fire and rescue service to determine. Depending on the formulation of the building, advice is given on whether it should be evacuated simultaneously or sequentially, and that advice varies from building to building. In the end, it is for the local fire and rescue service to satisfy itself that there are appropriate evacuation procedures in each building.

My hon. Friend is a well-known and long-standing champion for leaseholders in a number of circumstances, and he will know that we are putting significant pressure on building owners and, indeed, contractors to ensure that leaseholders do not bear the cost of this situation in any circumstance. The Secretary of State has not ruled out any particular measure in making sure that that pertains.

It is all very well for Ministers to come here and say “never again” after Grenfell, but it is extremely disturbing to hear the news from the X1 Eastbank block in Manchester. Not only did the construction firm apparently neglect to pass on the findings of a failed test, but it appears to have threatened to withhold payment for the test unless the testing company signed a non-disclosure agreement concerning the results. Will the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State can request that information from the construction firm’s administrators and make sure that it is all handed over?

In the more than 18 months since the Grenfell tragedy, there seems to have been a continued lack of progress and reform. The Royal Institute of British Architects has stated that England lags behind Wales and Scotland, which have in place, or are introducing, regulations to require sprinklers and provide a second means of escape. The Scottish Government-led review of the Scottish fire safety regime by the building and fire safety ministerial working group produced its conclusions and recommendations in December last year. What discussions has the Minister had about that with housing Minister Kevin Stewart in Scotland, and are there recommendations from the group that he could easily implement in England?

Finally, I ask again whether the Government will consider zero rating materials for replacement cladding. That would help to reduce the costs for firms that want to take such remediation measures, and make it easier for them to do so.

As I said in my earlier answer to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I believe we are making progress on remediation. That is particularly true in the social sector, but we are now seeing signs that significant progress is being made in the private sector with the number of buildings that have been completed, the commitments that have been made and the work that is ongoing.

Regarding the Manchester situation that is on the front page of the paper today, I understand that the local fire and rescue service is satisfied that everybody will be safe in that building tonight, and that temporary measures are in place while the work is being done. There seems to be some complication about getting that work done, but it is being done.

Sadly, I have not met the Minister whom the hon. Lady mentioned, but as she will know, we are reviewing approved document B—the fire safety building regulations —and we would welcome any contribution towards that consultation to help us to get this right.

Assertive measures are urgent for my constituents at Northpoint in Bromley, one of the 42 buildings where the owner—in this case Citistead, an offshoot of the Tchenguiz family trust—refuses to meet its obligations and insists that it will use a term in the lease to pass on the costs to the flat owners regardless. The Government need to introduce a legally foolproof mechanism to override those provisions and prevent my constituents and others from being forced to pick up the tab. Words are not enough.

My hon. Friend is a fierce advocate for his constituency, and we share his concern about the position of the Northpoint residents. We have been very clear that leaseholders should not bear the cost, and he will be pleased to learn that the Secretary of State has written to the building owner and other parties concerned to make it clear that he expects them to fund the work.

The Secretary of State has just written to the Select Committee about the role of local authorities, and local authorities clearly have powers under the Housing Act 2004. When building owners will not act and the local authority acts instead, it may incur costs that it can try to recover from building owners. Can we have an absolute guarantee from the Minister that when local authorities find it impossible to do so, the Government will find that money so that it will not have to be found from hard-pressed local authority budgets?

The Chair of the Select Committee raises an important point. We have offered financial assistance to local authorities, and we will work in partnership with them to attempt to recover the money. Where that proves to be impossible, we will try to reach as convenient and financially efficacious an arrangement as possible.

May I ask my hon. Friend about Hartopp Point and Lannoy Point, two 14-storey blocks in Fulham that are rumoured to face demolition? Residents—including leaseholders who are worried about getting proper compensation —are extremely concerned, and opposition Conservative councillors are calling for an emergency council meeting tomorrow night. Will he join me in urging Hammersmith and Fulham Council to lift the secrecy from its proposals and communicate properly with concerned tenants and leaseholders?

My right hon. Friend raises what sounds like an alarming situation. Where people’s homes are concerned—whether it is about safety, the future of their homes or, indeed, demolition—I urge all those in authority to be as transparent as possible. It can be extremely debilitating, concerning and worrying for any resident to have the future of their home mired in uncertainty. I hope that he gets the clarity that his residents need.

If the Minister was one of my constituents in the X1 block in Manchester, I am sure that, like them, he would have woken up this morning feeling not only worried and scared, but furious—furious at the way in which the matter has come to light, and furious that there is still, after all this time, no accountability, no transparency and no recourse for the people affected. We urgently need legislation, which must also cover leaseholders who, like those in many of the blocks in my constituency, cannot sell their homes because of the fear that they will have to pay the cost of recladding. This has got to stop.

The hon. Lady is quite right; given the story on the front of the paper, anyone who lived in that block would be worried. We have reassured ourselves that the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service is satisfied that everybody resident in that block is safe tonight, and that there has been sufficient engagement by the owners and managing agents to make sure that the temporary measures that are in place are adequate to keep residents safe.

We understand that there is work under way. I believe that that work has been contracted, but it is yet to be made clear who will pay. We will put pressure on the owners and managers of that building, as we are doing with all owners and managers, to make sure that it is not the leaseholders who pay. At this stage, we are not ruling out any particular measure for making sure that that is the case.

The Housing Minister is doing excellent work on the matter, both behind the scenes and out in front. I have spoken to him about it on a number of occasions. Particularly with private sector buildings where there is no obvious freeholder responsible for replacing the cladding, does he consider that central Government should step in and fund the cost of replacement until it can be established who is responsible for it, after which they should reclaim that money?

My hon. Friend is quite right, and he points to something that will become an increasingly difficult issue. In a number of cases, the freeholder of a building—essentially, the owner of the building—may well be obscure, overseas, difficult to contact or, indeed, a dormant company. In those circumstances, as the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, local authorities have the power to enter the premises and do the work. We have offered financial support to make sure that it gets done.

I am very concerned to see the Minister treating this like some kind of theoretical exercise. People are genuinely afraid in their beds and it is not really enough for the Minister to say that he is satisfied. Seventy-two of my neighbours—including those who had warned people about their fears—died in the worst possible circumstances, in front of their neighbours. Hundreds were made homeless, and 19 months later many are still homeless. Nearly 700 children have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as have nearly 1,500 adults.

This was all preventable. Look at the cases over the years in which people have died in fires spread by external cladding, including at Summerland leisure centre, Knowsley Heights, Garnock Court and Lakanal House, where the coroner advised specifically how the Government should change building regulations to keep people safe. Nothing has yet changed. The Government are ignoring warnings, and our constituents are going to bed afraid. Current measures are not working. One of the Grenfell survivors said:

“Grenfell 2 is in the post.”

How many more must die before the Government take positive action to keep people safe in their beds?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady has not acknowledged the significant amount of work that has since taken place, not least the work of Dame Judith Hackitt, which has been seminal and foundational in our changing of the building regulations for the future. The hon. Lady should be under no illusion about the seriousness with which I take the matter. It has occupied very significant amounts of my time since I was appointed in the summer, including chairing the ministerial taskforce, having regular meetings with the team internally to make sure that we are driving performance and numbers and, critically, engaging with the Grenfell community, as I have done on many occasions, both individually and collectively. That included, movingly, attending the silent walk that took place just before Christmas. We believe this a significant part of our responsibility to make sure that everybody is safe.

As I said earlier in response to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), our primary concern is to make sure that every resident is safe tonight. Whatever measures are required—whether a waking watch, the retrofitting of heat sensors or smoke alarms, new doors, or whatever else it might be—our primary concern is that every local fire and rescue service can guarantee to the Department that everybody who is in a residential building of more than 18 metres is safe tonight.

The secondary concern of importance is getting the remediation done. We are making significant progress on that and will be accelerating that progress in the next few months.

In evidence to the Select Committee, Rockwool has claimed that there are more than 1,600 high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, rather than the 397—I think—that the Department claims. That is a clear, massive disparity. Will my hon. Friend make sure before he comes before the Select Committee next Monday that we are given a clear explanation of why there is this wide disparity and that he will take action to make sure that all 1,600 buildings are made safe?

My hon. Friend makes an important point of which we should not lose sight: there are types of cladding other than ACM cladding. He will know that the Department issued advice to building owners in December 2017 on how to investigate non-ACM cladding systems on their buildings and remediate them. At the Secretary of State’s request, the expert panel reviewed and updated that guidance in December last year, and it reiterates that the clearest way to ensure safety is to remove any unsafe materials. We have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to conduct a programme of testing on non-ACM materials, and we expect that testing to start shortly.

Will the Minister confirm that however strongly worded the letters that he writes to property owners are, they have no legal status whatsoever, so those owners can legally ignore them? Given that, will he tell us what the timescale is for the decision on when he will proceed to legislation; exactly what factors he will bear in mind when he makes that decision; and at what point property owners will know that if they refuse to act, legal action will be taken to force them to do so?

Whatever the status of the work that has been done by the Department and of the letters from the Secretary of State, it is bearing some fruit. A large number of companies have taken their responsibilities seriously and are now funding remediation, some of which is quite elderly, and they are doing it for all the right reasons. We are working on the group who have yet to acknowledge their responsibilities and are hopeful of more success on that. As far as legislation is concerned, the hon. Lady will know that just before Christmas we published the Hackitt implementation plan for consultation, along with several other calls for evidence and consultations. Once they are all in and completed, we will produce the legislative programme.

The Minister has mentioned a number of small private developers and, indeed, individual freeholders, but will he write to me about Premier House in Edgware, to ensure that my local leaseholders and constituents do not have to foot the bill for the removal and replacement of materials that are considered dangerous? My constituents have already paid out thousands of pounds to their freeholder, a small independent developer. Although they are grateful for the Minister’s support, the leaseholders want legal clarity and certainty that they will not be forced to pay any additional moneys.

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise the interests of his constituents. I am not aware of the particular situation, but I am more than happy to investigate and write to him, as he requests.

It is quite extraordinary that the Minister has just said that testing on non-ACM-clad buildings is about to start. There are around 340 high-rise buildings clad with non-ACM combustible materials, and more than 1,000 high-risk buildings. Will he guarantee, now, that those buildings—like Lakanal House, where six people died 10 years ago—will all be tested and treated in the same way as ACM-clad buildings?

In considering what we should do about non-ACM cladding, we have been guided by the expert panel, which includes Dame Judith Hackitt, on how we should proceed, and we are proceeding on the panel’s best advice. As I said, we expect testing on non-ACM cladding to begin shortly, and the conclusions of that work will obviously colour what action is taken next.

The Minister and I share a local government background, particularly in relation to the fire service, so he will be aware of the importance of not only how regulations are set up but how they are enforced, and I am sure that he shares my concerns about the changes that were made a decade ago. As part of his review of building regulations, what consideration is he giving to ensuring that they are actually complied with?

With his usual acuity, my hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. As part of her review, Dame Judith Hackitt considered whether there is an inherent conflict of interest for those who are implementing buildings and paying for building regulation and therefore being inspected. That is one of the issues that we will explore with the industry. It is about how we can ensure professional standards and professional independence in safety-critical situations.

I have previously raised in the Chamber the situation of my constituents in Heysmoor Heights in Liverpool. They live in a high-rise property owned by the offshore company Abacus Land 4. My constituents have already paid for replacement cladding. The situation in relation to insurance cover is completely confused: constituents were told that it was covered, but are now told that it is not. In view of the Minister’s commitment that private owners should not pass on the cost of replacement cladding to leaseholders, will he intervene in the case of Heysmoor Heights?

I am more than happy to look into the specific situation and write to the hon. Lady once I have had a review from the Department.

For a variety of reasons, local authorities with high-rise social housing are in the process of taking it down. That includes Rugby Borough Council, which is about to demolish two blocks at Biart Place, where there are structural concerns, and replace them with a larger number of conventional housing units. Does the Minister agree that this process should be accelerated?

It is typical of my hon. Friend to fight for improvements for his constituents. I agree that for buildings built in the 1960s and ’70s—I do not know what period the buildings he refers to are—refurbishment often presents more challenges than demolishing and replacing them. In doing so, the consideration of a different formulation—including streets, squares, low rise and high density—may well be preferable to high rise.

Of course, grave fire risk is no respecter of boundaries within the UK. We heard a wee snippet from the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on what the Scottish Government are doing about this issue; dare I assume that Her Majesty’s Government and the devolved Administrations are communicating and co-ordinating to establish the safest possible regime throughout the United Kingdom?

These are obviously devolved matters, but the hon. Gentleman should be reassured that, certainly in respect of my responsibilities in this country, we will leave no stone unturned and turn away advice from no one if they are getting it right. As I have said, we are currently going through a series of consultations to get this right. If the Scottish or, indeed, Welsh experience can inform our consultation on approved document B —the building regulations—I would be more than happy to consider it.

The Minister tries to assure our constituents that they can sleep at night, but I remind him that when he was a London deputy Mayor making fire service cuts and shutting down fire stations, he also assured us that people could sleep at night. Subsequently, we had the Grenfell disaster. I respectfully ask him to take this matter very seriously, or he will not be able to sleep at night because of the prospect of people continuing to live in danger. There are 41 blocks in my constituency that need urgent action; he needs to legislate now.

The hon. Lady is quite right to point out that I have spent a significant period in the frontline of public safety policy delivery. I like to think that my record in doing so, particularly on crime, speaks for itself. She will know that during my time at City hall as deputy Mayor for policing, we drove crimes, including teenage murder, down to 20-year lows. We did that by application, dedication and commitment, and I am giving exactly the same to this subject.

Nineteen months on from the Grenfell tragedy and despite all the warm words, not one penny has been forthcoming from the Government to help Birmingham City Council make safe 213 tower blocks in which 10,000 households live. Now the Department has at last written to the council asking whether it has any other “sizeable building safety issues”. That is scandalous. When will the Government accept their responsibility and contribute towards the very significant cost being undertaken by the city council to ensure that our city’s tenants are safe?

We have already made a very significant contribution towards supporting remediation in the social sector, and we have already allocated £248 million to remediate 135 buildings out of a fund of £400 million. We are still receiving bids from local authorities, and if Birmingham City Council can make the case, then, of course, we will support it.

Rockwool is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), but a number of its workforce live in Bridgend. They have come to see me to reiterate the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that Rockwool’s product, which is fire resistant and has thermal and acoustic properties, is not being promoted in relation to the work that is ongoing. It is non-ACM. Why are we not looking at other products that could also enhance the retrofitting of buildings throughout the UK?

I recognise the hon. Lady’s concern, but I am sure that she will agree that it is not for the Government to promote any particular product. The Government’s job is to set the framework in which those who are fundamentally responsible for building safety—that is those who build them and those who own them—are able to make the proper assessment of the safety of the products that they are using. It is quite obvious to everybody that the Grenfell Tower tragedy lifted a big flat rock on the building regulation system and showed that it has not functioned for some time across a number of Governments. We are trying to rectify that and to provide a framework in which developers, building owners and, critically, residents can be sure that the materials used to construct their homes are safe.

One of the 42 blocks that was mentioned by the Minister is New Providence Wharf, which is owned by Ballymore in my constituency. He repeatedly says that there are measures under active consideration to get these owners to comply. When will we actually see what these measures are?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the New Providence Wharf situation is one of those that is currently unresolved. We are engaged with Ballymore, which is the owner at the moment, and it is making the case that leaseholders should carry the cost. We have made it clear to it that that is not the case, and we will keep up the pressure and hope for a resolution soon.

The Local Government Association says that it continues strongly to urge the Government to ban the use of any combustible materials on high-rise and high-risk buildings. Rockwool has been in touch with me about two buildings in Hull North: the Bransholme Health Centre and the Allam Medical Building. I am concerned to hear that these buildings have materials that are combustible and could be dangerous. Is the Minister concerned, as I am, about these type of buildings not being part of his proposed plan?

I am, of course, concerned to hear that, and the hon. Lady will know that we introduced a complete ban on combustible materials on buildings over 18 metres just before Christmas. That ban is not retrospective. However, all building owners have a duty to ensure that their buildings are safe, and if they believe, after assessing their buildings, that they are not safe, they also have a duty to remediate. It is almost impossible for us, I guess, to tour the country and review every single circumstance, which is why we are stressing that the primary responsibility for this lies with the building owner. If she knows of buildings that she believes are not safe, and the building owner is not taking the action that is required, she should, in the first instance, speak to her local authority colleagues who have the power to intervene. If that fails then, by all means, write to me.

As has been mentioned, I represent Rockwool, which has its base in my constituency—the only base in the UK. The Minister says in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) that it is not Government’s job to legislate on the use of whichever materials a house builder may need and that is down to the house builder. I am sorry, but I do not agree with him. Ministers legislate all the time on health and safety matters. The reality is that we should not have combustible insulation inside tower blocks, hospitals or schools. The Government could legislate on that today for public safety.

Perhaps I was not as clear as I should have been. The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have banned combustible cladding, which includes insulation, from all high-rise buildings. Anything that forms the skin of the wall and is combustible is now banned for new buildings. The point that I was making to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is that it is not for us to legislate that a particular company’s product should be used. What we are in the process of doing is a review of approved document B. I urge both him and his constituents to contribute to the consultation on approved document B to make sure that we are getting the standards to which products must adhere right so that people within the industry can make a selection among products that they know have been tested correctly and are at the right standard to show that they are not combustible and can be used safely on high-rise buildings. That is exactly what we are trying to establish at the moment through the review and I urge him and all colleagues who have questioned me today to participate in that consultation.