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Fire Safety Remediation: Leaseholders

Volume 690: debated on Monday 1 March 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

Happy St David’s Day, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to speak about the ongoing issues faced by leaseholders in my constituency and across the country in securing funds for the remediation of unsafe non-aluminium composite material cladding systems through the building safety fund. I am pleased to have secured this debate on this important issue, which continues to cause great distress to leaseholders in my constituency. I am aware that many Members would like to contribute but will be unable to do so because of the virtual format. I will, however, endeavour to cover a number of points that those Members would have liked to raise, and I hope that the Minister will be generous with his time to allow others concerned by this important issue to place their points on the record.

Uncovered by the tragedy of Grenfell, now three and a half years ago, the process of remediating unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings has unfortunately become a lengthy and complex saga. I want to focus specifically today on the experience of leaseholders in non-ACM-clad buildings in my constituency. I want to highlight the ongoing difficulties faced by building owners and residents in accessing the building safety fund, as there are still fundamental questions about its scale and administration. I also want to discuss buildings below 18 metres and encourage the Government to address the flawed building regulation system that the ongoing cladding scandal has exposed. Most urgently, however, this a safety issue. Through no fault of their own, residents find themselves in potentially unsafe homes and vulnerable to huge costs that may still not be covered by Government funding. It is these residents—constituents in my city and across the country—to whom I would like the Minister to provide assurance this evening.

There are a number of buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding in my city. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government figures tell us that so far 23 of those have made applications to the building safety fund. Residents in these buildings have suddenly found themselves in unsafe homes and potentially liable to astronomical costs for remediation. This lets down everyone, from first-time buyers to pensioners. One of my constituents put it best when she wrote to me recently:

“I may be asked to contribute between 20,000 to 30,000 pounds towards remediation. I am retired and I have very limited income. I will not be able to raise this sort of capital. I am very worried about whether I’ll lose my apartment. I did not cause this problem.”

In many cases, these leaseholders are unable to sell their homes because of inconsistent EWS1 processes and so are consigned to long and nerve-racking waits to see if their building will obtain Government funding. In addition to the obvious financial pressures, I do not believe that the mental health and wellbeing implications have been properly discussed.

Since this debate was originally secured, the Government have taken welcome steps forward. The creation and enhancement of the building safety fund is welcome, but there are still large holes in the safety net. I have been contacted by leaseholders and property management companies who have registered by the original July deadline and have been given no information on whether they will be invited to make an application to the fund, no sense of the length of time they will have to wait for a decision, and no direct means of contact to obtain clarity on the situation. Separately, Portsmouth City Council has registered 14 blocks with the fund. The Government have rejected 11 of these so far, some on spurious grounds such as their being deemed to be in a “non-critical location”. Lord Greenhalgh recently suggested that there are about 1,700 non-ACM-clad buildings in need of remediation work. However, there has been no proper assessment of the number of buildings across the country that need work. The first come, first served nature of the fund means that applications will not be considered or prioritised based on risk, and there is no hard deadline for the completion of works.

Progressing remediation work on unsafe cladding systems must be an urgent priority if we are to avoid further catastrophes following the Grenfell Tower fire. It is therefore disappointing that the administration of the fund itself is preventing vital safety work from commencing and stopping leaseholders moving on with their lives. In the meantime, they have found themselves liable for yet more temporary safety measures, such as the 24-hour waking watch. While the Government have now established a welcome relief fund to cover the costs of this, progress on remediation has been painfully slow.

Health and safety must be the priority, and Ministers should focus on the rapid disbursal of funds in the immediate term, while pursuing developers and recovery costs where possible. I wrote to Lord Greenhalgh summarising these issues on 8 December, but dis-appointingly have received no response, despite efforts to follow up. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister would provide an answer as to whether he will make regular updates on the processing of applications through the building safety fund, how the distribution of funds is being prioritised, and what steps he will take to speed up payments.

The prospectus for the building safety fund also states that buildings under 18 metres in height will not be covered. This was of little comfort to those in the buildings affected in my constituency. The loan scheme recently introduced by the Government will relieve residents of having to pay a lump sum up front, but ultimately it still leaves them liable to pay to fix a problem that they did not create and that will likely mean they will still struggle to sell. The Government have drawn an arbitrary distinction on this issue, which represents a piecemeal approach to making these buildings safe. If cladding is unsafe, it is surely unsafe regardless of the height of the building it sits on. The building safety fund should therefore apply to buildings of any height. The Housing Minister recently suggested data was being collected on buildings between 11 and 18 metres high. I therefore ask him to update us on the progress of that work, whether it includes the buildings in my constituency and whether he plans to extend the fund to cover these buildings.

Last week, this House considered amendments from the other place on the Fire Safety Bill. The Government had an opportunity to back Labour amendments that would have absolved leaseholders of burdensome costs, and set things right for the future by placing robust requirements on building owners and managers to implement recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry. The Government voted against both, so we have now reached the absurd situation in which this Government have voted against implementing the recommendations of their own review, which they promised to accept. The Building Safety Bill, which does include long-overdue reforms of the wider sector, is still without a date for First Reading.

That brings me to my final point. Residents and building owners find themselves in these situations because of a systemic failure of regulation stretching back decades. These buildings were constructed with materials that were approved at the time. There is now little incentive for anyone in the long chain of those involved, from contractors to regulators to building owners, to take responsibility for sorting out this important issue, because it now comes with a hefty price tag. Some developers have now tacitly accepted the need for a levy and they are to be commended, but it is not a holistic solution.

Since the tragedy of Grenfell, successive Governments have been irresponsibly slow at tackling this issue. Residents’ groups, campaigners and Members of this House have had to drag Ministers kicking and screaming to take responsibility for protecting residents in high-rise blocks with all types of cladding. And we still are not there. While recent, if overdue, efforts made by the Government to provide funding are welcome, we have yet to see an unequivocal commitment to removing costs from leaseholders, disbursing available funds as quickly as possible and recovering them from industry at a later date. On this last issue, the Government are not using important convening power to set expectations of developers, contractors and insurers that would benefit leaseholders who have been affected.

I would like to conclude by summarising my asks of the Minister. First, the Government must finally lift the cost burden from leaseholders and redouble efforts to recover funds from the sector. They should distribute funds as quickly as possible and set a hard timeline for the completion of remediation works. They must recognise and repay interim funds in full. Finally, they must ensure that legislation includes a clear regulatory framework with a common standard to make sure this never happens again.

Building safety issues threaten to turn dream homes into a nightmare for my constituents. The Government must keep to their promise that leaseholders will not pay for the consequences of their cladding crisis.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to add to this debate tonight. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for his excellent speech, which covered a wide range of very serious issues that are faced by residents in towns and cities across the country. In my constituency in Reading and Woodley, we have exactly the same set of problems, which he so eloquently outlined, affecting the city of Portsmouth. I understand from colleagues across the whole country that this is a serious national problem. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is a national scandal. Three years after Grenfell, we still do not have the full set of effective measures in place to take action against these terrible fire safety problems.

Briefly, let me thank the Minister for the work that the Government are doing on some of the taller buildings, but one or two very serious issues remain. I do not want to repeat all the points made by my hon. Friend, but, I will, if I may, address one or two key points that particularly affect local people in Reading and Woodley. As many people will know, our town is growing. We are not a city, but a large town, with many taller buildings in our town centre. That is only likely to increase over time as greater development takes place in the Thames Valley. The same is true across the whole of Berkshire and, indeed, across much of England and the wider UK.

I wish to make two or three key points about the nature of the problem and the range of issues that go beyond the very tall blocks with the Grenfell-style cladding. First, on the height of the blocks, it is important to underline the point made by hon. Friend that there are many blocks under 18 metres. Indeed, the majority of blocks in Reading town centre of any description, whether or not they have problems, are way below that height. However, they are tall enough to make it difficult for people to escape from them if there were an emergency. What we are seeing in our area is a number of issues in blocks of that height—from Grenfell-style ACM cladding, from other types of cladding and, indeed, from other problems.

First, I ask the Minister to reassess the difficulties facing residents living in blocks of under 18 metres. They are being offered a loan, which, as my hon. Friend said, is some assistance, but many of these residents do not have large financial resources, so this is still a very significant imposition on them, and it may take them many years to pay off the loan. They are in this position through no fault of their own, undergoing a huge amount of stress and a great deal of anxiety because of the cladding and other issues in their blocks. As my hon. Friend quite rightly pointed out, many are people who would like to sell, but are unable to do so because they cannot get the right certification.

Secondly, in my experience, this issue goes beyond the very serious one of cladding into a range of other fire safety and building quality issues. There are what appear to be from the outside some beautiful blocks in Reading, next to the River Kennet. There is one with a beautiful white exterior and a modernist appearance. However, the sad reality for its residents is that the compartmentalisation of that building is not up to standard, and if there were a fire, it would be extremely dangerous for them. Therefore, we are seeing issues with compartmentalisation and proper quality of firewalls, whether it is in the original building or through subsequent changes that have not been carried out as they should have been carried out. There are also serious issues with fire spread within buildings and with fire safety doors. An elderly gentleman who lives in sheltered accommodation in a suburb came to me with very serious concerns about the fire door on the front of his property in a low-rise block. He replaced it only to then be told that, because of confusion around the quality of the replacement spec needed, he had to replace it with a further one and, as a pensioner, he was faced with an enormous bill of about £2,000 for a new door. These are the kinds of things we are talking about: cladding, doors, compartmentalisation, and a range of other serious issues. I ask the Minister to look again at the challenges that we face with the large number of lower-rise blocks—he obviously knows about the dangerous fires in the two lower-rise blocks in Barking and Bolton—and at the issue of compartmentalisation and other subsequent and additional fire safety problems.

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me an opportunity to speak in this debate at somewhat short notice. I do very much appreciate that and I wish him a happy St David’s Day—I am afraid that I cannot say that in Welsh. I also ask the Minister if he might be able to reply to my points.

May I, last if not least, wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all other Members of the House a very happy St David’s Day? I am grateful to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) for bringing this important topic to the House and to the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for the eloquent and passionate way in which he spoke on behalf of his constituents. I should like to thank other Members of the House who are not here this evening, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Kensington (Felicity Buchan) and for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), both of whom have spoken up, championing their constituents—something that all Members of Parliament do and should do on this issue.

Building safety is a matter of great significance to residents, not just in the Portsmouth South constituency but across the country. The Government’s aim has always been to protect residents in high-rise blocks of flats without imposing burdensome costs on leaseholders. As Members are aware, last month the Government announced a clear five-point plan that will remove unsafe cladding, provide certainty for leaseholders, and ensure that industry takes the responsibility that it should for its past mistakes. Crucially, our plan also brings us one step closer to creating a world-class building safety regime. Integral to its success is finishing the job of removing unsafe cladding.

As I have a little bit of time, perhaps it would be helpful for me to set out some context and remind the House of where we have come from. Following the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell fire, the expert advice that the Government received identified aluminium composite cladding—the type found on the tower—as posing the most severe safety risk on high-rise residential buildings. That is why the Government committed £600 million to accelerate the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding on high-rise residential buildings, and that work is now nearing completion. Almost 95% of all high-rise buildings identified at the beginning of last year with ACM cladding have now been remediated or have workers on site and works under way.

However, we recognised then and we recognise now that other forms of unsafe cladding, while less dangerous than ACM, should never have been allowed to be used in the construction of high-rise buildings and will need to be remediated too. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South pointed out, although many building owners have acted to make these buildings safe—Barratt is one example of a developer that has done so; there are many others—some owners and developers have not. Put simply, too many building owners and managing agents in the private sector have been slow in getting remediation work started.

That is why we introduced the £1 billion building safety fund, to remediate high-rise residential buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding as soon as possible and to shield leaseholders from the costs associated with those works. Additionally, as the House knows, last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced £3.5 billion in additional funding for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding on high-rise residential buildings over 18 metres, or approximately six storeys, in England. We have always been clear, though, that public funding does not absolve the industry from taking responsibility for its own failures. In many cases, we have seen developers and building owners rightly correcting the defects they have created. Indeed, they have done so in more than half the high-rise private sector buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.

The position of the Government remains, as hon. Members would expect, that developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay should do so. They should do the right thing and cover the costs of remediation of other unsafe cladding without passing on the costs to leaseholders However, in many moving cases—the hon. Member for Portsmouth South mentioned a number—it is clear that building owners or their management agents have passed on significant remediation costs to leaseholders without any regard to the affordability of those measures.

The Secretary of State knows, as does Lord Greenhalgh, who leads on this area for the Government, that residents are extremely worried by the situations in which they find themselves. They are worried that the safety of their home is in jeopardy, and their life savings with it. Lord Greenhalgh has had many meetings with cladding campaigners. Indeed, he only recently spoke to the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and leasehold and commonhold reform. He and the Government are absolutely clear that this distressing situation is completely unacceptable, and we are bringing it to a swift end by ensuring that leaseholders are no longer hit with such bills.

Under our risk-based approach, as identified by the report of Dame Judith Hackitt, the Government funding will focus on high-rise buildings, which is where the independent advisory panel has been clear that the highest risk lies. It is long-standing expert independent advice that height is a central factor in assessing risk. The National Fire Chiefs Council says so, the Building Research Establishment says so, and the independent panel says so. Taller buildings house more people, and when combined with combustible cladding, they are the least likely to be safely evacuated. This means that the overall risk from fire is greater than in lower-rise buildings—sometimes four times greater. That is why we are ensuring that these buildings are remediated, and we have provided grants to get this done quickly. It is right that the Government should prioritise action on high-rise buildings.

For buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres, the risk profile is different, as has been mentioned by the hon. Members for Portsmouth South and for Reading East. Those buildings will not always require the same level of remediation when risks are identified. Although those buildings do not carry the same inherent risk as buildings over 18 metres, we want to ensure that their residents are also given peace of mind and financial certainty. That is why we have said that leaseholders in buildings between 11 and 18 metres will be able to access a generous long-term low-interest Government-backed finance scheme for the removal of dangerous cladding. That finance scheme will not affect their credit rating. It will not follow them round for life. If they sell their property, it will remain with the property. It will not be, as it were, an addition to their mortgage. It will effectively be a safety charge on the building.

As part of the financing scheme, leaseholder payments towards such remediation costs will be capped at a maximum of £50 a month for work that could potentially run into tens of thousands of pounds. We think that this is a fair solution that will provide the support that leaseholders expect, restore confidence in the risk and lending sectors and restore proportionate risk and value assessments so that value can be properly re-ascribed to these properties, while not unfairly burdening taxpayers, many of whom are not homeowners themselves. They are also the covid nurses doing a double shift in the hospital and the shelf stackers in the Tesco Metro in Reading or Portsmouth. We have to be conscious that it is taxpayers’ money that we are disbursing, and we must be careful and sensible with it.

As the Secretary of State laid out in his statement to the House, the Government will ensure that the largest property owners also make a fair contribution to this remediation programme. A developer levy will be introduced and targeted at developers seeking permission to develop certain high-rise buildings in England. Industry must take collective responsibility for the historical building safety defects that it created, and our levy will help to ensure that it does. We will also introduce a new tax for British residential property development to make sure that the largest property developers make a fair contribution towards remediation.

Taken together, these measures will raise at least £2 billion over the next 10 years, fixing unsafe buildings and ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden. Our plan unequivocally makes homes safer and frees those who did the right thing, saving for years to get on to the property ladder to enjoy the homes in which they have invested so much. We are continuing to work at pace to make sure that these schemes protect leaseholders, prioritising affordability, transparency and empowerment while accelerating remediation.

The hon. Member for Reading East asked how we would ensure that those on low incomes are protected when they have to pay up to £50 a month. We are alive to the challenges that some people may face, and that is why, when we publish the mechanism for the financing scheme, we need to strike the right balance between the longevity and affordability of payments.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth South asked some specific questions about the building safety fund, so perhaps I could spend a moment or two advising the House on that. The House will know that we have allocated £1 billion during this financial year for the building safety fund, designed specifically to remediate high-rise buildings of unsafe non-ACM cladding. Almost 900 decisions have now been made and over 500 registered buildings are now proceeding with a full application. So far, nearly £160 million has been allocated for use, but the House will know—I have mentioned it myself at the Dispatch Box, as has my right hon Friend the Secretary of State—that, despite clear requirements of building owners in relation to the building safety fund, all too many were unable to properly complete the application process so that the Government could properly assess the eligibility of those applications. Some 2,820 registrations to the fund were made and over 1,000 did not provide such supporting information, such as the height of the building that was applicable and the template lease agreements that apply. In some cases in Portsmouth, EWS1 forms were submitted suggesting that no remediation was necessary.

We have worked closely with the building owners and their agents to address this challenge. We have extended the timeframe for application to the end of June this year. I am confident that the money will be allocated—the works must begin by September this year—and that this fund, taken together with the £3.5 billion that we have also made available for the remediation of high-rise properties with unsafe cladding, will ensure that the work is done effectively and that those people can live safely and surely in their homes once again. I should say, however, that all registrants should continue to ensure that everything is done in the meantime to maximise the pace of remediation and continue to make progress with their applications to the fund, because we want this work to get on and complete as quickly as possible.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the interim measures that we have put in place. I should remind him of one of the reasons why we have introduced the waking watch fund of £30 million to support those high-rise properties that have a waking watch, where costs are being passed on by owners to their leaseholders. We have introduced that fund to make sure that those in the greatest need are supported, but the best way to end waking watches is to get on and remediate those buildings. That is the message that we have impressed time and again on building owners and their agents. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does exactly the same.

Ultimately, all these measures are designed to ensure that the remediation of unsafe buildings happens as soon as possible while protecting leaseholders from unfair, unaffordable costs. As I have said, we have made good progress on remediation. We have taken enforcement action with the joint inspection team, which we support and fund, helping local authorities and fire and rescue services around the country to undertake a number of important actions in which building owners have been fined or named and shamed. That work has contributed to the pressure that we have exerted, and we are now seeing the results.

We will continue to advance EWS1 applications to the building safety fund to the next stage so that we can finish the remaining remediation works, and we are doing that as quickly as we can. We have appointed specialist consultants further to increase the pace of remediation and get the job done. We have also spent £700,000 on the recruitment of 2,000 fire risk assessors. One hundred are being trained and put into the field every month to ensure that proper fire risk assessments can be made of buildings, to ensure that the proper costs to remediate them can be associated with them and work can begin.

Our plan means that building owners, developers and management agents take responsibility for fixing the problems that they created. The Fire Safety Bill that we introduced will strengthen enforcement action in cases in which they do not do so. We debated that Bill and its remaining provisions last week. The House will know that we could not accept the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). Their intent was good, decent and honourable, but the amendments did not provide sufficient regulatory underpinning to the Bill to protect the Government and the taxpayer from potential court action by landlords and freeholders, which would have stopped the progress of the Bill. I hope that the House will understand why the amendments, although well intentioned, were so defective that the Government could not accept them.

We will soon introduce the Building Safety Bill, which makes a once-in-a-generation change to the building safety regime. It will help to place even greater accountability on those responsible for these buildings so that no resident is asked to fix a problem that they did not cause at a price that they cannot afford. We will fulfil our pledge to bring about the lasting change that we need so that confidence in our building safety regime is fully restored.

Many of the challenges that we have spoken about today —the hon. Members for Portsmouth South and for Reading East, and Conservative colleagues speak about them so forcefully—and beyond it have been allowed to build up over decades and by successive Governments. That is why we must tackle those failures once and for all, righting the wrongs of the past while delivering a fairer deal for taxpayers, who have had to foot so much of the bill, and for leaseholders, because they have a right to expect that and they deserve nothing less.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.