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High-rise Buildings: Remediation

Volume 709: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of remediation works on residents in high rise buildings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. As the Member for Ipswich, I have been involved on the issue of cladding in more ways than one. My first surgery appointment was with a leaseholder from St Francis Tower, which is an incredibly prominent building on the Ipswich skyline; it is right in the heart of the town. The appointment had to do with making sure that leaseholders did not have to pay for the remediation works. On that particular issue, we have come quite a long way. St Francis Tower was one of the first beneficiaries of the building safety fund, and in that respect we have moved forward.

St Francis Tower was built in the 1960s. There were extensive refurbishment works between 2005 and 2008. In August 2018, a decision was made that the cladding needed to be replaced, and in September 2018 the work began. In many respects, St Francis Tower was a precursor to the many other buildings in Ipswich where leaseholders were affected. Those leaseholders have had significant periods of huge anxiety and concern about being chased for bills to do with fire defects that the leaseholders had absolutely nothing to do with. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) for the work that he has done on that issue.

Although I appreciate that some hon. Members will believe that we still have a way to go in providing full support for all leaseholders and making sure that none is left behind, the debate today is specifically to do with the impact of remediation works on the residents who are expected to live in those buildings while work is taking place. It was good news that St Francis Tower was one of the early beneficiaries of the building safety fund, but in some respects it has almost become a victim of the fact that it was such an early beneficiary. The residents of the tower have had to endure something that I hope, if we continue to shine a spotlight on what has happened through debates like this, residents in other high-rise buildings like the 17-storey St Francis Tower will not have to experience.

In Ipswich, almost overnight, it seemed, a giant shrink-wrap emerged and covered the entirety of St Francis Tower—I was absolutely astonished. A very large number of my constituents assumed that the residents of St Francis Tower had been relocated somewhere else; they could not actually believe that any human beings would be expected to live in those conditions. Of course, in short order I visited my constituents in St Francis Tower. I went to four or five of the flats—some on the top levels, some on the bottom levels—and I was astonished by what I saw. What I came across were conditions that I would feel guilty about an animal living in, never mind human beings, my constituents. The shrink-wrap was put on the building in June 2021, leading to virtually no natural light at all in the building. Bars across the windows were added, meaning that even getting fresh air was very hard. Of course, that was in the midst of the pandemic. There were concerns and anxieties about potential periods of self-isolation, lockdowns and having to work from home. The flats have no balconies.

I will always remember one of the conversations that I had with a constituent. She spends a huge amount of time in her flat. To her, it was a precious place—her home. She derived enjoyment from her plants, which were on the window, and the view that she had across the town. Those plants died. I know that some might say, “They were just plants,” but they were important to my constituent. I will remember that conversation with her in particular.

Block Management UK is responsible for the building, and Oander is the company that is carrying out the work. My constituents were given very little notice that the shrink-wrap was even going to go up—very little notice at all. Initially, those companies were incredibly difficult to get hold of, or for residents to meet, so I got involved and met the residents, and I was incredibly vocal in the media. I thank the East Anglian Daily Times, the Ipswich Star and BBC Radio Suffolk, because they got their teeth into this issue. Emily Townsend, who is a former journalist from the East Anglian Daily Times, was particularly passionate about it, and I honestly think it was only the front pages that ran in the local media that brought Block Management and Oander to the table at all.

I have to be honest: I have long given up expecting these companies to act in a moral way. I have essentially come to think of it like this: on the one hand, they could have the inconvenience and cost of potentially replacing the shrink-wrap; on the other, they have the reputational risk of me continuing to bang on about it in this place, and the local media rightly continuing to cover it.

Residents were told that this shrink-wrap would be up for 12 months—12 months of living in those conditions—which has led to serious anxiety and mental health problems for many of my constituents. It is very sad that this has been the case. I have raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions and in different departmental debates. In fact, I remember talking about it in a summer Adjournment debate to which the Minister, in his previous role, gave a very positive response, so I know that even before this debate—even before his current role—the Minister had some understanding of this issue and how important it is for me.

In essence, St Francis Tower covered in that shrink-wrap has become a scar on our landscape, and it is incredibly visible every day. In a sense, as the local MP, I also see it as a little bit of a sign of failure on my part every time I get back to the town and see that tower. I think of the people living inside it, and of the fact that the shrink-wrap is now going to be up not for 12 months, but for around 18 months, because there have been delays, as is often the case. My current understanding is that the shrink-wrap is likely to be on the building until December 2022, so even at this point, my constituents are looking at another nine or 10 months of that shrink-wrap being on the building.

St Francis Tower was the precursor in Ipswich to the leaseholder issue; my concern is that it will also be the precursor for issues to do with the living conditions that constituents who live in high-rise buildings are expected to endure. We have had other examples; in particular, there is Orwell Quay, another building in Ipswich. Initially, I was given hope that a different approach would be taken there, one more based on consultation. I heard that a netting material was going to go up, as opposed to shrink-wrap; it would be more breathable and would allow more natural light in. Having seen the material in question, frankly, it is borderline whether it is netting. It is a slight improvement on the shrink-wrap, but it still is not where we need to be.

What is the issue here, in a more general sense? For me, it is recognition that the work that is taking place is vital. We need to ensure that everybody lives in safe buildings, particularly in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy; we all accept and understand that. We want that work to happen as quickly as possible, and to be as effective as possible. We also recognise the moves that the Government have made, and we appreciate the building safety fund. However, the point I am trying to make is that we need to balance the need to carry out that work with the mental health of those who are expected to live in those buildings while the work is carried out, and I do not believe that a single Member in this place would think it acceptable that any human being has to live in the conditions that my constituents in St Francis Tower have had to live in for well over a year. We need to get to a position where the work is carried out, but in a way that is sensitive to people’s needs and their mental health.

I have been told by Block Management that the shrink-wrap is 100% necessary—that there is no other way to do it. I simply do not believe that, Minister. I do not believe that there is not another way of carrying out this work, one that is more sensitive to the mental health of my constituents. I put it to the Minister that we should work up a better way to do this, whether that is by introducing new regulations that stipulate the use of more breathable material that lets in natural light, or by making available relocation funds to ensure that it is an option for those in buildings such as St Francis Tower to live somewhere else. I am loth to say that, because I appreciate the huge pressures on the public finances.

That is my ask today. There are examples like St Francis Tower across the country; I am aware of similar case studies, so I know this is not an issue just for Ipswich. During the recent storms, the shrink-wrap was partially ripped off St Francis Tower. I have wanted that shrink-wrap off since the moment I saw it, but not in that way, which caused significant distress to a number of my constituents. Yes, we welcome the building safety fund. Nobody disagrees that the work needs to be carried out, but it must be done in a way that is sensitive to the mental health and welfare of the individuals expected to live in that building while the work is carried out.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate with you overseeing it, Mrs Miller, and I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for securing it. I join him in paying tribute to the work done by his colleague, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), throughout this entire debacle. I have seen the former’s comments about St Francis Tower on Twitter and elsewhere. He is right to highlight the issue because many of our constituents will face similar problems as this crisis reaches the next stage. He rightly describes this as a precursor.

Along with the hon. Members for Ipswich and for Stevenage and others, I have made representations on behalf of many constituents in buildings affected by the scandal. Part of the scandal is that in the vast majority of cases, we are still so far off remediation, but for those who are at that stage, there are real problems of the sort described by the hon. Member for Ipswich.

I have recently been in touch with leaseholders in Mandale House in the heart of Sheffield, who are in exactly that position. After all the other traumas that they have faced—the uncertainty over so long; the waking watch costs; the trebling of insurance costs—they now face the problems of remediation work. Their building is to be clad—understandably and necessarily—in scaffolding, which requires the removal of balconies. We all know that in recent times, any piece of outdoor space has been precious. Losing a balcony is bad enough, but the work also involves blocking the opening of the window by the balcony. In many of those flats, that is the only window. People have been condemned to live in a space with no source of natural light and no ventilation. They anticipate that they will be in that position for two and a half years, but as we know, it could be longer, given the way these things unfortunately go.

Mandale House residents will lose access to their car park, as will those in other buildings in the same situation. That might be a comparatively small issue, but in city centre complexes, having somewhere to park a car is important. Residents paid for those spaces, but there is no sense of what alternative provision might be available—provision that they will have to pay for. There are issues about coming back late at night; young women will have to walk through the city, when they would rather park in their building and have direct access to their flats.

There is a range of problems, and in any other situation in which people were facing these sorts of difficulties, they would have someone to turn to for compensation, or perhaps to facilitate their relocation while the work was taking place, but none of that is available to these people. People might want to move temporarily, but their flat will be unrentable. People might want to move in order to move on with their life—we know that is a big aspect of this crisis—but their flat is also unrentable. The remediation work is directly impacting not only how they live, but how they can take their life forward. As the hon. Member for Ipswich suggested, that adds to the stress that many leaseholders have long suffered while anticipating the difficulties that they will face in living without access to their balcony, and with no source of natural light or ventilation.

Leaseholders recognise that that the remediation work is necessary—vital, as the hon. Member described it—but they are being asked to pay substantial amounts of money to repair faults for which they have no responsibility, and will, through those repairs, experience a substantial reduction in their quality of life over a long period. What is happening to them is obscene. It is having a very significant impact on their mental health, as the hon. Member pointed out; and as I have said, these people have already been traumatised.

The impact on mental health has been explored in a report by Dr Jenny Preece of the University of Sheffield, who also works with the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. It published the report, entitled “Living through the building safety crisis”, at the end of last year. Dr Preece started her research before many leaseholders started to make payments or faced the impact of remedial work, but they were, at that stage, facing all the other worries, and were having to pay out for a waking watch; at Mandale House, they had to pay a substantial amount for a new alarm system. They were paying for interim measures while still uncertain about their future. It has to be said that the Government’s recent proposals will not lift the worries of most of these people.

Many leaseholders have had their whole life taken over by this crisis. One is a GP. This has completely affected his career development, because he has become almost a full-time organiser, helping the voices of those across the city who are suffering these injustices to be heard. Dr Preece’s report points out the practical impact of the worries that many people face. There are leaseholders who have a bag packed by their front door in case their building reaches the point of unsafety and they have to move out in a hurry. Another building in my area, Wicker Riverside, was evacuated before Christmas 2020 with three hours’ notice, so these are real worries.

However, the continued lack of support from the Government has meant that, for most leaseholders, the financial worry has overtaken the question of safety. That came through very powerfully in Dr Preece’s report. From her extensive interviews with leaseholders, she concluded that the negative impacts on mental wellbeing ranged from constant worry and an inability to concentrate and focus on work, to anxiety, depression and suicidal feelings. One mother wrote to me to say that her son was seriously contemplating suicide because he felt so blocked in by the crisis imposed on him.

There is real fear of a dangerous fire breaking out, but that fear, as I have said, is eclipsed by the financial impacts. The anticipation or receipt of bills that are simply unaffordable—that break people financially—has created enormous stress, alongside the day-to-day attrition of increasing costs for insurance, a waking watch and other things. All the participants in Dr Preece’s survey

“reflected on the impact…on their ability to control their own lives”.

That is a point worth reflecting on for a moment: their inability to control their life and plan for their future. Many are young people at the start of their life, planning careers and families, who are unable to move or to commit to having an extra family member in the household. That is an important point about all those life stage transitions—family planning, moving to a larger home, retirement. Some of these people have invested savings into a retirement plan and are similarly trapped. For many people, the pressures have challenged their self-perception and self-confidence, and have put a strain on relationships.

I do not want to score a party political point here—there has been a lot of cross-party unity on this issue—but the Prime Minister was recently asked on ITV about the concerns expressed by one of my constituents in Wicker Riverside, Jenni Garrett. He said she had

“a frankly unnecessary sense of anxiety”.

I challenged the Prime Minister on that point at Prime Minister’s questions, and asked him to meet Jenni so that they might explain why she and so many others were worried. I was surprised by his response. He doubled down on the assertion, and told me that it was my responsibility to tell her that her building was safe. That is shocking, but is perhaps an insight into why the Government are still failing to treat the issue with the urgency it deserves, and in the appropriate way.

Although I recognise that the recent announcement was a step forward, it does not address the commitment that the Prime Minister previously made, and which we should be committed to as parliamentarians. These people have faced an extraordinary injustice. The solution that the Government are proposing will lead to a long road of resolution for many of those affected, heaping more worry on them, as well as potential litigation that they will not be able to afford or organise. We should be taking responsibility for fixing the buildings quickly and then using the full resources of the state to hold those responsible to account and to recover the public money that we need to put in to secure the situation, so that we can live up to the commitment that the Prime Minister made at one stage—that every affected building is fixed without delay, and at no cost to leaseholders. That is what will lift their worry.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am grateful to be following the wonderful speech by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who gave an emotional account of the GP who has had to put his whole career on hold. That is something we have seen up and down the country. Lots of people have had to become experts on building safety.

There is a grave misunderstanding of how many people are affected. There is still no register of how many buildings and people are affected. The estimates vary, but they suggest that up to 5 million people are affected, and that hundreds of thousands of buildings are currently deemed to be unsafe in one way or another.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for securing this important debate. Since the emergence of this issue, he has led the way on a range of points. Once again we are celebrating the Government’s wonderful intervention, and my hon. Friend is moving us on to the next stage of the debate and the next stage of the campaign by leading the way, as he always does—standing up for his constituents and making sure that they get the best possible service they can from their Member of Parliament and the Government.

I welcome the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to his place. This is our first opportunity to debate this issue and I am grateful that he is here. I feel this will be a positive relationship. It is quite well known that we did not always see eye to eye with the previous Ministers and Secretary of State, but we feel we are now in a much better place, and that everybody is listening and working together. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), is also working with us incredibly well, as did his predecessors. This is all about working cross-party and making sure that we represent our constituents up and down the country.

In terms of remediation, my constituency has a building called Vista Tower, which has been iconic during this campaign. Leaseholders paid about £200,000 for their properties and the remediation bills they received were £220,000, so the remediation costs are more than the value of the properties. That is why my constituent Sophie Bichener reached out to me. At the beginning of the campaign I found it difficult to understand what the issues were, because I am not a building safety expert; neither was Sophie. We worked on the issue, and that was when we got the ball rolling some 18 months ago, but it remains incredibly difficult.

I thank the Minister because the Government’s intervention means that those leaseholders will not face costs of £220,000. At most, they would be capped at £10,000. As the Minister knows, I am keen that the £10,000 cap is a waterfall, so the developers were first, then the freeholders, and in the last possible scenario it would be the leaseholders, but with a cap of £10,000. The cap should take into consideration costs, such as a waking watch, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central mentioned, where my constituents were paying more in waking watch costs every month than they were paying on their mortgages—and that was just one fire safety cost.

On mental health, as the hon. Member for Ipswich said, residents were told to work from home because the global pandemic made it not safe to go outside, but they were in a building that was not safe to live in, so they had nowhere to go. They had to lay their child’s head down to sleep every night in a building that was unsafe. The fire department and everybody else were talking about how unsafe the building was and how anything could happen. People are having to walk up and down the building 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure that it does not catch fire and that if it did, everyone would be able to get out in time.

The impact on leaseholders’ mental health, during a global pandemic, was intolerable. As the hon. Member said, animals would not be treated like that in this country. It is incredibly important to understand how those leaseholders feel. I welcome the Government’s commitment of over £9 billion. They have done the waterfall that we suggested. We are trying to get a commitment from Government that any costs incurred to leaseholders over the previous five years would be taken off that £10,000 cap. If that was the case, my constituent would not be facing a bill of £220,000; it would be zero. That is the level of the Government’s intervention on the issue. I welcome that and thank the Government, who have tried to work with us.

Now we need to move towards remediation. We are winning the debates and the arguments, but the reality is that none of the buildings up and down the country are being made safer. A dialogue is still taking place. People are still living in those buildings. One building that I visited during my campaign that is also iconic is New Providence Wharf, where a fire took place. It had a waking watch, but they could go up only so many flights before they had to leave themselves because it was so difficult.

Again, it was very hard meeting people who lived there. I met NHS consultants and a lady who had a number of children. During the fire, she was sitting on the floor because she did not know which child she had to leave behind, and the neighbours came and picked the other children up and got them out of the smoke. It was the people in the building who rescued each other. Everything failed—the smoke alarms and fire doors. They had all the kit, but none of it worked.

At the moment the building is shrink-wrapped in Monarflex. It has to be Monarflex because it is weatherproof. Those people have been living in this shrink-wrapped, weatherproof place, which currently looks like shredded toilet paper because the storms have shown that it is not remotely weatherproof and it has been ripped apart. They have been living in darkness for 12 months, and working from home during that time. As the hon. Member said, animals would not be allowed to be kept in darkness for 12 months.

Residents have reached out and given me a few examples. They came up with a wonderful idea, which we would like the Minister to take away and think about. It is something that the hon. Member for Ipswich and I have talked about, which is to develop a code of practice for remediating buildings. If a building is going to be shrink-wrapped in Monarflex, what needs to be done to prove that is the right material? How long can it stay up for, and what measures can be put in place instead? Cladding rightly had to be removed quickly, so the scaffolding went up, the cladding was removed and the building was shrink-wrapped. Then there is a 26-week delay as everybody works out what to do, but people live in that building during that 26-week delay.

People gave me examples of security. Obviously, the buildings are accessible if people climb on scaffolding. One lady had somebody peering into her flat in the early hours of the morning—they had climbed up the scaffolding. I was given examples of noise. People often do not understand how intrusive the remediation works are. We are talking about knocking walls down and the noise is intolerable, especially when having to work from home. There is probably a health and safety issue. If we put a noise monitor in a flat, would we find that the noise exceeded acceptable levels?

Another issue is the scheduling. We have talked about the huge delays. That does not sound like much of an issue, but it is. I have been told about tiles that had to be removed and then they were going to go back up, but five months later the tiles are still being removed because of the need to fix the firebreaks. The tiles insulated the properties, so people now have no insulation and their heating bills have gone through the roof. They are in a concrete box shrink-wrapped in darkness. Those are the conditions that people currently live in.

I am incredibly excited that we have more than £9 billion from the Government. They have accepted that leaseholders are the innocent parties. We have to remediate the buildings now, but no one has been prepared. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich has seen it at first hand in his constituency, but none of us is prepared for what will actually happen. That is something else that I would like the Minister to take away and think about, and it might help him. Some of the buildings are probably so bad that leaseholders do not consider them to be homes any more; they consider them to be millstones. So will the Minister consider compulsorily purchasing some of these buildings from the leaseholders, or give them the opportunity to sell them to the Government? We could knock the buildings down, hand them over to housing associations and allow them to be rebuilt properly as new affordable homes. We would be replacing stock. Instead of remediation, we would be starting afresh and creating huge affordable housing stock up and down the country, and people would not have to live in buildings that had been remediated because they were so bad.

Oddly, the more remediation work the building needs, the more intrusive and difficult it is for the leaseholders living in the building. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich mentioned, we need to find a balance around mental health and living in those buildings. Perhaps we could offer leaseholders the opportunity to sell and allow the housing associations to go in and provide affordable homes. Many leaseholders want to have a child—or another child—and move on with their lives away from those buildings. Will the Minister consider that?

Another thing I want the Minister to consider is a building safety-type register. The Building Safety Bill creates a new regulator. According to the insurance industry, one reason why premiums are so high is that they do not know what the buildings are made of, so they assume the worst-case scenario, and as a result the premiums have to stay high and could go up at any time. Although a lot of the buildings are safe, insurers do not know what materials have been used. If the Building Safety Bill stated that there had to be a register of all new buildings and what exactly they were made of, as in Scandinavia, in the case of any new buildings built from, say, January 2024, we would know exactly what they were made of and we would not be in this position, going forward.

In the case of applications to the building safety fund for support or remediation works, we could say that the buildings had to be analysed to identify what they were made of. We would then have a database of buildings in the country and could identify which were the worst affected. We would know that buildings are made of x, y and z. That could help with insurance costs and would allow the Department to prioritise which buildings need to be fixed quickly, because we would know which were the most dangerous. I urge the Minister to talk to the insurance companies. It is in their interests because they do not want to pay out, and they know which of their insurance products are the most effective for insurance purposes.

We need to work with each other to try to resolve these issues on a cross-party basis, as we have done throughout the campaign, and we need to continue to listen and try to move forward. I am grateful that we have £9 billion to end our cladding scandal, and I thank the UK Cladding Action Group and the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership for all the work that they have done to get us to where we are today. As we move into the remediation of buildings, however, it will be very much as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich has described: it will be a living hell for a number of people who are already close to breaking point because their mental health has suffered. I urge the Minister to consider those points, and I look forward to meeting him a number of times to discuss them.

I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for securing the debate. As he always does, he set out an excellent viewpoint, as have other speakers, whom I thank for their contributions. I welcome the Minister to what I believe is his first Westminster Hall debate as the Minister for Housing, and I look forward to his contribution. I have already asked him for a meeting on a separate issue; I thank him for agreeing to that meeting and look forward to our working together. As always, I look forward to the speech by the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook).

This issue is of some importance to me, and I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on healthy homes and buildings. It is an issue that has been discussed numerous times in the main Chamber and in Westminster Hall over a long period. I believe that the right home, built in the right way, with all remediation work having been carried out, contributes to a person or family’s wellbeing; that is why the debate is so important. It is not just about the structural work that the hon. Member for Ipswich mentioned; it is about the effect it has on the wellbeing of the people who live in the properties. If we get this right, we improve their wellbeing as well, which is really important.

Remediation works have a number of positive effects on residents and our constituents, and it is great to be here today to highlight those and discuss how we can move forward with remediation works and building safety for high-rise buildings. Not one of us in the Chamber or across this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not affected by the Grenfell tragedy in 2017. It was horrendous to watch, and it was even worse to see the effect on the bereaved families and others. It has had implications for those who own or rent properties in high-rise buildings, including the need for remediation works.

I want to put it on the record that the Government have rightly introduced a building safety programme with the aim of ensuring that residents of high-rise buildings are safe and feel safe from the risk of fire; but there are still many who want to know exactly what that means. What is the Government’s plan? When will the strategy get to those people, and when will they feel safer in their homes? No one can deny that remediation works come at a significant cost, and someone has to pay for them, so there has to be system in place whereby we can draw some succour from a safety point of view and know that properties are okay to live in.

The proposed cost of remediation works for high-rise buildings is £15 billion. The Government funding allocated to date is £5.1 billion, so there is still a shortfall and there is still a strategy and timescale to put in place to make sure that we are getting there. There is no doubt whatever that developers have a responsibility to ensure that the correct remediation work is carried out on cladding. We look to the Government, the Minister and the Department for a response, but the developers have a role to play and must be actively engaged. I am sure the Minister will discuss the role of developers and the Government’s expectations of them and what they should do. There must be the correct remediation works for cladding, which is ultimately what made the Grenfell disaster spiral out of anyone’s control.

Remediation works for cladding should be at the forefront of our priorities. I refer specifically to ACMs—aluminium composite materials—which have been proven to be ineffective for high-rise buildings. Many residents are unaware of that type of cladding, which is used on their buildings. The Minister will undoubtedly have done a lot of homework for this debate, so I hope he can give an indication of where that issue sits in the system. Have there been checks and assessments on ACM cladding, and if so, what have they said? After seeing the devastation that cheaper alternatives can cause, there must be more onus on repair and replacement. Could the Minister or his officials give us an indication of where we are with that?

The Minister has no responsibility in this area for Northern Ireland—which he will be glad to hear—but I always like to bring a Northern Ireland perspective to debates to show how important such issues are to us back home. In Northern Ireland specifically, a £1 million fund to remove potentially dangerous cladding from residential high-rises opened this September past. For example, the Victoria Place apartments in Belfast still had the ACM cladding but, unfortunately, there is no legal requirement in Northern Ireland to replace cladding. Given that the funding is focused on the most high-risk buildings, what sort of reassurance is provided for residents, who know that the developers of their homes have no legal responsibility to ensure they are safe?

The Minister for Communities back home must do more to ensure residents are protected. I would be pleased if the Minister here today would see whether any discussions have happened to ensure that Northern Ireland is in line with the Building Safety Bill here. I do not expect an answer on that today, even though his civil servants are incredibly energetic and studious and would be able to provide one. I have had discussions with the Minister on this matter, so it should not come as a shock that I would be grateful if he could let me know if discussions have taken place and how they have gone.

The moral responsibility to replace dangerous cladding should not be down to the leaseholder alone, who may already be struggling to make ends meet. The fear of not feeling safe is unnecessary. It was reported last year that 75 high-rises across the United Kingdom that still use ACM cladding will not have had any remediation work done by the end of 2021. We are now a couple of months into 2022, so will the Minister provide an update to the House—in this debate or afterwards—because it is important to all Members who are contributing? We are in the third month of 2022, and I hope that some of these works have now been completed. Has that happened?

Surely, five years on from Grenfell, lessons surrounding building safety must be learned. The real sufferers are the residents, who are worried about their properties, the remedial work that has to be done, which has to be done with the developer’s contribution, and their wellbeing and peace of mind. We must take steps to ensure that another disaster like Grenfell does not occur. We must also put on record our thanks to the developers who have taken the extra step for the benefit of their tenants, as their efforts have undoubtedly reduced the risk of danger. There is a clear commitment by many to voice the importance of remediation works. While it is a costly and time-consuming process, the assurance of our constituents’ safety makes it worthwhile.

To conclude, I put on record my thanks to Government and the Minister for the funds allocated so far, but there is still work to do. I urge the Secretary of State and the Minister to have conversations with the necessary developers to ensure the safety of all high-rise buildings across the United Kingdom and to ensure that there is a strategy in place for all of them. I asked the Minister earlier to have those discussions with the relevant Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is not a measure included in the Building Safety Bill, and to ensure that the regulations that are in place are fit for purpose and have positive effects for the residents living there. I believe, as we all do in this House, that our responsibility is to look after our constituents and residents who need help. We are privileged to have the opportunity, in this House, to put forward the case on their behalf. The hon. Member for Ipswich and others have done that, and I very much look forward to the shadow Minister and Government Ministers’ responses.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. This has been an incredibly worthwhile debate on an issue that we all agree deserves more attention and that will only increase in significance in the months and years ahead as more and more buildings compromised by historical cladding and non-cladding defects undergo remediation.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) on securing the debate. He spoke forcefully on behalf of his constituents in St Francis Tower. I add to the general and well-deserved praise bestowed on the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions, and for bringing to the attention of the House the plight of constituents in Mandale House, Vista Tower, and other affected buildings.

Each Member has touched on this, but any hon. or right hon. Member whose constituency contains buildings with historical cladding or non-cladding defects will know of the abject misery that the building safety scandal has caused to residents. At the point that they learn that the home they believed to be safe is a fire risk, they are immediately trapped—physically, mentally and financially.

The point at which remediation works finally begin—particularly when the full cost has been met by either the freeholder or the building safety fund—should be the moment at which that misery begins to somewhat dissipate. However, as the hon. Member for Ipswich brought home in his introductory remarks, and as others have argued on the basis of cases in their constituencies, those vital remediation works, for too many residents, are a continuation of the distress that they have been experiencing.

Whether it is the psychological damage of having their home shrouded in plastic sheeting for months on end, if not years, the associated physical and mental health implications of being denied natural light or fresh air, the security risk, which we have touched on, or the financial impacts of buildings being exposed to the elements, there is no doubt that remediation works that are not undertaken with the appropriate sensitivity can and do have a detrimental impact on residents in high-rise buildings.

We have heard several suggestions this morning about how the issue can be tackled. I think that the hon. Member for Stevenage raised the idea of a digital register of new and remediated buildings. I think that is absolutely unarguable, and I hope that the Minister will give it serious consideration.

Several hon. Members raised the idea of relocating residents from buildings. That may be necessary in some cases, but the idea that all affected residents could be provided with alternative accommodation for the duration of remediation works is deeply problematic, not only because of the astronomical cost, but the practical difficulties that would be involved in such an undertaking, given the thousands of buildings that must be made safe over the coming years.

I actually agree with the hon. Member for Stevenage: surely the simplest way to minimise the impact of remediation works on residents in these buildings is for the Government to look to introduce some kind of code of practice that would seek to ensure that remediation works are carried out as sensitively as possible. There may be a standard alternative to that opaque plastic sheeting, which we can encourage developers to take on board. Even if that is not possible, and plastic sheeting is required, there are ways, and examples around the country, of how freeholders, managing agents and those they contract, can undertake those works in a more sensitive manner, often as a result of extensive consultations with residents about their particular needs.

He is sadly not in this morning’s debate, but my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) was telling me about a block in his constituency just the other evening. The landlord, Plymouth Community Homes, has ensured that a young boy with autism who loves looking out of his window at the ships coming and going from the dockyard—an important part of his daily routine, I was told—can still do so, despite the cladding remediation works, because the builder installed see-through plastic sheeting around his family’s flat.

That is just one example, taken at random, of what considerate remediation could look like. We know that there are many others across the country. It would surely be an incredibly low-cost initiative for the Government to bring forward that code of practice to ensure that all building owners and managing agents properly engage with residents in drawing up remediation management plans. I very much welcome the Minister’s views on the matter, as I once again welcome him to his place.

Remediation works are not being carried out as sensitively as they could be, and there is an additional problem related to that. As has been raised, residents are having to endure for longer than necessary the inevitable daily noise, dust and general inconvenience that come with building works, often because of a shortage of skills, personnel and materials. We know that there are many obstacles to the building safety crisis being resolved any time soon. However, shortages of suitable replacement materials and appropriately skilled remediation experts have been known about for some time.

All the evidence suggests that the sector is working at full capacity, with many of the firms able to undertake remediation works being booked up years in advance. There is anecdotal evidence that the constraints on people and materials are impacting on the duration of works on individual sites. That is why there is a need to ensure that the remediation works are carried out not only as sensitively as possible, but as quickly as possible. The need for both those things, I would argue, reinforces the case for the Government to look to establish a new building works agency, as Labour has proposed: a single body, accountable to Ministers, that could go block by block to determine which works are necessary under the new PAS 9980 guidance, commission those works, look at the ways in which the impact might be mitigated and certify buildings as safe at the end of the process.

At present, the debate around the building safety crisis is, for completely understandable reasons, focused almost entirely on the issue of who pays. However, if—and I do say if—and when that issue is finally resolved, as we hope it will be if the Building Safety Bill is overhauled as required in the other place, Ministers will have to confront the very real problem of tackling the remediation challenge across the country at pace, and in a way that best limits the harm to the blameless residents caught up in this scandal.

To ensure that, Labour argues that the Government will need to be more interventionist; otherwise, the work will simply never get done. The hon. Member for Stevenage argued that none of us have prepared for the scale of the forthcoming remediation challenge. However, it has been on a lot of our minds for some time. As the Minister will know, various professional bodies have for some time been urging the Government to grip this issue, whether by the Department chairing a taskforce or by creating a body of the kind for which Labour has advocated.

Labour remains of the view that the Government could learn many lessons from the model adopted in Victoria, Australia. As the Minister may know, Cladding Safety Victoria provides a dedicated officer for each affected building, who then appoints a project manager directly. It is obvious how that arrangement could help ensure remediation works are carried out swiftly and considerately. I urge the Minister to look again, if he has not already, at the Australian experience and at what might be learnt from it.

This has been a valuable debate and I welcome the opportunity to hear the concerns of hon. Members from across the House on the effect of remediation works on residents in high-rise buildings. Labour has long pressed the Government to bring forward a comprehensive solution to the building safety crisis that will restore common sense and proportionality to the system, resolve the fundamental issue of leaseholder liability, clear the backlog of building safety fund applications and accelerate the agonisingly slow pace of remediation. However, mitigating the impact of remediation works on residents should not be an afterthought in all this, and I look forward to hearing what the Government will do to ensure that it is not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Miller. It is also a pleasure to take part in this important debate, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for securing it. As he mentioned, he has raised this issue with me before, even before I was in this new role as Minister. I know that he is passionate about trying to resolve many of the issues that his constituents face.

Other hon. Members have also raised important experiences that their constituencies have faced. One of the many things that struck me when I took on this role was the challenge that many of those constituencies have faced. Residents of high-rise buildings across the country probably went into those buildings with the dream of home ownership and the prospect of living in a nice new apartment, which rapidly turned into a nightmare the day they discovered that their flats were clad in dangerous and unsafe materials. That is why the contributions of hon. Members this morning have been so very important. I am deeply aware of the harrowing cases that many have discussed.

Although I am very new in post, I know and have known about the importance of remediation. I am obviously keen to get a grip of it during my time in this role, but I am also very keen to work with colleagues and to continue the cross-party relationship that has clearly delivered some important results for constituents. My door is always open to any colleagues who want to speak to me.

I will in a moment address some of the specific points that were raised. I want to reiterate that I hope that the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), will indicate to the House how seriously the Government take this issue. The whole package of measures that has been announced and the amendments being introduced in the other place as we speak show that there is a shift in addressing the issue. Those who live in high-rise properties can be assured that this matter is being taken seriously, and that we will address their safety concerns. We will also bring a good deal of proportionality into the issue; there are some people living in perfectly safe accommodation who are also feeling very frightened, so we need a sense of proportion.

To come to some of the points that were made, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich talked specifically about St Francis Tower and other buildings in the town. The lack of consultation with residents is, frankly, unacceptable. It does not cost any money to consult with the people who live in those buildings and to explain the processes that have to be undertaken. There are some elements that are necessary: some of the shrink wrapping ensures that residents do not face astronomical heating bills as a result of the cladding coming off. That said, we perhaps need to look at the types of wrapping. He says that he does not believe that there are any other ways. Lord Greenhalgh is dealing with the detail of those things, and I will speak to him when I get back to the Department about the really important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich raised.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) talked about Mandale House and the lack of natural light. I do not think any of us could understand how that would feel—lacking the only source of natural light in one’s building. Those are the sorts of experiences that we have to listen to and learn from, because this will become a bigger problem as remedial works happen all over the country.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). I know that when he gets his teeth into a subject, he does not let go—he is like a terrier—and he gave me a bit of a Christmas list of asks. He talked about developing a code of practice, and I will speak to Lord Greenhalgh about the merits of that. My hon. Friend raised the issue of compulsory purchases. That is a big ask, but these things are always worth exploring. I obviously cannot commit to that here, but it is an interesting point.

On the issue of a building safety register, for the high-risk buildings and buildings over 18 metres that are about to be occupied, there will be a register under the new Building Safety Regulator. However, if my hon. Friend has other concerns about that issue, perhaps we can talk about them later. Of course I will happily speak to my counterpart in Northern Ireland. Sharing best practice is right, as it is for the benefit of all the people of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland: it is important that we share the vital lessons that have been learned.

I hope that we have come a long way in recognising that this is an important issue that needs addressing and that that gives people confidence that the places they live in will have the remedial works that they need, so that they can get back to enjoying the houses and the accommodation that they are living in and enjoying the things in them. I get the point about my hon. Friend’s constituents’ plants; such things are important to people. Someone’s home is the most important place in their life and they want to ensure that they are able to enjoy it safely.

I will touch on the pace of remediation, because that is an important point. We are forcing industry to step up to the plate and take responsibility, of course, but we are also pressing ahead with getting dangerous cladding removed from buildings without delay. As I have said, we have provided the £5.1 billion to address fire safety risk caused by unsafe cladding on these buildings in order to protect residents and we have made great progress in making safe high-rise buildings with the most dangerous form of cladding—ACM cladding, the type that was on Grenfell Tower. Some 93% of all high-rise residential buildings identified with unsafe ACM cladding have now been remediated or have workers on site as we speak, finishing the job, and that rises to 100% in the social sector. For high-rise buildings with unsafe, non-ACM cladding, £1.073 billion has already been allocated from the building safety fund, with £945 million relating to the private sector and £128 million relating to the social sector. So, in total, 892 private sector buildings and 123 social sector buildings are proceeding with a full application to the building safety fund.

I will not put the Minister on the spot with a question, but I will just request that he go away and consider how we can speed up that application process, because far too many buildings without ACM cladding that have applied to the building safety fund face, even with the portal and the information on it, inconsistencies about the information that is said to be required and submitted, as well as very severe delays in receiving that funding. We are talking about remediation works that can take a year or two, but these buildings are not even at that point because they are still being held up in terms of getting a final award or final decision on remediation. Can he consider what more he can do to speed up that application process for all the buildings across the country that are affected?

I will happily commit to go away and look into that issue for the hon. Gentleman, and I will get in touch with him afterwards to update him on that. It is important to say that we have also improved the information available to leaseholders and residents about the building safety fund, with the new online services that provide real-time updates, but I take the point that he has just made.

Clearly, the mental health aspect is a very important issue. I have outlined the steps that the Government are taking to meet a lot of the financial costs of removing the cladding and how we are doing everything within our power physically to speed up remediation. However, in response to the points that hon. Members have made today, I will also say that we also recognise that the building safety crisis has taken a very heavy toll on people’s mental health. Of course, my Department regularly engages with leaseholder groups who have shared with us terrible examples of people being sick to the stomach with stress over the last few years because they are trapped in homes that they are unable to sell or that they cannot afford to fix. We believe that bringing these matters to a swift conclusion through the measures that I have spoken about today is the best way to alleviate the stress and concerns of so many leaseholders.

We know that many residents living in these buildings, including many who have had to endure 24/7 waking watches or who have faced acute financial difficulties, understandably need access to proper mental health support. That is one reason we are working across Government to ensure that all people, regardless of their residential situation, get that help and support they need. Where residents in buildings fitted with flammable cladding need specific mental health support, we are encouraging them to contact their GP to discuss these issues and ensure they are referred to appropriate mental health services. I recognise that we have to look at that in greater detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage asked about the contribution of costs to waking watch being offset under the £10,000 cap, and I confirm that is the case. I am sure his constituent will be happy with that.

On behalf of my constituents, especially those in Vista Tower, I would like to say thank you to the Minister.

That is very kind. I want to conclude by saying that I know there is a united desire across the House to ensure that people are safe and that, more importantly, feel safe in their own homes. Debates such as this are incredibly important, as we work together to achieve that goal, protecting leaseholders while pursuing ambitious reforms, to create one of the strongest building safety regimes in the world. In doing so, we will ensure public confidence in the sector and bring about lasting change, to ensure that the industry always puts residents’ welfare first.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and everybody who has taken part in the debate that the Government will not take their foot off the gas in making buildings safe. We are determined to ensure that residents’ concerns are properly allayed, by driving meaningful change in the building industry, and ensuring that residents know that they are being properly supported and, more importantly, listened to. We can help drive the biggest improvements to building safety for decades, which will restore public confidence in our housing sector and create a robust, strengthened building safety system that places the welfare of residents at its heart. I conclude by praising again my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. I know he will not rest until his residents feel that they are being properly listened to, and have those remediation works done as quickly as possible. I look forward to working in this role with him in future.

I thank everyone for contributing to the debate: the Minister, shadow Minister and all hon. Friends and Members who have made powerful contributions. In many senses, I have got what I wanted from the debate, inasmuch as it has been not only an opportunity to talk at length about specifics of St Francis Tower and Ipswich, but has put a spotlight on the issue.

More experienced colleagues have been able to share their experiences, teach me and explain various matters that I perhaps did not know. Being more experienced, they have come up with potentially workable solutions for some of these problems. This debate in itself has been a positive development. Lord Greenhalgh will visit Ipswich and St Francis Tower, though I will be coy about the date.

I welcome the Minister in his post. The impact on the mental health of leaseholders and residents, such as those in St Francis Tower, has come up a lot in the debate. Because of that, it is incredibly important that the Minister in charge shows good levels of emotional intelligence. The Minister has that in spades and, having got to know him since I became an MP, I think that the start he has made in his role is promising. I am confident that he gets the seriousness of this issue and the extent to which my constituents have suffered. I am very pleased about that.

I think we all agree that this work needs to be carried out, like the work that is happening at St Francis Tower, and I think that my constituents are realistic: they expect some disruption and disturbance. They accept that, and are happy that the building is being made safe and that those works are being paid for through the building safety fund. They expect a degree of disruption, but not to the extent that we have seen and in a way that has had such a negative bearing on their mental health, so clearly with St Francis Tower, the right balance has not been struck.

I agree with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook): if relocating people were a general policy, it would be incredibly expensive and not ideal, because people want to stay in their homes. However, in relation to the cases in St Francis Tower, it would be preferable to what they are having to endure, or have endured. I think there is a third way, for want of a better phrase, that would mean that residents could stay in their homes but not be as adversely impacted in terms of their living conditions and mental health.

As such, my advice to the Government is to get ahead of this issue, because it will not go away. There will be many more St Francis Towers, and many more colleagues who will come to these debates, talk about this issue and share their experiences. Today, we have had a small number of colleagues present, but a similar Westminster Hall debate in three or four months’ time could have many more colleagues sharing similar stories, so my advice to the Government is, “Let’s get ahead of it.” What my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage has suggested with regards to a code of practice sounds very sensible, looking in detail at what is needed and what kind of material could be used that does not have such a negative impact.

Since I have been a Member of Parliament, very few issues have been as point blank and black and white to me as this one. I will always remember the day I went to St Francis Tower. Sometimes in politics, things are not always this black and white—they are not this clear cut, in terms of what the morally right thing to do is—but that day, it really was black and white to me, and I made a pledge to the residents that I would do everything I could to get that shrink wrap off. I hope that even though I have been unsuccessful in that goal so far, by having this debate, those people at least know that their plight is getting the attention it deserves, and hopefully feel that they are not alone. It is not just me who feels very strongly about this: it is everybody in town.

I pay tribute to the Ipswich Cladiators, who are the campaign group in Ipswich on this issue, and in particular Alex Dickin, who heads up that group. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned a constituent who is a GP, who has dedicated so much of his time to this issue: Alex is very much in that category as well. He has been so effective because he is incredibly committed, dedicated and passionate about this issue, but is also incredibly polite, lovely and understanding. Yes, we have sometimes had discussions in which he has felt that the Government have not gone far enough, and on certain occasions he perhaps thinks that I could have done more, but he has always been an absolute pleasure to work with. I thank him, and the Ipswich Cladiators more generally.

That code of practice could be what we are really after here. It will require some Government action, because sadly, we have seen in Ipswich that we cannot always rely on the companies in question to take the responsible and morally right decision. They certainly have not done so in Ipswich, and I do not think that Block Management UK has covered itself in glory. I say that with some reticence, but I think it is necessary that I say so.

I thank everybody for contributing to this debate, and particularly the Minister for the comments he has made. It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller—I do not think it is the first time, and hopefully it will not be the last. Have a very good rest of the day.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect of remediation works on residents in high rise buildings.

Sitting suspended.