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Housing: Cladding

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress in removing dangerous cladding from high-rise buildings.

My Lords, we are continually assessing progress on removing dangerous cladding from high-rise buildings and publish data on this every month. Progress has been made. Almost three-quarters—74%—of buildings with unsafe aluminium composite material cladding are either completed or in the process of remediation.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply and for the funds the Government have made available to deal with the problems following the Grenfell tragedy, but the PAC report last week and the Sunday Times article reveal the scale of the problems that lie ahead. Only one-third of buildings with Grenfell cladding have had it replaced with safe alternatives. There are 186,000 other privately owned high-rise flats where the leaseholders are trapped with high service charges, unaffordable repairs and, in some cases, fire patrol costs of £750 a month. Then there are 1.5 million other flats that leaseholders cannot sell because they cannot get the certificates that lenders are now insisting on. Will my noble friend convene an urgent meeting of freeholders, leaseholders, valuers and lenders to come up with a comprehensive and time-limited plan which both ensures safety in these flats and removes the blight?

My Lords, my noble friend should rest assured that we are focused on the pace of remediation. The Secretary of State or I will be speaking to building owners, local authorities and fire and rescue services to press them to accelerate this pace. We are also looking at the interventions that we may need to take as a Government to deal with this blight. We will obviously continue our engagement with all the stakeholders he mentioned in the course of that endeavour.

My Lords, the Minister must be quite daunted to have two respected former Ministers on this Oral Question. The National Audit Office has said that the department has a long way to go to make all the high-rise buildings safe. The slowest to change has been the private sector. Councils have difficulty in checking these buildings, as the owner may well be a shell company registered abroad. The Housing Act gives councils the right to investigate, but the procedures are slow, costly and subject to a high legal bar. What practical steps will the Government take to overcome these challenges so that they keep their promises?

My Lords, we recognise that there are a number of enforcement approaches, both through the Housing Act but also through the fire safety order, which is being updated and will be debated in this House next week. We continue to use a joint inspection team to look at the best way of enforcing against those building owners that are not moving to remediate unsafe cladding.

My Lords, the Government stated in January that they were considering extending cladding risks to buildings of between four and seven stories. There are around 100,000 such buildings in England, some with dangerous forms of cladding. What investigations have been undertaken to determine the extent of this fire risk, which affects upwards of half a million people, and what remedies are the Government considering?

My Lords, at this stage we have not made a decision to move the high-risk regime beyond those buildings above 18 metres. As Dame Judith has said, it is those high-rise buildings that have the greatest risk, and we are attempting to stop the multiple fatalities that we saw at Grenfell. That is where we will focus our efforts.

My Lords, the Government’s pledge of £1 billion to help solve this problem is very welcome indeed. I was a bit puzzled by the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which said that this £1 billion was unlikely to be sufficient. Did it give any accurate figures to back up this statement?

Do we know what led the Blair Government to allow this dangerous cladding in the first place? In June 2017, Jeremy Corbyn tried to blame this whole subject—and the Grenfell Tower fire—on this Government, and Prime Minister Theresa May had to remind him that the cladding began under the Blair Government.

My Lords, there is no doubt that the costs of historic failure, with regard to the quality of construction, mean that the costs will exceed the £1 billion that we have committed—but we do not expect the entire burden to fall on the taxpayer. We should note that, from the first fund, a number of private building owners have moved to remediate that or used warranties to raise the funds, so it has not fallen on leaseholders. I would point out that there has been an unacceptable culture within the construction industry, built up over successive Governments, that this Government are trying to address.

In September of last year, the housing Minister said that those owners who fail to remove unsafe Grenfell-style ACM cladding from their buildings would suffer the consequences. He said:

“There is no excuse for … delay.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/9/19; col. 373.]

But there are still 246 tall buildings where such cladding remains. Can the Minister say what consequences those who fail to conform have suffered over this last year?

My Lords, clearly the pace of remediation is our utmost concern, and that has meant that some costs, including those on interim measures, have fallen on leaseholders. We continue to push to ensure that this remediation does occur and look at the relevant parties to carry out the necessary enforcement action.

My Lords, I refer the House to my relevant interests, as set out in the register. It has been over three years and three months since the fire at Grenfell Tower. It is unacceptable that there are still tower blocks today with dangerous ACM cladding on them. This is putting people’s lives at risk, and residents are trapped, unable to move or sell their flats. When are the Government going to give the powers and resources to local government or, as recommended by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee, set up a national body to get on and do the necessary work to make these buildings safe? It is unacceptable, disappointing, frustrating and worrying that a Question such as this has to be asked so many years after the fire.

My Lords, I agree that it is unacceptable. That is why I wrote to all owners of buildings where there is no remediation plan currently in place, to let them know that we will look to enforcement action if they do not remediate and get on site by the end of this year.

At the Grenfell inquiry yesterday, Mr Bailey of Harley’s, the cladding contractor, said that he had had no training in building regulations, no training in fire protection of buildings and no awareness of the industry guidelines. Day after day we are getting mounting evidence of the catastrophic failure of the industry to deal with this problem. The Minister has an oven-ready Building Safety Bill. Will he please give us the date that it will come in front of your Lordships, so that we can very quickly put in place a far more effective and stringent regulatory regime?

My Lords, the noble Lord points to the woeful culture in the construction industry. All I can say is that the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill has started, and we look to get this through as quickly as possible with the support of Members of this House.

My Lords, I must declare that I am an owner and occupier of a leasehold flat in a building with cladding, and also an elected member of the leaseholder management board of that block. During the course of this Question, the extent of the problem and the effects of it have clearly been highlighted. It is necessary for the Government to prioritise, ensuring of course that the buildings most dangerously at risk are addressed first.

However, this makes it all the more important that the Government reach a new agreement with lenders, in relation to the owners of leasehold flats within buildings who have taken all the necessary interim safety measures. Not only are leaseholders currently prevented from being able to sell or remortgage their property, but those same leaseholders might need to remortgage to finance their very costly contribution to the remedial works. I note what the Minister said, but the costs are falling on to leaseholders, not freeholders. So can the Minister tell us what discussions he is having with lenders on this particular matter in order to address the urgency of it?

My Lords, I have had a number of discussions with lenders, including a round table in June, to encourage them to take a more proportionate approach to risk in this regard. We recognise the points that the noble Baroness raises. However, I would say that, a number of times, we have seen buildings remediated through warranties, but also through building owners stepping up and paying for that remediation. Finally, we have asked Michael Wade, a senior adviser to the department, to look at ways of making remediation costs affordable to leaseholders if they do fall on them.

Sitting suspended.