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Grenfell Tower: Demolition

Volume 814: debated on Monday 6 September 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to demolish Grenfell Tower and what discussions they have had regarding the safety of the site and whether they have consulted with the survivors, families of the victims and the local community regarding the future use of the site.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given private notice. In doing so, I refer the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register.

The Government recognise how important and sensitive this decision is, particularly for bereaved families, survivors and local residents. Following important independent safety advice, the Government are engaging closely with the community as we consider what the future of Grenfell Tower should be. No decision has been made.

My Lords, over the weekend, survivors, victims’ families and the local community found out about the plans to demolish Grenfell Tower through reports across the media. The decision to speak to the media before any consultation with those affected was completely wrong. Can the Minister confirm what discussions have taken place with structural engineers and other professionals regarding the demolition of the tower and the future of the site? Can he also confirm that full discussion and consultation on the demolition of the tower and the future of the site will take place urgently with survivors, victims’ families, Grenfell United and the local community, and that he will ensure that there are no more of these lapses and no more of this frankly disrespectful treatment of those people by the Government? Also, will he take the opportunity now to apologise for the briefing over the weekend and the reports in the media?

My Lords, I want to be absolutely clear that this was not a briefing by the Government; it had nothing to do with the Government. On Friday, I had a meeting where it was made very clear that no decision had been taken—so I was as surprised as the noble Lord by what we read in the Sunday papers and subsequently. The Government have embarked on a phase of concentrated engagement on the future of the tower; this started around a year ago and has intensified since May, when we published a series of engineering reports that included a peer review of the major review that was carried out by Atkins. I can certainly continue to make the point that the Government will proceed by very carefully engaging with and consulting the community on this very sensitive matter.

Is my noble friend aware that this site reminds one of the failures of building safety provisions? It has been there for too long now. The noble Lord on the Opposition Benches is right that we need to move on. Against that background, will my noble friend make sure that the project he has just outlined does not drift and that, certainly this side of Christmas, there will be a clear and concise provision of what is to happen?

My Lords, I underline that no decision has been taken, but we are aware that we have had unambiguous advice from engineering experts that the tower should be carefully taken down. We have published those studies, but I reiterate that no decision has been taken. Obviously, a decision on this cannot be put off indefinitely, and one will be made in due course—but not via the media.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the Secretary of State is in receipt of a report that says that the physical infrastructure of the tower is extremely damaged and creates a potential hazard to a nearby local school, as well as other buildings, in terms of its safety? If that is the case, does he accept that it is vital that the residents surrounding the tower are also consulted on its future, alongside the victims’ families?

My Lords, I am happy to clarify that there has been ongoing engagement not only with the bereaved and survivors but also with the community. I also want to put on record that there are no immediate safety concerns and that safety and maintenance are ongoing as part of a programme of works that will be completed only in the spring of 2022. Therefore, the coverage reporting that the school is in danger is absolutely wrong. At this stage, the tower is safe and is being kept safe until next spring.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the register of interests. As we all know, Grenfell Tower is the site of an appalling tragedy. The sight of it is a constant reminder of the building safety and fire safety crises that Grenfell exposed. Does the Minister agree that the demolition of Grenfell is also the removal of that potent symbol, which is a much-needed reminder of the absolute necessity that the Government solve the cladding and building safety crises that are destroying the lives of thousands of leaseholders? Does he also agree that demolition before the end of the Grenfell inquiry might remove some absolutely important information and facts that could lead to the resolution of this problem?

My Lords, I have been very clear that the police have said that they do not require any evidence from the tower as part of their investigation. I am also aware that we need to engage very carefully on the future of the site. That is why we have asked an independent commission—the Memorial Commission— to look at options for the future. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, no decision has been taken at this point.

My Lords, as I am sure many noble Lords know, my colleague, the Bishop of Kensington, and other community, Christian and faith leaders, have been hugely involved with survivors’ and victims’ groups in Grenfell, where there is, of course, much pain and anxiety caused by the newspaper reports over the weekend. Although it is good to hear the Minister say that there will be discussions with those community groups, I urge him to consider working with the Church and other community leaders to have these discussions as a matter of urgency, because there is such concern raised at the moment and people feel as though—whether the feeling is correct or not—they are not being consulted.

I thank the most reverend Primate for making those points. It is important to engage with faith communities and local residents as well as the bereaved and survivors. I assure the House that there have been weekly meetings with particular groups, fortnightly meetings, monthly meetings, online sessions and face-to-face meetings throughout the pandemic. We will continue to do our best to engage with the community, the bereaved and survivors.

My Lords, I speak as a former councillor for the adjoining ward of Golborne, and someone who has a London base within sight of Grenfell. Grenfell obviously should go: there were massive failures by the local authority in the past in respect of consultation. Now there appears to be a very different view on the part of the local authority and a much greater readiness to consult, and this is very welcome.

My Lords, in addition to the consultation by the site team of my department, MHCLG, the local authority is engaging reactively. I heard from the leader of the council this week that it has another meeting to look at mental health and other well-being issues, and it has asked my officials to join that meeting. The Government at every level have a duty to do their best to make sure that we learn from this tragedy and that we continue to engage with the residents, bereaved and survivors.

My Lords, the Minister will know that the Kensington Aldridge Academy is located at the base of the Grenfell Tower. It had to move out following the fire and move back in 2018. What consideration has been given to the future of that school in the discussions referred to by my noble friend?

My Lords, despite the reporting, I can assure my noble friend that the school does not require any move or decant in the future. The tower is safe; there are no immediate safety issues. As I said, the programme of safety maintenance continues until the spring of next year.

My Lords, picking up on the points raised by the most reverend Primate, will the Minister tell the House what proportion, if any, of those who were displaced immediately following the fire and had to be found temporary accommodation are still in temporary accommodation? Of those, how many are still in the borough and how many have had to go elsewhere?

My Lords, I know that the vast majority of people have found secure, settled and long-term accommodation. I will have to write to her about the absolute number of people still in temporary, but relatively stable, accommodation and the number of those who are outside the borough.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on coming before the House at such an early stage and subjecting himself to questions on this important matter. That is a token of good faith. I hope that, when the final decision is taken, there will be a suitable memorial for what has happened. The point about lessons to be learned is something of which we all need to take note. There will need to be an appropriate memorial, not only to the lives that were lost but for the reasons those lives were lost.

My Lords, as someone who was made a Minister in March of last year and entered this House only the following month, this is certainly a new experience for me. Actually, it is slightly more enjoyable than what we have experienced, as we are able to see more faces on these Benches. I can assure the House that the work of the independent memorial commission is designed to do precisely that: to find a fitting and long-term memorial to mark the greatest loss of life in a fire since the Second World War. We want to make sure that we get that right and the commission needs to do its work in time.