The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations (Michael Gove)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on building safety. Before I do so, I can confirm that I have asked the permanent secretary in my Department to conduct a leak inquiry. It was a matter of considerable regret to me that details of the statement that I am about to make were shared with the media before they were shared with Members of this House, and indeed with those most affected.
It is worth pausing at the start of any statement to reflect on why building safety is an issue of concern to all of us in this House today. It took the tragedy at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017, as a result of which 72 innocent men, women and children lost their lives, to put building safety properly on the political agenda. Families were living in a building that was literally a death trap because of failures of enforcement and compliance in our building safety regime. This Government must take their share of responsibility for those failures.
Over four years on from that terrible tragedy, it is clear that the building safety system remains broken. The problems that we have to fix have been identified by many across this House, from all parties. I would like at this point to register my appreciation of the work that the late Jack Dromey did on this issue. He was shadow Housing Minister for three years and he did a great deal, both as a trade unionist and as the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Erdington, to bring to light the plight of those affected by this crisis.
As we know, there are still a small number of high-rise buildings with dangerous and unsafe cladding that have to be fixed. We know that those who manufacture dangerous products and develop dangerous buildings have faced inadequate accountability so far, and shown insufficient contrition. We also need to ensure that we take a proportionate approach in building assessments overall. There are too many buildings today that are declared unsafe, and there are too many who have been seeking to profit from the current crisis.
Most importantly, leaseholders are shouldering a desperately unfair burden. They are blameless, and it is morally wrong that they should be the ones asked to pay the price. I am clear about who should pay the price for remedying failures. It should be the industries that profited, as they caused the problem, and those who have continued to profit, as they make it worse.
Mr Speaker, we will take action on all of these fronts. To ensure that every remaining high-rise dangerous building has the necessary cladding remediation to make it safe, we will open up the next phase of the building safety fund early this year and focus relentlessly on making sure it is risk driven and delivered more quickly.
We will also ensure that those who profited, and continue to profit, from the sale of unsafe buildings and construction products must take full responsibility for their actions and pay to put things right. Those who knowingly put lives at risk should be held to account for their crimes, and those who are seeking to profit from the crisis by making it worse should be stopped from doing so.
Today, I am putting them on notice. To those who mis-sold dangerous products, such as cladding or insulation, to those who cut corners to save cash as they developed or refurbished people’s homes, and to those who sought to profiteer from the consequences of the Grenfell tragedy: we are coming for you. I have established a dedicated team in my Department to expose and pursue those responsible. We will begin by reviewing Government schemes and programmes to ensure that, in accordance with due process, there are commercial consequences for any company that is responsible for this crisis and refusing to help to fix it.
In line with this, just before Christmas, I instructed Homes England to suspend Rydon Homes, which is closely connected to the company that refurbished the Grenfell Tower, from its participation in the Help to Buy scheme, with immediate effect. I also welcome the decision by the Mercedes Formula 1 team and Toto Wolff to discontinue sponsorship from Kingspan, the cladding firm, with immediate effect. The voices of the families of the bereaved and the survivors of the Grenfell Tower were heard, but this is only the start of the action that must be taken.
We must also restore common sense to the assessment of building safety overall. The Government are clear—we must find ways for there to be fewer unnecessary surveys. Medium-rise buildings are safe, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. There must be far greater use of sensible mitigations, such as sprinklers and fire alarms, in place of unnecessary and costly remediation work.
To achieve that, today I am withdrawing the Government’s consolidated advice note. It has been wrongly interpreted and has driven a cautious approach to building safety in buildings that are safe that goes beyond what we consider necessary. We are supporting new, proportionate guidance for assessors, developed by the British Standards Institution, which will be published this week.
Secondly, we will press ahead with the building safety fund, adapting it so that it is consistent with our proportionate approach. We will now set a higher expectation that developers must fix their own buildings, and we will give leaseholders more information at every stage of the process.
Thirdly, before Easter, we will be implementing our scheme to indemnify building assessors conducting external wall assessments, giving them the confidence to exercise their balanced professional judgment. We will audit those assessments to ensure that expensive remediation is being advised only where it is necessary to remove a threat to life.
I will be working closely with lenders over the coming months to improve market confidence, and I have asked my colleague Lord Greenhalgh to work with insurers on new industry-led approaches that bring down the premiums facing leaseholders.
Further, we will take the power to review the governance of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, to ensure that it is equipped properly to support a solution to this challenge. Those in the industry who refuse to work with us in good faith to take a more proportionate approach should be clear that our determination is to fix the problem for all those caught up in this crisis.
Finally, we must relieve the burden that has been unfairly placed on leaseholders. I want to pay tribute to all those across the House who have campaigned so passionately on this subject. They know the injustice of asking leaseholders, often young people who have saved hard and made sacrifices to take their first steps on the housing ladder, to pay money they do not have to fix a problem they did not cause, all while the firms who made a profit on those developments sit on their hands. We will take action to end the scandal and protect leaseholders. We will scrap the proposal for loans and long-term debt for medium-rise leaseholders.
I can confirm to the House today that no leaseholder living in a building above 11 metres will ever face any costs for fixing dangerous cladding and, working with Members of both Houses, we will pursue statutory protection for leaseholders and nothing will be off the table. As part of that, we will introduce immediate amendments to the Building Safety Bill to extend the right of leaseholders to challenge those who cause defects in premises for up to 30 years retrospectively.
We will also take further action immediately: we will provide an additional £27 million to fund more fire alarms, so we can end the dreadful misuse of waking watches; we will change grant funding guidance so that shared owners affected by the crisis can more easily sub-let their properties, and encourage lenders and landlords to approve sub-letting arrangements; and in the period before long-term arrangements are put in place, I will work with colleagues across Government to make sure that leaseholders are protected from forfeiture and eviction because of historic costs. Innocent leaseholders must not shoulder the burden.
We have already committed £5.1 billion of taxpayers’ funding from the Government, but we should not now look to the taxpayer for more funding. We should not ask hard-working taxpayers to pay more taxes to get developers and cladding companies making vast profits off the hook. We will make industry pay to fix all of the remaining problems and help to cover the range of costs facing leaseholders. Those who manufactured combustible cladding and insulation, many of whom have made vast profits even at the height of the pandemic, must pay now instead of leaseholders.
We have made a start through the residential property developer tax and the building safety levy, both announced last February, but will now go further. I will today write to developers to convene a meeting in the next few weeks, and I will report back to the House before Easter. We will give them the chance to do the right thing. I hope that they will take it. I can confirm to the House today that if they do not, we will impose a solution on them, if necessary, in law.
Finally, we must never be in this position again, so we are putting the recommendations of the Hackitt review on building safety in law and we will shortly commence the Fire Safety Act 2021. We are also today publishing new collaborative procurement guidance on removing the incentives for industry to cut corners and to help stop the prioritisation of cost over value. We will legislate to deliver broader reforms to the leasehold system, and also bring forward measures to fulfil commitments made in the social housing White Paper. When parliamentary time allows, we will have legislation on social housing regulation so that social housing tenants cannot be ignored as those in the Grenfell community were for many years.
Four and a half years on from the tragedy of Grenfell, it is long past time that we fix the crisis. Through the measures that I have set out today, we will seek redress for past wrongs and secure funds from developers and construction product manufacturers, and we will protect leaseholders today and fix the system for the future.