There have been 5 exchanges between Sir Gary Streeter and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
|Tue 17th March 2020||Private Rented Sector (Westminster Hall)||3 interactions (13 words)|
|Tue 11th February 2020||Hinckley National Rail Freight Interchange (Westminster Hall)||2 interactions (23 words)|
|Tue 5th February 2019||Economic Growth: South-west (Westminster Hall)||24 interactions (2,940 words)|
|Mon 12th March 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (97 words)|
|Tue 6th March 2018||Fire Safety and Cladding (Westminster Hall)||17 interactions (154 words)|
(4 months, 3 weeks ago)Westminster Hall
One of the issues we face at the moment is that private landlords are benefiting significantly from housing benefit and public sector money. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at how we invest that money in a different way to ensure that our constituents live in good properties? We need to look at how public sector funding stays in the public sector, to support the most vulnerable.
I agree with my hon. Friend and will come to that topic later in my speech.
We are hearing stories of some landlords trying to increase rents since coronavirus hit and refusing to negotiate with tenants over rent holidays in response to the pandemic. That not only highlights the need for the compulsory rent deferrals that Labour is calling for—I hope the Minister will address that point—but for a universal register of landlords, to crack down on rogue landlords and to give renters the information they need to make informed choices when they are thinking of renting a house. As one good landlord who lives locally wrote to me, a register is in the interest of good landlords.
I am pleased to see that Labour is leading the way around the country. The Welsh Labour Government have introduced a compulsory licensing scheme, called Rent Smart Wales. Sadiq Khan, who I have already mentioned, has used the limited powers he has to introduce a rogue landlord checker. Brent is one of the councils that has successively used selective licensing to improve conditions in thousands of homes and to prosecute rogue landlords. It was disappointing that Brent’s application to expand the licensing scheme was rejected by Ministers last month. The Government should be encouraging landlord licensing, rather than trying to shut it down at every opportunity. I hope that the Government will look seriously at introducing an England-wide landlord register.
The most important thing that renters need is enforceable rights to get their accommodation improved, if it is not to standard. They have some options. The first is to contact the local authority, which has the power to inspect properties and take enforcement action against landlords. However, local government funding has been cut so much—by 43% since 2010—that councils’ ability to enforce standards has been decimated. The amount available to spend on housing enforcement has fallen by 25% in that time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton mentioned that our constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North, to whom I pay tribute, pushed the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 through Parliament. That means that renters can take their landlord to court. However, to do that people need the financial means, and the Tories have taken an axe to the legal aid system. I hope that they will look again at that, because few people can now apply for legal aid for housing matters. There is a need to restore funding to both local government and legal aid.
There is a lot more I want to say but, because of the time, I will ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he can answer. First, what measures do the Government plan to bring in to support private renters who are affected by coronavirus? That is the obvious question. In particular, will he support low-income and insecure workers, including those on housing benefit, so that they can self-isolate safely and not worry about eviction? Secondly, with rents in London remaining so stubbornly high, for what possible reason are the Government refusing to devolve powers to introduce sensible rent controls? Why are they blocking attempts by regional and local governments to bring in landlord licensing? Thirdly, when will the renters reform Bill be introduced, and how long will it take for no-fault evictions to be scrapped? Will the Minister consider bringing in emergency legislation to ban evictions for rent arrears caused by loss of a job or income as a result of the virus? What measures does he plan to tackle DSS discrimination in the private rented sector, so that people have a fair shot at getting accommodation and councils can easily rehouse homeless people? Finally, I have focused on older renters, and, given the risk to them from the virus, what urgent steps will the Government take to improve conditions in the private rented sector, so that people can be safe in their homes?
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the urgency of the situation. This is a time when the country needs to come together and help the most vulnerable. We need to be bold and bring in emergency legislation to make sure that low-income private renters are not hit hardest by the virus that is taking over the country.
(6 months ago)Westminster Hall
I will not, because I am about to conclude.
The rail freight sector is vital to the prosperity of the United Kingdom economy, delivers important social benefits and is key to meeting net zero targets. An expanded network of strategic rail freight interchanges is key to harnessing the benefits of rail freight, and the Government support the development of that network. We of course do not specify where the locations should be. We believe that it is for private sector developers to bring forward proposals that are viable and have regard to the guidance of the policy statement.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire for initiating the debate. I want to reassure him again—he can be assured—that his community’s voice will be heard in the course of the process. I thank him for the discussions that we have had and for today’s debate. I want now to leave him a short time to sum up the debate.
(1 year, 6 months ago)Westminster Hall
Not very long.
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that Cheltenham is a proud part of the south-west? It is the gateway to the south-west and, in fact, the jewel of the south-west. Does he agree?
The Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership has a focus on the marine environment and in Taunton Deane we have the UK Hydrographic Office, which is the global leader on marine data. It is putting in a bid for a geospatial hub in Taunton, as well as an innovation centre. Does my hon. Friend agree that building on that will help the whole of the south-west to really up this sector, which will bring with it untold economic opportunities for the whole region?
As I am from the north of England, like the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is the spokesperson for the Opposition, I wonder whether my hon. Friend could just clarify an issue, because I think it is interesting. Can he clarify whether someone should have jam or cream on a scone and, if it is both, in what order they should be put on? [Laughter.]
Notwithstanding the fact that the Chair has Wylfa Newydd in his constituency, with which we have had problems, may I just put some figures on this? We will create 25,000 jobs and more than 1,000 apprenticeships; we have just finished the National College for Nuclear, which is fantastic; our Inspire programme has now reached 15,000 schoolchildren; and 64% of the total build at Hinkley is going to UK companies. My hon. Friend has made such powerful comments on that. If it helps Devon, it helps Cornwall, it helps Dorset and it helps Somerset. I know he is celebrating that, and I thank him for his thoughts.
Although we look forward with anxious trepidation, but hopeful expectation, to what might happen next week, does my hon. Friend at least feel encouraged by yesterday’s announcement that there is now an application for planning for the work that will happen along the Dawlish station wall? That is something very concrete that we can celebrate.
Chair, you probably wonder why, as the Member of Parliament for Hendon, I am standing in a debate on the south-west. Not only did I grow up in Cornwall; I undertook my PhD in economic development on Cornwall, so I thought I would come along and have a listen. My hon. Friend is entirely correct that the county of Devon in particular is cut off. A major component of Cornwall’s economic development programmes of the 1990s and 2000s was the Actnow project, which was to bring superfast broadband to the whole county. Does he agree that connections are not only physical but include electronic communications, which are able to reduce the peripherality of a county like Cornwall, bringing the markets to the consumers and, indeed, the consumers to the marketplace through technology?
Seven Back Benchers are indicating that they wish to speak. I will call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm, which leaves about six minutes each. That gives Members some indication that they should keep the debate flowing.
Break in Debate
That is why we have heard from 10 Conservative colleagues, but only one Opposition Back Bencher. It is a sign that we are a Government who listen to colleagues in the south-west and ensure that economic growth in the south-west is at the heart of our approach.
We have had an interesting debate that has focused on three areas. The first is infrastructure, which we have to accept is one of the building blocks of any vibrant economy outside the capital. We have described this year as the year of delivery for digital, road and rail infrastructure, so it is important that our debate has addressed how we can ensure that we continue to deliver for everyone living in the south-west of England, particularly after years of under-investment. That is the real similarity between the north of England, where we have the northern powerhouse, and the south-west region: for far too long, under different Governments, the country has focused on infrastructure and industrial growth in London and its surrounding hinterland. It is about time we moved beyond that.
We have heard some good speeches today about human capital, in relation both to education and productivity. It is right to focus on how we can drive opportunity to people young and old across the south-west for a more varied educational picture, whether that is through the brilliant universities that have been mentioned or the great businesses that drive productivity. There are huge opportunities for productivity in cyber-security, spaceports, civil and nuclear developments in Hinkley, tourism, agriculture and our maritime economy.
I applaud the south-west local enterprise partnerships for their creation of the Heart of the South West economic co-operation and growth area. I hope that that combined effort will be reflected in their local industrial strategy, because this year needs to be the year of our regions, not just of our capital city. As Minister for local growth, I firmly believe that our biggest opportunity after leaving the European Union will be regional, and that is what the Government should be measured on.
In the limited time available, I will attempt to deal with the questions raised by hon. Members. First, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon spoke about tourism’s value to the economy. The Government continue to invest in tourism, particularly through the “Great” campaign to attract overseas visitors to this country. I encourage him and his LEP to engage with BEIS to discuss the developing potential of the tourism sector deal and pursue the idea of putting natural capital—the beauty that exists across the whole south-west—at the heart of their local industrial strategy.
Many hon. Members raised transport, particularly the Dawlish line. Colleagues will acknowledge that the Government have already invested £70 million in the line to date. I have heard the calls from Members across the parties to use whatever influence I may have over the Department for Transport to get it to fast-track its announcement about the line and ensure that we complete our commitment to making sure that it remains a robust and reliable connection for their constituents.
Hon. Members also raised the transforming cities fund, which we announced in the Budget. Some of that £2.5 billion fund has already been devolved to areas with Mayors, such as the Bristol city region, and the remaining £1.2 billion in the pot is subject to the competitive bidding process. The results of that process will be announced after the assessment of the bids; the Department for Transport tells me that that announcement will be made shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) raised geothermal energy, which the Government recognise as a large opportunity. I encourage her to ensure that clean growth continues to be a priority, not just for the Government but for her area’s local industrial strategy.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who made the only speech from the Opposition Back Benches, spoke with real passion and in a very non-partisan way about the opportunity for a marine park in Plymouth Sound, which takes me back to the point that we need to ensure that local industrial strategies and our national industrial strategy accurately reflect the value of natural capital. When we talk about things like productivity, it is all too easy to ignore what may be on our doorstep.
I hope that in 2018, when the landscapes review undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consulted on whether the current network of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty should extend out to sea, partners in Plymouth and Devonport made a strong case for that marine park. There is no update from DEFRA yet, but I will continue to watch developments with interest because the marine park is an important idea that could be rolled out across the country—not least in your Anglesey constituency of Ynys Môn, Mr Owen. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is right that we need to be bold and clear about our passion to grow the south-west’s economy; his speech made that point very well.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) spoke well about the UK shared prosperity fund. He will be aware of the Government commitment to ensure that the current round of EU structural funding has the benefit of a Treasury guarantee until March 2021, but our specific aim in introducing the UK shared prosperity fund is to provide a single domestic local growth fund without the bureaucracy of EU funds. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) noted, we need to ensure that our UK growth funds concentrate on what we need to grow in this country. That is one of the opportunities that leaving the European Union will bring.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) spoke about the desired growth of the Cornish economy. Of course the spaceport has already received funding of £2 million from the Government, and the Space Industry Act 2018 will enable spaceships—I guess—to take off by 2020.
I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon an opportunity to wind up, so I do not have time to answer all the questions asked by hon. Members, but I will write to them about any outstanding issues. This has been a wonderful debate. This is the year of regional growth, and the south-west must be at the heart of it.
(2 years, 5 months ago)Commons Chamber
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman makes a point about the funding settlement and the formula. He will know from his membership of the Select Committee, which I have just had the pleasure to appear before, that we are looking very hard at the structure of local government financing, both increasing the amount of business rates retentions to 75% and introducing a new needs-based formula that takes into account updated needs and resources. I know his Committee will play a huge part in making sure that we get that right for Warwickshire and for the country.
I pay tribute to the work of local government across the country. Local authorities have done a commendable job over the past few years of delivering high quality services in a difficult financial climate. I thank them, as I know their constituents do. On my hon. Friend’s point, I look forward to the representations from Devon and the south-west as we reform local government financing through the fair funding formula which is coming soon.
(2 years, 5 months ago)Westminster Hall
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cladding and remedial fire safety work.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful so many colleagues have turned up to the debate, which emphasises how significant this issue is for so many of our constituents.
I first came to the issue because of a block called Citiscape in my constituency. A group of residents came to see me because the block has the same kind of cladding on it as Grenfell Tower: aluminium composite material—ACM—cladding with a polyethylene core. Polyethylene is a kind of compressed paraffin. At Grenfell, this cladding had the equivalent combustibility to 32,000 litres of petrol over the outside of the building, so it is understandable that Citiscape’s residents were so concerned.
The residents were told that it would cost them as leaseholders up to £31,000 per flat to remove the cladding—a bill many of them simply could not afford—and that if everybody did not pay, none of the work would start. One older resident had to cancel his move to a care home because the flat he was going to sell to pay for that move was unsellable because of the cladding on the building. These people are stuck in a building that they describe as a deathtrap, unable to move and unable to afford the cost of making their homes safe.
The industry estimates that some 800 blocks across the country have flammable cladding: 300 are council-owned and will eventually be made safe, although it is worrying that nine months after Grenfell only three have so far been completely re-clad, and around 500 blocks are privately owned, but the Government are doing nothing to help the people living in them.
Break in Debate
I agree, but I hope that we will hear from the Minister that things have changed.
The BRE makes up to £40,000 per test that it conducts for manufacturers. As it also drafts the guidance, as an organisation it has a financial interest in permitting the use of combustible materials that it then tests. The fire safety tests after Grenfell were carried out by Kingspan, which manufactured part of the materials on Grenfell in the first place. Some individuals from the BRE who drafted the Government’s flawed guidance are now advising Ministers that there is not a problem with the regulations that they drafted. What a surprise! It is even possible to bypass safety tests completely by paying somebody to carry out a desktop study, which does not involve doing any testing whatever. The privatised National House Building Council makes money by signing off flammable cladding that has never been tested, and because flammable materials—combustible materials—are cheaper to make, the industry has a perverse incentive to keep costs down by using combustible cladding.
No other country in the European Union permits a system this lax. Many EU countries do not permit the use of combustible cladding at all. The UK building industry has alerted the Government to materials authorised by the BRE that subsequently failed fire safety tests in other countries. The Government chose to do nothing. The Association of British Insurers, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Association of Residential Managing Agents and other building industry groups all want flammable cladding banned.
Back in 2013, the coroner investigating the deadly Lakanal House fire in Southwark told the Government to amend fire safety guidance
“with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of a building”.
She said that BRE Approved Document B, which relates to fire safety, was unclear and needed to be reviewed. However, the Communities Secretary at the time, Eric Pickles, did not do that. Nor have a string of Housing Ministers—every one since then—taken any action, including the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell. The current Housing Minister is relatively new in post. He could take a different course. I hope he will, but it is a worrying start that a consultation is under way on further weakening these already weak fire safety regulations by extending the use of desktop studies instead of insisting on rigorous, independent fire safety tests every time.
The industry has repeatedly asked the Government for clear and unequivocal advice on how to deal with the various forms of flammable cladding being found on hundreds of buildings. I wrote to the Secretary of State in January asking for the same on the industry’s behalf. As of today, the Government have given no direction at all on how these cases are to be dealt with.
After Grenfell, the Government said that cladding with a polyethylene core, like that on Citiscape in my constituency, does not comply with the guidance. The Prime Minister repeated that claim, yet I have here a certificate signed by Sir Ken Knight, chair of the Government’s independent expert panel on fire safety and a director of the BRE Trust, that says that it does comply. Quite simply, the Government are all over the place. They do not have a clue what is going on. Every single loophole and error that led to Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower is still in place. This is no one else’s fault and no one else’s moral responsibility except the Government’s.
Thousands of frightened people living in blocks with flammable cladding need to hear from the Minister today that it will be taken down without delay. They do not need any more buck-passing. They cannot afford to spend years in the courts while the cladding remains on their buildings. The Government’s flawed fire safety regime created this mess; the Government must now clear it up. We cannot risk a second Grenfell Tower. The time for the Minister to act is now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this debate on an important issue that affects my constituents in Bromley.
Let me say something about the tone of the debate. It appears that there have been failings in relation to regulation, perhaps partly because technology has moved on and awareness is greater, but the building that I am concerned with is Northpoint on Sherman Road in Bromley, a block of 57 flats that were converted from offices 15 years ago, and to suggest that responsibility lies with any one party is inaccurate. When the flats were converted in 2003—under a Labour Government, as it happens—the cladding was considered acceptable according to what was known at the time. A subsequent inspection in November 2017 led the fire brigade to conclude that it was not acceptable, so an enforcement notice was served.
Whatever the history of the 57 flats, the residents are now placed in an impossible financial situation. The flats are on lease from a private freeholder, a commercial company. The leaseholders have spent some £80,000 on a two-man, 24-hour “waking watch” on the premises, and if the building has to be re-clad, the costs are likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. They are in a difficult situation, because the developer’s 10-year guarantee is out of date and the freeholder is a commercial company.
I understand the Secretary of State’s point about a moral duty, but as the hon. Member for Croydon North rightly said, a moral duty is not legally enforceable. In any event, the directors of a commercial company have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, so they face a conflict. That creates a bind for the residents, who are forking out £6,000-odd a month for the ongoing costs of the waking watch. The normal sinking fund that they prudently set in place has long been exhausted. Their own funds will soon be exhausted, too, and the flats are unsaleable because no one will buy them in the circumstances. Many of the residents are young professionals; I received a letter from one constituent whose flat was the first home that she and her husband were able to buy. They have no chance of moving on—they are stuck with an asset that has turned into a liability.
I hope the Minister will come up with something more specific than what has been proposed. I understand that interest-free loans have been suggested, but a lot of these people are already suffering, so how will they repay the capital? I am glad that additional funding has been made available to the Leasehold Advisory Service, but again, that does not address the underlying situation. A failure of regulation is a failure of governance, whoever was in government at the time, so ultimately the Government need to stand behind those affected, rather than expecting the costs to be picked up by individuals who did nothing and had no control over what happened.
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this debate. I would also like to show my appreciation of all the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) has done since this terrible, terrible fire, which brings us here this afternoon.
The fire was a moment when I think that most of us across the House thought there would be a cross-party response showing huge urgency. We should keep in mind the 72 people who lost their lives and also keep in mind two very real issues. The first is genuine fear. There is very likely no one in this Chamber this afternoon who lives in a council tower block estate or who is a leaseholder of a former council building that they have bought. So there will be no one really in the Chamber who can speak to that issue, other than perhaps those of us who have grown up in council homes.
The second issue is trust. The Secretary of State said on 3 July last year that the Government would take every precaution in relation to this cladding. The Government said also on 26 June that they would put in place support for councils that could not pay for remedial works. As has been discussed, indifference to the context is now such that we might be moving to a situation in which desktop studies are done. Let us not dress that up in fancy language. It means that someone can sit in their office and determine a building’s fire regulations without going out and getting into the detail. That is extraordinary, in light of the loss of life. None of us would have thought it possible that nine months later we would even be debating that possibility.
What has happened in relation to the dignity of those souls and lives lost? What has happened in relation to the successive reviews of and inquiries into fire regulations in this country? Why are we going to dismiss what came out of the Hackitt review? How do we breach that trust? How do we meet the fear of those who are in these buildings at this time? How do we keep it in our minds that we are talking about mothers on the 20th or 22nd floor who are worried about how they will get their children down and out of the building? We are talking about some councils that had a policy of putting old-age pensioners in those buildings. How do the Government live up to those expectations? That is what we wait to hear from the Minister.
Thank you, Mr Streeter. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this important and timely debate. I have heard from many of my constituents in Battersea, including leaseholders, who are concerned about the fire safety of their homes, and the answer to those concerns is clearly stronger regulation and better enforcement by the Government. Many leaseholders are discovering not only that their buildings do not meet fire safety standards but that they will incur eye-watering bills to remedy the failings. It cannot be right for the Government to allow leaseholders to pay for failures that are not of their making.
This is not the first time I have raised the issue. In December last year, I asked what plans the Government had to ensure that private sector leaseholders were not held to ransom by freeholders over fire safety repairs. The Minister for Housing responded by talking about increased funding for the Leasehold Advisory Service, and about how the Secretary of State would “encourage” private sector freeholders not to pass on their costs, but gentle encouragement has achieved nothing, and that is a potential catastrophe for the leaseholders of the blocks. Constituents have told me that they felt physically sick when they heard that they might have to meet the costs.
In Battersea, the leaseholders of Sesame Apartments—a block completed only in 2014—face the prospect of being asked to pay an eye-watering £40,000 per flat to ensure that their block meets fire safety standards, news that came after a fire there last year revealed that fire safety standards were not being met, as did subsequent testing of the cladding. That cladding must now be replaced; a fire alarm system is due to be installed and a round-the-clock warden has been introduced. However, the block’s safety should never have been in doubt, and the cost of remedying the failures should be borne not by the leaseholders but by those responsible for them.
The London Borough of Wandsworth is seeking to retrofit sprinklers in all blocks of 10 storeys or higher, which is a good thing, but they wish to pass on the costs to the leaseholders and have sought guidance on how to proceed from the first-tier tribunal. While the legal questions remain unresolved, people are still living in unsafe buildings, and every day that goes by there is the risk of a disaster. It is only right that the Government do everything they can to ensure that repairs are carried out as soon as possible, but we need more than Government loans that leave leaseholders footing the bill. That is why, for the second time in four months, I ask the Minister what concrete action the Government are taking to ensure that homes are safe and that families and leaseholders are not held to ransom. The Government cannot go on simply applying gentle pressure on freeholders and talking about learning the lessons of Grenfell. Nearly a year has passed. Residents deserve to live in safe buildings and we need to find a way of protecting leaseholders from being hit by life-shattering bills. The Government need to accept that they are responsible and that they must take action.
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on bringing the debate to the House, and on all the work he has done in his constituency. His constituents are lucky to have him fighting their corner; I am sure they know that.
I will mention once again Stormzy’s intervention at this year’s Brit Awards, which secured headlines not just because of his profile, but because he articulated how the British people feel about many of the issues that have been discussed today and how, nine months on, as many hon. Members have said, many questions remain unanswered and the victims of Grenfell have not received justice.
I want to talk about a case study in the Borough of Camden in my constituency. It relates to the human experience at the heart of the cladding question and the enormous financial burden being placed on local authorities in dealing with the matter. Many hon. Members will know that Camden Council took the urgent decision to evacuate more than 3,000 people from the Chalcots estate following tests on cladding. The tragedy at Grenfell prompted the tests, but it was the London fire brigade that ordered immediate evacuations following an assessment. The evacuation was carried out throughout the night, and has caused serious distress to residents. The upheaval of decamping to a hotel for several weeks was difficult enough, but cladding removal during the bitter cold of winter was even more difficult. Many residents’ heating systems are not strong enough to heat their homes, now that they are so exposed.
I raise those experiences to underline the need for action on building regulations, but also to stress the trauma that my constituents on the estate have experienced owing to cladding replacement. They live with cold and with seemingly endless construction. Compensation is missing, and there is a 24-hour security presence months after buildings were declared fit for purpose. That is not a normal way to live, but it has been the reality facing nearly 3,000 of my constituents since July 2017. I am speaking on their behalf today.
Replacement is a protracted process. According to a recent Camden housing scrutiny report, the new cladding will not be fully fitted across the estates until August next year, so it is not hard to understand why councils are begging for the kind of political will that would confront contractors and create a clearer set of standards on fire safety practices.
Good financial management means that Camden has taken on the costs without cutting frontline services. I commend its decision to stop payments to the company that put up the flammable cladding on the Chalcots and endangered residents’ lives. Camden hopes to spend the millions of pounds saved from abandoning the previous contract on safer cladding. The operation has cost more than £50 million and breaks down as £12 million for evacuation and safety management, including fire marshals; £9 million on repairs, including emergency repairs and doors; £10 million on cladding removal; and £22 million on cladding replacement. However, as my local newspaper, the Camden New Journal, put it, the council should not have had to do that. Had the Government kept their promise after the inferno at Grenfell, the council would not have had to drain its reserves and foot the bill.
At the heart of the debate is the question of how we make our constituents feel safe in their own homes. Replacing combustible cladding is an obvious and immediate place to start, but so too is addressing the reduced resources of the emergency services and local authorities. In the days following the Grenfell disaster, many promises were made about rehousing vulnerable residents and recouping the cost of new cladding, but that has not been the experience in my constituency. It is possible that the promise made by the Government has been forgotten, but proactive campaigners, MPs and councillors will not let it drop.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on his speech and on securing the debate. I welcome the contributions that have been made so far. Many thousands of residents face huge legal fees and potentially thousands of pounds of costs to remove ACM cladding from their buildings. Freeholders, developers and insurers will not take responsibility, nor will the Government. We are here today because the buck stops with the Government to sort the mess out.
In my constituency, there is a block of flats built nine years ago with ACM cladding. At least, we are as sure of that as we can be; residents were told that one set of cladding was ACM, and then that another set was ACM. They have been confused and let down from the start. The cladding needs to be replaced. There is a 24-hour waking watch, but residents are understandably nervous and of course anyone who wants to sell their flat clearly has no hope of doing that. The freeholder—Wallace Estates —has washed its hands of responsibility. The director told me in a letter that
“it is the case that the building is now deemed to be unsafe because of a belated recognition by those in authority that the standards governing building safety at the time of the development were inadequate”
and that those with
“responsibility for setting the standards should be liable”.
The developers, Durkin, have also washed their hands. I wrote to them but have not received a reply. They rang my office—I am not sure, but perhaps they were being careful not to put anything in writing—and said they had not done anything wrong. The insurers, NHBC, are considering the claim, but it has been with them for months and nothing has been forthcoming.
The Minister, in a letter to me today, has also washed his hands of responsibility, saying:
“I am clear that the morally right thing for building owners to do is take responsibility for meeting the costs of remediation and interim safety measures”.
So my constituents, living in an unsafe block, are left to sit in it and pay the bill for the cladding removal and replacement. They have already been asked to pay thousands of pounds and have been told that they will face a bill for thousands more. They are having to club together to pay legal bills. They have all the tea and sympathy in the world from everybody, but they still have to pay. The system has failed, and when that happens it must be the responsibility of the Government to step in and provide clarity or resources, or both, to resolve the issue.
There are big policy questions: how can Government let the legal system take over when their own testing process has been shown to be insufficient? If leaseholders are found liable, are the Government really content that residents should be made homeless—something the LGA has warned about? What about desktop studies? They have already been mentioned, so I will not go into detail.
I want briefly to suggest some things that the Minister might this afternoon commit to doing. Will he meet my constituents to learn about the pressures they face? Will he start a proper dialogue with freeholders? I thank him for his response to my letter and his agreement to arrange a phone call with Wallace Estates. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North that the Government should take the lead, but if they feel that the moral responsibility sits with landlords, they have to act to ensure that action is taken on behalf of residents.
The Government should sit down with insurers to find out what is going on. There are many claims in play, and that is leading to months of uncertainty and legal wrangling, which does not help anyone.
The Government should look at ownership rules for property. As the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said, there should be no more hiding behind offshore entities. One of the problems that we have had is working out who owns buildings and freeholds. There are shell companies and offshore companies that are impenetrable. Details cannot be obtained from the website. It is complicated to get through to them.
The Prime Minister yesterday addressed the issue of land banking, opening up the possibility that developers who sit on land might face restrictions in getting planning permissions. Will the Minister take a similar approach to developers, stopping planning permission being given to them if they sit on their hands and leave dangerous cladding in place?
The buck stops with the Government. If they believe that other people are responsible, they have to make sure action is taken. My constituents, who are the least able to pay and the least to blame, are in the firing line. The Minister must surely accept that that is not fair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this timely debate and on his wider efforts to co-ordinate Members who are concerned that the Government should step up and do more. Two hundred and sixty-four days have now passed since we watched flames engulf the Grenfell tower block in north Kensington, yet on private freehold developments across the country hundreds of thousands of residents still live with the knowledge that their homes are covered in lethal material. New Capital Quay, a vast 980-home development in my constituency, is only one of hundreds of such cases, although it is perhaps the highest-profile.
Cladding on the site failed tests carried out by the Department in July last year, and eight months on that cladding and insulation remain in place with no timescale for their removal and replacement, and with an inadequate and expensive waking watch fire safety patrol still in place. Residents are left in limbo while the freeholder, Galliard Homes, and the National House Building Council tussle over whether there was a breach of building regulations at the time of construction, and about who is liable—this tussle might be settled out of court, but it might ultimately be resolved only through lengthy litigation.
Residents stuck in the middle of that messy squabble are terrified at the thought that their families are not safe, and leaseholders are anxious that they will be hit by the full costs of the work. At a public meeting last week, one elderly resident told me that she is resigned to the fact that she will not make it out of the building if there is a fire, even with the waking watch in place.
What has been the Government’s position throughout? It has amounted to little more than a muffled and infrequent plea to the private companies involved not to pass on costs to leaseholders. No attempt has been made to ensure that the dangerous cladding is removed as a matter of urgency. In many ways, however, that is no surprise because the Government are deeply compromised on fire safety. In 2013, they failed to act on recommendations made after the 2009 Lakanal House disaster, and they chose not to rewrite procedural guidance set out in Approved Document B. They did nothing to prevent the installation of combustible polyethylene ACM cladding of the type found on New Capital Quay.
Presumably on the basis of advice from the BRE Group, in 2006 the Government opened the door to combustible insulation material such as the K15 Kingspan insulation found on New Capital Quay. That was approved as compliant through testing, when previously it had been impossible to meet the guidance by that route.
The Building Control Alliance determined to introduce a new route to compliance through desktop studies, but as the market became increasingly competitive its members began to approve cladding without even the need for such a desktop study. It is hard to believe that the Government were not aware that that was taking place, yet they failed to amend Approved Document B to respond to it.
If one steps back from all the legal wrangling between private companies about cladding and insulation on private freehold developments, one notes the flawed nature of the building regulations regime, the inadequacy of procedural guidance within that regime, and the passive response of Government to the behaviour of the combustibles industry since 2014. That explains why dangerous, combustible cladding and insulation of the kind that surrounds the homes of my constituents were signed off as compliant.
Let me be clear: the fault does not lie only with Conservative Governments since 2010, because successive Governments have failed to ensure that the building regulation regime was fit for purpose. However, the Government have a duty to act—if not a legal duty, then certainly a moral one—and they can do so speedily in a way that will make a big difference to my constituents by issuing clear, prescriptive advice about the final date by which dangerous combustible cladding must be removed from developments such as New Capital Quay. That is the least my constituents, and others across the country in a similar situation, deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in this well-attended and well-informed debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) for securing it, and for his clear and detailed summary of the situation. The statistic that he mentioned of one fire every month is alarming, and it certainly focuses the mind.
It is essential that everyone has a safe, warm and affordable home, but following the tragedy at Grenfell last year, many uncertainties remain about how safe properties throughout the country actually are. Building and fire safety are critical components of public safety, not just in residential flats but in hotels, student accommodation and even hospitals—indeed, anywhere someone may be staying. It is concerning that so far only a fraction of that cladding known to be unsafe has been replaced throughout the country, and questions still remain about which materials are safe to use. The issue of flammable or combustible cladding must be clarified and, in my opinion, its use should be prohibited.
Further questions about who should pay—this is particularly an issue in privately owned blocks, where costs could be passed on to leaseholders—are alarming. That is not so much an issue in Scotland because the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc (Scotland) Act 2000 and the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2004 effectively brought the last vestiges of leasehold to an end. However, the problem of owners being financially trapped in buildings affected by these issues does apply, and that has been further complicated by changes over the years to building regulations, and by responsible reconsiderations about the retrospective materials used. What may have been deemed acceptable in the past might not be now.
I represent a constituency that has no high-rise domestic buildings. Nevertheless, following the Grenfell tragedy there was considerable anxiety among many constituents living in lower level multi-story flatted accommodation. I am grateful to both local authorities in my area—Falkirk and West Lothian—for reviewing the fire safety arrangements after Grenfell, and for confirming that all council properties have appropriate fire safety arrangements in place, including both annual and five-yearly fire safety assessments. There are issues in other parts of Scotland. For example, Glasgow City Council has identified two buildings where PE ACM has been used.