On Monday, there was an Opposition Day Debate on the prominent and concerning issue of long-term building safety and cladding, something several constituents have raised with me over the last year, including many who are directly affected by this matter.
Grenfell Tower Fire
This first came to prominence following the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower. As a Government, we are united in the commitment to make sure everyone in our society lives in safe, secure accommodation. In these difficult times, we are all worried about the wellbeing of neighbours, friends and loved ones – I know this has been the case for those directly impacted by this terrible situation since Grenfell. I can’t imagine how it must feel having to live in a home where you don’t feel safe, in these times where we are all being asked to isolate at home, my heart goes out to all those affected.
Having personally worked on the Fire Safety Bill, I want to assure constituents the Government’s priority is to make sure homes, flats and buildings in the UK are safe. Even though I am now a Minister in DWP with responsibility for HSE, I am continuing to regularly engage with my Ministerial colleagues on behalf of constituents, who are desperate to see a resolution to this deeply worrying, national situation.
As the Minister for Housing, Chris Pincher MP stated the following to the House of Commons during the Opposition Debate on Monday (1st February 2021):
“It should not have taken such a deadly fire, with such a terrible loss of life and suffering, for us to face up to the failures of building safety that have built up over decades under successive Governments. We are determined to do our duty by those whose lives were changed forever that night, right the wrongs of the past, and bring about the biggest improvement to building safety in a generation.”
Govt financial support
The Government have made £1.6 billion available to pay for cladding to be removed and are working closely with building owners to ensure this is done quickly. Alongside this, we are delivering the biggest changes in build safety in a generation and introducing new legislation, in the form of the Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill, to ensure people’s homes are safe and meet the required standards.
Prime Minister’s thoughts
During PMQs on Wednesday (3rd February), the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson MP, said the following on this matter:
“This is a problem that needs to be fixed. This Government are getting on with it. On 95% of the high-rise buildings with unsafe ACM cladding, work is either complete or under way to remove that cladding. I very much appreciate and sympathise with the predicament of leaseholders who are in that situation, but we are working to clear the backlog… my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary will be coming forward with a full package to address the issue.
“We are determined that no leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they did not cause and are no fault of their own. That is why, in addition to the £1.6 billion we are putting in to remove the HPL—high-pressure laminate—cladding, we have also set up a £1 billion building safety fund that has already processed over almost 3,000 claims.
“We are getting on with the job of helping leaseholders across the country by remediating their buildings. In addition to the funds I have already mentioned… we are also introducing a £30 million fund to install alarms and other interim measures. We are making it very clear to the mortgage industry that they should support people living in such accommodation, and making it clear to all sectors in the industry that people living in such homes should not be tied up in the whole EWS1 process. That will benefit about 450,000 homeowners.”
The full debate from this week’s PMQs can be found here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2021-02-03/debates/70E63621-E680-4C8D-8052-C6A324403974/PrimeMinister
AluminIum Composite Material (ACM)
After the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, there was an increased focus on removing aluminium composite material (ACM) from buildings over 18 metres. Over time, focus broadened to take in other types of combustible cladding. In December 2018, the Government issued Advice Note 14, containing guidance for building owners on the steps to take to tackle non-ACM materials on the external walls of high-rise buildings. Owners were advised to check “general fire precautions” and ensure external wall systems were “safe”. This can require an intrusive inspection by a qualified individual to check the materials used and how they were installed.
I have been assured by colleagues that, to date, all buildings have had ACM cladding either fully removed, or this work is currently underway. This work has continued throughout the pandemic and the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, has made it clear remediation work is essential to our communities.
I believe far too many building owners and managing agents in the private sector have been slow in getting remediation work started, which is why we introduced the £1 billion building safety fund to remediate high-rise residential buildings with unsafe, non-ACM cladding as soon as possible, protecting the leaseholders from burdensome costs.
The Government have received 2,840 registrations for the fund and have been able to make eligibility decisions on a significant number of them, which were fully completed. It is disappointing that, despite these requirements having been made clear from the outset, many building owners have been unable to provide the basic information needed to advance works, including information such as the height of their building, the EWS systems on their walls and even sample lease agreements. My colleagues have been engaging with registrants and the industry bodies to understand the challenges they have in meeting the deadlines, and have set a new deadline of June, based on what we now know about the registrants and their readiness to be able to deliver.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) led a cross-industry working group to consider best practice in the reporting and valuation of tall buildings within the secured lending arena, with a view to agreeing a new standardised process. This was in the form of the Cladding External Wall System (EWS) and required constituents who are trying to see/re-mortgage leasehold flats in a block to submit an EWS1 form. Unfortunately, this has caused some issues and my colleagues in MHCLG have confirmed they are working urgently with lenders to resolve these challenges, ensuring EWS1 forms are requested only where absolutely necessary and that the number of surveyors able to complete them is increased significantly to meet demand.
The Minister for Rough Sleeping, Eddie Hughes MP, informed the House of Commons on Monday that the Government are providing £700,000 to train up to 2,000 people who will be capable of producing ESW forms to make sure they are more accessible.
I believe it is essential the Government continue to work closely with all parties to resolve these major challenges. In addition, the Minister for Housing, Chris Pincher MP, explained during Monday’s debate the following:
“RICS has undertaken a consultation on the reform proposals, which ought to reduce some of the burden that some people face. That consultation closed on 26 January, and we await its results, but certainly as a result of the negotiations that we undertook with the industry and with RICS, some 450,000 people who might otherwise have been affected by the EWS1 forms are no longer obliged to complete them.”
This issue is about individuals and lives, not simply about money and party differences. I condemn contractors who put lives at risk, ignore safety regulations and shun responsibilities, and I know my Ministerial colleagues share my conviction to stop this and ensure they face the appropriate sanctions.
Finally, I just wanted to include a final quote from the Minister for Rough Sleeping, regarding leaseholders:
“Leaseholder agreements allow building owners or their managing agents to pass on significant remediation costs to leaseholders. This could result in leaseholders being faced with unaffordable costs. I think there is consensus across the House that this would be completely unacceptable. For that reason, the Government have been accelerating work on a long-term solution to this problem. We are working at pace to develop a financial solution to protect leaseholders from unaffordable costs. It is important that we get this right. I can assure Members that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making an announcement on this important work at the earliest opportunity.”
I hope this update was helpful and informative, for further detail about the Government’s actions on this matter, please visit https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-02-01/debates/1FCA1A68-0CCF-42BF-889D-EDD2CA92165F/UnsafeCladdingProtectingTenantsAndLeaseholders
I would also direct anyone interested to the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, otherwise known as the ‘Hackett Report’ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-review-of-building-regulations-and-fire-safety-final-report