Friday 21st January 2022

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
14:34
Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this debate on the impact of unsafe cladding in Putney. I thank the Minister for taking the time to respond today. I also thank all those who are watching, who may increase the audience for this debate considerably, as it is on an issue of huge importance to my constituents in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields. I have been campaigning on it for over two years now, since I was elected. It is one of my biggest campaigns, so I am very grateful to be given this time—an unusual amount of time to be able to explain the impact of cladding in Putney, which echoes the stories and experiences of people affected by cladding all over the country.

First, I thank the UK Cladding Action Group, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, and all the cladding campaigners locally, for campaigning relentlessly on the issue. I am with you in the fight.

I will talk today about some of the failures of the Government to respond to the cladding crisis. Developers have checked out of many developments that they built shoddily and have moved on. So will the Government really be able to bring them to the table? The building safety fund is failing. It is too slow and has too many exemptions, and there is nothing in the Building Safety Bill to actually protect leaseholders. Will it all be hot air? These are the questions that I will be asking.

Madam Deputy Speaker, imagine that you had worked really hard and saved for your entire life to buy your first property. You find your dream flat—there are many dream flats in Putney; it is a wonderful place to live—and you have your offer accepted. You invest your life savings to complete the purchase. You buy the flat in good faith, no doubt having been serenaded by an estate agent and after the council searches have come back clean as a whistle. You are good to go ahead. Everything has fallen into place. You have planned your new life and you move into your new home.

Then you are told, after you have signed on the dotted line, that because of the wanton recklessness and corner cutting of a cowboy developer, your new home is actually riddled with fire safety issues. It is a deathtrap. And you are asked to stump up £50,000 or more to get it fixed. You either do not pay, or you will be forced to pay, or bankrupted. Even if you could pay, it will not get fixed straightaway; it might get fixed in two, three or four years. You do not know what the schedule will be; you are at the mercy of the managing agents and the developers. Until then, you are stuck and, as in many cases, bankrupt.

It sounds like an absurd situation and something straight out of “Rogue Traders”, but it is actually the exact experience of thousands of leaseholders in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, and it has happened on the Government’s watch.

As I will explain, the Government’s announcement last week was welcome. It is a step change and new words. However, it will do little yet to change the reality. It is important to realise that behind the numbers, the surveys and the technical language, there are people who are having their lives ruined. I will say something about the impact that is having on them.

One constituent said to me:

“I am living this nightmare every day as this mess continues to drag on. I ask you; you tell me, ‘What’s the point of living a life like this?’ I am starting to get sick again and I’m finding it super hard to carry on.”

Another constituent has said:

“I’ve been diagnosed with stress-induced epilepsy and I’m now on medication for the next 5 years as a minimum. I’m at risk of being declared bankrupt, and this may mean I am jobless, as my profession depends on this. Critically vulnerable leasees are facing ever-mounting financial pressures and are unsure they can keep going.”

Another constituent, who is father to a young family, said:

“We are like prisoners for the mistake we have not made.”

He finished by saying something that was painful to read:

“Do we need to commit suicide to be heard by others on this issue?”

I have heard similar comments by others who feel desperate.

Another constituent, who has terminal cancer, wrote:

“At the moment, I am facing a bleak death. I had hoped I could use the capital from my flat (I own 25%, Notting Hill Genesis own 75%) to either fund future hospice care or transfer to sheltered housing… However, I am unable to sell this flat, and am pretty much trapped here.”

I could go on. The mental and physical health impact on leaseholders across the country is phenomenal.

I am afraid that the optimism and good words contained in the Secretary of State’s announcement last week belie a real grasp of what is happening. The urgency of the situation has not been seen by the Government so far, because we are years after Grenfell and we are still in this situation. I have had residents from 30 blocks in my constituency reach out to me in the past two years. I have had numerous meetings with them, with developers and with managing agents, and this is the ninth time that I have spoken about this in the House. I will outline some of the cases because they are good examples not only of what is happening to those people—these are specific cases that need to be addressed by the Government—but of what is being experienced by so many people around the country.

I will start with the Riverside Quarter, a huge development that was developed and owned by Frasers Property Ltd. Shortly after the Grenfell fire, eight of the buildings failed fire safety tests and Frasers told leasees in the four older blocks that, since it had no remaining financial interest in the buildings, under leasehold law those leasees would have to pay. So it fixed the cladding in four blocks but would not fix it in the other four blocks.

Although Frasers has been able to secure funding through the building safety fund for three of the four remaining blocks, the fourth block was denied funding due to a slightly different final coat of render being used. The internal fire risks are identical in all four blocks, but this seemingly arbitrary technicality resulted in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government turning it down.

On 15 December last year, Frasers sent a notice that under its lease terms it will be charging the 204 leaseholders over £4.2 million for unfunded fire repair costs. Charges per flat will be as high as £72,000, on top of those 204 leaseholders having to pay £170,000 a year between them for waking watch, which they call sleeping watch. This is a prime example of developers who are also freeholders ignoring the Secretary of State’s stated intentions.

The second development is the Swish building, in east Putney. Over two years ago, unsafe, non-ACM cladding was discovered on the Swish. It has been at stage 2 of the building safety fund application for over a year. The timber part of the application has been rejected and the freeholder, Tapestart Ltd, is nowhere to be seen. Work to fix the cladding should have started in September 2021, yet residents are nowhere even close to receiving approval for funding. There has been delay after delay, with no clear transparency from the managing agent, Trinity Estates.

Next is 2, 6 and 8 Hardwicks Square. Unsafe cladding was discovered, following an EWS1 assessment in 2018, in which it scored a B2 rating. Residents applied to the building safety fund over a year ago. They were left in the dark about the application for nine months, but then told that there were more defects than had been thought, so the application needed to go back to the drawing board. It is still pending and they are still waiting. They are paying for waking watch to the tune of £45,000 a month and have had an eye-watering 500% insurance hike. The ultimate freeholder is Blackstone, a private equity company. Will Blackstone be speaking to the Secretary of State as part of the roundtable discussions?

Next door to Hardwicks Square is the Filaments development, where the developer has agreed to pay for remediation. That shows that some developers do pay up, and I commend them, but there are several major fire safety defects. Everyone in the development has been waiting for two years. They have experienced delay after delay, and residents are incredibly anxious. Will the Government set a final deadline for works to be done everywhere, no matter who is paying for them?

The Radial development has not received funding for the remediation of unsafe, non-ACM cladding found on the block, despite the application having been made in July 2020. What is the delay? It is getting ridiculous. I wrote to the freeholder, the ominously named Godfather Investments, 18 months ago, urging them to take responsibility and I received the following chilling response:

“We have taken legal advice on the whole issue of liability for unsuitable cladding and it is well documented that in circumstances such as described…the Freeholder has no liability. With respect, we find the suggestions contained in your letter to be wholly disingenuous and counterproductive.”

I hope that the Secretary of State is also speaking to Godfather Investments, that they have changed their tune and that they will be supporting the remediation of cladding.

One of the smaller affected blocks is Mill Court development, which is interesting because it is under 11 metres high, so it does not come within the remit of the building safety fund. Yet residents have been told they face costs of around £1 million for remediation works. The Building Safety Minister, Lord Greenhalgh, recently said he was “appalled” when he heard about the case and Optivo’s extensive remediation plans for such a small building. However, Optivo is still intending to move ahead with remediation works, subject to the announcement of further Government guidance. Does the Minister agree with Lord Greenhalgh’s assessment? If buildings under 11 metres are declared unsafe, will they be added to the remit of the Fire Safety Bill?

Finally, I want to highlight Percy Laurie House, which is over 18 metres and was assessed as having a form of cladding requiring remediation. The residents made an application to the building safety fund, but again it has now been a year since they made it and, despite following up frequently, the application has remained pending for 12 months. It is a familiar story, and it is causing enormous anguish.

Let me be clear: I welcome many aspects of the recent announcement from the Secretary of State, which echo much of what the Labour party and I have been calling for for the past two years. However, the situation on the ground in Putney exposes several realities that the Secretary of State has not yet grasped. First, what assurances are there that developers are coming to the table? I understand that developers had a meeting with the Secretary of State yesterday: I would like to know who came to that meeting, and for leaseholders to be assured that developers are taking action and things are moving ahead. Can they have hope? Will they be able to sleep at night again? Too many developers I am in contact with seem to have just checked out of the process.

Secondly, the building safety fund is clearly riddled with serious flaws. It is arbitrarily denying funding for certain types of cladding, and it is painfully slow. Application success seems to rest on the competency of the property manager, rather than the safety of the building. As the constituency MP, I should not need to chase application updates for residents: the whole safety fund needs an overhaul. To give perspective, in two years that fund has only funded 18 out of the 1,000 buildings that need work—that is 1.8%.

Thirdly, what about buildings under 11 metres? There is a gaping hole there, and as the case of Mill Court shows, withdrawing the consolidated advice note has not stopped fire safety works proceeding and the costs being passed on to leaseholders.

Fourthly, what about non-cladding defects? Why the omission? We cannot just make a building half safe. I have many constituents facing ruinous costs for non-cladding fire safety defects, who seem to have been abandoned by the Government.

There is only one way to end this nightmare for leaseholders, which is the one thing that the Government have so far refused to do: put cast-iron legal protections for leaseholders from the costs of remediating any historic cladding and non-cladding defects on the statute book. That could have been done this week through the Building Safety Bill, but was not. The Government still have a few more opportunities to do so, but they are fast running out of time. I seek assurances from the Minister that it will be done. Ministers have promised 18 times to protect leaseholders from ruinous fire safety costs, yet leaseholders in my constituency, at least, still cannot sleep at night for worries about their building and the costs they may have to pay for. I stand with my affected residents and leaseholders in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, and we say to the Government, “No more hot air. Time to put your money where your mouth is and end this misery.”

14:47
Neil O'Brien Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Neil O'Brien)
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I commend the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) on having secured this important debate. It is a matter that Members of all parties feel deeply about, and the hon. Member spoke passionately, forensically and on a very important subject for the residents of all the different developments she mentioned. As she knows, the Government are taking action by resetting our approach to building safety while introducing substantial reforms through the Building Safety Bill and strengthening the fire safety order. From listening to the cases that she mentioned in her speech, it was clear why we are right to do so.

Let me directly address the question that the hon. Member asked at the end of her speech. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a statement to the House last week that set out some of the bold steps we are taking to greatly speed up cladding remediation and ensure that the polluter truly does pay for the building safety defects that they themselves created. The Government recognise that the previous position on building safety remediation, predicated on building owners and developers voluntarily doing the right thing, was not working. The hon. Member asked whether we could bring those developers to the table: this week, the Secretary of State did exactly that, chairing a roundtable with the country’s largest developers. It was a positive meeting in which they agreed that leaseholders should not pay—a very important principle—and we will continue to engage with those developers to ensure that they deliver a fully funded action plan by early March, because we do appreciate the urgency of this issue.

As the hon. Member pointed out, leaseholders are blameless, yet many have been hit hard with expensive bills for cladding remediation that they simply cannot pay. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the principles that will underpin our renewed approach to building safety. First, we must take a proportionate approach to building assessment overall. Too many buildings are being judged to require expensive remediation or mitigation, and leaseholders have too often become the victims of an over-cautious approach that goes beyond what is necessary. Secondly, we must protect ordinary leaseholders from shouldering the costs for remediation and mitigation of fire risks. Thirdly, the industries at fault must pay. Those who built and contributed to our stock of unsafe buildings, and those who continue to cut corners in building safety, must pay to fix these defects, instead of taxpayers or leaseholders. Finally, we must hold to account those individuals and companies that have—and continue to—knowingly put lives at risk.

The hon. Member for Putney raised an important question about proportionality. Advice from industry experts last July reinforced something that all hon. Members will know—that fires in homes, including in multi-storey homes—are thankfully rare. Data also shows that the vast majority of buildings will not need very expensive remediation, so we are making assessments more proportionate and will withdraw the consolidated advice note, which in too many cases was used as an excuse for excessive risk aversion.

The British Standards Institution has also published its new PAS 9980 guidance for assessing risk in external walls, which should enable much more proportionate and consistent assessments, rather than the binary ones that have become prevalent, in which the presence of combustible wall materials is thought always to require expensive remediation, even when we know that that is not always the case. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is reviewing the building safety fund to ensure that it is risk-driven and reflects the Government’s position on proportionality. We have already allocated £976 million of funding from the building safety fund, and will open the next phase early this year. We are working to progress eligible applicants through the application process quickly and diligently, because many tenants cannot wait, as the hon. Member for Putney pointed out.

It is important to remember, however, that we are reliant on building owners and managing agents providing the necessary information to us, so that we can process their application without delay. As I come to talk about some of the particular places mentioned by the hon. Member, we will see that that is an important point. To that end, we will also provide expert support to assist with the planning and delivery of remediation, which can be a complex construction project. We will also be providing an additional £3.5 billion to cover the cost of addressing fire safety risks caused by unsafe cladding on all eligible buildings.

The hon. Member pointed out that it is crucial to protect leaseholders. We completely agree that these people, who find themselves in difficulty through no fault of their own, must be protected. The Government had already committed to leaseholders in buildings over 18 metres not paying for cladding remediation, and last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pledged that leaseholders living in their own flats in medium and high-rise buildings should not have to pay a penny to remediate historical cladding defects. In doing so, he also scrapped the proposal for loans and long-term debt for medium-rise leaseholders; instead, the industry will be expected to pay.

My right hon. Friend also announced practical and immediate measures to relieve leaseholders from the financial and emotional burdens that they have been forced to endure. A further £27 million is being allocated to bring the misuse of waking watches to an end. That is on top of the current £35 million fund, which is already being used for 323 buildings and nearly 25,000 leasehold homes. We estimate that that fund will save leaseholders an average of £163 each month, and we expect to open the expanded fund very shortly. It is by no means acceptable that leaseholders can be at risk of losing their homes as a result of building safety defects, and we will be working across Government to ensure that leaseholders are protected from the risk of forfeiture related to historical building safety issues until a new industry-developed system is in place.

We will be exploring further statutory protections for leaseholders, and I have asked my Department’s officials to engage with parliamentary colleagues on a cross-party basis to consider that during the Bill’s passage in the other place. A key part of the process is enabling homeowners to pursue claims for defective work from those responsible, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will introduce an amendment to the Building Safety Bill to extend the right of homeowners to challenge defects under the Defective Premises Act 1972 in homes that are up to 30 years old.

In the time remaining, I am keen to talk about some of the specific places that the hon. Lady mentioned. I thank her for drawing attention to several of the developments in her constituency; let me set out the Department’s response to each of them.

Chapelier House has had £8.5 million of funding approved for ACM and non-ACM cladding remediation, and works are in progress, with ACM cladding expected to be removed by the end of April this year. Remediation has been completed for 1, 3, 5 and 7 Eastfields Avenue. For Coptain House and Mandel House, £6.9 million of funding has been approved for non-ACM cladding remediation. For 5D Enterprise Way, £1.5 million of funding has been approved for non-ACM cladding remediation.

The Swish building is eligible for funding under the building safety fund. The full works-and-costs application for the building, including the scope of works and costings, is currently being finalised. The buildings at 2, 6 and 8 Hardwicks Square are eligible for funding under the building safety fund and pre-tender support has been paid to facilitate the appointment of a project team for them.

A building safety fund registration has been submitted for the Radial development, owned by Godfather Investments, which the hon. Lady mentioned. As I said earlier, further information has been requested from the applicant so that eligibility can be determined, but it has not yet been provided. I hope that the people responsible are listening to this debate and we can get the information we need to move ahead quickly.

The works to remove unsafe ACM cladding at the Filaments development have been completed for three buildings, subject to building control sign-off. As the hon. Lady acknowledged and we should acknowledge, those works were funded by the developer. A building safety fund registration in respect of non-ACM cladding has been submitted for the Filaments development and further information has been requested from the applicant so that eligibility can be determined but, again, it has not been provided. Again, I hope that the people responsible are listening to this debate and we can move ahead quickly.

The hon. Lady mentioned Mill Court and Lord Greenhalgh’s interventions. In December, Lord Greenhalgh and officials met the National Housing Federation and Optivo, which has committed to reviewing all remediation requirements following the withdrawal of the consolidated advice note and the publication of PAS9980 last week. The Department has regular engagement with the NHF and housing associations. The Government have been clear that if remediation, rather than mitigation or management, is still required for buildings under 18 meters, it has to be very clearly justified and communicated to leaseholders. In the specific case of Mill Court, should Optivo continue with the proposed remediation works, we would expect it to explain clearly why management or mitigation was not suitable. I am sure that, like some of the other organisations involved, Optivo will listen to the hon. Lady’s speech and this debate and will want to come to a sensible conclusion.

Before I conclude, let me touch on the Building Safety Bill, which is the biggest shake-up of our building safety regime in nearly 40 years and will have a real legacy of lasting change and reform. The Bill’s remaining stages in this House concluded earlier this week and it has now been introduced in the other place. It is a landmark Bill and part of a package of legislative changes to move things forward and to make sure the problems that Dame Judith Hackitt identified with the current building and fire safety regime are rectified for good. The package includes the measures in the Building Safety Bill, the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the changes to the fire safety order. The new, strengthened regime will allow major fire and structural hazards to be effectively managed, mitigated and remediated.

There is a completely united desire among Members from all parties to make sure that people feel safe and are safe in their own homes. Debates such as this are important so that developers can note the discussion in the House. Together, we can work on a cross-party basis to solve the hugely important issues that the hon. Lady touched on, which are of such high importance to her constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

00:00
House adjourned.