Jon Cruddas debates with Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

There have been 3 exchanges between Jon Cruddas and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

Wed 12th June 2019 Housing Associations (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (93 words)
Wed 23rd January 2019 Fire Safety and Cladding 11 interactions (1,406 words)
Tue 20th November 2018 Housing Bodies: Accountability (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (79 words)

Housing Associations

Jon Cruddas Excerpts
Wednesday 12th June 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Jim Fitzpatrick
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12 Jun 2019, 4:09 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will come to that point later.

For residents, be they social renters, key workers, people with shared equity or leaseholders, accountability and transparency are key. For public sector home owners or renters, responsibility for their home maintenance is generally clear, but in the private sector it is not. A recent example of such confusion is the Barking fire on Sunday. There appears to be a complete lack of information on who owns the freehold. Responsibility for the failings therefore cannot be allocated. How are residents supposed to feel confident in their homes when no particular company or individual will take responsibility for their safety and welfare? A clear system of regulation for housing association homes would go some way to making residents feel comfortable and protected.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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12 Jun 2019, 3:59 p.m.

This is an important debate. We had similar issues in Tower Hamlets, across Barking and Dagenham and Havering, with Old Ford, which was Circle Housing, and a notorious case on the Orchard Village estate because of a lack of effective regulation across the sector. At the same time, a number of housing associations increasingly saw their role as being developers, rather than fulfilling their historical ethical role of delivering for working people. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lack of regulation plays into the changing role of housing associations across the sector?

Jim Fitzpatrick
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I will come on to the role of housing associations and the change in their ethos. That will reinforce the concern that he expresses.

I hear all the time from constituents who are having trouble getting complaints about their housing associations dealt with. Issues such as above-inflation rent increases, unjustified service charges, unreasonable refurbishment costs and problems with repairs seem to be rife. The lack of information about tendering arrangements has also been a source of frustration. Residents often find it unclear who they can go to with their complaints, and do not have confidence that they will be given a fair hearing.

Accountability questions are all too common. In my constituency, there are many housing associations, many of which are very good. Some are average and some are poor. One of the best, if not the best, is Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association, commonly and locally known as HARCA. HARCA is a much-valued organisation in Tower Hamlets, going beyond its brief in housing to create community hubs and therefore maintaining a strong social ethos. It is also exemplary in its accountability. Its board has always had a majority of members from the local community, and it has created a tenant advisory panel with the aim of strengthening relationships with tenants and landlords. It was also an early adopter of the National Housing Federation’s “Together with Tenants” plan, again prioritising building good relationships with tenants.

In a recent consultation regarding plans for the Teviot estate in my constituency, there was a turnout of 81% of residents, 87% of whom voted in support of the plan. That demonstrates the high level of approval for HARCA’s work. HARCA also runs a resident-to-resident survey, where residents are trained to call other residents to get their comments on issues such as recent repairs, providing unbiased feedback for Poplar HARCA and involving the residents in shaping their local services.

Those initiatives have proved successful for Poplar HARCA not only in operating an efficient not-for-profit business, but in achieving high levels of resident approval. Its most recent survey, conducted in May, found that 83% of tenants and 75% of leaseholders were satisfied with the service. Clearly, involving residents in decision making at every possible level and seeking feedback regularly works in favour of both residents and housing associations.

However, that level of provision for, and investment in, tenants sometimes seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Housing associations are no longer obliged to have residents on their board. I urge the Minister to consider bringing back that requirement, as another means of making associations directly accountable to residents, and ensuring that executive boards have a local perspective.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to Poplar HARCA is A2Dominion, notorious in the housing world for its, at best, neglect of or, at worst, disdain for residents. The Daily Mirror recently reported that residents in Clyde House in south London are scared to sleep in their homes due to unsafe conditions. Thick mould covering pipes, water leaking into flats, vermin across the building and an assessment declaring it a

“moderate to high fire risk”

all appear in a new development.

A2Dominion is supposed to have the exact same social purpose as Poplar HARCA. However, residents are being ignored in their justified complaints. The lack of clear accountability means that it can get away with not taking responsibility for the necessary repairs and upkeep, while still charging tenants extortionate service charges. Associations such as A2Dominion need clear regulation, and residents need to know who they can turn to when they are not being taken seriously.

As the Minister knows, I have spoken several times in this place about fire safety in high-rise flats—not as often as him, of course—and the dangerous, highly flammable cladding that is still in place in too many blocks. If we want to show that we have learned the lessons from Grenfell, we have to bring in stringent legal oversight, so that no further lives are lost due to its absence, in addition to shoddy, cost-cutting workmanship, poor maintenance, wrong materials and weak fire regulations.

Another point of consideration is bringing local government into a more formal role in oversight. Local authorities are well placed to understand the performance, or underperformance, of housing associations through the relationships between councillors and residents, and through public realm services.

Fire Safety and Cladding

Jon Cruddas Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd January 2019

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Steve Reed Portrait Mr Reed
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23 Jan 2019, 2:33 p.m.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and she is absolutely right. I have seen previous Secretaries of State stand at the Dispatch Box and say that those responsible need to take responsibility. It is the Government who are responsible because the Government failed to act on the instructions and advice of the coroner following the tragic and fatal Lakanal House fire in 2009. The Government are responsible for the situation that these people find themselves in, and the Government should take responsibility for giving those people a way out of this, without burdening them with unmanageable debt or pointing the finger at all sorts of other people who they say have a moral obligation to act, when that is unenforceable in any court.

The only way this can be dealt with is if the Government take direct action. As my hon. Friend said, the Government failed to clarify the regulations and guidance after the fire at Lakanal House. It is not about an individual Minister or Secretary of State—there has been a whole string of them ever since that time: Eric Pickles initially, but subsequently Greg Clark, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, I cannot remember their constituencies. A string of Secretaries of State have failed to take appropriate action in line with the guidance that they were given. A previous Housing Minister, who is now the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, failed to act in this circumstance. I am afraid that collectively the Government are culpable for what has happened, and failed to act when they were told that action was necessary to prevent a repeat of Lakanal House. Of course, it was repeated horrifically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

I thought long and hard about why the Government would not act on that advice, and I have come to the conclusion that what is going on in this sector is nothing short of a national scandal. There is a tangled web of conflicts of interest that have led to the framework for fire safety regulations being wholly inadequate. The Building Research Establishment is a privatised organisation that helps to write fire safety regulations and drafts fire safety guidance. Its chief executive sits on the Government’s expert panel on fire safety, and one of its trustees, Sir Ken Knight, was until recently the Government’s chief fire safety adviser.

The BRE has a direct financial interest in the sector. It makes money by allowing cladding manufacturers to run fire safety tests on rigs that it sets up. The manufacturers are allowed to rerun those tests multiple times, with various adjustments, until they get the result that they want. There is no requirement on them ever to disclose the outcome of the final successful fire safety test—it is considered commercially confidential—nor is there any requirement on them to report publicly how many times their product failed a fire safety test before finally passing it.

The BRE makes money every single time a different rig is put up and a product is tested for combustibility. It has a direct financial interest in permitting the use of flammable cladding, because testing it is how it makes its money, and it was people with a direct interest in the BRE who advised Ministers not to ban combustible cladding. It is an absolutely shocking and scandalous network of conflicts of interest that the Government should never have allowed to happen.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend is getting to the fundamentals of the issues. Let me give an example. I met a bunch of laggers, who handed me a document about the combustible compounds contained in phenolic foam insulation, which is used in multiple buildings. That document was 15 years old, and it detailed the combustible properties of that foam, which is still used and passes Government tests. The whole industry has to put up its hands on its historic culpability and the way it has dodged the inspection regime. These are life and death issues for our constituents.

Steve Reed Portrait Mr Reed
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23 Jan 2019, 4:05 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the important point that he has made. He has emphasised that this is not just about ACM cladding—there is a problem with wider fire safety regulations in the entire building sector—which we cannot allow, not just on residential blocks but on many different kinds of buildings. We need to understand properly those conflicts of financial interest if we are to understand what led Ministers to reject advice that they should have followed all that time ago.

I hope the Minister will put me right on this point, but I fear that subsequent Secretaries of State and Housing Ministers did not correct the mistakes made in the decision to ignore the Lakanal House findings because, if they recognised it as political failure, they would have to take political responsibility for the 72 deaths at Grenfell Tower after it went up, which they did not want to do. That is an extraordinary thing to have to say, but I believe it is true because I can think of no other reason why Minister after Minister failed to correct regulations and guidance that were so manifestly unacceptable, and that posed such a threat to life. That is not just supposition—we saw that it was a threat to life in the scale of the tragedy and the deaths that happened at Grenfell Tower. I would go so far as to say that, if the Government were a private company and acted as they have, Ministers could be in the dock for corporate manslaughter.

Break in Debate

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter
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23 Jan 2019, 4:19 p.m.

I find the Minister’s attitude astonishingly complacent. I am a member of the all-party group on fire safety rescue, which has done a lot of work on this, but it cannot possibly compete with the resources of the Government, so let us not be ridiculous about who should do the groundwork. I have taken part in a number of seminars with a number of experts. On those occasions I have heard a variety of views, but even now I still hear, from experts, manufacturers and others, special pleading for the acceptability of either leaving combustible materials—some of them more combustible than the materials used on Grenfell Tower—on blocks, or continuing to install them. That terrifies me, and I think that it ought to worry the Minister.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas
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23 Jan 2019, 4:20 p.m.

When it comes to the question of complacency and how much confidence we have in the system, I should repeat what I said earlier today about the laggers who put in the insulation, and who are aware of health and safety reports that undermine confidence in the materials that the Government are standing by on behalf of their regulatory bodies. Something must be systemically wrong if the guys who put the stuff on these buildings—and they are guys—are aware of that, and have commissioned reports because they are being damaged by those materials. If they are aware of it, it should not be beyond our collective wit for the Government to be aware of it.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter
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23 Jan 2019, 4:20 p.m.

My hon. Friend has made a telling point. We will not find things that are wrong unless we go and look for them, and I do not feel that the Government are going to go and look for them.

Break in Debate

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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23 Jan 2019, 4:30 p.m.

Order. This is an important debate, and it is true that we are not short of time, but before I call the next speaker, I want to stress that the principle that interventions from both sides of the House should be short and to the point still remains.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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23 Jan 2019, 4:34 p.m.

I was not going to speak, but given that we have more time than we anticipated, I shall make a few comments on the basis of the meeting—which I mentioned earlier—with members of the GMB heat and frost laggers’ branch in Dagenham. They are legendary in the sector for their knowledge of building materials and their compounds and properties, not least because they are the people who handle them. They also have a long-term legacy of dealing with the consequences—namely, an extraordinary profile of asbestos-related deaths and injuries—so it is in their interest to be acutely aware of the properties of the materials they are dealing with.

I am not a chemist, but given the nature of the debate and the brilliant speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), I think it is worth adding the contribution of those who deal with some these materials at the front end, including their introduction in high-rise properties such as Grenfell. Over the years, those people have briefed me on a number of the health and safety tests applied to installations and foams, and I want to address the question of foams specifically this afternoon. I will come to what they have told me in a minute, but it is worth reminding ourselves first of the consequences of Grenfell and what the Government are doing about them. They sought to commission an audit of buildings across England to establish what types of aluminium cladding were in use on which buildings. They also audited the types of insulation that lay underneath the cladding. They found, as I understand it, that three broad types of aluminium cladding are in use. The first is PE cladding—the type used at Grenfell—which is the least fire-resistant type of panelling. The second is the so-called FR or fire-resistant cladding, which is a bit better in a fire. The third is A2 cladding, which has a mineral core of limited combustibility.

The Government subsequently commissioned six large-scale tests that sought to establish which types of insulation could be used with each type of cladding, which relates back to the combination issues mentioned earlier. One type of combustible insulation identified was polyisocyanurate or PIR foam—the type of insulation used at Grenfell—and the other was traditional mineral wool insulation. However, I was informed this morning that the Government also commissioned a seventh test, the rationale being that not all plastic foams are alike. The original tests used only PIR foam insulation, but there is another popular type of combustible plastic foam known as phenolic foam, which is held to have quite different fire performance.

I want to focus on the consequences of that seventh test, because phenolic foam did indeed perform a little better than PIR foam, but it still failed the test. Phenolic foam was deemed to have failed the test after 28 minutes, compared with PIR’s 25 minutes. Altogether, that test means that the Government know of over 200 buildings with cladding that is of a configuration that failed the test post-Grenfell. However, it is my understanding, following this morning’s meeting, that the National House Building Council, which has the authority to sign off buildings, still appears prepared to sign off a variety of combustible insulation boards combined with cladding with a combustible core, having stated in 2017 that

“this is on the basis of...having reviewed a significant quantity of data”.

Therefore, as far as I am aware—this relates back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—building inspectors still appear to believe that phenolic insulation could be used safely with FR-grade aluminium panels.

I know that sounds pretty complicated. I am not an expert on building regulations. Nevertheless, the devil really is in the detail. It appears that, with the Government test results and industry guidelines, phenolic insulation in combination with safer claddings is still deemed safe today; but that is not the point I really wished to raise this evening. My point is that tests are still coming to light that actually undermine some of the assumptions that were made, even post-Grenfell, as to the satisfactory status of some materials. That is why I had a meeting this morning with several laggers to hear about their concerns, because my lagger friends have known for many years of the problems with phenolic foam. I am simply using that as an example to demonstrate some of the systemic problems and the lack of confidence in the system and its regulation, and to point to the need for the industry to put its hands up about what it has known for years and years—even decades—predating Grenfell, predating earlier fires.

For example, this morning I was given confidential technical report 41772 into the volatiles of phenolic foam, dated 18 September 2003—some 16 years ago. The tests found

“a wide range of organic compounds varying in chemical nature and volatility”

contained in the foam. It was found that such products could release a

“series of compounds toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin and if swallowed, that can cause burns and have possible carcinogenic effects”.

That, of course, is bad enough, particularly for the laggers who administer such materials. However, the laggers came to see me and handed me that report because they are aware of details of some of these materials that have never come to light. If they are aware of them, that shows that they have no confidence in the system of regulation and the working knowledge in the Department of the properties of some of these materials.

The report goes on to state that compounds that are flammable, highly flammable or extremely flammable, such as acetaldehyde, can be released from the foam. I am not a chemist, but the compound that interested me most was methyl dioxolane, which “may form explosive peroxides”. A number of questions follow from that that have implications for our confidence in the system as whole. How long have we known about the possibility of extremely flammable and explosive properties in phenolic foam, which is widely used in signed-off cladding systems across the country? We should remember that these tests took place 14 years before the Grenfell fire. Given what we know, how is that foam still deemed safe, even after the post-Grenfell test results called that into question? Do the Government still assume that phenolic foam is safe? Is this foam still being administered? Given that—and I have had the report—will the Government investigate what we know, and what we have historically known, about this specific foam, as an example of the compounds administered in these buildings, and their explosive properties?

Generally, the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North demonstrate the need to know more—way more—about these cladding systems, including the foams. Unless we get satisfactory answers to some of the questions he has asked, and that have been raised by the discovery of confidential reports on the compounds released by materials such as phenolic foam, how can we expect our residents to feel reassured? I am more than prepared to hand the Minister this report as an example of some the combustible properties of the materials that are signed off in the present building regulations.

Kit Malthouse Portrait The Minister for Housing (Kit Malthouse)
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23 Jan 2019, 4:40 p.m.

I commend the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), notwithstanding his partial recitation of Government policy in this area, for recognising the importance of fire safety and cladding, and for securing this debate. I am always grateful for the chance to talk on a subject of such importance as fire safety and ensuring that residents are safe, and feel safe, in their homes.

I take this opportunity to express my sorrow at the obvious emotional distress caused to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others by the Shurgard fire. He spoke very movingly about the fire’s impact, particularly on families who are between homes, and I recognise the distress it may cause. Although I am sure he will recognise that building regulations are largely focused on preserving life, I nevertheless recognise the importance of what he says, and I will come back to that later.

A tragedy like Grenfell should never have happened in 2017, and this Government are determined to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, we acted quickly to establish a comprehensive building safety programme, which has involved many people working tirelessly to identify and remediate buildings with unsafe cladding. We also established the independent expert panel to advise the Secretary of State on immediate measures, and we agreed to fund a comprehensive testing programme for all building owners to establish whether their units are cladded with unsafe ACM material. We have also worked with local authorities and with fire and rescue services, as I have explained, to implement interim safety measures in all buildings to ensure that people remain completely safe in their homes until remediation is completed.

Through the testing and the hard work of local authorities, we are confident that we have identified all social housing in England with unsafe ACM cladding systems. We have made good progress in making those buildings permanently safe. Of the 159 social sector buildings, 118 have either started or completed remediation. There are plans and commitments in place to remediate the remaining 41 buildings. To help to ensure swift progress, we have made £400 million-worth of funding available to social sector landlords to fund the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding.

However, I regret that remediation in the private sector has been more challenging, with negotiations in some instances disappointingly slow. Since Grenfell, we have worked intensively with local authorities to identify and collect data on high-rise buildings with ACM cladding. We have also provided £1.3 million of funding to assist local authorities in that work. Local authorities across England have assessed around 6,000 private sector high-rise buildings. They have needed to take samples to test and, in some cases, take legal action to get owners to co-operate. We have taken strong action to give local authorities the support they need to enforce the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding, we have established a taskforce chaired by me and the Secretary of State to actively oversee the remediation of private sector buildings, and we have set up a joint inspection team to support local authorities and to give them the confidence to pursue enforcement action.

On 29 November 2018, the Government went further and announced that we will back local authorities to step in and take emergency remedial action where building owners are not co-operating in the remediation of cladding. This includes financial support, where necessary, to enable the local authority to carry out the emergency work. As a result of our interventions, we have made progress on securing commitments from owners to replace unsafe cladding. At the end of December, of the 268 privately-owned buildings, 212 have either started or completed remediation, or have commitments in place to remediate. There remain 56 private buildings where the owners’ plans are unclear. That number has fallen from over 200 buildings last June.

We remain concerned about and engaged with the many leaseholders who find themselves in this difficult situation through no fault of their own. We have made it clear that we expect building owners in the private sector to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediation, either by funding it themselves, or by looking to alternative routes such as insurance claims, warranties or legal action. A growing list of companies have done the right thing by protecting leaseholders, including Barratt Developments, which has agreed to fund remediation at Citiscape in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon North. I am pleased to say that I sought and received confirmation that Barratt has started on site this week and is on site today.

The Government have made the remediation of ACM cladding a priority. That is because our large-scale testing programme has conclusively shown the particularly high risk posed by that form of cladding. However, it would be wrong to say that that has been our only focus. The expert panel has regularly considered the risks of non-ACM material and the action we should take. As a result, in December 2018, we issued updated advice to building owners about how to investigate non-ACM cladding systems on their buildings, and how to remediate them. In addition, we have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to conduct a testing programme on non-ACM materials, and we expect the first test results by the summer. We have also issued specific advice on other fire safety risks, for example, spandrel panels and external wall insulation.

However, it is clear that, while we must do all we can to protect people now, we need a systemic overhaul, as several hon. Members have pointed out. With that in mind, we commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to undertake an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. Her report concluded that the current system is not fit for purpose, and charted the direction for a radical new system.

There is no question but that such a change will take time. None the less, the Government have not hesitated, and will not hesitate, to act where we can make a difference now—today. That has been clear for all to see, as we have gone further than the review’s recommendations, including banning combustible cladding. Regulations were laid in November to give effect to the ban, ensuring that cladding of that nature is no longer allowed on the external walls of new buildings over 18 metres containing flats. We are also testing and trialling elements of the new system to ensure that they are effective before they are implemented at scale.

Housing Bodies: Accountability

Jon Cruddas Excerpts
Tuesday 20th November 2018

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall

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Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
Mr Cunningham
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20 Nov 2018, 4:03 p.m.

I could not agree more. Such a review is long overdue, as even the data protection people do not give us clear answers about what information we are entitled to. They seem to forget that at the end of the day, we are the last line of defence for tenants—and anybody else who has problems, for that matter.

Jon Cruddas Portrait Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)
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20 Nov 2018, 4:04 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major problems is the transparency of housing associations? We had a notorious case in Orchard Village in South Hornchurch, which was raised in a debate in this place. One of the big problems was that housing associations were departing from their historical, ethical role of filling gaps in the market and becoming housing developers themselves, lacking oversight and transparency, and therefore no comeback was possible on behalf of our constituents.

Mr Cunningham
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20 Nov 2018, 4:05 p.m.

My hon. Friend has highlighted another major problem: at times, housing organisations hide behind the Data Protection Act 1998 to obscure the fact that they are bad managers of housing estates. That suggests that there is a wider issue with competition in the market, allowing poorer customer service to go unchallenged. Like most parts of the country, Coventry has recently seen some new, small-scale housing developments, and issues have arisen in a significant number of those developments as a result of the quality of the build. One recent example in Coventry has been the Philmont Court development in Tile Hill. That development of 48 flats is actually in my neighbouring constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who cannot be here today because he has other business.