David Linden – 2021 Speech on Unsafe Cladding

The speech made by David Linden, the SNP MP for Glasgow East, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2021.

The Grenfell fire of 2017 was a catastrophic event and its devastating consequences are still being seen even today, with the public inquiry revealing new information each week. I want to take a moment to remember all those who died in the fire—all those lives so needlessly lost. I also want to pay tribute to the tireless campaigning by their families. It is vital that the victims of the fire and their families receive the justice they deserve through the inquiry. It is my hope that, because of the work of the Grenfell inquiry, serious measures will be put in place to prevent another catastrophic event such as Grenfell from ever happening again.

However, when we look at how the UK Government are currently tackling the cladding crisis, we see that their policies fall short. For example, the fund provided by the UK Government is not enough to cover all the properties with dangerous cladding, leading to a first come, first served approach and many people still living with unsafe cladding on their properties. Obviously, housing and local government is a devolved issue, but the UK Government’s building safety programme will undoubtedly have consequences for Scotland. Despite the building safety programme applying only in England and Wales, its advice is being used by insurance companies and mortgage providers in Scotland to guide their decisions. The EWS1 form currently applies only to properties in England, but the Glasgow Times has reported that inspectors are using the form and granting homeowners a certificate of safety. Without the EWS1 being law, homeowners are looking towards England’s cladding situation as guidance.

While these decisions by the UK Government are positive for improving safety, they have meant that many property owners in England are unable to remortgage, sell or insure their properties, as insurance and mortgage providers refuse to accept the risk of external cladding. Residents are not legally responsible for the external cladding and do not have the money to remove it, which has left huge numbers of people completely stuck and unable to sell their properties.

Guidance is now even affecting properties below the 11-metre and the 18-metre mark. Again, while this currently applies only to England and Wales, insurance companies in Scotland are also following these recommendations, thus affecting Scottish homeowners and tenants. Surely the UK Government and the Minister can see that it is completely unfair that residents and leaseholders are burdened with the costs of removing cladding that they had no say in installing. There are certainly reports of residents in England facing huge and very unfair repair bills, while the housing firms that own the at-risk buildings are having their costs recovered.

I recently heard the story of Sophie Grayling, a mother who was so proud to buy her first home in 2017. However, the flat that she bought was part of a building clad in ACM cladding—the exact same type, as we know, used on Grenfell Tower. Ms Grayling’s building is under the 18-metre threshold for the fund offered by the UK Government to remove the cladding, and with cladding remaining in place she has seen the sale of her home fall through, is facing a bill of thousands to fix the block’s issues and, most importantly, every night puts her child to bed with the knowledge that her building is covered in the same material that saw 72 lives lost in the inferno at Grenfell.

It is clear that that is unjust. Homeowners like Ms Grayling now face a Catch-22 situation: they either pay out of their own pocket to fix a problem that is not their fault or stay stuck in an unsellable flat that risks their safety. That story is not unique. More than 1 million people are still unable to remortgage or sell their properties because of the cladding. However, the frustration does not even end there: the UK Government are attempting to silence homeowners currently waiting for support, demanding that they do not speak to the media.

Homeowners applying for the fund to help to pay to remediate buildings will not be able to talk to a journalist. I know that the Minister said earlier that people should not listen to petty officialdom, but in order for petty officialdom to come to the fore at some point a Minister was not doing their job in terms of signing this off. People who are stuck in that incredibly tough position—unable to sell their house and facing massive bills because of the UK Government’s policy—must be able to speak to the press and expose the reality of how the cladding scandal is being dealt with.

In Scotland, cladding has been handled differently. As I said, housing and local government are devolved, so the removal of cladding is within the remit of the Scottish Government. That has enabled Scotland to require buildings to be constructed in a way that aids in the prevention of fires, which has contributed to Scotland having only a handful of properties—albeit, in my view, still too many—with Grenfell-style cladding compared with more than 450 in England.

However, even with that lower number, the Scottish Government are avoiding being complacent on cladding through the building standards futures board, and are continuing to improve building standards across all of Scotland. They are looking at other issues related to fire outside of cladding, such as holistically addressing high-rise buildings to make them safer, leading to requirements that will soon be introduced for sprinklers to be installed in new-build social housing and flats.

The UK Government should similarly address the cladding scandal by placing a focus on those who own and rent properties with unsafe cladding. The people most affected by the dangers of cladding should be at the centre of the discussion. Instead, the UK Government are burdening them with huge costs and the inability to sell or remortgage their flats.

John Lamont (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (Con)

The hon. Member has obviously been very critical of the UK Government and full of praise, as usual, for his colleagues in the Scottish Government, but he will be aware that the press reports in Scotland are highly critical of the high-rise inventory and how the Scottish Government have managed it. Furthermore, the group set up by the Scottish Government to allocate the almost £100 million fund that was designed to support people having to deal with cladding issues has not met since April last year. I would like to hear his comments on those points, please.

David Linden

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. Speaking as someone who has 10 tower blocks in my constituency—I do not know how many there are in rural Scotland—I am very familiar with the issue, and I assure him that the conversations that I have on a regular basis with the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart, indicate that it is a very high priority for the Scottish Government. That is precisely why they have taken that action. I am none the less very grateful to the hon. Member for making what I am sure is not a party political point on what I think we all agree is a very serious issue.

The English fund covers only around one third of the costs to remove cladding in England, and with its being first come, first served, it will exclude some of the buildings in the most dire need of remediation. The UK Government should invest the money necessary to ensure that all at-risk residences in England can have remedial action carried out on them. The UK Government should also follow Scotland’s example of targeted support for the most at-risk buildings to avoid the first come, first served approach.

Instead of the UK Government’s policies targeting the companies responsible for the dangerous cladding, they are burdening homeowners and leaseholders. When we look at preventing further fires caused by cladding, it is important that we keep renters and homeowners in mind, such as Sophie Grayling and her young son, both of whom are stuck in an unsafe flat facing huge bills. We should consider the impact on homeowners and renters who already feel unsafe in their own homes. It is time for the UK Government to step up and truly tackle the cladding crisis, and help those in the most vulnerable position.