Stephen Morgan – 2021 Speech on Fire Safety Remediation for Leaseholders

The speech made by Stephen Morgan, the Labour MP for Portsmouth South, in the House of Commons on 1 March 2021.

Happy St David’s Day, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to speak about the ongoing issues faced by leaseholders in my constituency and across the country in securing funds for the remediation of unsafe non-aluminium composite material cladding systems through the building safety fund. I am pleased to have secured this debate on this important issue, which continues to cause great distress to leaseholders in my constituency. I am aware that many Members would like to contribute but will be unable to do so because of the virtual format. I will, however, endeavour to cover a number of points that those Members would have liked to raise, and I hope that the Minister will be generous with his time to allow others concerned by this important issue to place their points on the record.

Uncovered by the tragedy of Grenfell, now three and a half years ago, the process of remediating unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings has unfortunately become a lengthy and complex saga. I want to focus specifically today on the experience of leaseholders in non-ACM-clad buildings in my constituency. I want to highlight the ongoing difficulties faced by building owners and residents in accessing the building safety fund, as there are still fundamental questions about its scale and administration. I also want to discuss buildings below 18 metres and encourage the Government to address the flawed building regulation system that the ongoing cladding scandal has exposed. Most urgently, however, this a safety issue. Through no fault of their own, residents find themselves in potentially unsafe homes and vulnerable to huge costs that may still not be covered by Government funding. It is these residents—constituents in my city and across the country—to whom I would like the Minister to provide assurance this evening.

There are a number of buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding in my city. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government figures tell us that so far 23 of those have made applications to the building safety fund. Residents in these buildings have suddenly found themselves in unsafe homes and potentially liable to astronomical costs for remediation. This lets down everyone, from first-time buyers to pensioners. One of my constituents put it best when she wrote to me recently:

“I may be asked to contribute between 20,000 to 30,000 pounds towards remediation. I am retired and I have very limited income. I will not be able to raise this sort of capital. I am very worried about whether I’ll lose my apartment. I did not cause this problem.”

In many cases, these leaseholders are unable to sell their homes because of inconsistent EWS1 processes and so are consigned to long and nerve-racking waits to see if their building will obtain Government funding. In addition to the obvious financial pressures, I do not believe that the mental health and wellbeing implications have been properly discussed.

Since this debate was originally secured, the Government have taken welcome steps forward. The creation and enhancement of the building safety fund is welcome, but there are still large holes in the safety net. I have been contacted by leaseholders and property management companies who have registered by the original July deadline and have been given no information on whether they will be invited to make an application to the fund, no sense of the length of time they will have to wait for a decision, and no direct means of contact to obtain clarity on the situation. Separately, Portsmouth City Council has registered 14 blocks with the fund. The Government have rejected 11 of these so far, some on spurious grounds such as their being deemed to be in a “non-critical location”. Lord Greenhalgh recently suggested that there are about 1,700 non-ACM-clad buildings in need of remediation work. However, there has been no proper assessment of the number of buildings across the country that need work. The first come, first served nature of the fund means that applications will not be considered or prioritised based on risk, and there is no hard deadline for the completion of works.

Progressing remediation work on unsafe cladding systems must be an urgent priority if we are to avoid further catastrophes following the Grenfell Tower fire. It is therefore disappointing that the administration of the fund itself is preventing vital safety work from commencing and stopping leaseholders moving on with their lives. In the meantime, they have found themselves liable for yet more temporary safety measures, such as the 24-hour waking watch. While the Government have now established a welcome relief fund to cover the costs of this, progress on remediation has been painfully slow.

Health and safety must be the priority, and Ministers should focus on the rapid disbursal of funds in the immediate term, while pursuing developers and recovery costs where possible. I wrote to Lord Greenhalgh summarising these issues on 8 December, but disappointingly have received no response, despite efforts to follow up. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister would provide an answer as to whether he will make regular updates on the processing of applications through the building safety fund, how the distribution of funds is being prioritised, and what steps he will take to speed up payments.

The prospectus for the building safety fund also states that buildings under 18 metres in height will not be covered. This was of little comfort to those in the buildings affected in my constituency. The loan scheme recently introduced by the Government will relieve residents of having to pay a lump sum up front, but ultimately it still leaves them liable to pay to fix a problem that they did not create and that will likely mean they will still struggle to sell. The Government have drawn an arbitrary distinction on this issue, which represents a piecemeal approach to making these buildings safe. If cladding is unsafe, it is surely unsafe regardless of the height of the building it sits on. The building safety fund should therefore apply to buildings of any height. The Housing Minister recently suggested data was being collected on buildings between 11 and 18 metres high. I therefore ask him to update us on the progress of that work, whether it includes the buildings in my constituency and whether he plans to extend the fund to cover these buildings.

Last week, this House considered amendments from the other place on the Fire Safety Bill. The Government had an opportunity to back Labour amendments that would have absolved leaseholders of burdensome costs, and set things right for the future by placing robust requirements on building owners and managers to implement recommendations from phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry. The Government voted against both, so we have now reached the absurd situation in which this Government have voted against implementing the recommendations of their own review, which they promised to accept. The Building Safety Bill, which does include long-overdue reforms of the wider sector, is still without a date for First Reading.

That brings me to my final point. Residents and building owners find themselves in these situations because of a systemic failure of regulation stretching back decades. These buildings were constructed with materials that were approved at the time. There is now little incentive for anyone in the long chain of those involved, from contractors to regulators to building owners, to take responsibility for sorting out this important issue, because it now comes with a hefty price tag. Some developers have now tacitly accepted the need for a levy and they are to be commended, but it is not a holistic solution.

Since the tragedy of Grenfell, successive Governments have been irresponsibly slow at tackling this issue. Residents’ groups, campaigners and Members of this House have had to drag Ministers kicking and screaming to take responsibility for protecting residents in high-rise blocks with all types of cladding. And we still are not there. While recent, if overdue, efforts made by the Government to provide funding are welcome, we have yet to see an unequivocal commitment to removing costs from leaseholders, disbursing available funds as quickly as possible and recovering them from industry at a later date. On this last issue, the Government are not using important convening power to set expectations of developers, contractors and insurers that would benefit leaseholders who have been affected.

I would like to conclude by summarising my asks of the Minister. First, the Government must finally lift the cost burden from leaseholders and redouble efforts to recover funds from the sector. They should distribute funds as quickly as possible and set a hard timeline for the completion of remediation works. They must recognise and repay interim funds in full. Finally, they must ensure that legislation includes a clear regulatory framework with a common standard to make sure this never happens again.

Building safety issues threaten to turn dream homes into a nightmare for my constituents. The Government must keep to their promise that leaseholders will not pay for the consequences of their cladding crisis.