Leaseholders in some tower blocks are having to pay for removing and replacing fire cladding, MP Steve Reed told the House of Commons debate.
Mr Reed said he had got involved with the subject of fire cladding because a block in his Croydon North constituency, Citiscape, has the same sort of cladding—aluminium composite material cladding—that was on Grenfell Tower.
“The issue of cladding in particular has become very significant and of great concern throughout the House ever since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower 19 months ago.
“In today’s Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend Sarah Jones reminded us that, days after Grenfell went up, the Prime Minister promised to do everything in her power to keep people safe. “Since that time—19 months have passed—the Government seem to have done precious little in concrete terms to reassure people that they are safer now than they were then.”
The cost of removing and replacing the Citiscape cladding was £2 million, Mr Reed told the House. The managing agents wrote to leaseholders in the block, who received estimates of up to £30,000 each for the work to be carried out. Of course the vast majority could not afford that—not many people have £30,000 lying around in the bank, particularly not those who have just bought their first flat and are stretched on their mortgage—but they were told that unless everybody paid up, the work would not happen. In effect, nothing would be done to keep the people in the block safe.
We approached the freeholder, but the freeholder is not legally liable to carry out the work and there was no way to compel the freeholder to do it. The builders also are not legally liable to carry out the work. They can rely on the fact that there are concerns about lack of clarity in the building regulations and guidance, and they had been following the guidance that they believed meant that the cladding was safe. It turned out at Grenfell that ACM cladding is absolutely not safe.
When the case came to the housing tribunal, it ruled that the leaseholders were liable. We hear welcome words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box saying that leaseholders should not be made to pay, but in fact the housing tribunal—the legal body responsible for adjudicating on the matter—said the leaseholders were indeed responsible and would have to pay. In the case of Citiscape and others where not all the leaseholders can pay, the work will not be done. People are stuck living in blocks with Grenfell-style flammable cladding strapped on the outside; they are living with their families, their children and their parents in absolute terror.
I said that there were concerns about the state of the building regulations and the guidance, and it is worth exploring briefly how we got into a position where the regulations were so lax or could be interpreted in such a way. Back in 2009, there was a fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell, central London, that resulted in the death of six people, including a baby. An inquest conducted an inquiry, which took a number of years, and reported in 2013 in a very long document that contained some very clear recommendations. The inquiry said that the fire safety regulations—specifically, part B of the building regulations, which cover fire safety, and the associated guidance—were unclear, and that that was the reason why unsafe and combustible cladding was being strapped on buildings where people lived with their families. The coroner was absolutely clear that if that lack of clarity was not remedied, we would be running the risk of further fires and further deaths.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab. Poplar and Limehouse): “Notwithstanding the Minister’s defence of the position, he has accepted that there are 42 blocks whose freeholder is saying that leaseholders have to pay for remedial works.
“The dangers may be temporarily resolved—there are big question marks about that—but the financial distress that has been caused to leaseholders by the prospect of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of pounds of debt has not been resolved.”
Steve Reed: “I absolutely agree. “The level of stress that this is causing is making some people so ill that they cannot continue to work. “We cannot allow this to go on.”
Sarah Jones (Lab Croydon Central): “I just want to make a point about waking watch. “Having talked to the fire services, I know that it is not an ideal situation. “The fire services are worried that companies have come out of the woodwork and started doing waking watch, but people are not always well-trained and there are not always enough of them on site. “Waking watch is very much a temporary measure. “To have 19 months of waking watch is expensive, but also not ideal, and we cannot be 100 per cent sure that these people are trained and doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
Steve Reed: “I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. “As Robert Neill will know, residents in Northpoint Tower in Bromley face bills of up to £70,000 each. “People simply cannot afford that, and the stress they suffer from receiving that bill and knowing that, unless they find a way to pay it, they will be left living in a block with potentially flammable cladding on, is simply unacceptable.”
Bob Neill (Cons, Bromley and Chislehurst): “I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the problem at Northpoint. “There is a certain insecurity about the risk of human error at the very least with a waking watch, but the difficulty is compounded by the cash flow impact. “Most of these leaseholder groups will have a sinking fund that has been set up over the years, but that is quickly dissipated by the cost of the waking watch. “In the case of my constituents, there is an enforcement notice running out in April. “They could have the waking watch until then, which will exhaust all the reserves and will mean further calls on funds from people who often have mortgages, because they are often first-time buyers, and who effectively cannot raise any more money because the flats are currently valueless. “It is a Catch-22: the money is exhausted, and they have no means of raising any more.”
Steve Reed: “I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he makes an important point well. “The other course of action that would normally be open to a homeowner—selling their home—is not open, because their homes are unsellable. “Nobody will buy a flat in a block that has flammable cladding strapped to the outside of it. “Whatever the Minister tells us, if we speak to people living in these blocks, they say that they feel abandoned by a Government who told them in the aftermath of Grenfell that everything would be done to keep them safe. “They do not feel that they have been kept safe, and they manifestly have not been.”
Marsha de Cordova (Lab Battersea): Residents in my own constituency are living in an unsafe block, and they might have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for fire safety remedial work. Does he agree that it should not be the leaseholders who foot the bill, and that the Government need to intervene to ensure that freeholders or the Government themselves can implement it? They must take the pressure and the burden off leaseholders.
Steve Reed: I completely agree: the leaseholders seem to be the innocent party in all this. They certainly should not be forced to bear the cost, the stress or the worry of having flammable cladding on the place in which they live.
Bob Neill: It very clear—the Government have made this clear—that leaseholders should not be left footing the bill. When the developer is also the freeholder, as was the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and is prepared, because of the potential reputational damage, to step up to the mark, the problem is resolved, but, as he will know from experience, a difficulty arises when the freehold is sold on, often to a trust company or a financial institution. Unlike a firm of developers, such a body will not be trying to sell houses to the public and is not subject to any reputational pressures, and will use very common clauses in their leases to pass back to their leaseholders any cost that, say, the local authority or Government push on to them. Do we not need a legal mechanism to override that, which is difficult to do with leases, or, in such cases, to compensate leaseholders directly so that they do not lose out? It has to one or the other.
Steve Reed: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I know that he is fighting very hard on behalf of his residents who are living in these circumstances, and he makes a point with which I agree. That is at the heart of our problem with the Government’s response. The Government can say what they like in support of leaseholders, but if they do not act, they are not actually helping them and, unfortunately, a moral obligation is not enforceable in court. We need a legal means of redress for people who have been damaged.
Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government): : 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 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. (Source:TheyWorkForYou)