As Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, I am extremely concerned about about the remediation of unsafe cladding on residential blocks and the impact this is having on leaseholders. I have heard terrible accounts from people all over the country about how this situation is affecting them (I’ve written about just a few of them here). I’m also leading the Labour response to the situation and am working with campaigners and specialists from across this country and also in other countries in order to bring about justice.
Three and a half years on from the tragic fire in Grenfell tower, the Government’s handling of the cladding crisis that has emerged has lacked any sense of grip or urgency. Despite repeated promises from Ministers that cladding remediation costs would not be passed on to leaseholders, thousands are faced with massive bills for the repairs, often as much as £50,000 or more, sky rocketing insurance payments or no insurance, and the cost of the so-called ‘waking watch’ security guard patrol.
Because the government response has been so painfully slow, hundreds of thousands of leaseholders across the country remain trapped in unsafe blocks during a third lockdown, facing increasing interim costs and are often unable to sell or re-mortgage their property. It has also left millions more stuck in properties they cannot sell as buyers cannot get mortgages without proof (usually from an External Wall Survey 1 form) that the building is safe. Even in buildings without the dangerous cladding, leaseholders are finding it impossible to get the necessary proof. This stems from the failure to deal with the dangerous cladding and other fire risks.
The inaction has gone on for far too long. Earlier this week I forced a vote in Parliament calling on the Government to: urgently establish the extent of dangerous cladding and prioritise buildings according to risk; provide upfront funding to ensure cladding remediation can start immediately; and protect leaseholders and taxpayers from the cost by pursuing those responsible for the cladding crisis. I am disappointed the government did not back the motion, they chose to abstain – despite many backbench Tory MPs joining with our calls.
The upcoming Fire Safety Bill is an opportunity to put these protections into law – but it needs strengthening. I will be supporting amendments that hold the Government to their promise and help ensure leaseholders are protected from unfair fire safety costs.
The amendment tabled by McPartland and Smith provides welcome clarity on the specific costs that would be prevented from being passed on to leaseholders, and we in Labour have sought to go further. Critically, as currently drafted, the McPartland and Smith amendment would not cover leaseholders in blocks where flammable cladding has been added at some stage following the building of the block. It only applies to defects in the original design of buildings. As an example, the Grenfell Tower was built in the 1970s, but the flammable cladding was added in 2017.
Labour has tabled another amendment that would ensure that the cost of fire safety problems from refurbishment jobs, like the cladding on the Grenfell tower, cannot be passed on to leaseholders. Labour’s amendments also include new clauses so that the Bill protects leaseholders from the day it comes into law, instead of an unknown date in the future. And Labour’s amendments ensure that if the Fire Safety Order is extended in the future, the Secretary of State must publish an analysis of the financial implications for leaseholders. MPs will be given the opportunity to vote for these amendments when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.
In addition, I believe the UK Government must establish a National Cladding Taskforce to address unsafe cladding and protect leaseholders from the costs of remediation. The Taskforce should be underpinned with strong powers to establish the full extent of dangerous materials on buildings, prioritise them according to risk and ensure there is enforcement against those who refuse to undertake works. It must be backed with up-front funding and include a legally enforceable deadline of 2022 to make all homes safe. There is more on Labour’s plan, here.
This week, Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, highlighted the government’s inaction on this during Prime Minister’s Questions. Securing justice for all those affected will continue to be one of my top priorities over the coming weeks and months.