I have been following the debate around dangerous cladding and building safety for some time, both as a constituency MP with many people in Bristol West affected, and from April 2020 until a few months ago when I was leading for Labour on this national scandal as Shadow Housing Secretary.
The four years since the Grenfell Tower disaster has been a difficult and distressing time for many thousands of people living in buildings with fire safety defects.
When I led Labour’s Housing Team, we successfully pushed the government to commit billions of pounds in funding to help put things right. Despite this victory, ministers have dodged responsibility and refused to confront dodgy builders at every turn. As a result, some residents have gone bankrupt, while many others have been forced to pay out thousands of pounds because of a problem they didn’t cause.
This week the Building Safety Bill had its Second Reading, and it is yet again another disappointing half-measure. I Labour we support most of this Bill, but it does not go far enough.
While it will help change some regulations in the future, it does not do enough to protect the hundreds of thousands of people already trapped in unsafe homes, facing huge bills to fix historic failures.
The government seems to acknowledge this failure. Housing Minister Lord Greenhalgh recently said the Building Safety Bill “cannot resolve” the problem of huge costs imposed on leaseholders for historic fire safety defects.
This is another broken promise. In fact, as the Fire Safety Bill passed through Parliament this year, campaigners were repeatedly brushed off with the claim that these problems will be resolved by the Building Safety Bill – by none other than Lord Greenhalgh and his colleagues.
This will be hard to swallow for the hundreds of affected leaseholders in Bristol West. In regular meetings, email conversations and calls with people still living in dangerous flats, I know many are feeling increasingly desperate and abandoned by this government. After months of pressure by Labour and by cladding campaigners he government finally agreed to sort out the crisis in mortgages for homes with possible fire safety defects. This is helpful but it’s still not fixing the core of the problem.
There are solutions out there. Labour is calling on the government to establish a new Building Works Agency. This single body, accountable to Ministers would decide what works are necessary, commission and pay for them, and then sign the building off as safe at the end of the process.
The Building Works Agency would work closely with local authorities and fire chiefs, who have been gathering data and are well placed to know how to manage projects locally. They would also have the legal powers to pursue those responsible through the courts.
So far, our proposals have been ignored.
Let’s not forget that the Tories recognise the injustice of this situation. Ministers (including two prime ministers) made a clear promise on multiple occasions: leaseholders should not be forced to pay for a problem they did not cause.
They now seem happy to drop this promise. Labour is committed to holding them to this.