Dermot McKibbin reports on the Commons select committee criticism of Government on changes in approach to fire safety issues
A House of Commons select committee report has criticised the Government’s new approach to dealing with fire safety issues in blocks of flats. The Building Safety Act 2022 is the Government’s response to the Grenfell fire tragedy. As the new secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove has sought to defuse his leaseholder critics who have been made to pay huge service charges for building defects that they were not responsible for.
He has negotiated an agreement with leading developers that they will contribute £5 billion to make good certain defects. A new building levy on all residential developments will contribute more funds. Leaseholders will be given extra legal rights to sue developers. Service charges for cladding costs will be capped, but only for buildings of a certain height. The Act is very complicated. Many of its provisions are subject to as yet unenacted secondary legislation. It will inevitably be subject to legal challenges in the courts.
The committee, where Conservative MPs are in a majority, is not impressed with the new approach. Only leaseholders in buildings over 11 metres in height or with at least five storeys will be included. The costs of remediating for non-cladding costs will be limited to £10,000 and £15,000 in London. There are complicated requirements for leaseholders to qualify for such help. The Government should set up a comprehensive building safety fund to cover all building defects of any height. There is all-party support to setting up a building safety regulator and to improve fire safety standards.
Nearly five years after Grenfell, the Government still does not know how many buildings have historic defects. The London Fire Brigade are currently dealing with 1,000 unsafe buildings in the capital alone. Without adequate data, Government estimates of £9 billion to pay for cladding costs are worthless.
Costs should be sought from insurers, product supplies, contractors and sub-contractors. Government should provide mental health support to those leaseholders caught up in the scandal.
Meanwhile, the second part of the Grenfell fire inquiry is slowly coming to an end. Evidence has been heard that the Building Research Establishment covered up the results of fire safety tests on building materials. Controversially, the Government has announced that it will not implement the inquiry’s recommendation that there will be no personal evacuation plans for disabled residents from burning buildings. This decision will attract a lot of criticism from disabled leaseholders and could easily be challenged in the courts under the Equality Act.
The committee was concerned to learn that housing associations and local authority landlords, unlike private owners, have limited access to Government funds for fire safety works. This is reducing building programmes and routine improvement works. The Treasury have made it clear to Michael Gove that if any more public money is needed, it will have to come out of budgets for public sector housing.
There have been reports that a developer recently announced plans to build a 45-storey tower block in London with only one stairwell. Such plans were fortunately withdrawn. It is hoped that the new regulator would outlaw such developments, or that such plans would be caught by the new powers that the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, is currently consulting on. However, progress on fire safety issues is far too slow.
It is far from clear how long it will take the Government to ensure that all dangerous buildings are made safe. The scale of the problem is such that only the Government can remedy the problem. There are shortages of skilled fire inspectors.
In Victoria, Australia, the state government decided to tackle a similar issue decisively. The government ensures that the works are done first to make the buildings safe and then seeks to recover the money from those who are responsible.
The Labour frontbench in Parliament have been highly active and supportive of leaseholders in unsafe blocks. Outside of Parliament, the Labour Party are slow to support leaseholders who are innocent victims of deregulation. There are over four million leaseholders in England alone, and if Labour want to win a general election, they need to pay more attention to the needs of this particular housing group.