As Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, I am extremely concerned about the remediation of unsafe cladding on residential blocks and the impact this is having on leaseholders.
I have been contacted by pregnant women trapped in dangerous flats, elderly people unable to move into retirement accommodation and families on the brink of bankruptcy after receiving five-figure bills for a problem they did not cause. These are just a few of the heart-breaking stories now common across the country.
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. When you look at the knock-on effects, including those unable to sell or re-mortgage their property, the number of people affected is much higher.
Broken Tory promises
This week, the government announced another package of measures to try to fix the cladding scandal. While headline-grabbing figure of £3.5 billion is a huge victory for Labour and the campaigners across the country who have worked tirelessly on this, it will not protect many leaseholders from mounting debt.
For many of the people affected by this crisis, this latest announcement will feel like a betrayal. On at least 17 occasions, government ministers promised that leaseholders will not be left with the bill.
Sadly, these promises have been broken by this week’s announcement, which includes the detail that funds to fix buildings will only be given to those over 18 metres tall – and the residents of lower buildings will be forced to take out loans to pay to fix fire safety problems. You can watch my speech here.
This is not the first time that leaseholders have been let down in this this crisis. A year ago, the Chancellor said, “all unsafe combustible cladding will be removed from every private and social residential building above 18 metres high.” This has not happened. Buildings haven’t been able to access the fund. Nine of every ten pounds has not been paid out.
Many of these problems stem from a refusal to properly evaluate the risks. Three and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, the government still has not done a proper investigation of the number of buildings involved, the risks or the cost of reducing that risk. Until we know the scale and nature of the problem, any response will be ineffectual.
I am leading Labour’s response to this problem and am working with campaigners and specialists from across this country – and in other countries too – to get justice for those affected.
Last 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 speaking out to protect leaseholders in their constituencies.
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.
I spoke about the problems faced by leaseholders on Question Time last week, when a member of the audience spoke about how she is trapped in an unsafe flat, with no end in sight. I will be doing all I can to keep the pressure up and spur the government into action.
The next opportunity to force further changes out of the government will come on 24 February, when the Fire Safety Bill comes back to the Commons.
This date will be a chance for the Government to reflect on the failing of their latest announcement and bring forward a set of legally binding commitments to deliver on the promises they made to leaseholders.
I am hopeful that Conservative backbenchers will also see sense and vote with us. I am particularly encouraged by the response from some Tories this week, who were vocal in their disappointment with Robert Jenrick’s latest announcement.
Last week, Keir Starmer challenged Boris Johnson on this during Prime Minister’s Questions. Justice for all those affected will continue to be one of my top priorities over the coming weeks and months.