Monday 1 February 2021 / 4:13 PM Housing / Thangam Debbonaire

Thangam Debbonaire’s cladding speech in the House of Commons

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Buying your first home is a life-defining moment. It’s exciting and scary, it symbolises security, time to start a family, building a future.

But for so many, what was a dream come true has become a nightmare.

 

The Grenfell tragedy shed light on a crisis of building safety in this country. Hundreds of buildings have the same cladding that caused the Grenfell fire to be so deadly.

Thousands have other equally dangerous cladding. Even more have other serious fire safety problems, such as combustible insulation, missing fire breaks and faulty fire doors.

Millions of homeowners are caught up in the wider building safety crisis, unable to sell or re-mortgage, freezing up to 16% of the housing market affecting possibly as many as 11 million people.

 

It can be easy to get caught up in the vast numbers but it is truly a human tragedy.

Many in this House will have read and heard Hayley’s story. Hayley was a first-time buyer in Leeds. She bought her flat through an affordable housing scheme, designed to help people on low incomes take the first step onto the housing ladder. After moving in, Hayley was told the roof of her building was covered in dangerous cladding, similar to that used on Grenfell Tower.

Further inspection threw up more problems – brickwork, insulation, balconies and possibly firebreaks. Every month Hayley faced £300 additional charges for what is called ‘waking watch’ – 24-hour fire safety patrols that give little confidence but cost dearly. This £300 was as much as her mortgage and she just couldn’t afford it.

The terms of her mortgage meant she couldn’t move or rent out her flat. Facing mounting bills for repairs, fire alarms, and the looming threat of the costs of fixing the building, Hayley declared bankruptcy. A first-time buyer so recently, Hayley would now struggle to take out a loan to buy a car.

 

This crisis is not just affecting those at the beginning of their housing journey.

An elderly constituent wrote to me recently. He wants to move out of his flat, into a home that better suits his mobility needs. His block doesn’t have dangerous cladding on it, but misguided advice from the Government means he can’t get a survey to prove it. His home can’t be mortgaged, so he can’t get a buyer, so he can’t move into a home where he can be comfortable.

 

This situation is reflected across the country. People being forced to pay more they can afford for a problem they didn’t cause. Some so much that they cannot keep their home.

 

First time buyers, wanting to get on the housing ladder and secure their future. It’s people trying move up and start a family. It’s those approaching or in retirement, wanting somewhere smaller. It’s key workers, such as NHS junior doctor Will working on the Covid front line in Sheffield, facing costs of £52,000 and doubling service charge each month. It’s Housing Associations and Councils and their tenants.  And everyone in between.

 

We – everyone in this House – agrees – this intolerable situation must not go on.

People cannot continue living in unsafe homes. Leaseholders should not face mounting bills for a crisis they didn’t cause.

Labour’s motion today expresses three simple principles, which we hope will receive endorsement from across the House.

 

First, the Government must urgently establish how much unsafe cladding there is, where it is, and what danger it poses. It is extraordinary that three and a half years on from Grenfell, they still don’t have such basic information.

Immediately after Grenfell, the Government could have done as Victoria in Australia did, set up a Taskforce to establish the extent of dangerous cladding, prioritise by risk and ensure enforcement against those who refuse to undertake works. We’re calling on the Government to do this today.

Many leaseholders are discovering there is a shortage of engineers and fire safety specialists needed to carry out inspections and works. The Victoria task force manages the supply chain and ensures it is directed to the buildings most at risk first. They’ve also prioritised safety by ensuring that the highest risk buildings are fixed first, rather than the ‘first come first served’ approach the UK Government is currently taking.

 

The second principle is that people’s homes should be made safe as soon as possible.

Where there is dangerous cladding on buildings, or other serious fire safety problems, this must be fixed immediately.

All big players in this crisis have spent the last few years pointing fingers and avoiding responsibility. The Government has called on building owners to ‘do the right thing’. There is nothing to prevent building owners from passing costs on to leaseholders, and in many cases they have a fiduciary duty to do so.

Leaseholders simply can’t afford it and shouldn’t have to. If you bought a new car which turned out to be dangerous, you wouldn’t expect to be told to take out a loan of tens of thousands of pounds to pay for it. And this is people’s homes.

The stalemate we have now is leaving hundreds of thousands of people stuck in flammable buildings. The only way to make homes safe is for the Government to provide up front funding to make it happen.

 

Finally, the cost for this work should not fall on leaseholders or taxpayers.

Residents didn’t cause this crisis. They bought their homes in good faith, only to find themselves victim to years of corporate malpractice, Government inaction and a broken leasehold system.

 

Government Ministers have promised at least 15 times leaseholders would not bear the cost. Recently, this language has shifted to say they shouldn’t bear “unaffordable” costs and talk of loans. Labour’s motion calls on them to re-affirm and put substance behind their original promises.

Neither should taxpayers carry this. The Government should pursue the dodgy developers, cowboy builders and manufacturers of flammable cladding through legal action. It’s the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Where laws need to be changed to make that easier, we should do so. There is precedent for this in Australia. Many councils and social landlords are currently being stung for the costs of remediation. They’ve been set two impossible tasks by the Government – build to the building targets the government has set and at the same time, carry out fire remediation without passing the costs onto hard pressed tenants. This must also change.

 

Mr Speaker, I am a member of the opposition, but I am not here to score Party-political points. There are at least 34 Conservative MPs I know agree leaseholders shouldn’t pay and I’m sure many more who haven’t yet said so.

I commend the work of the Honourable Members for Stevenage and for Southampton Itchin on the Fire Safety Bill, whose amendments seek to protect leaseholders and push the Government to take action.

We’ve put down our own amendments that build on theirs and fill in some gaps. But the Government has not said when the Fire Safety Bill will come back and the end of this Parliamentary session is rumoured to be approaching.

The Government may say that opposition day motions are not binding, but that is up to them if they choose not to be bound by the sovereign will of the country’s elected representatives. Many people will remember when the Labour Government was defeated on an opposition motion on Gurkhas, they honoured the will of Parliament, and changed the policy the very next day.

 

Further delay and inaction is not an option:

  • Buildings insurance will continue to sky-rocket.
  • Unaffordable costs for waking watch security guards will continue.
  • On top of all that, colossal costs for fixing buildings will fall on leaseholders.
  • People will go broke. Mortgages risk going into negative equity on a massive scale as more and more flats become literally value-less.

We need a solution to this crisis that fixes buildings and ensures that those responsible pay.

 

In conclusion Mr Speaker, I’d like to end by paying tribute to inspiring cladding campaigners. I have met some in my own constituency and others from across the country, as has my colleague the Shadow Minister for Housing and housing safety. I know that, they just want to get on with their lives. It’s testament to all of them that so many MPs couldn’t get on the speaking list for today who wanted to and I commend colleagues for standing up for leaseholders.

There is cross-party consensus, agreement across both Houses and across the country, that we should all put the needs of those first-time buyers, key workers and those pensioners first.

I’m not asking members to vote with the Opposition. I’m asking them to vote with their constituents, show they will always put their interests first. If members agree with what’s in the motion, they should vote for it. It’s as simple as that.