There is a “stench of complacency” about the government’s attitude to remediating tower blocks with combustible materials, an opposition MP warned in a heated House of Commons exchange yesterday.
But Prime Minister Teresa May responded that she “expected building owners to take action” and would “maintain pressure” to ensure the necessary remediation work was carried out.
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Speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions, Sarah Jones, Labour MP for Croydon Central, said: “Today, 19 months on, the vast majority of the hundreds of blocks — 85% — draped in exactly the same highly flammable material [as the Grenfell Tower] are still covered.”
She added there was a “stench of complacemency about these things”.
“Permanent remediation is rightly the focus and we’ve repeatedly called on private building owners not to pass costs on to leaseholders. As a result, 212 owners have either started, completed or have committments to remediate. There are 56 owners who are refusing to rmediate; we are maintaining pressure on this but we are ruling nothing out.”
‘No feat of magic’
In a separate commons session, housing minister Kit Malthouse said that “no feat of magic” can make flammable cladding still present on high-rise residential and public buildings “disappear overnight”.
Steve Reed, Labour MP for Croydon North, said occupants of these buildings were living “in terror” and that disputes over who should pay for cladding remediation were slowing the process down.
He said: “A block in my constituency, Citiscape, has the same sort of cladding — aluminium composite material cladding — that was on Grenfell Tower. The cost of removing and replacing the cladding was £2m. The managing agents wrote to leaseholders in the block, who received estimates of up to £30,000 each for the work to be carried out.
“We approached the freeholder, but the freeholder is not legally liable to carry out the work and there was no way to compel the freeholder to do it. The builders also are not legally liable to carry out the work. They can rely on the fact that there are concerns about lack of clarity in the building regulations and guidance, and they had been following the guidance that they believed meant that the cladding was safe.
“When the case came to the housing tribunal, it ruled that the leaseholders were liable. We hear welcome words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box saying that leaseholders should not be made to pay, but in fact the housing tribunal—the legal body responsible for adjudicating on the matter—said the leaseholders were indeed responsible and would have to pay. In the case of Citiscape and others where not all the leaseholders can pay, the work will not be done.”
Responding, Malthouse said: “[It] is correct that there are still a number of private sector residential buildings that do not have a clear plan for remediation. It is the case, as I said yesterday, that 100% of those buildings have temporary measures in place that have been agreed and certified by the local fire and rescue service as appropriate for the building.
“It is not possible, by some feat of magic, to make this cladding disappear overnight. We must, however, make sure that everybody is safe overnight. That is where we have been focused.”
No cause for alarm
He urged Reed not to cause “alarm” among residents because steps were being taken to keep them safe.
But Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse warned that this did not provide a resolution to the situation.
He said: “He [Malthouse] accepted yesterday…that there are 42 blocks whose freeholder is saying that leaseholders have to pay for remedial works. The dangers may be temporarily resolved—there are big question marks about that—but the financial distress that has been caused to leaseholders by the prospect of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of pounds of debt has not been resolved.”
The most recent figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) Building Safety Programme for the period up to 31 December 2018 showed that work to replace dangerous aluminium composite (ACM) cladding has been completed on just 15% of high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings since the Grenfell Tower disaster.