Gov't must move fast to replace flammable cladding on every building
Fire does not discriminate between private and public housing. The government must move fast to replace flammable cladding on every building, no matter who owns it, and must do it now, says Rushanara Ali MP.
On the night of 14 June 2017, 72 people lost their lives and many more were injured, in the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. Decades of neglect contributed to the disaster, but one factor above all caused the fire to spread so rapidly, and cause so much loss of life. That was the presence of cheap, flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding the outside of the building. Without it, the fire might have spread more slowly, and might have been contained.
In the immediate aftermath, the Government said that similar cladding on hundreds of other buildings would be removed. We fought tooth and nail to get funding for cladding removal from social housing, which the Government has finally agreed to provide. But progress on repairs has been slow, and shamefully, the presence of flammable cladding on high-rise blocks which are owned privately has been largely ignored. 345 at-risk buildings remain unsafe, of which 226 are in private hands. The owners, as in the case of Victoria Wharf in my constituency, are often based in offshore tax havens, and the true individual owners are hidden behind labyrinthine company structures.
Of course, these owners should pay to make their buildings safe. They have a clear duty of care as freeholders to their leaseholders. But what is happening is that either freeholders are ignoring their duties, or else passing the huge costs onto leaseholders. In some cases, bills of thousands of pounds have been presented to people without the means to pay. People are terrified if they will die in a fire; being hounded for exorbitant charges just to make their building safe adds to their sense of anxiety. For many people, for example those living in my constituency in Bethnal Green & Bow, a sudden demand for thousands of pounds is entirely unrealistic.
Ministers have placed a moral duty on freeholders to safeguard their properties, but this is not enough. We need a change in the law to place a statutory duty on freeholders to pay for repairs, otherwise many will simply not pay up. But even this important change will take too long. In the meantime, we need the Government to make funds available to replace flammable cladding as fast as possible.
The Chancellor could find £420 million in his last budget to fix potholes. Surely making people’s homes safe from fire should be a higher priority. At my adjournment debate today, I am calling on Ministers to create an immediate emergency fund for repairs, either administered centrally, or through local government. Given the massive cuts in local government funding, this needs to be additional funding. This would fast-track the repairs after nearly two years of prevarication. Once the emergency fund is in place, we need a clear set of deadlines to ensure the work happens swiftly and efficiently. The government should then go after the freeholders who are failing to pay up to do so instead of leaving it to our constituents to make this happen as it is simply impossible.
In January, the Minister said that he could guarantee people in high-rise flats could sleep safe at night. For thousands living in flats in high-rise buildings, encased in cladding which could spread fire with rapacious speed, they do not feel safe, and there are no good nights’ sleep. The sleepless nights will continue until Ministers get a grip and move fast to take down the cladding. Fire does not discriminate between private and public housing. The government must move fast to replace flammable cladding on every building, no matter who owns it, and must do it now.
Rushanara Ali is Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.