Letter to Sec of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities on fire safety and building standards

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP
 
Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities
 
18 October 2021
 
Dear Michael,
 
This week marks two years since a fire ripped through a Guinness Partnership building in Pankhurst Avenue in my constituency, completely destroying the 12 properties in the block and displacing the residents living there. The fire took just 17 minutes to spread from a balcony to the roof, and residents were extremely lucky to have been able to evacuate to safety, which would likely not have been the case if they had of adhered to the stay-put policy in the building due to the rate at which the fire spread.
 
Due to serious concerns about the way the fire spread, the sister building next door to the destroyed building has also since been demolished, and residents in this block have also found themselves displaced from their homes. Following this, it has been acknowledged that the fire spread in a way that should not have happened, with the complete failure of the timber framed building appearing to have been exacerbated by missing compartmentalisation in the roof space. 
 
These buildings were under 18 metres in height. If the fire had not happened and the building flaws had been identified today, residents would not have been eligible to make a claim to the Building Safety Fund (BSF) to cover the cost of the work needed to make their homes safe. Throughout the parliamentary debates and discussion in relation to the cladding and building safety crisis, the fire at Pankhurst Avenue has been at the forefront of my mind, and reinforces my view that ignoring the fire risks present in building under 18 metres is dangerous and negligent on the Government's part. 
 
Furthermore, in the two years since the Pankhurst Avenue fire, I am in contact with residents from 13 other blocks in my constituency where fire risks have been identified linked to defects during the time the properties were built, or to the fact that they contain combustible materials. Residents are at very different stages of the process to address the issues in the blocks where they live, but in all blocks one thing is very much the same: remedial work has not yet started. This means that many hundreds of my constituents are currently living in unsafe homes. For most of these residents,  the prospect of remedial work happening is a very long way off given the tussle between housing providers and developers over liability. 
 
I previously wrote to your predecessor about the urgent need for Government to intervene, and I also requested a meeting with him to discuss this matter, along with a delegation of my constituents. I am disappointed that he did not find the time to meet to discuss the difficult position they find themselves in due to the building safety crisis, and I hope that this is something that you will consider, given the scale of the crisis in my constituency.
 
In the meantime, to summarise my key points, urgent and immediate action needs to be taken on the following: 
 
- the removal of all dangerous cladding from buildings by 2022, and where disputes between developers and housing providers have not yet been resolved, the Government should provide upfront funding for remedial work with a view to being reimbursed once legal processes about liability for defects and removal have been completed
 
- the expansion of the Building Safety Fund to include buildings of all heights, without delay, to prevent leaseholders being saddled with debt for remedial work, for which they are not, and should not, be held responsible
 
 - it is not acceptable for residents in buildings under 18 metres in height to be saddled with large loans to cover the remedial work needed to put right issues liked to fire safety defects from the build. In Victoria, Australia, where they have had a cladding crisis of their own, the loan scheme they launched was a failure because (not surprisingly) people were unwilling to take out huge loans that they would be saddled with for life, for problems that were not of their making. I fear that exactly the same will play out here, and yet the Government is doggedly digging its heels in and not listening to experience and evidence from elsewhere
 
- the increase of the Building Safety Fund to cover the true scale of remedial work needed, which means that in addition to cladding, problems such as missing fire breaks, removal of combustible material on balconies, and other high-risk fire safety issues identified - including the recommendations made by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee - are covered 
 
- equal access to the Building Safety Fund for social housing providers
 
- ensuring that residents are not burdened with unreasonable soaring insurance costs. The Government should agree to underwrite insurance in blocks where this is the case, or where residents are struggling to access insurance
 
- the sharing of information about fire safety with residents. Access to surveys and reports by housing providers differs widely across the 13 blocks in my constituency. It is vital that those living in affected blocks have clear and accurate information about risks and defects, and the Government should take steps to ensure residents are not prevented from accessing information about the safety of their homes
 
- the Waking Watch fund to cover interim costs is insufficient and needs urgent review and further resources. The name of the fund is a misnomer given that the fund does not cover waking watches in buildings identified as being unsafe, and simply covers the installation of alarm systems. It can be a lengthy process for the alarms to be installed, and in my constituency it has proved difficult for housing providers to reach all leaseholders eg those who let their properties, to gain access for alarms to be installed. The risk of costs being passed to residents could be reduced with an expanded remit for this fund
 
 - given the comments made by Rita Dexter, a former deputy commissioner at the London Fire Brigade, who agreed that stay put advice cannot necessarily be trusted when she was questioned at the Grenfell Tower inquiry, what reassessment has been made of the stay put policies in buildings where remedial work has not taken place
 
The Building Safety Bill could, and should, be an opportunity to ensure that leaseholders will not be lumbered with costly bills to address the fire safety risks in their homes caused by defects and issues that date back to when they were built. Yet I fear that like the Fire Safety Bill before it, the Government are swerving genuine acknowledgement of the scale of the problem and are looking at ways to cut corners and do things on the cheap. I can think of no other explanation for the Government's continued refusal to push remedial costs in buildings under 18 metres to leaseholders, or why the Government is allowing so many residents in high rise buildings to remain living in fear that they are living in unsaleable tinder boxes whilst they wait for housing providers and developers to accept liability for defects before remedial work takes place. 
 
I look forward to hearing from you on this matter, and I hope that you will agree that the issues in my message require urgent review and need to be addressed.
 
Yours sincerely,

 

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