Housing Minister discusses fire safety

Housing Minister discusses fire safety

AFTER BEING questioned over the government mailbox for cladding concerns yesterday, Esther McVey also gave updates on other elements of the government’s fire safety plans.

Yesterday, Ms McVey responded to a written question in parliament on behalf of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), and revealed that its inbox for housing checks has seen over 9,000 emails from concerned local authorities since the Grenfell Tower fire. The Housing Checks mailbox was set up to ‘allow local authorities and housing associations to report towers within their areas which used aluminium composite material cladding [ACM]’.

She had stated that MHCLG had ‘as of November 2019’ received ‘in excess of 9,000 emails dating back to June 2017’, which works out at about 300 emails per month since June 2017. The emails have come from local authorities and housing associations asking ‘queries about cladding safety’, specifically in relation to ACM.

Last month, an MHCLG official was reported to have told a tower block resident that the inbox was ‘no longer in use. We would encourage residents of affected buildings to speak to their building’s owner about the steps they are taking to ensure residents’ safety’. However, an MHCLG spokesperson denied this was the case, apologising for any confusion caused and claiming that emails were forwarded to an ‘individual correspondence team which will formally respond in due course’.

This spokesperson also noted that MHCLG was moving to a single ‘contact us’ address for all public enquiries, with the letter having claimed that the responsibility ‘lies with the building owner or the local authority’: ‘The building owner or the responsible person is responsible for ensuring that any necessary checks, repairs or improvements are carried out. If the building owner refuses to deal with an issue or is taking an unreasonably long time to do so, residents can contact the environmental health department at their local authority.’

24Housing has now reported on other comments from Ms McVey, with Labour MP Steve Reed asking whether MHCLG would assess the ‘potential merits of banning’ timber cladding on residential buildings. She responded with mention of the combustible materials ban, and confirmed that ‘there are currently no timber cladding panels able to achieve’ European Class A2-s1, d0 or A1 status.

She added that MHCLG ‘intends to review the ban annually through monitoring arrangements and advice from bodies such as Building Regulations Advisory Committee for England’, and that it ‘is currently in the process of reviewing the scope of the ban and will report in due course’. Mr Reed also asked if the government knows how many blocks 18m or higher have the same cladding as the Bolton student accommodation building that caught fire late last year.

In response, Ms McVey confirmed a ‘data collection exercise’ had begun to ‘build a picture’ of external wall systems on all residential high rises of that height or above, adding that ‘we will publish appropriate summary information from the data collection in our monthly Building Safety Programme data release in due course’.

She was also asked by Labour MP Clive Betts about what steps MHCLG ‘planned to take’ on the Persimmon homes fire safety issues, responding that housebuilders are responsible for building ‘high quality homes which are fit for purpose’, with Persimmon’s independent review findings meaning the company ‘will want to take immediate action’.

On the government’s Building Safety and Fire Safety Bills, she stated these would bring ‘fundamental change’ in terms of reforming regulatory frameworks and industry culture’, while she also ‘re-affirmed an intention’ to create a new homes ombudsman for homebuyers. Finally, Labour MP Hilary Benn asked about financial support for owners of high pressure laminate (HPL) clad housing blocks in terms of removing and replacing the cladding.

She responded with reference to the related advice for building owners ‘where government intervention does not remove responsibility for overall building safety from the building owner’, with ACM removal funding based on the ‘unparalleled’ fire risk it poses. When Mr Benn asked about assistance for leaseholders unable to sell properties, she claimed lenders ‘are lending on flats in high-rise buildings’.

She also concluded that ‘obtaining the necessary paperwork to support a decision can take time. Valuers can now refer to the form produced by the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors (RICS) to manage valuations and lending on high-rise residential buildings’.