Cladding questions have not gone awayPosted: April 30, 2020
Originally published on April 30 as a column for Inside Housing.
The first parliamentary questions on housing since the Coronavirus lockdown saw pleas for construction and housebuilding sites to get back to work.
But this was anything but a return to normal as a socially distanced and virtual House of Commons saw scrutiny of ministers truncated by the parliamentary timetable and technical gremlins.
Though questions about the costs of Covid-19 for local government took top billing, Tuesday afternoon’s Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) questions only underlined the fact that the top housing issue before the outbreak has not gone away.
Six short weeks ago there was some good news for victims of the cladding scandal as the Budget extended government help beyond Grenfell-style ACM cladding to cover other materials such as High Pressure Laminate (HPL).
Full details of the £1 billion fund are expected in May but there are still big questions about how it will operate.
And in the meantime the plight of residents has got worse as bills escalate for insurance premiums and for waking watches in blocks where work to replace the cladding has been halted by the lockdown. These interim measures are not covered by the fund.
All this is part of a wider shutdown in the construction industry that the government is keen to get working again.
All those issues were due to be raised with ministers by MPs at MHCLG questions. Except that, in some kind of metaphor for the whole mess over cladding, the technology did not always work.
Labour’s Matthew Pennycook had a question down about progress the remediation and replacement of non-ACM cladding .
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick repeated the Budget commitment for non-ACM materials on top of the existing £600m for ACM removal.
He added that work had but said that remediation work had paused on around 60 per cent of cladding replacement sites. He was working with the industry and had brought together mayors and council leaders to deliver the message that ‘this important work can and should continue’.
However, the Greenwich and Woolwich MP’s follow-up question was so garbled in transmission that he did not get to press the secretary of state on the crucial issues of whether the non-ACM fund will open as planned next month and when the money will actually be paid.
Given the delays and bureaucracy involved in the ACM fund, those are crucial questions that were left hanging in virtual space, along with other issues such as the number of buildings with non-ACM that qualify and what happens to residents of blocks below the 18m threshold for the fund.
Labour’s shadow housing and planning minister Mike Amesbury pressed the minister on the plight of hundreds of thousands of tenants and leaseholders trapped in unsafe buildings and facing the ‘double whammy’ of losing work and income at the same time as costs rise for waking watch and other interim fire safety measures. .
He said he understood that the secretary of state had signalled in his recent phone call with mayors that the government would help with these costs. Had that been done?
Robert Jenrick replied:
‘I’m pleased to report that as a result of that call that I convened with mayors from across the country we were able to issue that coordinated message sending a very clear message to the sector that building safety is of critical importance and that work needs now to continue. Those sites that were closed should now reopen.’
But he was not quite so clear on costs:
‘With respect to waking watch, I’ve asked the noble Lord Greenhalgh, the new minister for building safety, to look into this and what we can do to reduce the costs of waking watch for members of the public in this position and to ensure that waking watches where they are required can continue despite the lockdown.’
Lord Greenhalgh was ennobled a month after he became an unpaid minister of state in March. He is best known in the housing world as the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council who drove through controversial and ultimately unsuccessful plans to demolish two council estates as part of a giant regeneration scheme.
Back in the chamber, more technical problems prevented local government minister Simon Clarke from facing questions about Covid-19 costs for councils.
Housing minister Chris Pincher stepped into the virtual breach before borrowing a line from Mike Yarwood to declare ‘this is me’ to answer his own questions (for younger readers, ‘this is me’ was the less than scintillating catchphrase of the impressionist from the 1970s as he switched to being himself).
His answers revealed his determination to ‘get Britain building again’ by restarting housebuilding sites in the wake of the pandemic.
According to the minister, each extra 100,000 new homes adds 1 per cent to a GDP that has plummeted this year, and he said he hoped other developers would follow the example of big firms like Taylor Wimpey.
With 400,000 home sales worth £82 billion also on hold because of the pandemic housing will be critically important in getting the wider economy moving again.
But it’s another reminder of how much has to change before we can get back to anything approaching normality.
Robert Jenrick will face more questions on the work of his department from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday.
For the moment all the political attention is understandably elsewhere but it’s worth asking now what the new normal might eventually mean.
Will it be one that looks the other way when the three-month ban on evictions ends in what is now two months or one that acts to stop rising rent arrears turning into homelessness?
Will it be one that builds on the temporary end to street homelessness (though some are falling through the cracks) or one that fails to back up local authorities and others with the funding they need?
Will it be one that recognises social housing as a precious resource, or at the very least extends the deadline for spending right to buy receipts on replacement homes, or one that extends under-subscribed sales schemes?
And will it be one that shares the costs of the cladding scandal between those responsible or continues to pass on much of the bill to those that live in unsafe homes?