Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Recently, I attended a demonstration at Leeds Dock organised by the leaseholders who live there and who are affected by the cladding scandal. Many of them were holding cardboard signs showing the amounts of money they fear they may be asked for to fix the fire safety defects in their building, even though they are not responsible. And they talked openly about the anxiety and the stress that this is all causing them.
There are hundreds of thousands of leaseholders up and down the country who are in the same position, and four years after the Grenfell Tower fire they feel full of despair. Some of them are losing hope.
And yet there is a way of dealing with this that can work. I watched a presentation by a man called Ted Baillieu from Victoria state in Australia who was asked to advise on the cladding problem there. He was a breath of fresh air as he described the direct, hands-on approach they are taking to deal with the same problem.
Their mantra is very simple. Find, fix, and fund. Find all of the buildings that have a problem, fix them all, fund the work and then go after the builders, developers and freeholders who should bear the financial responsibility for putting things right.
The problem here in the UK is that the Government’s approach is a mish-mash that isn’t working. Ministers are putting money in to replace dangerous cladding, but as we know, many other faults on buildings have been discovered as surveyors investigated what lies beneath the exterior. So just replacing that cladding will not make them safe.
Look at the case of the Richmond House fire which happened just two years ago. You can watch the video. It is absolutely terrifying. Most of the building was destroyed in a very short space of time. Luckily no one was injured, but subsequent investigation showed that it was the absence of proper cavity barriers and fire breaks which allowed the fire to spread. And yet, fire safety defects of this sort – which have been discovered time and again in Leeds – are not covered by the Government’s offer of funding.
Common sense tells us that you can’t half fix a building. You can’t make it half safe. So, if these defects are not put right – and ministers know that leaseholders can’t afford to pay for this – these buildings will continue to be classed as unsafe and waking watch and high insurance bills will continue to drain the bank accounts of innocent leaseholders.
The second big problem is there’s no plan to fix the most dangerous buildings first. The truth is, we don’t even know the full scale of the problem – there isn’t a comprehensive list of faulty buildings – and the rate at which buildings may be made safe depends not on assessing the risk, but on the speed with which managing agents and freeholders get their applications in to the building safety fund.
That’s why I support the establishment of a Building Works Agency to take charge of this whole process – just as they have done in Australia – and find, fix and fund the necessary works. I think we will have to end up with something like this because the contradictions of the current approach will eventually become obvious, so why don’t we get on with it now?
The most important reason of all for doing this is the continuing distress, mental anguish, uncertainty and costs that are being faced by so many of our fellow residents of South Leeds who are trapped in a nightmare. They can’t sell their homes because they are worthless. They can barely afford the charges they are facing. They have no idea how their home is eventually going to be made safe and whether bills will land on the doormat demanding money that they simply do not have.
I will continue to work with MPs from all parties to make sure that we find an answer to this so that the people I met at Leeds Dock can find peace at last and move on with their lives.
And finally, on a lighter note, it was a real pleasure to attend the recent Holbeck Gala for the first time since 2019. OK, so it rained a bit at the start – or to be strictly accurate it rained rather a lot – but that didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. I enjoyed moving from gazebo to gazebo to find shelter, talk to old friends and keep up with lots of local voluntary organisations. Here’s to next year’s Gala and better weather!
First published in the August 2021 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/newspaper/recent-issues-of-our-newspaper/