On 24th April 2023, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in its 11th day of the committee stage. The Bishop of Guildford spoke in support of an amendment to the bill tabled by the Earl of Lytton that would “implement a building safety remediation scheme to ensure that buildings with building safety risks are put right without costs to leaseholders.”
The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, for six years in the early 90s I was a priest in Notting Hill, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and had never lived in a place where the vision of levelling up was quite so necessary and quite so localised. The very wealthy were often living cheek by jowl with the very poor, and meanwhile, on looking north from one of our churches was the unmistakeable sight of a brutalist 24-floor block of flats on Grenfell Road, which 25 years later was to become the scene of an unspeakable, though sadly not quite unimaginable, tragedy.
Making buildings safe for leaseholders has since become a priority for the Government, which is to be welcomed. As the noble Lord indicated, this support remains both limited and partial, creating a new distinction between the haves and have-nots of leaseholding when it comes to the most basic of principles: that the homes in which we live, work and raise our families should be safe. I happened to meet one of those have-not leaseholders this morning, for whom insuring his flat, let alone selling it, has become virtually impossible.
My friend Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington during the unfolding of those terrible events in June 2017, has written movingly in this regard. He speaks of how a “pattern of moral compromise” had become embedded in parts of the construction industry, as revealed by the public inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy. He goes on to suggest a firming up of the responsibility of developers to make good their work, along the lines of the amendments of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. His insights have been fed into the second of the five basic principles of the Archbishops’ housing commission: that
“Good housing should be sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying”.
One of the very few cases I still vividly remember from my original legal training is the landmark decision in Donoghue v Stevenson in 1932, which involved a Mrs May Donoghue discovering a decomposed snail at the bottom of her bottle of ginger beer, and a Mr David Stevenson, the owner of the ginger beer company. This famous snail resulted in a bout of gastroenteritis for Mrs Donoghue and a rather hefty fine for Mr Stevenson, while simultaneously forming the surprising basis of our modern law of negligence, and of a duty of care which does not depend on a direct contractual relationship between the parties involved. So how odd and morally indefensible it is, more than 90 years on, that the construction industry has been able to allow metaphorical snails to slide into its ginger beer bottles: to be negligent, bordering on reckless, when it comes to basic principles of safety, without a straightforward system of remediation which places responsibility where it patently lies.
The noble Earl’s amendments seem both right and practicable in that regard, given the idea of a levy to the remediation fund, which helps to answer concerns about affordability. Developing new confidence in the construction industry and driving up its standards will also help to protect the long-term reputation of the industry itself, which can be only a win-win for all concerned, or at least for all committed to the vision of good housing rather than a race to the bottom. I therefore support the noble Earl’s amendments and the principles behind them in this crucial area of our national life.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
The Earl of Lytton (CB): My Lords, this has been an extremely interesting debate. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions on this group of amendments.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for covering all the technical bits that brevity forced me to omit; I am grateful to him for that. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford gave an outstanding and thought-provoking commentary on, among other things, corporate motivation and where that should sit in the rules-based order.
Lord Cromwell (CB): My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for not speaking in previous stages of the Bill: commitments elsewhere made it impossible. I shall speak briefly in support of Amendments 274 and 318 from the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. Reading the email circulated, citing powerful support for these amendments from expert commentators, government figures, individual leaseholders and associations from across the whole world, not just the UK, the rest of us can only look on in envy at the level of support that he has generated for his amendments. I congratulate him and the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, on championing this cause and on the powerful and detailed speeches which they gave us earlier, along with the right reverend Prelate.
The approach taken in these two amendments, which are founded on the polluter pays principle, make complete sense in putting right work that was in breach of building regulations at the time across a wider range of premises and a wider range of defects. I have some sympathy with the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, about looking after the construction industry. The fact is that, in a way, the polluter pays principle does not quite work here because, if building works were not done in accordance with the building regulations, it is quite clear who is responsible, whereas you could argue more widely about, for example, a leak from an oil tanker being a pollution incident. But, fundamentally, what this comes down to is, if not these solutions, what do the Government propose? I look forward to hearing.
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