The long awaited Government announcement on how it will resolve the cladding scandal were almost immediately criticised for not being enough, for taking too long and for focussing solely on cladding – while ignoring other serious safety concerns such as fire stops and water sprinklers, as well as failing to address soaring insurance costs and the inability of residents to sell their homes.
In promising an extra £3.5bn to remove unsafe cladding from high-rise buildings over 18 metres high in England “at no cost to residents”, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said it was the “largest ever Government investment” in building safety.
It is estimated that around 274,000 flats have been fitted with dangerous cladding, according to the Association of Residential Managing Agents, affecting more than 650,000 people. That figure is likely to reach into the millions when those living in lower-rise structures where problems have also emerged are taken into account.
But even before Jenrick sat down his Conservative colleague Stephen McPartland, was tweeting his disappointments: “I am listening to the announcement with my head in my hands. Wondering how he can have got this so wrong. It is a betrayal of millions of leaseholders. It is not good enough. It is shocking incompetence. It is clear the PM has to step in now” and “The statement is all smoke and mirrors. He is very careful to just state cladding. No mention of fire safety defects, Waking Watches or Excessive Insurance Premiums which are often the main costs for millions.”
The £3.5bn is on top of the £1.6bn funding that was announced for the removal of unsafe cladding last year, but Ministers have come under increasing to step up their help for the many thousands of residents in affected blocks, many of them leaseholders.
The Grenfell Tower fire took place over three and half years ago and since then there have been at least two other significant fires in residential blocks below 18m in England. Grenfell also exposed a wider range of building safety issues including poorly fitted fire breaks, a lack of water sprinklers, poor quality fire doors, confused policies over exacuating residents or advising them to stay in their homes, the use of inappropriate materials and a host of other problems.
Jenrick told the Commons that leaseholders in high-rise buildings above 18m, or with six storeys or more, would face no costs for cladding works, while those living in shorter buildings would have access to low interest loans with their contributions capped at no more than an extra £50 a month for removing unsafe cladding. He said the risk was “significantly lower” for the estimated half a million residents of lower-rise blocks of flats.
He said the scheme’s costs would not be funded exclusively by taxpayers and a new levy would be placed on the developers of future high-rise buildings. Jenrick described the action as an “unprecedented intervention” without which building owners would simply pass on the costs of remediation work to leaseholders.
However, Labour’s shadow housing secretary, Thangam Debbonaire, called the proposals “an injustice” that would “pile financial misery” on homeowners. She said there were many questions left unanswered, including on “skyrocketing” insurance costs, homes potentially remaining “unsellable”, and the amount leaseholders would be expected to pay.
The “arbitrary 18m height limit” could “mean the difference between a safe home and financial ruin”, she said. Labour is instead calling for an independent taskforce to be established to take the matter out of politicians’ hands and ensure funds are distributed fairly.
Grenfell United, the bereaved families and survivors’ group, also said the measures failed to “deal with this mess once and for all”. “Residents living in unsafe homes will go to bed tonight worrying if their building will qualify or be left out once again,” a spokesperson said. “And bereaved and survivors of Grenfell will lie awake fearful that what happened to us could still happen again.”
“Residents shouldn’t be forced into loans and new debt just because of the height of their building. It’s completely unfair to pile more financial strain on leaseholders for a problem that has been caused by developers and the construction industry. The industry needs to be held fully responsible for what they have done – small levy doesn’t cut it.”
By Patrick Mooney, Editor