Pressure mounts on government to fix potentially unsafe homes as Grenfell inquiry restarts

The investigation into the tower inferno that killed 72 has uncovered a corporate scandal in which hundreds of thousands are living in potentially deadly homes, as Ben Chapman explains.

Sunday 07 February 2021 15:40
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The Grenfell Tower Inquiry explained

As the Grenfell Tower Inquiry calls witnesses again on Monday after a nine-week break due to Covid-19, pressure on the government has intensified to fix Britain’s building safety crisis, a scandal Labour claims affects as many as 11 million people.

What began as an investigation into how 72 people tragically died in a fire at a west London tower block has methodically uncovered a corporate scandal that has left people throughout the country in homes they can’t sell, many of which may be dangerous, high-rise tinder boxes.

To fix a mess caused by substandard regulation, lax enforcement and shoddy building work, homeowners have been handed bills of up to £160,000 each.

Dogged work by campaign groups has helped to force the scandal to the top of the political agenda despite the pandemic and disruption caused by Brexit.

Tory MPs joined Labour colleagues last week to demand that leaseholders should not pay “a penny piece” towards removing flammable cladding. On Thursday, the UK's largest housebuilder, Barratt, became the first company to call for a levy on the industry to cover remediation costs. The government is reportedly considering committing £5bn to remove dangerous materials from buildings.

Investigations that initially focused on tall buildings encased in combustible aluminium composite cladding have broadened hugely. It has emerged that a host of other widely used materials could cause another disaster.

There are problems with several types of cladding and insulation, as well as homes built without crucial fire barriers. Hundreds of thousands of lower rise buildings may also be at risk of going up in flames.

The housing market is in danger of seizing up because lenders won’t provide mortgages on flats without a safety certificate which only a tiny number of surveyors are qualified to provide. The majority of blocks of flats built in the last 20 years are affected, housing as many as 11 million people, according to the Labour Party’s estimates. The government still hasn’t established how many buildings might not be safe.

“The government are burying their heads in the sand on this,” said Paul Afshar, of the campaign group End Our Cladding Scandal. Failure to take decisive action is undermining core Conservative Party values, he said.

“The Conservatives have long talked about themselves as the party of home ownership and the party of family values. This destroys the dream of home ownership, not least because you've got homeowners going bankrupt to have cladding removed and to have fire patrols.”

“I want to start a family, as lots of others do, but I can't do that because I’m trapped in a firetrap flat that I can't sell.”

The situation presents a difficult dilemma for the party that also favours light-touch regulation on businesses and low government spending.

Mr Afshar believes the scale of the problem will force ministers to act. “Conservative MPs are now realising that this is not just an issue that affects high-rise blocks of social housing in London.

“It affects buildings across the UK whether high-rise or medium rise, publicly owned or private, that have been built in last 20 years.”

End Our Cladding Scandal is calling for a tenfold expansion of a £1.6bn fund established to remove cladding on high-rises. Even that will only pay for the buildings most at risk.

As more and more homeowners are handed bills of tens of thousands of pounds, the need for action is becoming increasingly urgent. Some homeowners have already been declared bankrupt.

Others are being ordered to cover the full cost of fixing flats they only own part of under shared ownership schemes billed by the government as an “affordable” way to get on the housing ladder. Thousands more are shelling out for “waking watch” patrols which they are not even sure will make them safe.

Daily hearings of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry are expected to reveal further shocking details of poor regulation and the disregard that some in the construction industry appeared to show towards fire safety.

For residents, the most pressing issue is not only how Grenfell was allowed to happen but that buildings are fixed urgently, before it happens all over again.

What progress has been made?

The government has committed £1.6bn to remove cladding from buildings taller than 18m. It’s become clear that this is nowhere near enough. Campaigners are seeking for that to be expanded to at least £15bn – the amount that MPs estimate is needed to fix high-rises.

Progress to make blocks safe has been slow and there are only a small number of surveyors trained to carry out the checks needed before lenders will provide mortgages for most flats.

Efforts to train surveyors with the requisite skills are belatedly being stepped up.

The government has set aside £30m for installing alarms that it hopes will negate the need for waking watch patrols. Mr Afshar believes the funding is inadequate.

London mayor Sadiq Khan is among those to have called for a multibillion-pound levy on the housebuilding industry to fund remediation work. Labour is calling for a national cladding taskforce to “get a grip” on the crisis.

What next?

So far, the government has dragged its feet and equivocated. There have been reports of a tussle between communities secretary Robert Jenrick and Rishi Sunak. The former is said to be calling for £10bn of funding to fix the issue but the latter holds the purse strings and has hinted he wants to tighten them in the light of big spending on the pandemic. According to the Telegraph, a £5bn fund may be announced as soon as this week.

Signs have emerged that housebuilders realise they can no longer dodge the bill. Even if, legally speaking, they may not be responsible for homes built years ago that are out of warranty, the reputational damage of not acting would be significant, particularly when the industry has benefited from billions in government subsidies in recent years.

Barratt, Britain’s largest housebuilder, revealed on Thursday that it took a £56.3m hit to its profits in the past six months relating to unsafe buildings after bearing the costs of one particularly poorly constructed block. Barratt has called for a levy on the industry to cover some of the costs.

As momentum builds, campaigners are growing more hopeful the government will bow to pressure and guarantee that homewowners will not foot the bill. However, ministers are still looking at options that would result in the opposite.

The government is considering an insurance model that would see freeholders of buildings take government loans to cover the costs over 30 years or more. Leaseholders argue those costs will simply be passed on to them.

The proposal has been vehemently rejected by campaign groups who say it is fundamentally unfair and amounts to a “second mortgage”.

They are now pinning their hopes on a rebellion among Conservative backbenchers who have tabled an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill which would ensure homeowners do not pay for remediation. More Tory MPs may soon follow them.

If enough backbenchers rebel, the government's hand may be forced. It would have to ensure it covers a bill that's likely to amount to tens of billions of pounds, probably at least in part by taxing the building industry.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that money can be found when it is truly needed. The question may now be whether the government sees unsafe housing as a priority.

It may soon become untenable for the government to appear to side with an industry that created a safety scandal, rather than the millions of victims of it.

Update - 18.2.21: Subsequent to the publication of this article, fact-checking organisation Full Fact has disputed the Labour Party claim that up to 11 million people are affected by this issue. Full Fact says the number is closer to one tenth of that figure - see the Full Fact report here. This article was amended to attribute that figure to the Labour Party and to remove an unattributed reference from the headline.

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