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Boris Johnson promises to tackle the cladding crisis ‘very shortly’ – but it’s not soon enough for residents

The Grenfell Tower disaster took 72 lives. The more we argue about who is responsible, the more the likelihood of another deadly fire

Keir Starmer to force Commons vote on dangerous cladding and ‘intolerable’ costs for residents

On Monday, the Commons passed a Labour motion calling on the government to protect leaseholders across the country who are living in flats with dangerous cladding. But this is certainly not the end of the problem. All Conservative MPs abstained from the vote, even though the prime minister recently announced that the government would outline a plan for the cladding crisis “very shortly”.

It is feared that this will consist of loans for innocent leaseholders to pay for the repair works, that could last up to 30 years or more. This highly regressive policy – imagine two mortgages – is set to be announced by ministers despite a credible rival scheme put forward by a former Bank of England economist, Dean Buckner, for the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. This plan would not ask more from the taxpayer than the £1.6bn already committed nor seek to recoup the costs from leasehold tenants. Even leaseholders with a share of the freehold would be liberated.

The Labour motion, which is not legally binding, builds on the work of Liberal Democrat peers in the House of Lords, led by Kath Pinnock, who amended the Fire Safety Bill to ensure that leaseholders would not be forced to pick up the tab for remedial works, but the government has yet to commit to supporting its guiding principle.  

We have to plan for the future, and although the situation is not clear-cut, what is clear is that 72 innocent people lost their lives at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017. The more we argue about who is responsible, the more the likelihood of another deadly fire.

Passing this amendment is not the end of the matter. Residents must be guarded against fraud when grants are made to affected sites. We cannot be in a situation where work is carried out on the cheap meaning that the properties still do not meet the required standards. The government must therefore create a “trusted trader” list of specialists who can be held accountable when the works take place.  

The idea that loans will be placed on the freeholds to blocks of flats owned by third-party investors, many of whom are offshore and unknowable, is astonishing. How can hardworking people trust that any loan scheme, already unfair as a principle, will not be taken advantage of by profit-seeking freeholders and their professional acolytes?  

The matter is further complicated when social housing providers can only make grant applications for affected properties that they have not started work on. If they have commenced remediation prior to the announcement of government funding, those sites are not eligible for that grant, meaning leaseholders and shared owners will have to contribute towards the final bill. It is a phenomenon that has reappeared for the private sector fund, effectively punishing landlords who have been proactive. This creates enormous unfairness as some residents will be forced to pay life-changing costs whereas others will not have to pay a penny.

Successive governments have been culpable for the situation in which affected residents of apartment buildings across the UK now find themselves. This Tory government has been distracted by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning that it has delayed taking decisive action on the building safety crisis. This means that there are still approximately 1,700 buildings over 18 metres in height nationwide with unsafe non-Grenfell cladding, and around 321,000 people living in these buildings. It is estimated that up to 700,000 people are still living in death-trap homes, with around 1.3 million unable to sell or re-mortgage.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry explained

Many who are facing the prospect of huge bills to replace dangerous cladding are already paying an extortionate amount for safety measures and special insurance while they wait for work to begin. Some have been made bankrupt and can no longer afford to live in their flats. Many residents say that their lives are an “unending nightmare”.  

Action must therefore be taken now. Given that it will be four years since Grenfell in June, “very shortly” is not soon enough for these residents. But speed must not come at the cost of fairness. And leaseholders must not pay for the mistake of others.  

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