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Leaseholders Still Face Huge Fire Safety Bills Despite New Cladding Support

6 min read

Mounting fire safety costs are still a significant worry for people living in tower blocks despite minister Michael Gove's major announcement today that leaseholders in lower height buildings will not have to pay for the removal of unsafe cladding.

In the four years since the Grenfell Tower fire in West London, in which 72 people were killed, leaseholders have not only faced bills for removing unsafe cladding from their buildings, but other serious safety defects that property inspectors also uncovered.

These have included missing fire breaks and defective insulation. Lawyers fees, and increased service charges to cover 'waking watch' fire patrols within at-risk buildings, have left some home owners on the brink of bankruptcy. 

Gove, who was appointed Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary last September announced to the Commons on Monday that leaseholder residents in blocks between 11 and 18 metres high will be able to have their unsafe cladding removed at a cost to developers and builders.

It has been described as an "amazing step forwards" by campaigners and broadly welcomed.

Gove has ripped up plans by his predecessor Robert Jenrick, which required the leaseholder to pay for mandatory cladding work through a long-term, low interest, government loan up to the value of £50 per month. 

"Leaseholders are shouldering a desperately unfair burden," Gove said during a Commons statement today.

"They are blameless and it is morally wrong they should be the ones asked to pay the price.

"I'm clear about who should pay the price for remedying failures. It should be the industries who profited as they caused the problem, and those who continue to profit, as they make it worse."

He said he was putting firms that mis-sold dangerous products like cladding and insulation, those who cut corners in building developments, and those who tried to profiteer from the consequences of the Grenfell fire "on notice".

But the changes announced today for leaseholders will not help councils which own high rise blocks for social tenants, and may face shouldering remediation costs themselves, according to the Local Government Association.

Tory MP Stephen McParland, who has campaigned on behalf of leaseholders ever since bills began arriving to remove cladding several years ago, is now seeking urgent clarifcation over whether there will be similar support to cover missing firebreaks indentified in the cladding review process. 

"These firebreaks stop fires spreading from flat to flat and give emergency services the time to respond to save lives," McParland said.

"Overall, it is an amazing step forward for leaseholders and we must welcome this as we work together to make our buildings safe."

Former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the to cladding charges was "very welcome news for people whose homes have been blighted by fire safety problems and dangerous cladding".

Like McPartland, however, he warned that developers are also responsible for the internal works that will need to be done, and this should be at no cost to the leaseholder. 

Gove's plan is for developers to make financial contributions to a dedicated fund to cover the full outstanding cost to remediate unsafe cladding on 11 to 18 metre buildings – estimated to be £4 billion.

He wants developers to agree to a plan to fix dangerous cladding on low-rise flats by early March or risk new laws forcing them to act.                        

He said: "We are coming for you."

A team in the communities department will now review government schemes so there are "commercial consequences" for businesses that are refusing to help fix the problem. 

Shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy welcomed the decision to scrap Jenrick's loan scheme but challenged Gove on how he thought he could make developers "pay up" after four years. His key threat to firms that don't pay - a proposed tax hike for development companies - is in the hands of the Treasury, and not a decision he can make.

Long-standing cladding campaign group, Manchester Cladiators said it was “a step in the right direction” but that there are still a number of severe problems facing residents which Gove’s announcement will not cover.

“One of the main things we welcome is the recognition of how unfair it is that leaseholders are still being forced to pay for issues we played no part in creating," Giles Grover from the group told Manchester World

“However, there are still a number of gaps in the proposed solution, so we are not quite at the end yet, particularly as they are still focusing on cladding and there is no help for buildings under 11 metres.

“We recognise the problem is complicated and he is not instantly going to come up with an all-encompassing solution, but that is what we want to help him with.”

The Local Government Association said it was right that leaseholders should not have to pay for remedial cladding work, but that they are not the only "innocent victims" in the cladding scandal.

“Unless the Government forces the industry to act – or provides funding – we are concerned that the costs of fixing social housing blocks will fall on council housing revenue accounts and housing associations," councillor David Renard, the LGA's housing spokesperson said. 

"Like leaseholders, council tenants and those on the waiting list are innocent victims, and the Government needs to help them too."

There are also questions emerging around developers having installed cladding that had been signed off by building regulations at the time. 

On LBC Radio this morning, Gove was asked why developers must pay considering the "mistakes" were legal at the time of the work being carried out. 

Gove acknowledged the government "did get stuff wrong", but insisted that developers needed to accept responsibility too. 

"You would be hard pressed to say that putting essentially, sheets of liquid petrol encased in metal on the side of a tower block was the right thing to do,” he said. 

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