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The government will betray a generation of leaseholders unless they provide funding to remediate dodgy cladding on all tower blocks

The government will betray a generation of leaseholders unless they provide funding to remediate dodgy cladding on all tower blocks

It could well be years before all homes are made completely safe and, in the meantime, the hidden costs of the cladding scandal will still hit leaseholders hard, writes Margaret Hodge MP. | PA Images

4 min read

The money on offer is only a third of the £15 billion needed to make every home safe from fire and the exclusion of tower blocks below 18 metres from any support will saddle working families with long term debt.

The cladding scandal has devastated lives up and down the country. Over three years have passed since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower, but government action on fire safety has moved at a snail’s pace. Hundreds of thousands of leaseholders are still trapped in unsafe homes facing mounting bills to fix fire safety defects that have arisen through no fault of their own. 

Many caught up in this crisis are young people that have strived to get a foot on the property ladder. Often they are families who live on the edge, from one pay cheque to the next. Twenty-five years ago they might have moved into a council home, but successive governments stopped building them. Today they are forced to stretch their income to buy a lease on a flat because that is the only way they can settle down and start a family. They cannot cope with the financial demands being forced onto them by cladding defects.

Thousands of leaseholders’ homes are covered in dangerous materials. They have spent years facing huge bills to pick up the tab for the mistakes of others. They suffer sleepless nights fearing for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. They struggle through endless stress and anxiety at the unfair hand they have been dealt. They cannot sell or remortgage their properties and are locked into an impossible position. 

Yet the government is still failing to get to grips with the scale of the crisis. This week, after much dither and delay, the Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced a further £3.5 billion for removing combustible cladding from high-rise residential blocks. That brings the total to £5 billion offered up to remediate dodgy cladding.

The additional funding to help solve this crisis is, of course, welcome. But the money on offer is only a third of the £15 billion that experts believe will be necessary to make every home safe from fire. Rather than meet that bill through direct government help, ministers have taken the indefensible decision to plug that funding gap with loans for thousands of leaseholders. 

Those in buildings over 18 metres will be given grants to make their homes safe. But those in lower blocks will be saddled with loans and long term debt. The price of remediating blocks can be as high as £100,000 per household. Is it fair to burden working families with that much debt for years to come?

Fire does not discriminate between one height and another, neither should the government

Ministers argue that buildings below 18 metres pose a lower fire safety risk. The fire at Samuel Garside House in my constituency three years ago shows how wrong that judgement can be. Our block was a tinder box that went up in flames in just 7 minutes. But because the building is lower than the government’s arbitrary 18 metre threshold, it would not qualify for the latest grants. 

It is a miracle that no one was seriously hurt when the building became an inferno. Fire experts told me that if it had taken place at night then it could have been another Grenfell. Fire does not discriminate between one height and another, neither should the government. 

The distribution of funding has been painfully slow too. It could well be years before all homes are made completely safe and, in the meantime, the hidden costs of the cladding scandal will still hit leaseholders hard. Rocketing insurance premiums are particularly galling. Insurers are either unwilling to take up the risk posed by combustible cladding or, worse still, are profiteering from the crisis. 

I have been inundated with heart-breaking stories about rising insurance costs. At the Ropeworks, a block of flats in Barking, building insurance has shot up from £70,000 to £650,000 - that’s 900% - in just two years. Others are struggling to find any cover at all and few can afford any contents insurance. This can’t go on.

The government should engage with insurers and take on some of the risk so that leaseholders can get affordable cover until their homes are finally made safe. Insurance companies have worked jointly with the government to provide cover where the pandemic is a risk. Why can’t they do the same for those affected by the risk of fire?

All the while, many of those responsible for the cladding scandal – the developers, builders, suppliers, regulators, and building owners – have shirked their responsibilities and are not paying their fair share. 

The government are finally forcing developers to contribute with a new levy. But what about the freeholders and cladding manufacturers? Ministers must make sure that the others responsible do not get away scot free. More action is urgently needed or it will be a betrayal of a generation of leaseholders.

 

Margaret Hodge is the Labour MP for Barking.

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