Why the coating crisis may not be over yet

Four and a half years after the Grenfell fire, a solution to part of the siding crisis created in the aftermath of the tragedy has finally been proposed.

Housing Secretary Michael Gove said on Monday that the government will take “all necessary measures” to ensure that no landlord living in a building taller than 11 meters has to pay to solve dangerous problems.

But despite the very promise of creating a new law to cover the estimated £ 4bn costs of dealing with the problem, those trapped in the coating nightmare have warned that they will still face daily costs that do not ‘would not have “disappeared overnight”.

“We will look to the housing secretary to make sure his encouraging words are matched with decisive action on the ground,” said a spokesperson for the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign group.

Meanwhile, the housing industry has grappled with the “scatter gun approach to solving a problem that several governments have regulated” – suggesting the problem is far from over.

What’s the problem?

The spotlight has been on the use of flammable materials in the construction of high-rise buildings following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people.

Caught in the midst of a complicated row over who is responsible for people living in flammable buildings, homeowners have for months denounced their anxiety, illness and financial hardship – not to mention fears for their safety – as their properties are almost impossible to sell and costs are skyrocketing.

Many of these people – tenants of buildings owned by private or public owners – have found themselves facing potentially ruinous bills that include costs of over £ 100,000 to replace hazardous materials or pay for so-called ‘watches. watch ”, where someone is employed to patrol a building looking for fires.

What steps have been taken so far?

In February 2021, the government announced a multibillion-pound package to ensure that no tenants in high-rise buildings in England are charged for the removal of the siding.

The measures were aimed at protecting those who own houses in taller buildings.

They mean tenants of blocks over 18 meters (59 feet) in height can access grants to replace unsafe coatings.

The case has so far been different for those who own houses in smaller buildings.

For blocks between 11 meters and 18 meters (36 feet and 59 feet), the government announced in February that it would introduce a “long-term, low-interest” loan program under which “no tenant will ever pay. more than £ 50 per month for the removal of hazardous coatings ”.

But Gove, who later took over the housing case, said in November: “I’m still not happy with the principle that tenants have to pay at all, no matter how effective a program is to cap their rates. costs or not hitting them too hard. at any moment.”

What is the plan for the future?

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Michael Gove speaking in the London House of Commons.

British Parliament / Jessica Taylor via PA Media

Gove has now said developers must agree to a £ 4 billion plan to fix unsafe coatings in low-rise apartments by early March or risk new laws forcing them to act.

The cabinet minister threatened he was “ready to take whatever steps are necessary” to fix the “broken system” in a letter to industry before detailing plans on Monday.

Potential measures also include restricting access to public finance and future markets, using planning powers, and taking companies to court.

According to plans, tenants of buildings between 11 meters and 18 meters in height will no longer have to take out loans to cover the costs of the remediation works – despite the lack of new money from the Treasure.

Instead, the developers were asked to agree to start contributing this year to cover “total unpaid costs”.

On Monday in the Commons, he confirmed that he had “absolute assurance” from Chancellor Rishi Sunak that he was ready to impose taxes on the sector if they were not ready to offer a solution.

“We will take action to end this scandal and protect tenants,” he said.

“We will charge the industry to resolve any remaining issues and help cover the range of costs faced by tenants.

“Those who made combustible liners and insulation – many of whom have made huge profits, even in the height of the pandemic – must pay now instead of tenants. “

What do activists and MPs think about the news?

A spokesperson for End Our Cladding Scandal welcomed the news that Gove “recognizes the desperate injustice of forcing victims of the building safety scandal to pay for the collective failure of the state and the government. industry which has wasted hundreds of thousands of lives since the tragic events of Grenfell “. They added:

“Strong words, but we have heard strong words from ministers many times before. This government may be starting to speak harshly, but those promises – finally – must also be backed up by strong action. It is clear from a Treasury letter leaked over the weekend that Chancellor Rishi Sunak still does not seem to understand the gravity of our situation and is apparently doing everything he can to escape the protection of the owners. There may be more funding for the siding alone, but the burden of paying for repairs to other serious safety flaws – lack of subdivision, missing firestops, shoddy construction – still has to come. not been lifted onto the shoulders of tenants, regardless of the height of their building.

Likewise, the daily costs that hit tenants hard – payments for rising insurance premiums or very high standby bills – did not go away overnight. Many activists have been through a scorching spell in recent years, battling landowners and housing associations, even begging for basic details of their buildings, seeing their savings bleed dry and their mental health deteriorating. None of this time or money can ever be recovered.

“There are other issues to be resolved. We need solutions for tenants in buildings under 11m and clarity on what today’s announcement means for the thousands of tenants in buildings under 18m who have already paid or paid. are asked to pay for the remediation of the coating.

“Mr. Gove says he’s ready to go after the developers and manufacturing companies that have caused such widespread human misery. But we must also recognize the role that successive governments have played in this larger scandal. Homeowners may have been disappointed with the construction industry and the siding manufacturers, but they have also been rejected by ministers and officials who are supposed to regulate these industries. The next phase of the Grenfell Inquiry is likely to expose how far those failures have gone.

“Today, Mr. Gove promised that the amendments to the Safe Buildings Bill, which are expected to be submitted to chambers shortly, will include legal protections for tenants. As always, we will look to the Housing Secretary to ensure that his encouraging words are matched with decisive action on the ground. “

David Renard, spokesperson for the Local Government Association, which represents 350 councils across England and Wales, warned that the tenants were “not the only innocent victims” of the scandal.

“The construction industry must also be brought in to correct the fire safety flaws it has built in blocks owned by housing councils and associations,” he said.

Shadow Housing Secretary Lisa Nandy said “promises are not a substitute for a plan” as she urged the government to go further to protect tenants from costs.

“We must have legally binding protection for tenants in law to defend them from the costs of these appalling failures, a fixed deadline that will end this nightmare and a Secretary of State capable of mobilizing the resources and political will to take over. the interest power of big money – and win, ”the Labor MP said.

Will the housing sector pay?

Ministers could face a struggle from the housing industry to pay the costs. Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and town planning policy at the National Federation of Builders, said: “The government has already introduced an industry-specific coating tax, and now another is underway. This piecemeal approach is confusing, unnecessarily complex, and will likely have an impact on the number of homes built.

“It’s also worth pointing out that the developer paying for the remediation will almost certainly not have been responsible for the coating laid on the property – most of which was remodeled long after construction and has nothing to do with the developer. .

“Another tax related to the construction industry is neither fair nor proportionate, and the industry will be dismayed by this scatter gun approach to solving a problem for which several governments have defined the regulations.

“Maybe all MPs will sacrifice a percentage of their salaries and pensions to help fund clean-up, as the real responsibility lies with lawmakers?”

Meanwhile, Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, agreed tenants shouldn’t have to pay for remediation, but said builders shouldn’t cover the costs on their own.

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