Government hopes that another injection of cash into the Building Safety Fund to address unsafe cladding will tamp down protests over fire safety. They are wrong.
Bailing Out the Perpetrators
Their fundamental problem is that pouring taxpayers’ money into such pots only bails out those responsible for creating the danger in the first place. It still leaves many tenants and residents paying for both cladding remedial work and fire prevention measures, even though they are wholly innocent of any responsibility for the design faults which have turned their homes into fire risks.
The sheer number of people affected is frightening. A One Housing Group tenant noted:
“11 million people affected by the cladding scandal … That means one in 6 people in this country live in a potentially dangerous property. Sobering”.ONE HOUSING GROUP RESIDENT
The 11 million people is the estimated number at risk of some form of fire defect, whether related to cladding or other problems.
The measures announced by government do not address the years of deregulation by successive government that means human lives are the last consideration not the first.
Nor do they charge the full costs of remedy to the companies directly responsible for the problem. Firms which lied about the safety of their products, and those who enabled the lies seem to be getting away almost scot free. This includes cladding manufacturers Kingspan, implicated in the Grenfell fire, for example.
The Grenfell inquiry revealed that Kingspan staff first published false claims about their product’s fire resistance levels, then joked about getting away with it. Kingspan is still being used on building projects within the housing association sector, adding insult to injury.
Inside Housing magazine recently revealed that Notting Hill Genesis had hired Kingspan to address fire safety concerns on one of its blocks. The panels being used in repairs were the same combustible insulation boards used on the Grenfell Tower.
Safety Blanket Too Small
The scheme covers the costs of cladding removal only, not the other costs that tenants and residents are bearing for enhanced fire-safety in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy. The BBC recently reported on leaseholders from a block in Bromley being presented with a bill of £500,000 for fire patrols.
“Imagine funding only combustible cladding removal on 18m+ buildings knowing full well once done, they’ll remain unsafe & unsellable as the majority have other life threatening defects you’re not funding … all just so you can convince the public you’ve fixed a scandal”Cladding affected leaseholder
The government’s Building Safety Fund was initially established with a pot of £600m, then topped up with £1bn, and a further £3.5bn was added recently. In the latest announcement, government also promised to introduce a ‘levy’ (or tax) on some developers to help with the cost of addressing the problem.
But the fund is restricted to high-rise blocks only. By government estimates, there are 12,000 residential buildings over 18 metres tall. Leaseholders in the 77,500 buildings of six storeys or less will either need to stump up the cost immediately or apply for a long-term, low-interest loans.
Limiting the qualifying building height at 18 metres represents a significant saving for the government, which estimates that the scheme will cover 321,000 residents. If buildings with unsafe cladding of all heights were included, the scheme would apply to at least 650,000 people according to the Association of Residential Managing Agents.
Punishing the Poor
When Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick described the £50 per week cap on loan repayments as a “pretty affordable amount of money”, he demonstrated a blindness to the terrible financial strain that families are under following twelve years of austerity, sweeping benefits cuts, and the impact of Covid.
Even before the pandemic, Britain compared badly to other European countries when it came to state benefits. In 2016, a study by Glassdoor found “Unfortunately, the UK is in the bottom four overall taking into account factors such as maternity and paternity leave, general parental leave, paid holiday allowance, paid sick leave and unemployment benefits.”
The recent economic downturn has dramatically increased poverty levels in the UK. Statista’s study reported that in 2019/20 “approximately 1.9 million people used a foodbank” and noted that “the number of foodbank users has increased in every year, from just under 26 thousand in 2008/09.” Poverty is rife, and the addition of another £50 per month debit to budgets that are already unable to meeting basic living costs will just enhance the spiral of debt.
Not Giving Up
Groups campaigning under the #EndOurCladdingScandal banner are still considering their responses to the new measures. But SHAC remains resolute that not a single penny should be charged to leaseholders or imposed on tenants through service charges. Neither residents nor taxpayers should be liable for cleaning up the immoral – and in some cases blatantly criminal – activities of those enabling the construction of unsafe buildings.
Government should instead take the affected buildings into public ownership, mirroring its response to the 2008 economic crash when it invested billions in part-nationalising the banks. It should pay immediately to make the buildings safe and charge the cost to the construction firms responsible. It should also reverse the ‘bonfire of red tape’ which removed previous safeguards ensuring buildings were safely constructed. These measures are the minimum needed to bring resident safety once again to the fore.
For analysis of the Grenfell Inquiry, see Grenfell: Inquiry is slowly revealing scandal
12 February 2021