Stephen McPartland and Royston Smith: To build back better, Ministers must regain the trust of leaseholders

15 Feb

Stephen McPartland is MP for Stevenage. Royston Smith is MP for Southampton Itchen.

More than three and a half years on from Grenfell, the fallout of the cladding crisis is still being felt by millions of leaseholders today.

Since then, the cladding crisis has only increased in magnitude. It has grown from the slow uncovering of a building safety one into a severe moral, economic and political dilemma, which has blighted the lives of too many for too long.

For years, people have been buying property which has subsequently been deemed unsafe. When you buy something as significant as this, most people do their homework. They instruct a solicitor to ensure that everything is legal. They assume that their home will not be wrapped in flammable material. They expect that successive governments would not accept unsafe insulation, sub-standard fire doors or dangerous balconies. But no matter the due diligence: this is exactly what tens of thousands have bought.

The Government’s announcement of an additional £3.5 billion for leaseholders in buildings above 18 metres or above six stories in height, on top of the £1.5 billion Fire Safety Fund announced last year, was encouraging news and a step in the right direction. It shows the Government has listened to worried homeowners’ concerns up and down the country, and the announcement no doubt came as a relief to many. But not all.

To be clear, leaseholders and ourselves want those responsible to pay. We have never asked the Government to pay for the full costs of remediation, but merely to provide a safety net for leaseholders, to ensure that the fire safety works are undertaken. Only the Government can afford to provide the cashflow to pay for these works up front; and only the Government can then introduce the levies on those responsible to claw that money back over the next ten years.

Despite the massive generosity of the Treasury in providing £5 billion in funds for cladding, this is only one aspect of the fire safety defects currently bankrupting leaseholders today. In buildings above 18 metres, leaseholders will still have to find the funds to fix a plethora of fire safety defects that experts predict could cost them another £5 billion.

Homes between 11 and 18 metres in height or between four and six storeys tall do not qualify for this new funding. This affects about half of all buildings affected by unsafe cladding. It includes developments such as conversions from office blocks and low-rise blocks with wooden balconies and flammable insulation. Homeowners with properties that fall into this category will qualify for a long-term low-interest loan capped at £50 a month to pay for the costs to remove dangerous cladding. However, they will still have to find the funds to pay for remediating all other fire safety defects.

£50 per month is too much to demand from leaseholders of homes with unsafe cladding. It will be £50 per month, almost in perpetuity with interest, until the debt caused by remediation costs are paid off. This is an additional £50 per month on top of increased insurance premiums and interim fire safety measures including; expensive night watch, sprinkler systems, fire safety surveys. How is it fair to expect them to keep pouring their money into a bottomless pit for being sold homes not safe to live in?

Leaseholders in buildings below 11 metres receive no support for help with cladding or fire safety defects. This affects hundreds of thousands of blocks of flats, because the Government changed the guidance in January 2020. It issued a consolidated advice note for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings.

This changed the regulatory guidance, and it now applies to any building of any height, instead of buildings over 18 metres. So at a stroke, second storey flats, were treated the same as flats on the top storey of buildings over 18 metres for the purposes of fire safety regulation, mortgages and insurance for example.

Many of these leaseholders are already in debt. They must sacrifice working hard for years to pay off these debts due to the poor decisions of successive Governments and housing developers, so that they can keep their Help to Buy or shared ownership homes. What was envisioned as a first step onto the property ladder for many people has turned into a never-ending nightmare that will affect people’s lives and our society for years to come, if unresolved.

Leaseholders find it almost impossible to sell their homes even if they acquire the EWS1 form necessary for the potential buyers’ mortgage approval. After all, who wants to buy a home cladded with combustible material, with a potentially unlimited bill to pay? Hundreds of thousands of homes continue to depreciate in value while they have the potential to recover if the unsafe cladding and other fire safety defects are remediated.

The Secretary of State says that, after the Covid pandemic, the Government wants to build back better—better homes, better infrastructure, and better communities. To do so, it must regain the trust of leaseholders who find themselves entangled in the cladding crisis.

The McPartland-Smith amendments to the Fire Safety Bill will stop leaseholders’ nightmare once and for all. The amendments, if passed, will prevent remedial cladding costs due to historic building defects from being passed onto leaseholders. The Government has a chance to right the wrongs caused by decades of bad policies, while kick-starting the post-Covid economy, by reactivating the values of hundreds of thousands of properties that are often people’s first homes, and creating the desirable ripple effect for properties up the chain.

Forty Conservative MP’s had signed our amendment, though a handful have now withdrawn their names. They have done so in good faith, believing we have achieved the aims of the amendment. Sadly, that isn’t the case. More than half of those caught up in the cladding scandal will have to pay for remediation costs themselves. Imagine living on one side of a road and having to take out a loan to pay for replacement of cladding and seeing people on the other side having the works carried out for free? Does anyone think that is fair?

The Fire Safety Bill will return to Parliament on 24 February, and we urge the Government to accept it. We will move our amendment because we cannot, in all conscience, allow half of leaseholders to face more debt and we cannot abandon leaseholders to the crippling costs of massive insurance premiums, waking watch and remediation of defects which weren’t deemed unsafe when they bought their property.

MPs will need to decide if they think protecting people from living in unsafe buildings, through no fault of their own, is the responsibility of government or not. Parliament voted to lock the country down to save lives: this is no different.

Cladding removal means a huge bill. Punishing taxpayers or homeowners is an uncomfortable choice for Conservatives.

5 Feb

On 14th June 2017, a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block and resulted in 72 deaths. The tragedy shocked the nation. For some years we had been making progress in improving safety standards. 243 fire-related fatalities in 2019/20. Ten years earlier it was 328 – and 20 years ago it was 485. But the Grenfell disaster rightly prompted a focus on how we must do better. Two years after the fire, an inquiry concluded that aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding panels was the “primary cause”. By the time the report came out, the Government had already banned the use of combustible materials in the external walls of new buildings over 59 feet tall – or around six storeys.

“Remediation” work also got underway on existing buildings regarded as unsafe. Getting rid of the ACM cladding is being paid for by the taxpayer – at a cost of £600 million. So there will be no cost to tenants or leaseholders in such blocks – whether private, housing association, or local authority.

But there is also a requirement to remove cladding which, though not ACM, is still regarded as dangerous. In the case of council flats, each relevant local authority will pay, with the cost ultimately picked up by central Government. Neither council tenants nor leaseholders will be sent a bill.

It is when it comes to removing the non-ACM cladding from other properties – private and housing associations – that the difficulty arises. The Government has produced a £1 billion fund but it has reportedly been four times oversubscribed. There has been criticism that it will go to those best placed to complete the paperwork (usually housing associations) rather than for those buildings at the greatest risk.

So if the taxpayer does not pay the full cost then who should?

Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, told Parliament in November:

“We expect developers, investors and building owners who have the means to pay to cover remediation costs themselves without passing on costs to leaseholders.”

But some are unclear what practical or legal measures that expectation rests on. Pincher added:

“But we recognise that there are cases where that might not be possible, and cases where there may be wider costs relating to historical defects. The Government are determined to identify suitable financial solutions and remove barriers to remediation. The Government have asked Michael Wade to accelerate his work with leaseholders and the financial sector to develop proposals to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediating historical defects wherever possible. However, we must also ensure that the bill does not fall wholly on taxpayers. We will update leaseholders on that work before the Building Safety Bill, which has just completed its prelegislative scrutiny, is introduced in Parliament.”

Pincher spoke again in a Commons debate on Tuesday. He was able to provide an update on important progress:

“All high-rise social sector buildings have either had their unsafe ACM cladding replaced or seen the work get underway.”

He also acknowledged that leaseholders should not be made to pay an unfair burden by the owner of the building simply hiking service charges to recoup the cost. But the details are complicated:

“There is no quick fix. If there were, we would have done it long ago. It is complex and it involves many parties: leaseholders with different leases, developers, warranty holders, the insurance industry, the mortgage lenders, and the owners themselves. We have to find a solution that is right and proper, that demands of owners and developers that they put right the problems and defects they caused, that is fair to leaseholders who should not have to carry unfair costs for problems that they did not cause or envisage, and that is fair to the taxpayer, who is already shouldering a significant burden in remediating many buildings.”

The Government has said that bills should not be “unaffordable” for leaseholders and thus proposed providing a guaranteed loan scheme to spread the payments. But these bills are substantial – the Daily Mail reports an average of £40,000. To make matters worse, it is hard to sell such properties. An EWS1 form has to be signed by a surveyor that such buildings are safe. The surveyors are understandably reluctant to do so. Sometimes those with flats in only five or six storey blocks have faced a refusal to sign – if, for example, there is a wooden balcony. Even where the requirement is met there is a backlog finding someone to carry out the inspection.

At Prime Minister’s Question Time this week, Sir Keir Starmer highlighted the case of a doctor in Sheffield with a £52,000 bill. Boris Johnson replied that “this is a problem that needs to be fixed.” He added:

“I very much appreciate and sympathise with the predicament of leaseholders who are in that situation, but we are working to clear the backlog, and I can tell him that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary will be coming forward with a full package to address the issue.”

Those of us who are fortunate enough to manage to become homeowners understand that we face a risk of unexpected bills – sometimes for substantial funds. But the leaseholders bought in good faith, have been blameless and such bills do seem way beyond what could reasonably have been expected. Also why should some leaseholders pay but not others? Why private leaseholders but not council leaseholders? Why those with non-ACM cladding, while those with ACM cladding are let off? Why do some get an allocation from the £1 billion but not others?

Then again the developers and the building owners could point out that they too acted in good faith. They complied with the – very substantial and detailed – regulatory requirements. Perhaps the culprits are the officials who wrote the flawed regulations. But even if we had a clear-out of such staff at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, it would not solve the problem we now face.

Shifting the cost to the state would recognise that it was the state to blame. The law was followed but the law was deficient. In practice that means more burden on taxpayers – millions of whom would love to become homeowners despite the evident risks involved.

But a better alternative would be sprinklers. The Chief Fire Officers Association points out that nobody has ever died in a fire, in the UK, in a property with a properly installed sprinkler system. The implications of that are very powerful. Putting in sprinklers would be more effective than all the other measures combined. Removing cladding, the “waking watch” staff, the concierge staff, removing plastic window frames, putting in fire doors, electrical appliances checks. All would be superfluous provided a modern sprinkler system is in place.

Ronnie King, an acknowledged expert in this field, has told me the case for installing sprinklers in all blocks of flats is overwhelming.

This report from a study of a retrofitting project in Sheffield says:

“Perhaps the key finding of the project is that the installation cost is less than £1,150 per flat. This is significant in that it is significantly less than had been estimated and illustrates how economically such a scheme can be retrofitted in occupied premises without undue disruption.”

It seems perverse that such huge sums are being spent, when an alternative is available, at a fraction of the cost, and that has a one hundred per cent safety record. Where sprinklers are installed an exemption should be offered to other requirements which are both less effective and more onerous.

Judy Terry: Local elections could see voters who are angry with the Goverment being the ones who bother to vote

1 Oct

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

We are just eight months away from the next local elections, scheduled for 6th May, 2021, including County and district councils, 13 directly elected mayors, and 40 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) – deferred from 2020.

For obvious reasons, as campaigning starts, activists cannot knock on doors, but conversations with voters in front gardens and on the street, with friends in socially distanced pubs, indicate some sympathy for the Government having to deal with the Covid crisis. However, frustration is growing over the Prime Minister’s absence, a perceived lack of leadership, and confused messaging.

As Brexit deadlines approach, interest in the outcome is also growing, with most feeling the challenges are self-inflicted. The Government should not have signed the agreement taking us out of the EU in January if it had reservations about its future implementation.

So, which national, not local, issues will determine the outcome next year? There are two groups of first time voters, who may set the tone and tip the balance.

Firstly, EU citizens living in England who are permitted to vote in local elections from 2021. They are important contributors to our economy, and services, often doing unpopular jobs in agriculture, the NHS, care, factories and hospitality.

Inevitably ‘testy’, successful Brexit negotiations are critical to our economic future at this most difficult of times. The Conservatives will pay a heavy price at the ballot box for failing to salvage a healthy working relationship with the EU: new tariffs, customs checks and reams of additional paperwork delaying imports and exports, or threatening trade agreements with other countries, including the US, would penalise our economic recovery. Lorry parks are already in place around Kent, where illegal immigration across the Channel is having a major impact on coastal towns; detention camps are now being established in former Army bases.

Secondly, thousands of teenagers, whose lives and career ambitions were turned upside down following the exams debacle, will also be eligible to vote for the first time.Their equally frustrated parents will ensure they are registered – and actually vote. If schools close again, there will inevitably be calls for next year’s exams to be deferred, causing yet more chaos, adding to parental and students’ anger.

However, it is the reaction to Covid which is likely to have the most significant impact on voting intentions. Westminster seems unaware that many lifelong Conservatives – let alone ‘borrowed’ voters – are dismayed by Government indecision. It doesn’t help that some Ministers over-promise and under-deliver, with Test & Trace failing to meet its targets whilst the number of cases escalate, and now the 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, adding yet more pressure to the economy, increasing unemployment.

Protecting the elderly and vulnerable, and those who look after them in care homes, is another key issue for families – and local authorities. The Chancellor’s latest injection of over half a billion funding to support the sector is welcome, especially when reports indicate that hospitals may eject elderly patients into care homes – again – if more beds are needed for Covid patients in the coming months. Wouldn’t a better solution be to set up convalescent wards for them? Or utilise the temporary Nightingale hospitals?

With billions of pounds poured into the Covid crisis, and public borrowing at unprecedented levels, ensuring that taxpayers’ billions provide value for money is crucial, and those organisations which have returned Government funding should be commended, but the National Audit Office is investigating fraud in relation to the furlough scheme. It is reportedly also addressing how multi-million pound Covid-related contracts are awarded, not always in compliance with the usual competitive tender process designed to ensure standards as well as capability.

Another voter concern is Westminster’s current cronyism in public appointments, when some appointees don’t necessarily have the knowledge or experience to take on important high profile roles paying huge salaries. There is a need to ensure a more open – independently monitored – process, attracting a broader network of appropriately qualified individuals who can be held to account and be seen to deliver on their brief.

Despite Covid pressures, it is also critical that Government doesn’t ignore the two major public inquiries, examining the Manchester Arena bombings and Grenfell fire, currently under way; initial revelations have already identified a number of significant questions for the public sector, which will have to be addressed sooner rather than later.

In particular, Grenfell was a disaster in a Conservative-run council area but there are repercussions across the country for 186,000 flats in high rise blocks, whose owners face massive bills for replacing cladding, and other protective measures. They purchased their flats in good faith, and should not be held responsible for the lack of Building Control and developers’ shoddy construction, now destroying their finances, leaving them unable to sell and move on with their lives. Re-cladding is estimated to cost around £6 billion; so far the Government has committed just £1 billion, excluding Scotland and Wales.

In the meantime, Covid continues to bring further challenges. To the fury and confusion of many, both in Parliament and beyond the M25, the Government appears to think it has the right to dictate, hectoring and threatening, instead of empathising and showing respect. It doesn’t help to cause panic amongst people, who should be allowed to use their common sense, based on facts, not whims. The current lack of strategy – and an endgame – undermines trust, and £10,000 fines (which are unlikely to be paid) are not the solution if people fail to self-isolate; no action was taken when a Government advisor allegedly travelled hundreds of miles whilst infected, damaging public confidence.

In the confusion, it is easy to forget that the UK is a democracy, not a dictatorship. Thankfully, the 1922 Committee is on the case, rightly demanding Parliamentary oversight of emergency legislation. This is crucial as, according to the latest scientific advice, we can expect at least a further six months in some form of ‘quarantine’.

Government must improve its communication, avoiding bluster with ‘world beating’, ‘moonshot’ and ‘oven ready’ phrases, which may win a media headline but only patronise the public. It should also work to co-ordinate policies, to simplify understanding and compliance across all UK nations.

It is time to be constructive about the future – or pay the price. The electorate can be unforgiving, so next year’s local elections will set the tone for the rest of this Government’s term in office.

Felicity Buchan: We need new homes that are safe

12 Aug

Felicity Buchan is the MP for Kensington.

There are two things that the vast majority of people would agree with:

  • As a country, we need more homes – well built and appropriate to their surroundings;
  • We need to kickstart our economy.

A substantial programme of new housebuilding is the answer to both of those. Through apprenticeships and traineeships, we can increase job opportunities in the construction sector to drive the economic recovery, while building hugely needed new homes.

This issue – of ensuring that everyone has a safe, secure home they can afford – is personal for me. As the MP for Kensington, which includes Grenfell Tower, I am acutely aware that each person should go to sleep at night in a safe and secure home. Good housing has a profound impact on health, wellbeing, educational attainment, and economic success. The prevalence of coronavirus in communities where overcrowding is common, is another wake-up call for the need for more housing. We need to adopt a two-step approach: ensuring our existing housing stock is safe and fit for purpose, while building more housing.

I am very supportive of the Government’s overhaul of our building safety regime with the Fire Safety Bill (which had its Second Reading in April) and the draft Building Safety Bill (which was introduced to Parliament in July). If there is to be any positive legacy from the Grenfell fire, it must be that a tragedy of this kind is never allowed to happen again and that our building and fire safety regime is state of the art.

But we also need to correct the fundamental shortage of housing, in particular of affordable housing. Many people working in our vital services and many young people struggle to find an affordable home within a suitable distance from their employment, and this is certainly a significant issue in Kensington.

We have seen the Government commit to increasing the supply of affordable housing by allocating £12.2 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme for homes to be delivered from 2021/22 over the next five years. In June 2020, Government estimated this would deliver up to 180,000 new affordable homes.

We need a range of tenures in our new affordable housing, including socially rented and intermediate ownership. Clearly new housing needs to be sympathetic to its surroundings; and I would strongly recommend a focus on developing brownfield sites, with developments of a height and massing in keeping with the local area.

As we respond to coronavirus, we must focus not just on saving lives, but on saving livelihoods. Housebuilding is crucial to rebuilding a strong economy, and brings with it skills and employment opportunities. Research from the Centre for Economics and Business Research and the National Housing Federation had calculated that £4.8 billion would be added directly to the economy, and 86,000 jobs would be supported, if 90,000 affordable homes were built a year. When indirect spending is added, this rises to £11.2 billion and 200,000 jobs. Furthermore, the Government estimated in the Budget 2020 that its £12.2bn investment in affordable housing should generate an additional £38 billion in public and private investment, an enormous uplift.

Community organisations and businesses also have a role to play. In December last year, I visited a housing association scheme for young people at risk of homelessness in Kensington, run by Evolve Housing and Support. It was inspiring to see young people learning skills and receiving the support that can set them up for life.

A government-backed building programme also provides an opportunity to encourage investment in green, sustainable development. As a member of the Conservative Environment Network, I have been particularly involved in lobbying the Government for a Green economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The Green Home grant scheme is an excellent step in improving our existing housing stock; we also need to build energy efficient new affordable housing developments.

Building new affordable homes is a rare example of a “win win”: providing the safe and secure new homes people need, while fuelling the recovery of the construction sector and the economy as a whole. These homes can be a lasting positive legacy: well built, energy efficient, and sympathetic to their local areas.

Let’s combine these aims to make sure we build back better.