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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Government failure post-Grenfell trapping thousands of families

The Covid-19 crisis and UK government incompetence over Brexit may have pushed the issue further down the news agenda, but the failure to tackle inadequate cladding on flats following the tragic Grenfell fire, is causing huge problems across the UK.

The big issue of course is safety, but as the Sunday Times reports, that is not all that is worrying families. They say that there are 30,000 flats with the type of cladding that fuelled the inferno and 186,000 private high-rise flats wrapped in other flammable materials.

And they say that the defects could leave up to 1½ million modern flats, 6% of England’s homes, unmortgageable because they cannot prove their walls are safe, breaking the first rung of the property ladder. It is a crisis that could hit the entire market:

The west London fire that killed 72 people in 2017 laid bare decades of regulatory failure and a culture of building fast and cheap. About 700,000 people are still in high-rise flats with dangerous cladding. Millions more face waiting up to a decade for the safety sign-off they need to sell or get a new mortgage.

Nine in 10 blocks have failed cladding checks. Flat-owners must pay for repairs under leasehold law. In one Manchester block, the bills are up to £115,000 each. “They’re trapped and they’ve got nowhere to go ... If the property chain is broken, the whole housing market could be affected,” said Clive Betts, the Labour MP who chairs the housing committee.

In the first real data on non-Grenfell cladding problems, 2,957 buildings, with an estimated 186,000 flats, have registered with a £1bn government fund to help freeholders reclad tall blocks in England, an insider said. The number of unsafe blocks is almost 75% higher than the 1,700 officials had estimated.

The housing ministry said the figure “does not reflect the number of eligible applications”, but experts expect it to be cut only to 2,200. With typical costs of £2m per block, according to the Association of Residential Managing Agents (Arma), the total needed could be £4.4bn — nearly four times the money available.

Since the government tightened safety advice in January, lenders have routinely demanded evidence that almost any modern flat is safe, even in three-storey brick buildings. England has 1½ million flats in blocks taller than three storeys (about 32ft) built after 1945. Owners could be refused a mortgage if the building lacks an “external wall system” document, or EWS1 form, to say the insulation, balconies and structure are safe.

It appears most modern flats do not comply and will be sellable only when fixed. Fire engineers who perform EWS1 checks find “utter rubbish” inside walls, said Dorian Lawrence, of Façade Remedial Consultants (FRC), which produces safety reports. Of 2,000 blocks inspected by his firm, 92% were given the worst rating of B2, meaning banks will not lend. Materials are “incorrect, cheap and absolutely non-compliant” and workmanship “appalling”, Lawrence said.

Betts added: “It’s inadequate regulations, poor culture in the building industry and a lack of accountability. And it’s partly linked to the price of land.” Land typically makes up more than 70% of a property’s price, up from 50% 20 years ago — raising pressure to build cheaply.

Leaseholder groups from London, Birmingham, Leeds and Southampton wrote to Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, last month: “Many of us have ploughed everything we earned into buying our property — only to be told that we need to pay an extra third or half of its original value to fix mistakes that we did not make and that were not recognised by building regulations at the time of purchase.” They add: “This crisis is only getting bigger.” He did not reply until contacted by The Sunday Times on Friday.

The paper says that this issue could make people prisoners in flats they cannot sell for years. Some cannot move jobs, get married or afford to have children. They cannot retire.

The government fund set up to help leaseholders does not cover unsafe blocks under 59ft, even though fires in Barking, east London, and Bolton have destroyed homes below this height with flammable cladding. Missing barriers meant to stop fire spreading inside cavity walls are also excluded from the fund as is insurance or 24-hour fire patrols, which cost one block’s leaseholders £742 a month.

The paper adds that tight deadlines for the £1bn fund mean only a “tiny fraction” of towers will get help to replace materials other than Grenfell’s aluminium composite material, Work must start by March to qualify but he said there are not enough skilled workers. The process could take five to ten years.

And Scotland and Wales lack a cladding fund altogether: At Victoria Wharf in Cardiff, Alex Hough, 31, will get no government help with a £61,000 bill to replace expanded polystyrene insulation (EPS). “I face losing everything I have worked extremely hard for.”

This is a scandal which requires more effective government intervention from all Administations. We cannot have another tragedy like Grenfell, nor can we leave owners out on a limb with nowhere to turn for help.
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