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How the building safety scandal feeds Britain’s housing crisis

Britain desperately needs new, safe affordable homes to end the housing crisis. Liam Geraghty investigates how the need to fix existing homes means fewer will be constructed at a time when they are needed more than ever
The Grenfell Tower disaster has uncovered safety issues in social housing that need fixing before new, safer homes can be built to end the UK's housing crisis. Image credit: ChiralJon/Flickr

“When I moved in I saw the cladding and I thought: ‘Grenfell was years ago, it must be OK’. I couldn’t believe it.”

Susan Oliver waited 20 years to get her own social home. The 55-year-old moved into the third floor of the 15-storey Papyrus House in Islington, North London, last October with her 15-year-old and 17-year-old daughters excited about a fresh start.

But the first inklings of trouble came in March when she noticed a worker in a cherry-picker outside her window. He told her he was there to inspect the cladding and handed her a piece he had removed to check.

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Since then, both Susan, who has limited mobility due to chronic osteoarthritis and suffers from anxiety, and her teenage daughters, have been “living in fear”.

“I saw the cladding and the foam inside. If there was fire on a balcony, it would just spread up the side of the building,” Susan tells The Big Issue.

“My daughter’s 15 and she hasn’t slept since then during the night. She sleeps during the day now when I’m awake because she’s so scared to be in a fire.

“I must admit, you hear sirens going past and every time I think, ‘Is this it?’ You’re on edge.”

Susan Oliver has been caught up in the cladding crisis
Susan Oliver
Susan Oliver has been left "living in fear" due to fire safety issues at Papyrus House - the social housing flat she waited 20 years for. Image: Susan Oliver

Susan is one of thousands of social housing tenants caught up in the building safety crisis. Since she does not own her flat, she will not face a bill to repair the cladding. But living in an unsafe building still takes its toll.

A spokesperson for the Papyrus House managing agent Knight Frank told The Big Issue the firm is “treating the matter with the utmost of seriousness”.

Ahead of the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster in June, The Big Issue heard from leaseholders who bought flats in buildings that were later found to be unsafe, and are now facing bills for remediation costs.

Despite the UK government’s £5.1bn Building Safety Fund to remove dangerous cladding, many people who lease their properties still face bankruptcy or homelessness due to fire safety bills. And the reveal of the Building Safety Bill in July did little to allay fears they would be forced to pay for repairs.

The legislation asks developers to show evidence they have searched for alternative funding before passing on remediation costs to leaseholders if they cannot.

Social tenants like Susan may not face the same immediate personal financial burden – local authorities and developers should pick up the bill – but they too remain trapped in their homes, which have been rendered essentially worthless by the crisis.

And it has the power to deal a body blow to the UK’s attempts to end the housing crisis.

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At a time when housing associations should be focusing efforts on building up the country’s social housing stock to prevent low-income families being exposed to the private rented sector,  Britain’s big builders are counting the costs of fixing homes instead.

Charity Shelter estimates 90,000 good-quality social homes are needed each year after neglect from successive governments saw the UK’s social housing stock lost. Last year, the Local Government Association warned waiting lists for a social home could reach two million people.

But the building safety crisis leaves house builders focused on fixing, not building. The National Housing Federation (NHF) estimates it will cost housing associations £10bn to remediate all their buildings while some have been locked out of the government’s Building Safety Fund. As of May, fewer than half of social landlords’ applications for the fund had been accepted.

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The four largest social landlords in the country – Clarion Housing Group, L&Q, Network Homes and Peabody – have said remediation costs will come at the expense of 8,300 affordable homes over the next five years. That is a 40 per cent cut on their targets.

Twelve of the biggest not-for-profit housing associations have already set aside £2.9bn – largely from social rents – to make their buildings safe and had to cut plans for thousands of new social homes, according to NHF.

The government is aware of the discrepancy, and the Financial Times reported that Boris Johnson had met with representatives from high-street banks HSBC, NatWest, Barclays, Nationwide and Lloyds in early July to discuss their support in covering remediation costs.

Victoria Moffett, head of building and fire safety programmes at the National Housing Federation, says: “This money is being diverted away from providing services and maintaining the homes of people on the lowest incomes in this country, as well as building much-needed new social housing.

“The absence of funding for social landlords has essentially resulted in a stealth tax on housing associations and their residents, which far exceeds any action taken to claim back costs from developers who built these homes or from manufacturers of dangerous cladding.

“The government must fund the upfront costs of all fire safety works on behalf of social housing providers and leaseholders and claim this money back from those responsible, such as private developers and manufacturers, once works are completed.”

The added financial pressures the cladding scandal is forcing on to the construction sector also comes at the worst possible time.

Both Brexit and Covid-19 have disrupted the sector, while the large-scale demand for building materials to fix defects is pushing up prices.

Andy Mitchell, co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council, said in a letter to the construction industry in June the disruption is “something we must live with for a while to come and could have a significant impact on the timeframes and delivery costs of many projects”.

There is a skills gap, too, with a shortage of fire safety consultants and engineers who are qualified to undertake the work required on assessing buildings. The National Fire Chiefs Council announced a degree-level fire safety engineer apprenticeship was given the green light by ministers in July and will run from this autumn in a bid to plug the gap.

The impacts might not be immediate, but it might have a longer-term drag on the number of homes that are availableNeal Hudson, a housing market analyst at Residential Analysts

The series of issues all make fixing buildings costly and squeeze profit margins on building affordable homes.

“It was already a more challenging market for them to deliver affordable housing, so if they’ve got these extra costs layered on top of that then make it much more difficult,” Neal Hudson, a housing market analyst with Residential Analysts, tells The Big Issue.

“It’s possible that some people will just walk away and not get involved in high-rise or flat development more generally.

“The impacts might not be immediate, but it might have a longer-term drag on the number of homes that are available.

“It could be quite disastrous for that. It looks like central government is not willing to put up the cash itself. From all aspects this should never have happened.”

The result is that until the building safety crisis is solved, anyone looking for a social housing revolution is likely to be playing the waiting game – either for cladding to be removed from their social home or to find a safe, affordable home to live in.

“We’ve just got to hang tight until they do something, which won’t be this year. It could be next year or the year after,” adds Susan Oliver.

“I think it will take years. I really do. I mean, I intend to be out of here because my daughter can’t carry on not sleeping at night and sleeping when I’m awake. It’s just not a life. You are living in fear.”

Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their homes right now. One UK household is being made homeless every three-and-a-half hours.

You can help stop a potential avalanche of homelessness by joining The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign. Here’s how: