Hundreds of leaseholders headed to parliament to demand new housing secretary Michael Gove protects them from bills that could force them into poverty and homelessness. Image: Reece Lipman
Residents caught up in the building safety crisis are have converged on parliament for their biggest protest yet to tell new housing secretary Michael Gove to act urgently to fix cladding and unsafe homes.
Hundreds of leaseholders from The End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, the National Leasehold Campaign and charity Leasehold Knowledge Partnership headed to Westminster on Thursday warning that failing to cover the costs of fixing flammable cladding and other fire safety defects could bankrupt a generation of homeowners.
The campaigners, many of them facing bills of thousands of pounds to make their homes safe, want the government to legislate in the upcoming Building Safety Bill to get property developers to cover the costs. There was no sign of Gove at the protest, but his predecessor Robert Jenrick was called out by name on many placards.
Leaseholder campaign groups from across the UK headed to Westminster to make their voice heard, including buses that had travelled from Bristol and Yorkshire.
Dozens were sporting t-shirts asking: “When will you reLEASE us?”, and above the crowd waved homemade placards detailing the personal cost of the scandal, including demands for up to hundreds of thousands of pounds for fixing fire safety defects.
Others urged parliament to “abolish not polish” the Fire Safety Bill, accompanied by a turd emoji. One resident of the Olympic Park, which contains many buildings affected, carried a sign sating simply that he was “Living in an Olympic nightmare”.
Will Martin, of the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, said: “The time for warm words but limited action is over. We need the government to finally hold true to the many promises made over the years to protect us from paying to fix safety defects we didn’t cause.
“We will make sure Boris Johnson hears our voices and finally takes control of this crisis to ensure the people he is supposed to represent have protection in law.”
Members of Grenfell United, a group of survivors and family members bereaved in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, joined leaseholders to vent their anger while a 72-second silence was held to remember the people who lost their lives in the disaster.
The memory of the tragic fire was the focus of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s speech at the rally. The Labour mayor asked how “anybody who spent time with the Grenfell Tower community doesn’t feel a sense of urgency to make all our homes safe. The bad news is, the Grenfell Tower fire wasn’t a one off.”
MPs from across the political spectrum also took to the stage mounted on the back of a HGV to speak at the rally. Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Labour’s Hilary Benn and Lib Dem Daisy Cooper all addressed the crowd.
Duncan Smith led a chant of “Michael Gove, we want justice!” while Benn said the aim of the campaign was to help leaseholders who are terrified of receiving bills for “money you don’t have, to fix a problem that was not your fault.”
TV housing expert Phil Spencer also appeared on stage in a recorded message urging campaigners to “keep up the pressure”.
Leaseholder Reece Lipman joined the MPs and high-profile campaigners at the rally. His flat at Chapel Court in Romford, Essex, is not eligible for the £5bn Building Safety Fund as it is under 18 metres in height and he is waiting to see whether a touted loans scheme could help him cover remediation costs.
“It’s Gove’s very first day in post and there are going to be very big crowds standing outside of parliament saying exactly what needs to happen and what his predecessors failed to achieve,” the 31-year-old filmmaker told The Big Issue.
“We don’t ever seem to see a change in what happens. So hopefully seeing a massive crowd standing outside of parliament, calling for change desperately to save us from the stress, anxiety, bills and general fear that we’re all living with. Hopefully seeing that crowd outside makes him understand the role that he has to take on.”
Sophie Bichener told The Big Issue the rally will send a clear message to the new housing secretary, who was named in the role on Wednesday after Robert Jenrick was sacked in Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle.
The 29-year-old bought her flat in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, in 2017 for £230,000 but is currently waiting for an application to the UK government’s Building Safety Fund to be processed to see if it covers her bill of over £200,000 to fix cladding and other fire defects.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult first day with the rally going on,” said Bichener. “But we just want Gove to come in and listen and sit down with leaseholders and understand the problem and get to the root of it to create a solution that works for everyone.
“We’re saying enough is enough? We have to have a solution now. It’s gone too far. We are hoping for a big turnout tomorrow so the government can see the scale of the crisis.”
Olivia Hill is making the 160-mile journey from her home at Mandale House in Sheffield to attend the rally.
The 26-year-old is facing a £55,000 bill to fix fire defects in her home. Like Bichener, is currently waiting to see if the government’s £5bn Building Safety Fund will cover the costs of removing dangerous cladding. The building is eligible for support as it is over 18 metres in height.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford that. I’m a PhD student and I put all my money into buying his flat in the first place as I was told this was a really good idea and investment. But I was mis-sold,” said Hill.
“We desperately need to come together as leaseholders and people trapped with fire safety issues in their homes to call on the government to change not only leasehold law, but the Building Safety Bill to protect us from these costs. Because, as it stands, they’ve had chances time and time again and nothing has changed yet since Grenfell.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly promised to help leaseholders with remediation costs for cladding issues. Johnson told the House of Commons in February: “We’re absolutely clear that leaseholders should not have to worry about the cost of fixing historic safety defects that they didn’t cause.”
The rally came in the same week that the leaseholder-driven solution to the crisis – an amendment to the government’s Building Safety Bill, known as the Polluter Pays Bill – continued to attract interest in Westminster.
The bill is inspired by existing laws that allow the government to pursue firms who contaminate land to force them to cover the costs of fixing it.
Residents at Royal Artillery Quays in Woolwich, London, propose the government should be able to do the same to force developers behind unsafe homes to pay up. They came up with the solution after being left with a £30m bill to fix the 118 flats.
Steve Day, the resident who is the face of the Polluter Pays Bill, met with the government last week and gave evidence to MPs at a Public Bills Committee hearing just two days before the rally.
“I urge you to recognise that full redress is not just something that we want—a “nice to have”,” Day told MPs.
“This is a unique situation, the costs are high and we need you, parliament, to step up and put in this scheme.”
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