If you’re a government minister, one phrase you don’t want to see popping up in your press coverage too often is “pressure is growing”. This doesn’t just mean that there are people who oppose you (I mean, aren’t there always?): it means the media have collectively decided that enough of them oppose you to make a u-turn probable, and thus will keep banging on about it until it happens.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick – never a man blessed with great press, it must be said – has been seeing that phrase rather a lot of late. His plan to fund the removal of the flammable cladding uncovered in the wake of the Grenfell fire has left millions of leaseholders facing massive costs to remove it. As a result, pressure is growing (see? It happened again) for him to change course. Those providing that pressure include a selection of Tory backbenchers, the Daily Mail, Jeremy Clarkson, and Kevin McCloud off Grand Designs – none of them the sort of people a Tory minister generally wants to make an enemy of.
The reason for all this is the government’s obvious reluctance to protect leaseholders from the life-wrecking cost of its own mistakes. The £3.6bn fund Jenrick announced last week covers fire safety measures in buildings over 18 metres, or six storeys, high in England. It’ll be funded in part by a levy on developers (although, inevitably, details TBC). That sounds like a lot of money, especially when added to the £1.6bn building safety fund already allotted. But it’s a long way short of the £15bn a Commons committee recommended last year. It isn’t enough.
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It also, you notice, excludes those cladding-covered buildings which are under 18 metres/six storeys high, which account for more than half of those that require remediation, as well as any building affected in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The arguments for this are, basically, that you’re vastly less likely to die in a fire in a low-rise building; and that the devolved governments should be stumping up their own share of the costs, respectively.
Why being less likely to die in a fire makes you more able to pay a large bill is not exactly clear. Last autumn, the House of Lords passed an amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrat Baroness Pinnock, which would have made it illegal for the developers or investors who own building freeholds to pass costs down to the leaseholders who actually own the flats inside them. The government has so far failed to support this amendment, however: Jenrick has instead proposed a system of long-term low interest loans, at which freeholders could pay off their cladding debts by up to £50 a month. At that rate, this will take literally decades. The debts would be sold with the flats, almost certainly reducing property values.
In his announcement of the new fund, Jenrick spoke of the need to find “the right balance” between leaseholders and taxpayers when funding the scheme: in other words, he clearly believes that leaseholders should be on the hook for the money. You bought it: it’s your problem.
Today I announced the biggest ever investment in building safety, with the Government paying for the removal of all unsafe cladding on high-rise residential buildings. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/CNcTFNzBUp
— Robert Jenrick (@RobertJenrick) February 10, 2021
But, according to a recent survey conducted by Inside Housing magazine, a majority of leaseholders affected by the cladding scandal are young, and live in households with incomes of under £50,000. The same survey found the government’s claim that the average bill they were facing was £9,000, an already pretty painful number, to be a gross under-estimate. Nearly 90 per cent of them are facing bills over £10,000; a third over £50,000. Many are already exploring the possibility of bankruptcy.
These are not rich people, who gambled and lost. They are fairly average households that bought homes in good faith, only to find they were fire-traps – because developers had cut corners in the name of profit, and because of government failure to properly regulate the sector. Why should they face life-ruining bills to live in homes they can’t sell, simply because Jenrick’s predecessors failed to do their jobs?
The same Inside Housing survey, incidentally, found that nearly 40 per cent of affected leaseholders voted Tory. Unless Jenrick changes direction, it seems probable that many of them will not be doing so again. The natural desire for justice is one reason why pressure is growing: the electoral consequences of not providing it is almost certainly another.