Opinion

Leaseholders' battle for cladding cash shows PM's disconnect with public

The post-Grenfell nightmare for high-rise leaseholders throws the Prime Minister Boris Johnson's greed and bellyaching about John Lewis furniture into sharp relief

Grenfell

Grenfell Tower in the wake of the tragic 2017 fire. Image credit: ChiralJon/Flickr

It’s a housing story that could yet cost the government dear. The details remain unclear and who ultimately foots the bill will have major ramifications.

But I don’t think Boris Johnson will live in these places. The story concerns cladding on high-rise buildings.

In the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, when it became obvious that flammable cladding issues were rife in hundreds of high-rise developments, instructions went out to remove those materials. This was an inarguable necessity. The risk of a repeat of the horror that cost 72 people their lives can’t be countenanced.

However, almost immediately questions emerged over who would pay. Would it be the building owners or the individual property leaseholders?

This is where the nightmare started for thousands of homeowners. The places they’d saved for many years to get were suddenly either lumbered with massive costs, due to nothing they’d done. Or, if they tried to sell to move on and start again, they discovered there were no buyers and they could be trapped in negative equity. It was a treacherous bind.

Lives will be blighted, horizons will be narrowed, worry will reign and unquestionably, some people will be bankrupted and lose their homesPaul McNamee

Following several years of campaigning, the Westminster government bowed to pressure and came up with a kind of resolution. In February, they said they were making a £3.5bn funding package available to pay for costs to replace unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in residential buildings that are six storeys or higher in England.

Leaving aside what happens to low-rise residents, the fix for the high-rises isn’t straightforward. And last week it became even more complex. Campaigners discovered that a lot of the loans (because the money was not coming without strings) would not be available for up to three years. But if buildings are unsafe, remedial work is needed now. And so leaseholders are being hammered with massive bills. They may be told that money will come to help meet those bills in several years, but that doesn’t help if there is an invoice for tens of thousands on your doormat and just months to pay. Lives will be blighted, horizons will be narrowed, worry will reign and unquestionably, some people will be bankrupted and lose their homes. The horror of homelessness will circle.

At the same time as this doubt and fear stalking so many – and the Association of Residential Managing Agents estimates around half a million people are living in a building with some form of unsafe cladding – the Prime Minister is bellyaching about having to put up with John Lewis furniture.

While an investigation will look into who paid for his renovations, it feels like this is not where the game is. So many of the news reports around the Downing Street wallpaper fandango have been framed around the question of ‘but does the public care?’ Usually followed by some soundbites about how ‘the public’ is focused on jobs and post-Covid recovery.

Certainly, we are all very worried about the future.

But the reason this story about Boris Johnson feels different is because it exposes something of the man. If he wants to fix up his house, that’s his business. But when the sneery attitude is shown so clearly it peels back a great reveal illustrating a shocking tin ear and massive disconnect with the reality millions face.

That is what will stick when the investigation fades.

We all remember how people make us feel long after we forget exactly what they said.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue

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