Andrew Dismore: Ministers must address the plight of leaseholders trapped in fire-risk homes

Andrew Dismore: Ministers must address the plight of leaseholders trapped in fire-risk homes

The devastating fire at Grenfell Tower has had ramifications far beyond the terrible destruction it wrought on that day in 2017. As the sheer scale of the use of unsafe cladding on buildings in the capital became clear, life changed for tens of thousands of Londoners.

Prior to Grenfell, the idea that leaseholders would become mortgage prisoners in dangerous buildings – their own homes – was unimaginable. But it’s now a position in which all too many Londoners find themselves.

There are currently 430 tall buildings in London in all that require waking watches due to fire safety concerns. London Fire Brigade Commissioner Andy Roe recently told the London Assembly’s Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee that the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government has estimated that up to 72,000 buildings of various types and heights in London are potentially at risk due to a range of construction failings.

Cladding has left many residential buildings and their occupants in a state of persistent insecurity. The external material which allowed the fire at Grenfell to spread quickly is still attached to 136 buildings in London of over 18 metres in height. There are another 1,700 high rise residential buildings across the country with other dangerous cladding and an unknown number of low-rise buildings with unsafe external features.

Flammable cladding is a crisis that we cannot ignore, and for those living in affected buildings it is a financial and legal minefield. Trapped with rising and unaffordable costs for interim measures like waking watches (the costs of which invariably fall on leaseholders) whilst also facing bills of tens of thousands of pounds for remediation work, residents are left in unsellable properties. I have heard those affected describe the stress that this causes, driven in particular by the knowledge that potentially they face bankruptcy.

Last December, in an attempt to address the concerns of lenders by improving assurance as to the safety of a building’s exterior, the government introduced EWS1 forms as an aid to valuation. But instead of speeding up the market and allowing people to move and buy more quickly, they have only added to the problems faced by leaseholders. This was exacerbated by the government’s ill-advised consultation on extending the need for such forms to buildings over 11 metres, rather than the originally proposed height of 18 metres, adding considerably to an already lengthy backlog of inspections.

This is in part an issue of capacity – there are just not enough chartered fire safety inspectors available to undertake the number of inspections required. The problem was compounded by the unfathomable decision of the National House Building Council to furlough some of these workers. Many of the 300 chartered fire safety inspectors that are available have been unable to obtain the necessary professional indemnity insurance required to sign off EWS1 forms – hardly surprising given the scale of any potential liability for errors. Insurance premiums for badly clad buildings have also increased exponentially, adding to the costs faced by leaseholders.

Action needs to be taken now to support and protect those affected. The End Our Cladding Scandal campaign has highlighted how the mental health and wellbeing of leaseholders is under real strain – a plight that’s only deepened through the experience of a second national lockdown, and the expectation that residents should spend the vast majority of their time in buildings deemed to be dangerous.

End Our Cladding Scandal have identified 10 key proposals to help the government support leaseholders trapped by dangerous external cladding. At their heart is the need to change the safety of the built environment across the UK and in London, removing problematic cladding and associated fire risks so as to keep our people safe and allow them to get on with their lives.

That’s why the London Assembly has called on the government to get a grip. First and foremost, remediation of dangerous cladding must be expedited – not just ACM cladding of the type found on the Grenfell Tower, but other dangerous forms of cladding too. In the meantime, the cost of interim fire safety measures must be reimbursed.

The government should also act as the insurer of last resort to cover buildings deemed to be a fire risk, as they have done for buildings at risk of flooding. Other loopholes which leave leaseholders liable for the full costs through service and major works charges must be closed too. And crucially, as overall costs will far exceed the money currently available from the government, the total funding must be increased to meet the need.

The pandemic has demonstrated that government is still capable of swift and transformative action– and that what often holds them back is lack of resolve. Many thousands of leaseholders have now been trapped in this dire situation for over three years. It’s time for ministers to demonstrate finally that they take this issue seriously and give the thousands of affected residents hope of long overdue closure.

Andrew Dismore is London Assembly Member for Barnet & Camden and Chair of the Assembly’s Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee. Follow Andrew on Twitter. Photograph: Max Curwen-Bingley.

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