The housing secretary has said he will be “absolutely willing to use legal rules” to make builders pay for the removal of unsafe cladding from lower-height buildings.
Michael Gove has written to companies, giving them until March to come up with a plan to protect leaseholders stuck in “unsellable homes.”
Residents in blocks 11-18m high have so far been ineligible for government assistance in removing unsafe cladding.
Many people have been hit with crippling bills as a result of it.
Mr Gove stated that while some companies demonstrated leadership and covered the costs, others “had not shoulder their responsibilities.”
“It is neither fair nor decent that innocent leaseholders, many of whom have worked hard and made sacrifices to get a foot on the housing ladder, should be hit with bills they cannot afford to fix problems they did not cause,” he wrote to developers in England and Wales.
“For far too many of the people who live in properties built by your industry in recent years, their home has become a source of misery.”
Later on Monday, the minister is expected to make a statement to the House of Commons.
‘We are completely trapped’
Charlotte Meehan and her husband live in an East London development that has a number of fire safety issues, such as flammable cladding, combustible insulation, and missing cavity barriers.
She told the BBC that she wanted to move to start a family but that it was impossible because “we are completely trapped, we can’t sell our flat because it’s worthless.”
Leaseholders have had to pay £500,000 for a 24-hour waking watch over the last two years, resulting in a doubling of their service charge.
The development’s reserves for necessary repairs are also “seriously depleted,” leaving it in “dire disrepair.”
She praised Mr Gove’s plan, but said it was “half baked” because it didn’t address non-cladding fire safety issues or interim costs.
“People are going bankrupt and losing their homes because of the interim costs,” she explained.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which killed 72 people, flammable cladding and other fire safety flaws were discovered in hundreds of blocks of flats across the UK.
So far, the government has only promised to pay for the removal of cladding from taller buildings, not those between 11m and 18m tall (roughly between four and six storeys high).
Cladding removal can cost millions of pounds per block, with individual flat owners often footing the bill under England and Wales’ leasehold system.
Mr Gove warned in his letter that he would take “all necessary steps” to make developers pay, including:
- Restricting access to government funding and future procurements
- Using planning powers or changing the tax system
- Or, if the industry fails to take responsibility, imposing “a solution in law”.
The time limit for leaseholders to sue builders over defective flats will also be extended from 6 to 30 years.
by Sarah Corker, BBC business correspondent
The average cladding bill is estimated to be around £40,000 per leaseholder. Some people have received bills in excess of £200,000, which is more than they paid for their apartments in the first place.
This package of measures is expected to alleviate some of the financial stress, but it is far from comprehensive. These proposals ignore non-cladding issues; leaseholders fear they will still be saddled with exorbitant bills to repair faulty insulation, missing fire breaks, and flammable balconies.
It makes no sense, say campaigners, to make buildings “half safe.” This is a band-aid solution.
It is also unclear how the government intends to compel or coerce developers to pay to correct these flaws. Treasury has not provided any new funds. If Michael Gove is unable to recoup the funds from the industry, they will have to be taken from existing departmental budgets. As a result, there will be less money for levelling up and less money for home construction.
Developers frequently argue that they complied with building codes at the time and should not be held liable for the cost of removing unsafe cladding.
However, some, such as housebuilder Taylor Wimpey, have already promised to pay for problems at their properties.
According to Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, other parties should now contribute in addition to developers and the government.
“Not least among these would be material manufacturers who designed, tested, and sold materials that developers purchased in good faith but were later proven to be unfit for purpose,” he said.
‘You’re living in survival mode’
Liz Vick of Salford is dissatisfied with the government’s plans. She lives in a low-rise building that has fire safety issues due to missing cavity barriers rather than cladding, so she is still responsible for the costs.
“We’re still waiting for a large remediation bill,” she told the BBC. “It could range from £50,000 to £100,000 per leaseholder.”
She claims that such a large bill would force her into bankruptcy, and that the constant stress has harmed her mental health.
“The only way to describe it is that you’re constantly in survival mode, whether it’s facing financial ruin or burning to death in a building,” she said.
“We can’t go on with our lives because we can’t afford to start a family. My life has been put on hold and will remain so until the crisis is resolved.”
According to the government, the vast majority of lower-rise buildings are safe, and those with combustible cladding may be safe as well, or could be made safe using existing fire safety measures such as sprinklers or alarms.
However, it stated that a small number of buildings have unsafe cladding that must be addressed.
Cladding campaigners have long urged the government to accept both the principle that buildings under 18.5m should be covered and the principle that leaseholders should not be required to pay.
They cautiously welcomed the government’s new proposals, but warned that they overlooked the costs of repairing other fire safety issues discovered in thousands of tower blocks across the UK.
There is also no help for the many buildings with dangerous cladding that are less than 11 metres tall.