IT IS a scandal that leaseholders in high-rise flats who wish to apply for government funds to remove flammable cladding are prevented from talking to the press, Church of England bishops have said.
The £1.6-billion fund, announced by the Government last year, covers only a fraction of the £15 billion needed to replace all unsafe cladding in the country.
The contract, which leaseholders need to sign in order to apply, was leaked to The Sunday Times this week. It states: “The Applicant shall not make any communication to the press or any journalist or broadcaster regarding the Project or the Agreement (or the performance of it by any Party) without the prior written approval of Homes England and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and its press offices.”
Among the bishops to have expressed dismay over the reports is the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, vice-chair of the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing. He said on Monday: “It is precisely groups like Grenfell United, the UK Cladding Action Group, and many other local groups of residents in endangered buildings that have kept the issue of building safety on the public agenda.
“Trying to silence the voice of those most affected by this crisis seems totally wrong and counter-productive. Listening to the ongoing experience of those affected by the housing crisis in general and the cladding issue in particularly is vital if we are to make inroads into this crisis in coming years.”
For three years, campaigners have been calling on the Government to cover the full retrospective costs of replacing the now banned ACM cladding, whose flammability is thought to be a cause of the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people (News, 15 June 2017). Other non-ACM cladding has also been deemed unsafe.
Owners are expected to pay for this removal, despite having bought the properties before the cladding was fixed or found to be unsafe. This has trapped leaseholders in unsaleable properties.
Dr Tomlin described the situation as a “stain on national life. . . It is estimated that around four million people are living in residential blocks covered by unsafe cladding through no fault of their own. They bought their properties in good faith, and are now facing potential bankruptcy by being saddled with the costs of removing that cladding.
“Good housing needs to be safe housing, and this is an urgent issue we need to address.” Legislation should be passed to remove this responsibility from these homeowners, he said.
In October, Dr Tomlin wrote to the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire, and Communities, Lord Greenhalgh, warning that £1.6 billion “will not ultimately be enough”. He asked the Government to provide the money “up front to address the immediate risk” — which could be recovered later. He also called for a deadline for removal of December 2021 for ACM-clad buildings, and June 2022 for non-ACM clad buildings.
He explained on Monday: “That will be five years after the Grenfell tower fire, and it would be a fitting way to bring some resolution to the suffering of that community: to know that others aren’t facing the same dangers from that point onwards.”
The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, and the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, were among the signatories of a letter — also in The Sunday Times this week — urging the Government to support leaseholders with more funds. The letter was also signed by a long list of MPs, peers, academics, property professionals, and cladding-action campaigners.
“No leaseholder should suffer anxiety, facing costs well beyond their ability to pay,” they write. “Remedial work on these buildings may cost a total of £15 bn — nearly ten times the funds now available. It is estimated 1.5 million flats are unmortgageable, trapping about 3.6 million people in potentially dangerous, unsellable housing.
“The Government has the responsibility and resources to rescue the living victims of the cladding scandal. Everyone seems to be at fault except those now lumbered with impossible costs.
“The Government must accurately assess liability for safety remediation costs — which should not fall on the end user, the leaseholder, because of defective legislation. It is time to settle on simple, effective ways at once to remove and replace products that still endanger residents and to end the cladding remediation crisis.”
The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, said on Monday: “The cladding issue is a scandal. Grenfell was three-and-a-half years ago, and Government and builders conspire to avoid paying for the removal of dangerous cladding, instead throwing the costs at leaseholders (and gagging them from speaking out).”
An amendment to the Fire Safety Bill which would prohibit passing remediation costs on to leaseholders and tenants is currently under consideration in the House of Commons, before the Bill is given Royal Assent.
A campaigner, Steve Day, who bought his flat six years ago but is facing bankruptcy due to the cladding crisis, has written to 11 supporting C of E bishops asking them to lobby their MPs to support the amendment.
He said: “The effect on everyone’s mental health is immense — we have many vulnerable people worried about the double stress of fire risk and financial ruin.”