THE House of Lords has voted in favour of amendments to the Fire Safety Bill brought by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, which would prohibit the Government from passing on the cost of replacing unsafe cladding to leaseholders or tenants.
The Bill has been introduced to extend the scope of the existing Fire Safety Order to incorporate cladding and the external walls of buildings, including for residential blocks, in response to recommendations made by the ongoing Grenfell Tower inquiry (News, 11 September 2020).
At the start of the debate on Wednesday afternoon, Dr Smith explained that, without his amendments to the motion, while the Bill would create a “quick and easy mechanism to force freeholders to remove dangerous cladding and other fire-safety defects”, should remedial work be required by the fire services, the freeholder would be able to “force leaseholders to reimburse all the costs incurred. These costs are staggering.”
A leaseholder could “very easily be handed a bill of £50,000, payable within weeks” — far over the £9000 estimated by the Government, he said. He quoted a private survey from Inside Housing of 1342 leaseholders, of whom 63 per cent of respondents faced a total bill above £30,000 for remedial costs and 15 per cent faced a bill of more than £100,000. “This will primarily affect ordinary middle- to working-class people” and first-time buyers, he said.
For almost four 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.
Currently, leaseholders are expected to pay for this removal, or apply for government funds to do so, even those who bought the properties before the cladding was found to be unsafe. This has trapped many leaseholders in unsaleable properties. The Government has so far pledged about £5 billion towards the cost of removing cladding from buildings across England, after a widespread campaign by residents (News, 12 January; 10 February). This sum covers only one third of the £15 billion needed to replace all unsafe cladding in the country, however.
Dr Smith told the Lords: “The Bill solves the fire-safety defects that lay at the heart of the Grenfell tragedy. The Government are absolutely right to do that, and I am grateful for what they have done; but I believe they are morally wrong in their treatment of leaseholders in this crisis.
“By not including sufficient provision to protect leaseholders, a conscious decision would be made to impose poverty, possibly bankruptcy, and certainly misery on thousands of ordinary people whose only crime was being aspirational.”
Supporting the amendments, Lord Kennedy of Southwark said: “Leaseholders are victims and have done nothing wrong. . . They are being penalised for the failure of others.”
A further supporting amendment to the same motion, tabled by Baroness Pinnock, wished to extend the Government’s contribution to cover not only remediation “but the extortionate service charges and higher insurance costs that are currently being levied on these leaseholders,”she said. “This serious problem can be successfully fixed only with up-front funding from the Government, which can then be recouped from developers, construction firms, and manufacturers.”
She added: “As the cladding is peeled away, further serious building defects are revealed.” The amendment was not put to the vote.
Supporting both the St Albans and Pinnock amendments, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that the fear for thousands of residents living in unsafe flats was having “a major impact on the health and well-being of our communities”, particularly in London. Some were facing suicidal thoughts, she said, and the NHS would bear the cost in future years.
Bishop Mullally continued: “The Church of England is quite clear. In a recently published Archbishops’ housing-commission report [News, 26 February], we recommended that the Government should cover remediation costs and recoup their initial outlays from those responsible. We are looking to the Government to develop a simple, fair, and comprehensive solution to the current crisis, but this solution must be clear and cost-effective. It also must be quick.”
Opposing, Lord Greenhalgh said that, while he understood the motivation behind the amendments, and “the need to give leaseholders peace of mind and financial certainty” regarding remediation costs, “it would be impractical and confusing to include remediation measures in the Bill.” He referred to the government funding previously announced.
Members, however, voted 326 to 248 in favour of the Bishop’s amendments. The Bill as amended will pass to the House of Commons for further scrutiny. Last month in the Commons, MPs voted down a similar amendment from backbenchers to exempt leaseholders from cladding costs.
The Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, who has been campaigning with residents on the issue since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, regarded the vote as “a step forward in protecting leaseholders from the costs of ensuring their homes are safe”.
Leaseholders, he said on Thursday, had been through “a really difficult time in recent months with the prospect of higher service charges, rapidly inflating insurance bills, and the prospect of having to pay for repairs to make their flats safe. Many are facing bankruptcy. The Fire Safety Bill was passed in the Commons with no protection for leaseholders, which left them feeling very vulnerable.”
The Government’s suggestion that the issue of liability should be addressed in the more extensive Building Safety Bill later in the year would still have left leaseholders vulnerable, he said. Despite the success of Dr Smith’s amendments, there were wider questions as to who should pay for the cost of safety defects, Dr Tomlin said. He also referred to the work of the Archbishops’ housing commission, which he vice-chairs, on guaranteeing the safety of housing.
“A commitment should be given to remove all unsafe cladding on residential blocks by June 2022, the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.”
All 14 bishops in the House at the time voted in favour of the amendments. The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, posted on Twitter afterwards: “Glad to have been able to vote in Lords debate on Fire Safety Bill, and to support the cladding victims who need this matter resolving urgently — not to have to wait on a different Bill.”