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Government criticised by bishops after it rejects Fire Safety amendment on cladding-removal costs

23 March 2021

iStock

Work is carried out to replace cladding on a block of flats in Stratford, London

Work is carried out to replace cladding on a block of flats in Stratford, London

LEASEHOLDERS and tenants will pay the price for the “dismissive attitude” of the Government towards the cladding crisis, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, has said, after the House of Commons voted to reject his amendments to the Fire Safety Bill on Monday.

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, many 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 some 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.

The Fire Safety 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).

The Smith amendments to the Bill, which was passed in the House of Lords last week, would have prohibited the Government from passing on the cost of replacing unsafe cladding to leaseholders or tenants. It was rejected by the Commons on Monday afternoon, however.

Dr Smith said that he was “saddened by the Government’s dismissive attitude towards the plight of leaseholders. If the Government believes the amendment is well-intentioned but defective, surely it is time they put forward their own solution,” he said. “Doing nothing is the worst thing.”

He continued: “Sadly, many leaseholders are in deep financial problems due to faulty cladding. I hope the Government will recognise that the amendment was well intentioned and they will bring forward their own plans. 

“It is really worrying that a Government which is in a position to be equitable and to pass measures which treat the leaseholders fairly does not use the enormous power of its majority to do justice. It is the least we should expect. Leaseholders are legally responsible for enormous bills on a scale which is out of proportion to the resources of ordinary families and I fear for the effect this will have on some.”

The Government has previously suggested that the issue of liability be addressed in the more extensive Building Safety Bill later in the year; but this was not soon enough, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said.

“The principle seems to be widely accepted that leaseholders should be protected from the costs of remedying safety defects that were not their fault, to make their homes safe. I find it hard to see why there should be a reluctance to put that in place now. Delaying it to the Building Safety Bill later in the year simply adds to the levels of stress and anxiety for leaseholders who are facing the prospect of bankruptcy, uncertainty, and fear for the future at a difficult time for everyone.

“As the Church of England, we have tried to support leaseholders in this, and I don’t think we should give up on it. There is an urgency to find a solution to the question of who should pay to put this right, and I do hope the Government will respond to the proposed solutions to find resolution for this as soon as possible.”

A joint statement on Tuesday from Dr Tomlin, Dr Smith, and the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who supported the amendments in the Lords, urged the Government to present a clear solution to the problem without delay. “Leaseholders face crippling bills of astronomical proportions for a problem they had no hand in creating. They neither sold nor fitted defective cladding and yet they are still liable to pay the costs of making their own homes safe. This amendment would have given them protection from having to pay those costs.

“It is a source of regret that the Government has dismissed proposed solutions to the cladding scandal without bringing forward its own solution to sufficiently deal with this injustice. Without a genuine solution, there is a real risk of bankruptcies, homelessness and possibly worse.

“Leaseholders should not pay for problems created by developers and cladding providers, all of whom have profited in the preceding years. We urge the Government to bring forward a fair resolution to protect innocent leaseholders without delay.”

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