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Rescue all those caught in cladding trap, Bishop warns Lords, or suffer ‘blood guilt’

03 February 2022

ALAMY

The City Point development in Brighton comprises 240 homes, some of which have recently failed post-Grenfell fire safety checks

The City Point development in Brighton comprises 240 homes, some of which have recently failed post-Grenfell fire safety checks

IT IS a “sacred duty” of Parliament to pass robust legislation to protect homeowners trapped with unsellable properties and unaffordable costs, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has said. Failing these people would pour “blood guilt” on its Houses, he warned.

The Bishop was speaking during a debate on the Building Safety Bill which passed its second reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday night. The Bill has repeatedly been heralded by the Government as a solution to the cladding crisis, and includes an offer of redress for remediation works, aimed to lift the burden off leaseholders of high-rise flats who bought the properties before the AMC cladding (which surrounded Grenfell Tower) was found to be unsafe.

In its current form, the Bill requires landlords to “take reasonable steps” to research and secure any available grants for remediation works to buildings, as well as any available funds from a third party which was responsible for faulty works.

The Government is also supporting a forthcoming amendment to strengthen redress and remediation in the Bill with a version of the “polluter pays” policy, which would require any developer or builder who did not comply with building regulations in force at the time of construction to pay for their remediation in full.

Campaigners led by the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, had attempted to include such a provision — which would have prohibited the Government from passing on the cost of replacing unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings to the leaseholders or tenants — within the earlier Fire Safety Bill, arguing that a provision in the Building Safety Bill would take too long (News, 12 November 2021). These amendments were ultimately rejected by the Commons (News, 23 April; 26 March).

Dr Walker told the Lords on Wednesday: “These are ordinary men and women who purchased properties in good faith and now find their homes are technically worthless. Not only that, but they face unaffordable costs in terms of remediation works and in paying for interim measures.”

He continued: “This matter will not have been rectified until two things have happened: that all affected properties can be bought, sold, and insured at their full, true value, with mortgage providers content to lend against that full value — and that this is achieved without the costs being borne by the leaseholders.” This should include four-storey buildings, he said.

Quoting scripture (Deuteronomy 22.8), Dr Walker told peers: “We are seeking to find the right legislation that will protect our fellow citizens in their homes. It is a sacred duty — if we fail, we risk drawing that same blood guilt on this House.”

Responding to the four-hour debate on behalf of the Government, Lord Greenhalgh confirmed that a version of the polluter-pays amendment was now being drafted in consultation with a campaigner, Steve Day. “Professor Susan Bright of Oxford, a land lawyer of the highest quality, has been helping to draft an amendment — now known as the Bright-Day amendment. . .

“I hope that this will be ready for noble Lords to consider, although it has not yet gone through government processes. We want every tool in the toolbox to make sure that we protect leaseholders and make the polluter pay.”

Mr Day explained on Thursday: “We have been working with a team of experts for ten months directly with Government on a fully comprehensive and equitable polluter-pays amendment that will not only bring in badly needed money for the crisis now but also act as a permanent disincentive for corner-cutting with people’s lives in the future.” This would be, as the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, had put it, “a meaningful legacy of Grenfell”, he said.

In his valedictory speech in the Lords, the Bishop of Winchester, Dr Tim Dakin, who retires formally in March, told the House: “Caring for building safety is caring for the health of our nation. Building regulations are crucial.” He continued: “Building regulations must require the co-ordination of all those involved in housing provision around the core value of safety as an aspect of national health and well-being.”

Speaking directly afterwards, Dr Walker referred to the recommendations outlined in the report from the Archbishops’ Commission on Housing last year (News, February 2021), that “every household should have a home that is sustainable, safe, stable, sociable, and satisfying.”

He went on: “As the chair of a housing association, I am familiar with the work of the regulator in that part of the housing sector, where regulation is seen as not simply about punishing bad practice but as promoting good practice. I welcome this, not least since, theologically, I am drawn far more to the advocacy of virtue than the denunciation of sin.

“While I accept that the regulator of social housing has a particular role as a consequence of the state funds that support the sector, I struggle to agree that issues of safety are substantially different between different forms of tenure. I hope that as this Bill progresses, we will be able to clarify and, where need be, strengthen the regulator’s role.”

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