It is not known exactly how many people live in buildings in the UK that are unsafe due to either the type of cladding fitted to their outsides, or other fire-safety breaches, such as poorly fitted insulation, which have come to light since the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017. Based on figures from the New Build Database, an online resource created for homeowners, Labour says that the total number of households affected by the cladding scandal, to varying extents, could be greater than four million. What is certain is that many thousands of people are currently trapped in homes that are officially deemed so unsafe as to require a “waking watch”, or 24-hour security.
In Grenfell’s aftermath, the government identified 460 high-rise or publicly owned blocks with aluminium composite material panels that required removal. Given the time that has elapsed, it is appalling that on around half of these buildings, remediation work is yet to begin. MPs on the public accounts committee estimate that another 1,700 buildings, including an unknown number of care homes, may also be covered in unsafe cladding. Where there is uncertainty, people may be penalised because mortgage lenders or insurers err on the side of caution, meaning that homeowners are unable to borrow, or their premiums and service charges have risen.
The plight of these residents, many of them young adults in their first homes, with mounting debts and lives on hold while they wait for the government to come up with a solution, is deeply unfair. For three-and-a-half years, their campaign for safe homes has run in parallel to the justice campaign of the Grenfell survivors. The pandemic has made a terrible situation even worse, with health and job worries piled on top of the financial insecurity that results when the value of your home collapses.
On Monday, Labour won a symbolic Commons vote with a motion calling for a national cladding taskforce to oversee remediation works, and force building owners to pay up. Conservative MPs abstained, but plenty are known to have similar concerns. So does the Daily Mail, which is campaigning on the issue. By pointing out that the top five UK property companies have made £10bn in profits since Grenfell, it depicts them as fat cats, skimming cream off the top of the housing market while ordinary homeowners’ dreams go sour. Ministers are expected to announce a loan scheme, but pressure is mounting on them to go further and pay up.
Pay up they must, and energetically pursue building owners to recoup the costs afterwards. Leaseholders, who are the majority of those affected, cannot rightly be saddled with tens of thousands of pounds in debts because the government failed to regulate the property industry properly. Nor should they be made to wait while overly complex ownership structures are unravelled, or battles over liability fought in court. The estimated total needed to undo the damage, £15bn, is eye-watering, but a levy on house builders’ profits could claw some of it back quite fast. Then ministers must confront the need for new transparency laws, so that in future all tenants and leaseholders will know exactly who their landlord is.
In the immediate aftermath of Grenfell, as the nation reeled in horror, it would have been unthinkable that thousands of people could still be stranded in similar blocks in 2021. That this is what has happened is an injustice to their residents. It is also a mark of disrespect to the fire’s victims, and the survivors who made cladding one of their campaign’s priorities. Boris Johnson’s predecessors must take the blame for the deregulation of safety that was among the disaster’s causes. No one but the current government is responsible for its disgraceful inaction over continuing dangers.