Commons defeat leaves flat owners facing huge bills to fix cladding

Amendment to fire safety bill could have spared leaseholders costs of up to £100,000 to make their homes safe

A plan to protect leaseholders from the spiralling costs of fixing fire safety problems in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster has been rejected in parliament after the government headed off a cross-party challenge.

Hundreds of thousands of homeowners are facing bills of up to £100,000 to repair dangerous cladding, fire doors and insulation systems discovered after the 14 June 2017 fire, but ministers opposed proposals from the House of Lords, Labour and some Conservative backbenchers to protect them from costs.

Amendments to the fire safety bill were defeated in a Commons vote on Wednesday evening after Labour accused the government of moving “at a snail’s pace” to tackle the problem. It warned that 11 million people may be affected by both immediate fire risks and problems with insurance and certification making many homes unsaleable. The bill is the first piece of primary legislation introduced as a result of the Grenfell disaster, which happened four years ago this June.

Also defeated was an amendment to force the government to implement key recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry including making owners tell fire brigades what materials are in wall systems, inspect fire doors annually and lifts monthly – all things that failed during the Grenfell fire, which cost 72 lives.

Earlier this month the government announced a £3.5bn extension of the fund to pay to remove defective cladding on buildings over the height of 18 metres. But it only offered loans for fixing those below 18 metres and nothing for other widespread defects such as missing firebreaks and defective firedoors or paying for 24-hour fire patrols and steep insurance premium hikes.

Sarah Jones, the shadow police and fire minister, told parliament she had heard from “first hand [from leaseholders] the horrors this government is wilfully enabling” by not protecting them from costs.

Some have seen annual insurance costs for their blocks rise from £30,000 to £500,000, while one block with 56 leaseholders in Kent has already paid more than £500,000 for 24-hour fire warden patrols.

Julie Fraser, who faces a bill of up to £40,000 on a flat she bought in Runcorn, Cheshire, for £75,000, said: “It’s dreadful. I don’t have another £40k to throw at the building. I may well have to go bankrupt.”

Abigail Tubis, who is facing an £80,000 bill said to fix her property, said: “I have struggled for the last 18 months with coming to terms with this scandal. My days are filled with despair, regret and anxiety … I can’t have a family with the idea of bankruptcy over my head.”

Rituparna Saha, a leaseholder in a high-rise block with multiple fire safety problems and the co-founder of the UK Cladding Action Group, said: “No fair-minded person believes it is right to force victims and taxpayers to pay billions of pounds to bail out the construction industry, cladding manufacturers, developers, building controllers and the regulators who caused this crisis to happen.”

A Home Office minister, Kit Malthouse, said the amendments tabled in the House of Lords and by backbench MPs were “well-intentioned” but were not sufficiently detailed and could even delay repairs. He said the government planned to tackle the question of who should pay in the forthcoming building safety bill.

“It is unacceptable for leaseholders to have to worry about fixing historical safety defects in their buildings,” he said.

Other Conservative MPs warned that attempting to place the cost on freeholders would simply see them walk away from their ownership.

Stephen McPartland, the Conservative MP for Stevenage, who sponsored an amendment to protect leaseholders that was backed by more than 30 Tory backbenchers, said: “We never asked the government to pay for the full costs of remediation, we never asked for the taxpayer to bail people out. We just want the taxpayer to provide a safety net for leaseholders to ensure that fire safety works are actually undertaken.”

It is estimated that about 274,000 flats have been fitted with dangerous cladding, according to the Association of Residential Managing Agents, affecting more than 650,000 people. That figure is likely to reach into the millions when those living in lower-rise structures where problems have also emerged are taken into account.

Contributor

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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