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23 July 2021

Why the “cladding classes” pose an electoral threat to the Conservatives

Affluent professionals trapped in unsafe, unsellable homes could take revenge on the Tories at the ballot box. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

At New Providence Wharf, a smart housing development that looms over the river Thames between the glassy glare of Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome, SUVs with personalised number plates are among cars in the basement car-park.

These expensive flats – a three-bedroom apartment can set you back £1.6m – house professionals served by the proximity to the office high-rises in Canary Wharf and transport links to the City and central London.

The development, which comprises 559 homes across five blocks, has a pool, sauna and business suite.

Full of affluent residents, who rent or own the leaseholds of their flats, this feels like an unlikely hotbed of political rebellion.

Yet a fire, which spread up three floors of one of its 19-storey blocks in May, has changed the atmosphere. Exposing the fact that the buildings were still wrapped in flammable cladding like the material that helped the deadly fire rip through Grenfell Tower in 2017, the incident has politicised residents here. What was once a vibe of “corporate casual” is now more “organised opposition”.

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“I have almost 14,000 connections on LinkedIn, which is a lot in a professional capacity, and I posted what happened to tell my immediate network and bring a focus on this issue,” said Nadim Ahmad, a 43-year-old chief financial officer whom I interviewed after he had to escape the burning building.

“Over 20,000 people viewed it, so it’s really bringing it to people’s attention.”

Ahmad, who has a young family, has worked with big businesses like Ernst & Young, BT, LexisNexis, British Airways and Swissport. He has also worked with the government, helping the Department of Energy and Climate Change roll out smart meters.

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Ahmad is conscious that the demographic nature of who is trapped living in dangerous housing should not matter, but he is also aware that the lawyers and other professionals living in New Providence Wharf have the ability to put pressure on the government.

“People like myself have a voice, and I have a say, and I can influence, so I need to make sure I put that to good use,” he says.

[See also: Tinderbox Britain: Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire, the cladding crisis rages on]

Between 760,000 and 1.36m people in the UK personally face the costs of making their buildings safe, while living in fear of a fire.

The funds released and legislation introduced by the government so far come nowhere near to fixing this problem. Most leaseholders still have to pay for fixing flats built to unsafe standards through no fault of their own. The Building Safety Bill, debated by MPs in the Commons this week and anticipated by many of the cladding classes as their last hope of avoiding costs, fails to protect leaseholders in its current form.

The government’s failure to grasp this crisis – which is resulting in personal bankruptcies – could threaten the Conservative Party electorally.

While reporting on the story, I’ve found that many of those impacted by the scandal saved up deposits to buy their flats via housing schemes introduced and championed by Tory governments: Help to Buy, shared ownership, stamp duty relief for first-time buyers and the Thatcherite dream of Right to Buy.

I was told last month by Vickie Pargetter, a university worker whose flat (bought through a government loan scheme) plummeted in value from £225,000 to £0 because of safety defects that: “You think you’re doing the right thing, getting yourself on the property ladder, because that’s what we have ingrained in us, isn’t it? Now we’re penalised by the very same people who told us so.”

Renters, as ever, are vulnerable, both to the immediate fire risk and longer-term impact on the housing market (the Bank of England has even raised fears of a financial crash), but it is actually homeowners – particularly leaseholders – who are bearing the brunt of the cladding crisis. This has the consequence of those further down the housing chain also losing out.

“The housing market’s overheating at the moment but the reality is that a lot of people who live in these properties would traditionally be selling them and buying a house, and they’re going to be stuck and not able to move,” says Stephen McPartland, the Conservative MP for Stevenage who led the rebellion of 31 fellow Tories against the Fire Safety Bill on 28 April.

“The people who would be moving into these flats, they don’t want to move into these flats now, they’ll just want to move straight into houses.

“So I think it’s going to have a political consequence in the sense of effects on the housing market for first-time buyers, or people who have bought their first home trying to move to a second home. I think it will have quite a big knock-on consequence in the years to come.”

I have also found that many of the people affected represent demographics Conservative politicians fear alienating: affluent young couples and families looking to upsize, aspirational professionals, landlords, retirees who no longer wish to live in upper-level flats, and even Tory MPs themselves.

One needs only to look at the newspapers campaigning for this cause to get a sense of the demographics affected: the Sunday Times launched its Safe Homes for All campaign with Inside Housing last October, and the Daily Mail launched its Towering Injustice campaign on its front page in January.

“The Conservative Party rightly prides itself on being the party of home ownership,” wrote former Tory housing minister Esther McVey in a column in the Express. “If it wishes to retain that mantle then it needs to step up and solve the cladding situation.”

Despite the Conservative back-bench rebellion in April, the House eventually voted against the amendment that would have removed liability from leaseholders.

Ministers “are upset” about rebellions on the issue, according to one Tory MP. Yet they do not appear to be listening to the rebels’ concerns. The government tabled a motion in May to abolish the Regulatory Reform Committee, which has been chaired by leading cladding rebel McPartland. Its powers were absorbed by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. This was seen as a “punishment” by some MPs, though the New Statesman has heard that the decision was made because it had examined only one draft order in the last parliamentary session.

While a narrative took hold after the Grenfell fire that government ministers did not understand the lives of people in high-rise tower blocks, those mired in the cladding crisis represent more of a mixed picture. As one Tory MP despairing at the failure of his colleagues to wake up to the problem told me: “A lot of them just think of their constituency properties, but to be frank, a lot of them rent these kind of flats around Parliament, so they should recognise this way of living.”

Is it the case that the affected blocks are concentrated in Labour constituencies? New Providence Wharf, after all, is in the London borough of Tower Hamlets – one of the places worst-affected by the cladding crisis, and also a Labour stronghold (the constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, where the development is based, has a Labour majority of 28,904).

“Unfortunately, it seems like it tends to not be Conservative areas where these problems exist,” reflects Natalie Carter, a 43-year-old New Providence Wharf leaseholder who works as a programme manager.

“I think the Canary Wharf area, Tower Hamlets, it’s not quite like Hong Kong where high rises are the ‘nice’ areas to live. It is sort of the case here, but that tends to be just because you can densely pack people in. So unfortunately it does seem to be a bit more in the Labour areas than Conservative.”

Although the total number of blocks affected, and where they are located, is unknown, the New Statesman has used the geographical spread of registrations to the government Building Safety Fund to map the parts of the country most-affected by Britain’s cladding crisis.

 

Labour-voting areas are more affected by the building safety crisis
Number of registrations to the Building Safety Fund by local authority and political control

Source: Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. Areas with fewer than five registrations are excluded.

Map by Michael Goodier.

This map, using data from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government, shows the number of applicants to the government's Building Safety Fund, which was launched last summer. It shows a limited picture, as only residents in buildings over 18 metres can apply to the fund, and if granted it only covers the removal of dangerous cladding (omitting a multitude of other fire-safety flaws, such as missing cavity barriers, flammable timber balconies, faulty fire doors, etc).

(An unofficial crowd-mapping project, run by leaseholders who work as data experts in their day jobs, shows a wider geographical spread of a greater variety of building flaws, yet similarly clustered around cities and larger towns.)

The map suggests Labour-voting areas are the most affected by the building safety crisis, with more than two-thirds of known Building Safety Fund registrations (67 per cent) coming from a Labour-voting area (areas with fewer than five registrations are excluded). Some 1,628 of the total 2,820 private-sector registrations come from London, at 58 per cent.

However, the crisis isn't exclusively one of London Labour voters. More than a fifth of registrations to the fund (22 per cent) come from Tory-voting council areas, including Westminster, Wandsworth, Surrey and Hertfordshire.

Last year, the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee found that the £1bn Building Safety Fund “will not be sufficient to remediate all 1,700 buildings”, and that to address all fire-safety defects in every high-risk residential building would cost around £15bn. The fund was increased by just £3.5bn in February.

People become politicised when they are ignored by the government. A leaseholders’ rally outside parliament was organised for 15 July 2021, though it was postponed due to the extension of Covid-19 restrictions. When it was organised, the National Leasehold Campaign acknowledged that “some may be unable to attend because it’s a weekday” – and indeed, the New Statesman understands that previous attempts at demonstrations have had disappointing turnouts in the past because of work commitments. This could mean the ballot box is the main place victims eventually register their protests.

Pargetter told me that she had not been “a political person” before her family plans, life investment and wellbeing were turned upside down by the government’s failure in the cladding issue.

“It’s made me very untrusting of people in power, and very dubious of anybody’s motives,” she says. “We feel disillusioned with the political system.”

Pargetter had felt that the Conservative West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, had been “very supportive”, though she called on him to “come good on putting more pressure on”. And she was disappointed to see the building contractor responsible for her block of flats had been granted an HS2 contract in Birmingham. “You could’ve said ‘no, not until you’ve rectified this’,” she said.

She also spoke of developers funding the Conservative Party. More than a fifth of all donations to the party over the past decade have come from property developers, according to anti-corruption group Transparency International. This is a big talking point among the cladding classes, particularly after the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, was caught up in a scandal last year when he unlawfully approved Tory donor Richard Desmond’s Tower Hamlets development a day before it would have owed about £40m to the local community. The two men had exchanged texts after sitting together at a Tory fundraising dinner.

[See also: How they built Grenfell]

It is not only the trapped leaseholders but their parents and grandparents – to whom they turn for financial support or even a roof over their heads in the event of bankruptcy – who are being exposed to this injustice. The ripple effects on the housing market will do damage well beyond the frozen sales of high-rise flats. While the cladding classes appear most active in the cities and university towns at the moment, they and their cause could in the future create a significant electoral headache for the governing party.