Campaigning for those trapped by the cladding and fire safety crisis is the right thing to do, but it’s not the easy thing to do. I am a Conservative and proud to be a Conservative member of parliament. I am loyal to the government and I like my friends and colleagues. My stance is not against anyone, but for those trapped in unsafe and unsellable property. I see myself as a critical friend of the government, not an enemy.
The government’s announcement on Wednesday was a very welcome step in the right direction. No one can doubt its commitment to finding a solution to this awful cladding crisis and to give residents the security they deserve. However, I think the government will eventually have to go further to help all leaseholders regardless of their building’s height.
The additional £3.5bn towards remediation of dangerous cladding will give comfort to residents in blocks of 18m and over, or above six storeys in height, but will leave others in blocks marginally shorter facing loans, albeit capped at £50 per month. Hundreds of thousands of residents continue to live in this unending nightmare caused by the failure of government regulation and unscrupulous or incompetent manufacturers and developers.
This £3.5bn will not cover other fire defects, such as wooden balconies or unsafe insulation. It will do nothing to lower insurance premiums, some of which have increased by over 700 per cent. Leaseholders bought their homes in good faith and have been left with often crippling debt on interim fire safety costs and insurance costs alone. They cannot be expected to take out another loan to pay for someone else’s mess. Building freeholders, construction firms, building material manufacturers, and insurers have washed their hands of any responsibility. This has continued to leave leaseholders fearing not only for their safety but also for their finances.
The government’s announcement will not be enough to give lenders the comfort they need to approve mortgages on affected properties so that people can sell. Leaseholders affected by the cladding crisis tend to be first-time buyers. Many bought shared ownership properties or homes through the Help to Buy scheme. Their flats have been given a zero value by lenders, leaving leaseholders trapped by bills they can’t afford and in flats they can’t sell. They are unable to move on to a larger home to start a family or move somewhere across the country for a new job. This is simply unfair and unacceptable.
Too many have already had their lives impacted by the cladding crisis— there are stories of bankruptcy from paying for expensive temporary fire safety measures alone. The stress and uncertainty from not knowing whether they must pay for remedial cladding, with money they don’t have, in the middle of an economic recession, is taking its toll on leaseholders. They face these daunting prospects regardless of the height of their residential buildings but made worse for those in buildings below 18m.
The McPartland-Smith amendment to the Fire Safety Bill, which I co-launched with Conservative MP Stephen McPartland, has received cross-party support. If successful, it will go one step further than the government’s new formula. It will prevent remedial cladding costs due to building defects being passed on to any leaseholders of buildings with unsafe cladding, regardless of the building’s height.
Not only does the government have a chance to remedy fire safety issues that were overlooked for decades through the Fire Safety Bill, but it will also have the chance to regain the trust of leaseholders and those who want to get on the property ladder, potentially helping hundreds of thousands of households for years to come.
Royston Smith is the member of parliament for Southampton Itchen.