Monday, January 24

A victory for families caught up in the dangerous coatings scandal, but their fight is far from over | lucie heath

THEOn Monday, Michael Gove stood up in Parliament and made a long-awaited promise: No one would live in a building taller than 40 feet in England. they will be forced to pay for the removal of hazardous siding from their building. The secretary of state’s announcement of leveling, housing and communities is a huge victory for siding activists, but the fight is not over.

His was such an obvious point that it shouldn’t be necessary. However, the government has lingered in the years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which led hundreds of thousands of tenants to face the prospect of having to pay tens of thousands of pounds to repair previously unknown security defects in its buildings.

Gove is now the fourth housing secretary to try to fix the building security crisis in the four and a half years since the Grenfell fire. His announcement is the first major intervention since February last year, when his predecessor, Robert Jenrick, announced more grants for the replacement of hazardous cladding in buildings over 18 meters, along with a loan scheme for those living in buildings between 11 and 18 meters. meters high

The new plan will see the loan scheme, loathed by renters and many conservatives, scrapped. Instead, developers will pay for mid-size building cladding remediation at an estimated total cost of £ 4bn. The developers have until March to sign an agreement that will see them make annual contributions to cover these costs. they must also fully fund cladding work in buildings where they played a role in construction. Those who don’t sign up to the deal are being threatened with public contract bans, planning restrictions and legal action.

Previous government interventions have done little to solve the problem, which continues to affect more people who discover they live in an unsafe building when they or their neighbors try to sell. The scandal has resulted in the financial ruin of thousands of tenants. Many of them are young first-time buyers, like Hayley Tillotson, who was forced to file for bankruptcy last year due to mounting fire safety bills. Like many others, he had been asked to pay hundreds of pounds a month for a 24-hour fire patrol to guard his building. Some residents have turned to conducting their own surveillance patrols to cut costs.

Monday’s announcement may well mark a turning point for those affected by the scandal. Tenants have noticed a notable change in tone since Gove, a high-profile appointment in the department recently renamed to “level,” took office in September last year. Before Gove, ministers repeatedly said that tenants will be forced to bear some of the costs of the remediation work. On Monday, Gove promised to introduce legal protections to prevent tenants from paying anything.

This is undoubtedly a great victory for the tenants. Darren Matthews, who is facing a £ 97,000 bill to fix various problems with his apartment in a 13.4 meter high building, told me he is “cautiously optimistic” and praised Gove, who said he has spent more time with activists than their predecessors. . Siding activists have worked tirelessly for several years to make this moment a reality. Lucy Brown, who lives in a 60-foot block with flammable siding, said a “slow week” sees her spend roughly 30 hours building safety campaigns in addition to her day job and raising three children. She told me that she is “more hopeful” after Monday’s announcement.

However, Brown, like many other tenants, also points to some of the holes in Gove’s plans. Currently, the plan only appears to cover the cost of siding replacement, which constitutes a small fraction of the building security work required, and tenants are also being charged for things like a lack of firebreaks and flammable insulation. The plan also excludes those who live in blocks shorter than 11 meters, who have been hit by fire safety costs.

As home builders were quick to point out, Gove’s plan is heavily focused on developers, while Grenfell’s research has shown that cladding and insulation manufacturers have as much to answer for. Let’s also not forget the role that successive governments have played in the scandal (combustible materials are still not banned in buildings under 18 meters despite pleas from the Grenfell community). David Cameron’s policy on new regulations is just one example of how successive governments since the Thatcher era have created a regulatory environment that the construction industry was able to easily manipulate at a time when fire brigade budgets were being squeezed. cropped. Some have questioned the timing of Gove’s announcement, which focuses public attention on big developers, just as Grenfell’s investigation turns its attention to the government’s role in the tragedy.

There is also the question of the practicalities of Gove’s plan. The government has used harsh words with industry before, for example, when it said it would “name and shame” homeowners who own buildings with dangerous coatings, to little effect. A letter from the Treasury Department to Gove’s department, which was leaked to Newsnight last week, showed that the former has authorized “a high-level ‘threat’ of tax or legal solutions in talks with developers,” but has not yet accepted no new measure. . Meanwhile, he said Gove’s department budget, which includes spending on social housing, should act as a “backup” if developers don’t cough.

Even if the developers agree to the plan, the tenants’ angst is far from over. Funding has been available to remove the cladding from buildings taller than 18 meters for some time, but work has yet to begin on many of them, including Brown’s, on his block of flats with his three children and his still not relieved worries. Meanwhile, she has been forced to conduct fire safety drills with her children. Your youngest daughter no longer wants to sleep in her own room because she is too worried about a fire in the middle of the night.

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