Cladding: ‘They will not forget; and they will not forgive’

Opinions may vary regarding Robert Jenrick’s announcement on further funding for cladding remediation work earlier this month. However, I think it’s fair to say that ‘widespread condemnation’ was the overwhelming response from media outlets up and down the country.

Front pages were splashed with the words ‘betrayal’, ‘anger’ and ‘laughable’. Even backbench Conservative MPs broke ranks to criticise the government. It’s hard to recall any other government announcement receiving quite such a hostile reaction. Why is everyone so angry?

Simply put, the further £3.5bn announced earlier this month doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. The House of Commons’ Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has estimated £15bn is required – three times as much as the Treasury has being willing to come up with so far. Although Robert Jenrick’s argument – that it would be unfair to pass all the costs onto taxpayers – does at first seem reasonable, affected homeowners have hit back that they bought their homes in good faith, so why should they be penalised for the building industry’s failures?

A last-ditch attempt from Conservative MPs Stephen McPartland and Royston Smith sought to protect all leaseholders from the costs by proposing an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill, but this was defeated 340-225 on 24 February. The MPs knew their efforts were in vain when the government coincidentally provided a date for the Bill to receive its final reading just two weeks after Jenrick’s announcement – a clear tactical move to shut down any threats of rebellion. 

The embarrassment of losing a vote was avoided, but at what cost? The well-organised cladding campaign groups which have sprung up across the country are going nowhere, and neither are the exasperated MPs who will continue to press the government to step in to help constituents who are facing bankruptcy and crippling debt from ever-increasing service charges. 

The situation was perfectly summed up during yesterday’s debate by Royston Smith MP, who warned the government: ‘Think carefully before you abandon thousands of your constituents, they will not forget and they will not forgive!’

The ‘cladding scandal’ encompasses far more than so-called “Grenfell-style cladding”. Building inspections have revealed numerous other problems such as faulty insulation and missing fire breaks which are currently ineligible for government funding – this work ‘should’ be paid for by building owners instead (cue eyerolls from exasperated leaseholders whose flats have been repeatedly sold on to shell companies in the Cayman Islands). 

Until these issues are resolved, the housing market risks becoming stagnant. First-time buyers will be unable to purchase flats, flat owners will be unable to move into family homes, and retirees will be unable to downsize until they can find a buyer. As anyone who’s ever tried to buy a home will know, it only takes one part of the chain to break for everything to come crashing down.

The solution, to campaigners and the opposition at least, seems obvious enough – tax developers and the building industry to help pay for past mistakes. Although some form of levy is expected to be introduced next year, this is only expected to raise £2bn – still far short of the estimated £15bn required. A cynic might consider the government’s reluctance to tax developers too onerously is related to the donations from some of these companies to the Conservative Party’s election campaigns, which is what some journalists have recently been suggesting. 

Clearly, the ‘building safety scandal’ is not going to go away any time soon, no matter how much the government tries to wish it so. Neither is it fair to lay the blame squarely at Boris Johnson’s feet – the failures of regulation and poor workmanship are the fault of successive Labour and Conservative governments, as well as unscrupulous builders. Only bold and decisive action is going to secure first the remediation, and secondly, the culture change, required to resolve these problems. So, who has the political will to make it happen? 

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