Government was under pressure on Wednesday to confirm whether the coronavirus lockdown would halt remediation work to dangerously-clad leasehold blocks.
Shadow housing minister Sarah Jones said in the House of Commons that “tens of thousands” of cladding victims “need some urgent guidance from the government about whether the removal of that cladding will remain an essential construction task.”
“They are in buildings that could go up in flames or be dangerous. Many of them are paying for waking watch, which is costing them hundreds of pounds a month each. They are funding waking watch to make sure that, if there is a fire, people can get out quickly enough,” she added.
Ms Jones, who raised the Birmingham Islington Gates case where leaseholders “have to pay £10,000 each” by April 1 or “they will all have to leave”, called for a concerted response from government to nervous insurers threatening to pull coverage from unsafe leasehold blocks.
LKP broke the story over the weekend:
Dusting down a policy first floated in Parliament by Shabana Mahmood MP, whose constituents live at Islington Gates, the shadow housing minister suggested that the state should step in as a guarantor for buildings insurance of the cladding sites which are set to be decanted:
“These people have also seen huge rises in their insurance costs, which they are really struggling to pay. I will give just one example. For Islington Gates, a block with 141 households, the insurance for the block has gone up from £36,000 to £191,000. The residents have been told that they have to pay £10,000 each by 1 April, or there will not be any insurance on the building any more and they will all have to leave. Those are the real situations such people are finding themselves in, and we need some clarity from the Government about whether the cladding works will proceed,” she said.
The Labour politician’s intervention comes as leaseholders in combustible homes are becoming increasingly concerned that the unfolding public health emergency will mean they will be abandoned for an indefinite period that could stretch to a year or longer.
They fear that government has no capacity left to deliver the recently-announced £1bn Building Safety Fund, which took nearly two and a half years of campaigning following the Grenfell Tower fire.
The New Capital Quay development in Greenwich, south-east London, was also mentioned by Ms Jones in the Commons.
Contractors have already downed tools at the cladding site owing to coronavirus concerns, according to Inside Housing.
In a note seen by the magazine’s deputy editor Peter Apps, managing agent PPM Ltd said to leaseholders:
“It is with regret that we have to put works on hold, however we must safeguard the health of those that reside at the scheme along with those that work on the project.
“The waking watch will continue to be present at the scheme to ensure residents safety is maintained.”
Inside Housing, news, analysis, and comment about the social housing sector in the UK.
Last week saw representatives of cladding victims write to ministers to urge them to assist with the costs of waking watch amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
In a joint statement issued by the Birmingham Leasehold Action Group, Leeds Cladding Scandal, Manchester Cladiators and the UK Cladding Action Group, the leading cladding pressure groups said:
“The COVID-19 outbreak is the biggest public health challenge for a generation. We acknowledge the huge strain this rapidly changing crisis will place on government and the number of people who will require support as a result of it.
“Nonetheless, the situation is particularly critical for many leaseholders in buildings with dangerous cladding. The huge additional and ongoing costs that many leaseholders have to pay as a result of living in dangerous cladding blocks means they face an impossible decision about work and self-isolation. No income means no ability to pay for the waking watch the building needs for them to stay in that building.
“As these costs are not currently within the scope of the £1bn fund announced at last week’s Budget, additional help is urgently required. For us, self-isolating means returning to a building which is a potential death trap. With many more people working at home or not able to work at all, they will be spending much more time in buildings where there are grave concerns about safety.”
In the Commons, Ms Jones said that suspending remediation work could push leaseholders’ finances to breaking point.
Costly interim fire measures such as “waking watch”, fire wardens patrolling cladding sites at all-hours, would have to remain in place, she suggested:
“At New Capital Quay in Greenwich—one of the first blocks to be identified as being covered with the same cladding as in the Grenfell Tower fire—the residents were contacted just yesterday and told that all the cladding removal will be halted. They have to carry on paying for waking watch, and they have to carry on with the uncertainty of living in a very dangerous building, so we need some clarity about that, please.”
In February, veteran Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill warned government that further inaction over combustible cladding would mean an extra £11,000 of service charges per month for his constituents at the Northpoint development in Bromley, south-east London:
Robert Jenrick: coronavirus shouldn’t be an excuse to stop removing combustibles from apartment buildings
Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick took to the airwaves to clarify that contractors, managing agents and freehold owners are still being expected to progress cladding removal despite the UK government’s latest restrictions on public and commercial activities.
“There are some functions within the housing and construction sector that are absolutely essential to all of us [such as] keeping buildings safe, ensuring essential maintenance is done to people’s homes … and ensuring that really essential repairs are done like taking dangerous cladding off buildings. ACM cladding of the sort we saw on Grenfell Tower, for example. So there is work that will need to continue, if it is safe to do so, throughout this crisis,” he told the BBC Breakfast programme on Wednesday.
His remarks were confirmed on Thursday in guidance issued on the government website:
“Work carried out in people’s homes, for example by tradespeople carrying out repairs and maintenance, can continue, provided that the tradesperson is well and has no symptoms.”
The National Fire Chiefs Council, the professional voice of the UK fire and rescue service, has also provided its view:
“If due to the coronavirus there are challenges maintaining waking watch coverage, those responsible will need to implement suitable alternative interim arrangements. Dependency on numbers of staff can be reduced through the installation of a Common Fire Alarm.”
It has been criticised by LKP chair Martin Boyd for having “missed the point”.
Mr Boyd says no cladding site in the country has willingly chosen to maintain their waking watch contracts.
What was intended to be a strictly time-limited measure to keep residents safe, foisted upon them by freehold owners and fire services, has morphed into a semi-permanent liability for leaseholders because of government funding delays.
The coronavirus outbreak makes the outlook much bleaker for leaseholders’ finances, even if they do go on to qualify for the new £1bn Building Safety Fund to cover the costs of remediating their freeholders’ dangerously-clad buildings.
“The problem has been made worse as some fire service wants both interim fire alarms and waking watch,” Mr Boyd said.
“This almost seems very poor advice. How on earth is someone meant to suddenly buy and install intermediated fire alarms now. It was meant to happen months or years ago, but didn’t,” he added.