By Harry Scoffin
Six months on from the government declaring that taxpayers would pay to save leaseholders from ruinous Grenfell ACM cladding bills, only 1 of the 86 sites has got to the first approval stage ahead of the December 31 deadline.
Despite this dismal level of progress, a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman told the BBC R4 You and Yours programme yesterday that late applications will only be considered under “exceptional circumstances” and if they are flagged by leaseholders to officials “immediately”.
In spite of this government “has made clear that remediation works should happen as quickly as possible”.
Martin Boyd, chair of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership – which has held two Westminster meetings for MPs on cladding and is holding another All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on January 9 in the new year – slammed the comments, tweeting that it was “sickening to hear officials say extensions to the timetable only available in ‘exceptional circumstances’ when only one site has so far had part of its funding approved. Officials knew in 2017 it’s impossible to get the 100% sign up they are demanding – cynical?”
Northpoint, in Bromley in south east London, is reportedly the only block in the country that has so far met the strict criteria ahead of the fast-approaching December deadline.
Melanie Abbot, reporter for You and Yours, said that the leaseholders “have told this programme that although they were initially pleased to be the first to qualify for help, the government has sent impossible deadlines for releasing the money.”
Ms Abbott began her report by rehearsing the months-long blame game that preceded the setting up of the ACM cladding remediation fund in April, announced by the then Communities Secretary James Brokenshire.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, speculators in residential freeholds were signalling that fault lay with the original developers (while, in many cases, simultaneously seeking to recoup the cladding bills from their leasehold tenants). Developers, meanwhile, argued that government take responsibility, as the cladding was its failure of regulation.
Ministers repeatedly urged freeholders, who are only speculators in a building’s income stream, to “do the decent thing” and pay up: unsurprisingly, none came forward. LKP argues that they are irrelevant to a resolution of the cladding crisis.
Residents of the Northpoint development in Bromley, south-east London, are still a long way from any resolution to their cladding nightmare, with daily waking watch fire patrols leading to ever-rising service charges.
Leaseholders there have only received what has been called “a pre-pre-pre tender approval”, which is “a very initial stage” involving “around £50,000 to pay for consultants and solicitors to work out how to appoint surveyors, so not even at the stage of getting a survey for the works [to be] done.”
The programme heard from Ritu Saha, who is involved with the UK Action Cladding Group and has been campaigning to ensure leaseholders at her Northpoint block get access to government help:
“We only found out what would be required in the middle of September. The next step is, after the consultants are appointed, they would do the necessary checks on the building, including looking at all the building drawings and all the other information that we can provide.
Then, they go out to tender to people who would come in and do the survey.
After that report, the consultants would provide us with a scope of work to get rid of the dangerous cladding and put new cladding in its place.”
Ms Saha said that even for her block, which has secured initial approval, there is still a panic over whether she and her fellow leaseholders will fulfil everything that is required before next month’s deadline.
“December of this year, that is going to be quite impossible, I think, to meet. Appointing surveyors, getting the survey done, getting the report.”
She suggested that government has not done enough to help her site:
“Having to live in a dangerous building; trying to grapple with issues such as managing a project of this size and magnitude; thinking about all the things that might go wrong; and everything that we need to do creates a really high level of stress on everybody involved.
I have absolutely no experience of property management. To have been thrown into this really, incredibly difficult and stressful situation causes a lot of anxiety – I’m sure not just to me but lots of other people who are in this situation.”
The programme went on to explore the issue of why “people like Ritu” are having to fight to make their homes safe.
The reasoning behind why the ACM remediation cladding fund was first established undermines the government’s non-interventionist approach to privately owned residential buildings that are wrapped in other lethal materials:
“It’s a good question, which really you could ask any of the freehold owners of these blocks or the developers, who are arguing about how [who should pay] to make them safe.
Now, the government has always said that replacing the cladding is the building owner’s responsibility, so it is the responsibility of the companies that bought the freeholds for these tower blocks from the developers.
The government fund is for when these companies do refuse to step in, and that often happens because they think it is the developers that are responsible for the cladding,” said Ms Abbott.
The programme ran a statement from Northpoint’s freeholder, Citistead, part of the Tchenguiz Family Trust, which said that the company bought the freehold in good faith in 2007 from developer Taylor Wimpey, stressing it “wasn’t involved in installing the cladding at all, which anyway was certified as meeting building regulations at the time.”
Citistead, like most of the Tchenguiz freeholds, has a loan from pension provider Rothesay Life, meaning that the latter receives all the ground rent income (£10,000pa in the case of Northpoint).
While Northpoint may be on track for financial assistance to remove the Grenfell-style cladding, Ms Abbott said that residents on private cladding sites “are just caught in the middle” of the row between original developers and investor freeholders, which calls into question the very purpose of the leasehold system.
LKP is disturbed by the reported resistance of officials to extend the December deadline.
If it is not changed to next year, many innocent leaseholders – who are eligible for the fund – will stand to lose their homes because of the sky-high cladding bills.