Latest attempt to end fire safety crisis leaves more questions than answers

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

While everyone will be hoping that Robert Jenrick has finally found a way through some of the worst aspects of the fire safety crisis, it’s hard not to be a bit sceptical.

The housing secretary issued a dramatic written statement just as MPs were preparing for the Second Reading debate on the Building Safety Bill last week. An accompanying press release from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that: ‘Leaseholders in blocks of flats with cladding should be supported to buy, sell or re-mortgage their homes after the government agreed with major lenders to pave the way to ending the need for EWS1 forms. It comes following expert advice that the forms should no longer be needed on buildings below 18 metres.’

However, that use of ‘should’ is telling because the announcement will achieve nothing if mortgage valuers and lenders do not accept it and if potential buyers are not convinced that the flats are risk-free. The banks quoted as supporting the agreement have only promised to review their practices so far.

Previous attempts to reform the EWS1 process have failed and – even though the small print of this announcement contains the potentially significant addition of a government-backed indemnity insurance scheme for external wall system assessors. This one has already hit a significant obstacle as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says it cannot change its advice to valuers and banks saying they will not change their policies the government changes its own fire safety guidance.

Even if we assume that this is a chicken and egg problem that can be resolved, there are still grounds for scepticism about Jenrick’s attempt to close Pandora’s Box.

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Four years of broken promises

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Four years on from Grenfell and a solution to the fire safety crisis looks further away than ever.

The litany of broken ministerial promises highlighted by Pete Apps in his analysis this week only adds to the impression of abject government failure and of a crisis that continues to escalate faster than its fumbling attempts to tackle it.

From James Brokenshire’s ‘expectation’ of ACM remediation by June 2020 to Lord Greenhalgh’s ‘ambition’ that it should be completed this year, even the programme most directly related to Grenfell keeps slipping into the future.

And despite Theresa May’s pledge that ‘we cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes’ to Boris Johnson’s promise that ‘no leaseholder should have to pay’, thousands are doing and facing exactly that.

In mitigation they could plead that in June 2017 hardly anyone expected things to escalate to the stage where it seems that virtually any residential block built in the last 25 years has come under suspicion.

The public inquiry has rightly concentrated on the causes of the fire and the run-up to that night in June 2017 but it was clear even at the time that the problems went well beyond the refurbishment of one tower block and the actions of one landlord and council.

Evidence revealed at the public inquiry has amplified those wider concerns many times over – but so far the government has not even kept its promises to implement the inquiry’s initial recommendations.   

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Building Back Better (in due course)

Building back better? Safer? Fairer? How about slower?

At first glance this is a Queen’s Speech that looks full of welcome reforms to planning and the delivery of new homes, conditions for renters and leaseholders and building safety. Scratch beneath the surface in the background briefing notes, though, and big questions remain and there are big battles to come.

Ahead of the speech, the Planning Bill was spun as ‘cruical’ to levelling up, a way to cement Conservative advances in the Midlands and North by boosting home ownership.

But that ignores the battle to come with Tory backbenchers over housebuilding in the South East.

A cynical outcome from the white paper would be to emphasise local growth as you allow councils in expensive areas to designate large parts of them for protection. This would do next to nothing to tackle affordability – or address the very real questions about the future of Section 106 – but the politics will be very tempting.

In the wake of Grenfell, the government will ‘continue to deliver on the Social Housing White Paper proposals’ and ‘legislate as soon as practicable’.

But Grenfell was almost four years ago and the social housing white paper that was published in November that took more than three years. Practicable? Grenfell United has already called it a ‘betrayal’.

Improvements will come in the proposed Building Safety Bill which is at last delivering on the improved regime promised after the fire.

However, that in itself is a delayed opportunity to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders after ministers steadfastly resisted all amendments to the Fire Safety Bill to make it clear they should not have to pay for problems that are not their fault. The stage is set for another huge Commons battle.

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Facing up to the cladding crisis

Originally published on September 7 as a column for Inside Housing.

All through the cladding saga, the government has dragged its feet and resisted spending money before finally being forced to act.

Think back to the way ministers resisted any kind of fund for replacement of Grenfell-style ACM cladding, then insisted private building owners should pay, then denied the need for any help for non-ACM cladding and you see a pattern repeating itself.

It took the government almost a year after Grenfell to announce a £400m fund for the removal of ACM on social housing blocks, almost two years to find £200m for private blocks and almost three years to announce the £1bn Building Safety Fund for the removal of non-ACM cladding.

All this while the cladding scandal continued to escalate, dragging in more and more blocks and more and more residents and eventually wrecking the whole market in recently built flats.

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Doing the right thing on fire safety

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 18.

In the 36 months since Grenfell ministers have repeatedly appealed to others to ‘do the right thing’ and pay for the replacement of dangerous cladding on high-rise homes.

Ministers have resisted doing anything themselves but the pressure has always told eventually.

After 11 months, a £400 million fund was announced for social housing blocks with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. After 23 months, another £200 million was found for private blocks with ACM. After 32 months, the £1 billion Building Safety Fund was announced in the Spring Budget this year to cover hundreds more high-rise blocks with non-ACM but still dangerous cladding

Three years on from the fire, work has only been completed on a third of the ACM blocks – 149 out of 457 – according to the latest government statistics.  Of the remaining 307, work had not even started on 140.

The minister responsible for building safety (the fifth since Grenfell) told the Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee that there are another 11,300 buildings with other types of dangerous cladding and that 1,700 of them are classed as high risk.

Even as the funding has been grudgingly announced, so the estimated cost of fixing the problem has risen. Add the costs of other internal and external fire safety measures that go well beyond the clading, and the HCLG committee puts the total cost at £15 billion.

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Signals from long-delayed debuts for Jenrick and McVey

Originally published on January 15 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey faced their first parliamentary questions as housing secretary and housing minister on Monday – almost six months after they took up their posts.

The reasons for the remarkable delay to their despatch box debuts – the summer recess, Brexit and the December election – are not hard to guess and are also why housing has slipped down the political agenda in the meantime.

But, give or take the odd appearance in parliamentary debates and in front of select committees, the delay also means that we still have only a fuzzy picture of what they really think about the key issues stacking up in their in-trays.

And it came in the wake of a report in the Daily Mail over the weekend about an apparent clash between the two over where the government should spend its housing cash and which voters they should be targeting.

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Ending leasehold’s ‘industrial-scale racket’

Originally posted on July 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As far back as I can remember, every government has promised to tackle abuses of our outdated system of leasehold.

Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major legislated four times on leasehold reform.

The Labour government of Tony Blair promised ‘a comprehensive package of leasehold reforms’ in 2000 and introduced the alternative system of commonhold in 2002.

Piecemeal reforms improved things a bit for leaseholders but commonhold has still only been used on 50 developments at an optimistic estimate – in contrast to the expansion of similar tenures like strata title and condominiums across the rest of the world.

Little wonder when leasehold offers so many advantages to be profitably exploited by landowners, housebuilders and freeholders.

Now, in the wake of the twin scandals of cladding and leasehold, all that could – finally – be about to change.

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Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.

As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.

The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.

The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.

And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.

Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.

Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.

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The implications of the leasehold scandal

Originally published on March 19 as a blog for Inside Housing.

The leasehold scandal will have far-reaching implications for housing that will be felt well beyond the major housebuilders with whom it began.

A report published by the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Tuesday takes as its starting point the doubling ground rents and onerous contract terms faced by buyers of new homes who it says were treated ‘not as homeowners or customers but as a source of steady profit’.

And it also highlights the issue of leaseholders facing huge bills to remove and replace combustible cladding raised in its work on fire safety.

But this report goes well beyond those recent high-profile problems with leasehold and poses some fundamental questions about a tenure that only exists in England and Wales – and they are ones that will require answers by social landlords as well as private sector housebuilders and freeholders.

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More housing questions than answers

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on December 11. 

As Westminster grinds to a halt over Brexit at least some progress is still being made on housing – or is it?

In the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, some things have undoubtedly moved but the signs at Housing Communities and Local Government questions on Monday were that others are grinding to a halt.

First up was the land question and specifically the way that MHCLG dashed hopes of radical reform of land value capture in its response to a Housing Communities and Local Government Committee report recommending big changes to a system that sees planning permission for housing increase the value of agricultural land by 100 times.

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