Hold builders to account and resolve this housing scandal

Labour’s non-binding vote today on the cladding scandal. Will our local MP’s back it?

Yesterday’s Sunday Times Editorial:

The Sunday Times editorial  www.thetimes.co.uk

It is now more than 3½ years since the avoidable tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. The loss of life in that disaster will never be forgotten, and never should be. It has been followed by dither and delay by the government in dealing with the many other properties in Britain also encased in flammable cladding. This was why, many months ago, The Sunday Times launched the Safe Homes for All campaign, exposing what we have described as the hidden housing scandal.

That scandal has produced worry and heartache for millions of people living in leasehold flats with unsafe cladding. Hayley Tillotson, a 28-year-old first-time buyer in Leeds, was forced to declare herself bankrupt when she could not meet the extra costs of fire patrols in the building in which she lived, and she will not be the last. Through no fault of her own, she will have to live with that for the rest of her life.

Tomorrow Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, will meet victims of the cladding scandal before an opposition day debate in the House of Commons, which will focus on the government’s tardy and inadequate response. The debate will focus on the huge bills faced by leaseholders trapped in unsellable properties that they bought in good faith.

Labour’s motion for tomorrow’s debate picks up on most of the themes highlighted in our campaign. It will call for a deadline of next year for all the affected buildings to be made safe, starting with those at greatest risk, and for such a deadline to be legally enforceable.

It will also call on Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, to “urgently establish the extent of dangerous cladding and prioritise buildings according to risk” and “provide upfront funding to ensure cladding remediation can start immediately”. Mr Jenrick, it adds, must “protect leaseholders and taxpayers from the cost by pursuing those responsible for the cladding crisis”, and provide monthly updates on his progress.

The debate is an important one, even though it is not binding on the government. This scandal was in place well before our lives were changed by the pandemic, and it is not going away. The housing secretary is reported to be engaged in a battle with Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, over the release of £10bn to remove and replace the dangerous cladding in the affected homes, but even that may not be enough, and Mr Sunak is looking for ways to reduce the budget deficit, not add to it.

The solution should be straightforward, and it does not lie in the recommendation from the government’s adviser on the issue, the insurance executive Michael Wade. He recommended that leaseholders be offered low-cost loans. That is the last thing leaseholders, many of whom already struggle with bills, want, and they should not have to take them.

Instead the government should look at what it has done for the housebuilders and construction firms and how it can claw it back. Since it was launched eight years ago, the Help to Buy scheme has transformed the fortunes of the builders. The former chief executive of Persimmon, one of the country’s largest housebuilders, was due a £110m bonus, until it was revised down to an only slightly less obscene £75m.

As recently as July the chancellor provided the housing sector with a £4bn tax cut by reducing stamp duty, and it is pressing him to extend it beyond March 31, when it is due to end.

Those who created this problem — the builders and their suppliers, some of whom have shown a blatant disregard for public safety — should be made to pay for it. The blameless leaseholders should not. The government has to use its muscle, and not be influenced by whether some of these businesses are Tory donors. If not, more than 4.5 million affected leaseholders will know exactly who to blame.