'Looks good on paper': Cladding victims question 'meaningless' action plan
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown/ PA Wire
Michael Gove has vowed to punish historic negligence within the building sector which has left embattled leaseholders trapped in dangerously-clad homes.
In parliament today, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing said the building industry must face the consequences of selling "death-trap" properties to "innocent" leaseholders.
Although more than four years have passed since the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the needless death of 72 people, he said the system remained "broken".
His announcement comes as leaked Treasury documents revealed leaseholders living in blocks between 11 and 18m high would now have their cladding paid for by the government, as well as those in high rises.
He also said additional measures would be introduced at a later date to deal with non-cladding defects threatening building safety, such as missing firebreaks and internal compartmentation issues.
As part of Mr Gove's amendments to the Building Safety Bill, homeowners can now sue their building's developer for safety defects up to 30 years old — double the current limit of 15 years.
But what good is that when the company responsible no longer exists? This is the question leaseholders in Ipswich are now at pains to find out.
Mr Gove has given the ultimatum of March for developers to bash heads and come up with an industry-wide £4bn "settlement" that spares individuals from having to launch their own negligence claims against the people who rendered their flats unsellable.
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If they don't, he claimed in parliament he would "force a solution" on them, such as introducing a levy on developers of high-rise buildings.
In Ipswich, where 19 blocks are affected by defective cladding, the news has been met with scepticism.
For Alex Dickin, spokesman for the Ipswich Cladiators group, Mr Gove's hope that developers will offer up £4bn of their own volition seems somewhat ridiculous.
"They've had four and a half years to do that since Grenfell", he said. "And nobody's been keen."
According to local industry expert Saul Humphrey, the solution being suggested by Mr Gove is radical, and a stroke of genius if it pays off.
However glaring problems persist in the event it does not.
The first issue, says Dr Humphrey, is that developers aren't always the ones responsible.
Instead, the blame might lie with the cladding manufacturers and insulation suppliers who've knowingly sold dangerous materials, insurers, architects and designers who've cut corners, or lax building inspectors turning a blind eye.
Attributing or sourcing blame within this quagmire of involvement and possibly-destroyed paperwork will be "very difficult".
Another issue, as Ipswich Waterfront leaseholders Chu Man and Alex Dickin point out, is that the companies originally behind the majority of the Waterfront's tower blocks are no longer trading.
Most of the blocks were built by special purpose vehicles (SPVs), which are companies set up for one purpose only and to minimise risk for the parent company.
As soon as these SPVs have achieved their function, e.g. sold off the last flat within a tower block, they are dissolved.
"The Secretary of State is extending the culpability limit to 30 years ago, but it doesn't matter", said Mr Dickin, who lives in Cardinal Lofts in Ipswich.
"He could be giving us an extra one hundred years, but it's meaningless when there's no company to go after.
"Leaseholders are normal people with full-time jobs.
"We don't have the time or resources to track down who exactly is responsible for defects, never mind take them to court.
"And where's the government's recognition of its own fault? They're the ones who've let this happen.
"I think Gove's announcement looks very good on paper, but not in reality."
Dr Humphrey added: "Gove clearly knows how complex this is, and that's why he wants the industry to find a simple way of contributing towards the bill.
"What's most likely to happen is the big developers who are still solvent, and probably responsible for a fair chunk of the high-rises caught up in the cladding crisis, will end up paying most of the money.
"Their share prices are already dropping, which suggests investors are taking Gove's threat seriously."
Mr Man added: "I am hopeful we are heading in the right direction.
"Gove's clearly not messing about, but the government needs to promise it will go after the individuals who hid behind SPVs."
'I invite you to come see St Francis Tower'
After the Secretary of State's speech in the Commons, MP for Ipswich Tom Hunt said he was relieved leaseholders trapped in 11-18m blocks could now avoid taking out huge loans to pay for replacement cladding.
But he said one thing that hadn't been addressed was the horrendous conditions for people living in flats where cladding amelioration work is already being carried out, such as St Francis Tower — currently wrapped in suffocating "vinyl" which blocks out all natural night.
"If you visited St Francis Tower, I'm certain you'd share my anger at the conditions my constituents are living in", Mr Hunt said to Mr Gove.
"Myself or another minister will come to Ipswich and hear your constituents out", said Mr Gove in response.