The Guardian view on the cladding scandal: businesses must pay | Editorial

The tragedy of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in west London has revealed a housebuilding industry corrupted by a profits-first and anti-regulation ideology.

Property developers and speculators cannot be saddled with all the blame for this. It was a project of successive governments, and notably that led by David Cameron, to remove rules that they saw as making life unnecessarily difficult for construction businesses. The dysfunctional system that led to 72 people losing their lives included failures of housing management and safety culture as well as the inappropriate use of flammable cladding.

As the public inquiry into the disaster continues its examination of the specifics, a parallel process has led to tens of thousands of flat dwellers in England trying to escape a nightmare of their own (the precise number of those affected is unknown). The same type of cladding used on Grenfell was found on 477 other buildings over 18 metres tall in the aftermath of the disaster, with a full audit of buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres tall that are in need of alterations still incomplete. It is the plight of these unlucky residents, many of them first-time buyers of leasehold properties, that the secretary of state for levelling up and housing, Michael Gove, on Monday pledged to resolve.

Removing the threat of debt hanging over those living in buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres is the most significant shift, and a marked improvement on the dismal record of Mr Gove’s predecessor, Robert Jenrick. Under the unjust regime that has now been scrapped, leaseholders were liable for repair bills that sometimes stretched into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Freeholders, many of them hugely profitable developers, have now been told to pay instead. But while this is the right idea, it is not clear how it will work. For now, the Treasury has rejected the idea of a windfall tax on the industry, which continues to benefit from rising prices, but the likelihood is surely that Mr Gove will have to persuade Rishi Sunak to follow through on this threat.

Plans to extend the period of liability during which leaseholders can seek damages from builders are another step in the right direction. The relaxation of subletting rules will make a difference to some of those stuck in flats that they can’t sell, who now at least will be able to rent them out. But campaigners are right to be angry that the issue of defects apart from cladding has been put to one side. And it remains to be seen whether banks and insurers will agree to abandon the risk-averse stance that they have adopted since the scale of the building safety scandal was revealed. A government indemnity scheme for assessors ought to alleviate some of the pressures resulting from increased demand for safety surveys.

Once again, social tenants have been pushed to the back of the queue, with Mr Gove unable to give a timetable for long-promised laws to strengthen their rights. Four and a half years after Grenfell, and with housing inequality and shortages worsening in many areas, greatly exacerbated by lax controls on landlords (private as well as social), millions of people will continue to be harmed by a housing system that puts profits before human needs, while paying lip service to climate targets.

How this story unfolds will depend in part on how far Mr Gove’s party is prepared to risk its relationship with the industry whose leading figures are among its most generous donors – and what comes of housebuilders’ attempt to shift the blame on to the manufacturers of dangerous cladding products. Whatever happens, the leaseholders and Grenfell survivors who have fought so hard together deserve credit for pushing the government this far.


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