The government is finally trying to get a scandal that has caught tens of thousands of tenants in unsafe buildings or houses they cannot sell. And it does it by to get his hands around the listed housing sector’s neck.
This principle is the right one: tenants should not be taken into account for a systemic failure in buildings and fire regulation, one that has raised real concerns about safety but has revamped the lending and sales of properties that are otherwise healthy .
Michael Gove, housing secretary, has scrapped an unfair and unworkable loan scheme for repairs and would rather try to Raise £ 4 billion from property developers. But the plans remain full of holes – presenting issues for both trapped tenants hoping for relief and for the developers who are firmly on the hook for the bill.
It is clear that the proposals address only part of the problem. The money is earmarked for safety issues in the estimated 50,000 buildings between 11 m and 18 m high that are presumably clad (buildings over 18 m, which are considered the biggest risk after the Grenfell Tower disaster, are being funded by the existing Building Safety Fund covered).
Exactly how the government reached or will increase its £ 4 billion figure is unclear – more on that later. There is no solution for those in buildings below 11m, of which there are many. And fundamentally, it’s a crisis that has long since grown beyond cladding to occupy firebreaks, barriers, wooden balconies, insulation and more.
A survey of 400 properties over 18m high by the Association of Residential Management Agents found that the cost of addressing non-clad security issues was £ 26,000 per apartment, compared to £ 22,500 for cladding. . A smaller survey of buildings under 18m found non-cladding costs of £ 38,000 per apartment. Work does not tend to start until all the necessary funding is in place, notes one campaigner.
Whether the government’s sound and anger means a lot to tenants depends on how it can secure funds and how quickly and efficiently they are spent.
The “polluter pays” rhetoric sounds reasonable, but implies a degree of accuracy that is not achievable. There is no record of which buildings have fire safety issues, where they are, who built them or who owns them.
The government is trying to figure it out at the same time, while trying to scale back the crisis. It wants to stop unnecessary requests for fire safety certificates by borrowers, a problem that has largely created its own guidance, and to curb excessive spending and fees from freeholders who use the opportunity to ask for more general upgrades to their property.
The lack of certainty means that it is impossible to determine whether £ 4 billion is enough for the task at hand or may eventually be enough if more “common sense”, in Gove’s words, is applied. The money allocated to the clothing crisis got up from £ 200 million in 2019 to more than £ 9bn in public and private funds now, but remains short of a select committee’s estimate of £ 15bn of what is needed.
Meanwhile, shares in the largest listed developers – who say their buildings complied with regulations at the time – tumbled on Monday as they are the only obvious source of readily available cash. Asking them to contribute is not unreasonable: they benefited greatly from public-funded juice from the housing market and were too slow to allocate and spend money to correct problems in their own developments. Even those who have not built tall buildings rely on the proper functioning of the residential sales market.
But many, as Gove has acknowledged, are doing the right thing. They are already on the hook for £ 2 billion for the Building Security Fund, via a new tax, and for a levy on high planning applications. How much more the industry is stunned on a voluntary basis remains to be seen. For all the threats of withholding public funding, or court action, the treasury has not signed off on a new tax.
The government will try to reach out to the smaller, unlisted sector for funds. It is less transparent and less susceptible to political saber-rattling. Developers will have failed, or be based overseas. Other projects would have been built within a single-use special purpose vehicle. Even if the government knew who had to pay (it does not), it might not be able to reach them.
Meanwhile, the manufacturers of upholstery and other materials have yet to contribute to rectifying a crisis where they are directly to blame. And the government’s eagerness to blame developers does not point to many psychological investigations into a policy and regulatory environment that ignored repeated warnings about fire safety and entangled the crisis response so much that it only now – four-and-a-half half a year after Grenfell – Did anyone think of asking developers for comprehensive details of what they actually built.