Builders should pay for the mistakes that led to cladding crisis

Three days after that dreadful night in 2017 when fire surged through Grenfell Tower, killing scores of its inhabitants and destroying the homes of many more, I was travelling home from York when my phone rang.

The call was from the chief executive of the Manchester-based housing association that I chair. A brand new apartment block we had recently opened, providing high quality housing for older people, was one of the first properties to fail the emergency fire tests being rolled out across Britain’s high-rise homes.

By the time the media arrived later that afternoon, the cherrypickers were busy at work taking down the offending cladding.

I’d like that to be the end of the story, but it isn’t.

Fire-spreading cladding has proved the catalyst for a far-ranging, and arguably long overdue, reassessment of the status of multistorey dwellings. Buildings previously passed as safe were suddenly, and correctly, redesignated as high risk.

Structural problems were exposed, ones that go far wider than inadequate materials fixed to external walls. And with every fresh realisation of just how unsafe many homes are, the cost of remediation has soared higher.

The leasehold system, through which many large apartment blocks are owned, was set up to pay for the common services and elements of a building, while ceding to each household the ownership of their home.

It was never intended to handle the massive remediation costs that have overnight reduced the mortgageable value of a high-rise (or medium-rise) apartment to zero.

Many residents are now trapped, living in properties deemed unsafe, paying the costs of nightly “waking watches” while facing repair bills of tens of thousands of pounds.

With prospective purchasers unable to obtain a loan, current owners cannot sell, even when family circumstances make that a necessity.

For the last couple of years I’ve been lending my voice and my support to the Manchester Cladiators, a wonderfully named group who are proving every bit as tenacious as the most ferocious fighters of the Roman empire.

Along with similar groups around the country, they are campaigning to get their homes back to a state in which they are both safe to live in and can be sold for their proper value.

To me, it seems plainly unjust that they should pay the price of other people’s mistakes, and as a bishop with more than 30 years’ active involvement in housing associations, it feels like an injustice I want to do something about.

I believe there are answers. If I bought a car, or a washing machine, and that model were later found to have a propensity to burst into flames, I would expect the maker to recall it, to repair or replace, at their own expense, whatever was necessary.

The fact that the fault had been unknown at the time of manufacture would be no excuse to evade responsibility.

Nor would it be acceptable to waste years dithering over the details, leaving me to bear the safety risk in the meantime.

The principle that the person who created the problem should resolve it, succinctly known as Polluter Pays, can be as applicable to a flat as to an appliance.

The building safety bill on parliament’s timetable presents the perfect opportunity to resolve things once and for all, by including clauses to allow determination that a building was constructed wrongly, or with wrong materials, and to direct the costs of remediation back on to the developer.

European human rights law supports the view that parent companies could be made responsible where development was led by a special purpose vehicle that no longer exists with funds.

Where no developer can be found, or no breach of regulations occurred, public funds could be reimbursed via an industry levy. None of this need involve residents in lengthy and expensive legal action.

I struggle to believe that it is entirely coincidental that individuals and bodies connected with the construction industry have been such generous political donors and assiduous lobbyists in the years (too many already) since Grenfell went up in flames.

But I do know that many MPs and peers, including Conservatives, support our efforts.

We will be taking our message, politely but firmly, to their party conference here in Manchester this weekend. And to every other major political stage we can speak on, until Britain’s homes are made safe.



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