The Grenfell Tower disaster has intensified the conversation around fire safety issues in residential buildings in the UK. Image credit: ChiralJon/Flickr
New Housing Secretary Michael Gove has told MPs that he believes leaseholders living in fire-trap homes should not have to pay for flammable cladding to be removed.
In his first appearance in front of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee since taking up the post in September, Gove laid out his plans to deal with the building safety crisis, admitting the government has “not been fast enough”.
In response to a question from Cheadle’s Conservative MP, Mary Robinson, Gove also said the question of “Why should leaseholders have to pay?” was “one of the first things I asked – I don’t think they should.”
“There is an urgent need to deal with the persistence of ACM cladding on tall buildings but I also think there is an equally urgent need to ensure justice is done,” said Gove. “The government has a responsibility to make buildings safe.
“But we also have a responsibility to relieve some of the obligations faced by leaseholders at the moment who are innocent parties in this and who are being in many circumstances asked to pay extortionate sums when there are individuals who are guilty men and women.”
Hundreds of thousands of people living in buildings with flammable ACM cladding have been paying for additional safety measures since the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. More than 70 people died when a fire started in the tower block in west London and evidence has shown the cladding on the outside of the building helped the flames spread more quickly.
“What I’m trying to do is not to stall some of the progress that has been made but to ask again the levels of support we’re giving and where some of the responsibility lies,” he continued.
“It seems to me that an insufficient level of responsibility is being shouldered by those who were most responsible for getting us into this terrible situation in the first place. I’m still unhappy with the principle of leaseholders having to pay at all.”
But he admitted the government still does not have a full understanding of the scale of the issue. When asked how many homes still have the ACM cladding that caused the Grenfell disaster and how many buildings over 18 metres in height are affected, Gove added: “I have a good picture, not a perfect picture.”
He said creating a coherent “levelling up” plan across government was his top priority ahead of improving housing supply and quality and tackling the building safety crisis.
With thousands of leaseholders around the country living in unsafe homes and facing homelessness or bankruptcy almost four and a half years after the a fire at Grenfell Tower in London killed 80 people, Gove told MPs the government has not “acted fast enough on cladding”.
However, Gove remained open-minded about solutions to the crisis including considering the “polluter pays” amendment – a solution drawn up by leaseholders which aims to enable the government to pursue remediation and interim fire safety costs from developers.
Gove added: “I’d want to explain why we couldn’t achieve a polluter-pays approach.”
The committee hearing was the first time Gove had spoken in detail about his housing plans after he became the newly named secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities on September 15.
The appointment, during Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle, came a day before residents caught up in the cladding and building safety crisis headed to Westminster to protest the government’s handling of the issue but Gove did not answer their calls to attend.
In that time, Gove’s predecessor Robert Jenrick has criticised the government for failing to put tackling rough sleeping high up it’s agenda. He also told BBC’s Politics Live it was “difficult to get the money” from the Treasury to pay upfront for fixing homes with unsafe cladding and fire defects.
The Conservative minister had kept quiet on his housing duties in the 54 days before his meeting with the committee.
But his appearance followed Boris Johnson’s own response to the building safety crisis at Prime Ministers Questions last week.
Responding to a question from Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield about his constituent Jenni Garratt’s bills to fix her home, Johnson said leaseholders caught up in the crisis were “unnecessarily anxious”.
The prime minister said that “many millions of homes were not unsafe” and claimed fire safety issues were “undermining confidence in the market”.
Meanwhile, Gove also said that he hopes the £65m fund announced to help vulnerable renters pay off rent arrears is “enough”.
The announcement last month was recognition that renters have racked up arrears due to the effects of the pandemic but the fund was criticised for falling short of the full scale of the issue. The committee estimated renters have racked up £300m in arrears while Citizens Advice estimated the full cost could be around £360m.
The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign has called for the Westminster government to pay off the arrears to prevent people from losing their home this winter.
Gove told the committee: “I hope it will be enough and it is certainly the case that Shelter and others welcomed the additional funding. It’s not the only way that local authorities can help and not the means that we can use to deal with overcrowding, homelessness and the fragility of people who find themselves on reduced resources as a result of Covid.
“I hope it will be enough but I’m open minded about what other steps we might need to take.”
The housing secretary also said the government was reviewing the impact of Housing First pilots in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands to decide the “next steps” – funding for the pilots is set to run out next year.
The secretary of state said Housing First – which involves giving rough sleepers a home alongside intensive support to help them keep it – was: “not enough on its own” to solve rough sleeping but was a “very transformative social policy intervention.”
Gove said that his new role had already changed his perception of homelessness and there was “more to do” to ensure the government reached the target of ending rough sleeping by 2024.