Robert Jenrick defends plan to end cladding scandal amid criticism

Harriet Line, PA Deputy Political Editor

The Housing Secretary has defended his heavily-criticised plan to end the “cladding scandal”, insisting it is fair that lower-rise leaseholders face bills of up to £50 a month for the removal of unsafe materials.

Robert Jenrick said it was a “pretty affordable amount of money” which would mark a “huge step forward” for people who would otherwise be “very, very worried that they are going to have massive, unmanageable costs”.

Mr Jenrick unveiled a £3.5 billion package on Wednesday which he said would mean no leaseholders in high-rise blocks in England will face charges for the removal of unsafe cladding.

Fire-safety improvements were brought in following the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 in which 72 people died when flames spread via combustible cladding.

But his announcement drew a furious response, with critics, including some Tories, warning it fails to address the problems faced by residents living in unsellable flats in unsafe blocks.

The Grenfell United pressure group said it was “too little, too late”.

“We needed something to deal with this mess once and for all – we didn’t get that today,” they said in a statement.

“Residents living in unsafe homes will go to bed tonight worrying if their building will qualify or be left out once again.

“And bereaved and survivors of Grenfell will lay awake fearful that what happened to us could still happen again.”

Tory MP Stephen McPartland, a prominent critic of the Government’s handling of the cladding crisis, dismissed the plans as “all smoke and mirrors”.

He said Mr Jenrick had ignored the continuing need for “waking watches” and the “excessive” insurance premiums which represent the main costs for many leaseholders.

But Mr Jenrick defended the policy in an interview on ITV’s Peston on Wednesday evening.

He said: “The risk of a fatal fire is four times higher in a building over 18 metres than those which are low or medium rise, traditionally defined as 11-18 metres.

“And so the expert opinion, the body of expert opinion, overwhelmingly supports the idea that you should focus effort on high-rise buildings.”

The Cabinet minister said a balance had to be struck between the interests of leaseholders and the taxpayer – “many of whom are not homeowners at all”.

Asked how many years people would be paying £50 a month, he said: “The idea is that these are long tenure loans, they don’t actually sit with the individual at all, they sit with the building and so they don’t have impact on someone’s credit rating or your own personal finances, they are a bit like a ground rent.”

Mr Jenrick said £50 a month was a “pretty affordable amount of money”, adding: “The problem today is that in this group of leaseholders who are in buildings under 18 metres they are very, very worried that they are going to have massive, unmanageable costs – life-changing bills.

“And so I think that to go from that position to the certainty of knowing that the worst-case scenario for you to get the cladding off your building would be a £50-a-month charge is a huge step forward.”

In his statement to MPs, Mr Jenrick said the Government will fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding on tower blocks in England more than 59ft (18m), or six storeys.

He said it will also develop a long-term scheme to ensure that those in lower to middle-rise blocks never have to pay more than £50 a month for cladding removal.

To help meet the costs, he said the Government is imposing a new levy on developers of certain high buildings in England and a £2 billion UK-wide tax on the residential development sector.

Mr Jenrick said that, without the Government’s intervention, many building owners would have continued to pass on the costs of cladding remediation work to leaseholders.

However, shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire said the Government is still under-estimating the scale of the problem.

“They still don’t know how many buildings are unsafe, where they are or what danger they pose,” she told the Commons.

“Government inaction and delay has caused the building safety crisis to spiral.

“People cannot continue to live in unsafe, un-sellable homes.

“Homeowners shouldn’t face bankruptcy to fix a problem they didn’t cause.

“Unfortunately, these proposals will still leave too many people struggling and facing loans instead of being given justice.”

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