UK housing secretary threatens industry over tower block safety

A senior UK minister has warned the housebuilding industry that he will use legislation to force through a £4bn tower block safety plan unless executives come up with alternative proposals in the next three weeks.

The 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in west London, which caused 72 deaths, has prompted a safety crisis in Britain with concerns about hundreds of tower blocks constructed with potentially combustible materials.

The urgency of the issues was underlined on Monday by a fire at a 21-storey office and residential building in Whitechapel, east London.

Michael Gove, who became levelling-up, housing and communities secretary last autumn, has taken a tough stance with the housebuilding industry, threatening to cut off companies’ access to government funds and future procurement if they do not meet the refurbishment costs.

The Home Builders Federation, which represents British builders, put forward a compromise last month whereby the industry would fund remediation on buildings dating back to 2000.

Under that proposal, the developers would only fix their own buildings, excluding those built by overseas companies, and would only pay for work to address “critical fire safety issues” rather than other repairs.

The industry privately estimates that this would cost about £1bn in contrast to the government’s £4bn figure.

But in his latest letter to the industry, published on Monday, Gove said the industry offer “falls short of [the] full and unconditional self-remediation” that leaseholders would expect.

The minister wants the industry to take responsibility for repairs on buildings dating back to 1992, including those built by both domestic and foreign housebuilders.

“I expect all developers to emulate the most responsible firms and commit to full self-remediation of unsafe buildings without added conditions or qualifications,” he wrote. “I am disappointed to see you have not proposed a funding solution to cover the full outstanding cost to remediate unsafe cladding on buildings [of height] 11-18 metres.”

Gove warned the industry that unless an agreement was reached by the end of March he would use the forthcoming building safety bill to “impose a solution in law”.

Robert Jenrick, Gove’s predecessor as housing secretary, allocated £5bn to fix buildings taller than 18 metres and had suggested that leaseholders in properties between 11-18 metres could take out loans to cover any necessary remediation work on unsafe flats. But Gove has scrapped that plan and made it clear that leaseholders should not shoulder the costs for resolving fire-safety issues.

The industry is already facing a new £200mn-a-year tax over the next decade to pay for cladding remediation costs.

The HBF said in response to Gove’s letter that it wanted to engage constructively with the government to find solutions to ensure leaseholders did not have to pay any remediation costs. But it added: “Demands to fund remediation of buildings built by overseas developers remains a concern and are clearly unfair.”

The trade group said it was still waiting to see the results of a recent data collection exercise by the government to establish what proportion of buildings in need of remediation had been built by British home builders in the last three decades.

Firefighters damp down flames on the 17th storey of a tower in Whitechapel © Getty Images

London Fire Brigade said 125 firefighters were deployed to tackle the Whitechapel tower blaze, which sent glass panels smashing down into the street below. There were no immediate reports of any injuries as a result of the fire.

One leaseholder told the Financial Times that no one in the building had been able to sell properties as post-Grenfell checks had identified flammable materials in balconies on the building’s exterior. “No one will give a mortgage on these flats,” she said.

She said there had been a stand-off between Network Homes, the housing association which runs the building, and leaseholders over the past few years about who would pay for remediation of the balconies.

Network Homes did not immediately respond to a request to comment.