Rupa Huq, the MP for Ealing Central and Acton has demanded answers from the Prime Minister on the “living nightmare” for residents trying to get hold of a safety validation for the tower blocks that they live in in Parliament.
She evoked memories of the nearby Grenfell fire disaster at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, asking Boris Johnson about rules that were brought in post-Grenfell to avoid a repeat of the disaster which killed 72 people in 2017.
Leaseholders currently have to pay for and produce an “external wall system” (EWS1) safety certificate if they want to sell their home or obtain a new mortgage, which most high-rise blocks do not have.
Flat owners face years of being unable to move or re-mortgage because of a lack of specialist building inspectors, while dangerous cladding remains on their property. Under the Government’s Waking Watch scheme, guards have to continually patrol high-rise blocks that have been deemed a fire risk with residents left to foot bill.
Affected blocks in Acton include Issigonis House and Morris House off the Vale, as well as newbuilds like Chaplin House in South Acton and even the luxury private building The Curve, near Ealing Broadway.
“When 72 Londoners burned to death at Grenfell because of a cladding defect we all said never again, but for hundreds of thousands the living nightmare of Waking Watch and the non-existent EWS1 form continues,” Huq said.
“So will the Prime Minister commit that no leaseholder anywhere should foot the bill for what’s no fault of their own? [Will he] end this neo-feudal absurdity of [leasehold] once and for all?”
Mr Johnson did not answer directly, but instead blamed mortgage companies.
“Mortgage companies should realise that [EWS1 forms] are not necessary for buildings under 18 metres,” the Prime Minister responded. “It’s absolutely vital that they understand that while we get on with the work of removing cladding from all the buildings we can.”
Yet more than three years after disaster struck at Grenfell, Government data from October revealed that almost half of high-rise buildings fitted with Grenfell cladding still have some in place. It has missed its target of removing all ACM [aluminium composite material] cladding by June of this year.
An Acton-based resident who wrote to Huq explained the emotional impact this was having on leaseholders: “We have no idea how much the remediation works will cost, who will pay for them, when works will start and how long they will take. […] We are unable to sell our home, as no prospective purchaser is able to get a mortgage. We are unsure if we can re-mortgage either.”
“We are truly stuck, and this fiasco is severely affecting people’s finances, health and family lives. We are unable to make any plans as we will potentially lose all our savings and also have to take out a loan in order to pay the remediation works bill, with all of our hard work to build our future essentially going to waste.”
Many leaseholders in the UK find themselves in a similar position. It is thought that up to 1.5million modern flats, 6% of England’s homes, are un-mortgageable because they cannot prove their walls are safe.
After the debate, Dr Huq commented, “The Prime Minister’s non-answer to my question was a disgrace. A double digit number of constituents have written to me to express their concern about being trapped in dangerous housing, unable to move.
“The developers responsible for the cladding (often impossible to track down) and the Government have all passed the buck. Unless the Government steps up and takes responsibility, the burden will continue to fall on residents who are left with anxiety, costs and ultimately, an unsafe home. Indeed we are the only nation on earth who has the bizarre system of leasehold, which should be scrapped immediately. The Government has held reviews but no action has been forthcoming.”
Meanwhile, on 17 November, the House of Lords approved an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill which will prevent building owners passing on the cost of remedial work in that legislation to leaseholders and tenants.
Amendment 13, introduced by Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Pinnock, will be reviewed when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.