New government commitments to improve cladding fire safety have been announced to ensure stricter regulation of high-rise buildings in England.
Draft legislation to clarify building safety rules was announced in the Queen's Speech on Tuesday, via the returning Building Safety Bill. The bill was initially included in the 2019 Queen's Speech, but has yet to be finalised and passed.
A draft Building Safety Bill was published in July 2020, but the government now intends to establish a new regulator for building safety as part of the bill and introduce significant reforms for regulating the safety of high-rise buildings, and inspecting construction sites.
The new Building Safety Regulator will aim to introduce a better safety system and impose sanctions and regulations to ensure the 2017 Grenfell tragedy, in which 72 residents died, never happens again.
Government Under Pressure Over Cladding Fire Safety
The government's plans announced by the Queen came one week after the controversial Fire Safety Bill, which will now be known as the Fire Safety Act 2021, was passed into law earlier this month.
The Fire Safety Act 2021 is designed to ensure building owners are responsible for the fire safety of the external walls of buildings, and is based upon the recommendations made from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
The bill, which applies in England and Wales, had faced opposition for several weeks as MPs challenged the government to include an amendment that would protect leaseholders from fire safety bills.
Housing minister Christopher Pincher said the proposed protection for leaseholders was too widely drawn and "lacked clarity". But is now feared that the legislation could see hundreds of thousands of leaseholders face fire safety bills of up to £100,000.
Homeowners trapped in unsellable flats have since threatened protests and campaigning throughout the summer.
A spokesman for End Our Cladding Scandal, a coalition of homeowners from across the country, said: “We are feeling deflated but we have been here before. We have got a band of Conservative MP supporters now and there will be no end to campaigning. We are taking some time to regroup and then plan a rally and protest in the summer."
What is the So-Called Cladding Scandal?
It is feared that as many as 700,000 people are living in high-rise blocks with flammable cladding, and face huge costs to remove it.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, round-the-clock fire patrols were established in hundreds of buildings. Fixing safety faults has seen costs surge for leaseholders, while residents have experienced rocketing insurance costs on buildings with fire safety problems.
The Daily Mail reported earlier this year that insurance claims have soared by £1.6bn a year for those living in unsafe homes, and the Sunday Mirror revealed that a residents group of leaseholders in Greenwich experienced an insurance quote increase of £535,000.
Government data released in July 2020 revealed that cladding removal and repair work has been completed on just 58% of social housing blocks and 30% of private sector buildings.
To speed up the pace of removing unsafe cladding from high rise residential buildings, Labour has called for a National Cladding Taskforce to be established, a move which has been backed by the British Safety Council.
Last week, the government launched a consultation on a new code of practice (which is due to close in June) for assessing buildings’ external walls and cladding system.
What is Being Done?
A committee of MPs estimated in February that the total cost of the so-called cladding scandal could run to £15bn.
Earlier this year, the government announced an additional £3.5bn to repair hundreds of thousands of potentially unsafe buildings, adding to the £1.6bn previously pledged in the Building Safety Fund in 2020.
This £5bn funding will be used to pay for removal of unsafe cladding for all leaseholders in high-rise residential buildings which are 18 meters and higher, or above six storeys.
In buildings below 18m, housing secretary Robert Jenrick said that the risks from unsafe cladding are "significantly lower", but where cladding needed to be removed, a long-term scheme will protect leaseholders to ensure they pay no more than £50 a month for the removal of unsafe cladding.
He added that it "cannot be right the costs fall solely on tax payers", and confirmed that the government would develop a levy targeted at developers seeking to build certain high-rise buildings in England.
There will also be a new tax for the UK residential property sector from 2022, which will raise money to help pay for the removal of cladding.
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