Sir: Emma Byrne’s report on the cladding scandal (‘Ill clad’, 29 August) will have given many of those affected real hope that our plight is acknowledged. I am the first in my family to go to university, so getting on the property ladder was a major achievement. I bought my flat under shared ownership. Three years ago, we were told our building did not have dangerous cladding — only to learn later that this was not the case.
My housing association is still unable to tell us how dangerous my home is. But it has warned we may have to pay to have the cladding removed. If the draft Building Safety Bill passes, the cost will be capped at £78,000. This despite Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, stating that leaseholders should not be held responsible for the costs.
I have a new baby and should be embracing my first months of motherhood. Instead I cannot see any future; it is a black hole. I go to bed not knowing if my child is safe, whether she’ll be forced to grow up in a tiny flat without any of the little luxuries we’ve worked so hard to give her — or whether we will be wiped out by a cladding bill over which we would have no control.
The article asks if this government could bankrupt an entire generation. But an entire generation is, right now, being robbed of the ability to plan a future — or to feel safe in their homes at night. Many say they feel suicidal. I hope Mr Jenrick and the housing minister Christopher Pincher feel deep shame about this mess, the lives it is disrupting and the misery it is causing.
Sir: Like Emma Byrne, I live in a shared ownership flat part-owned by a housing association. Many of my neighbours are key workers — the very people who were applauded just a few months ago for saving lives during the lockdown. The same underpaid heroes who were encouraged by the government to plough all their savings into ‘affordable housing’ — and the same people this government wants to punish for the cladding scandal.
None of us chose to put cladding on our buildings. None of us should have to pay to get it off. Those who have caused this — developers, construction companies, insurers, freeholders, housing associations and councils — are now nowhere to be seen. Instead they’ve left those at the bottom of the food chain, who lack the means to defend themselves, to deal with this problem. The government seems happy to stand back watching the injustice unfold. How many lives have to be ruined for Boris Johnson to acknowledge that something might be wrong?
The lessons of Grenfell
Sir: We are the residents and leaseholders — both private and shared ownership — of two blocks in Hackney similar to the one Emma Byrne describes. We have recently found out to our shock that we, too, are trapped because of uncertainty over our cladding. We cannot sell or remortgage. The problem is that we need an assessment: the so-called External Wall Fire Review (EWS1) form. We have been proactive and found engineers willing to do this. But our freeholder, Peabody, will not allow us to instruct the engineer. Nor are they willing to pay for their own.
And what reason do they give? That an assessment of our property could ‘mean further investigation (intrusive) or remediation’. In other words, there is no benefit to them ordering a survey which may indicate work is needed because it potentially creates a large liability for them.
The implications of this for individuals and families are so drastic that they affect every facet of modern family life. Some residents have decided they cannot have a child, some cannot move to be near more suitable schools, some are being prevented from taking up new jobs. And this is not to mention the fear around the cladding itself.
If Grenfell taught us anything, it should be that housing associations should not so blatantly put a price on human life. We are trapped, with no given timeframe for a resolution. Shame on Peabody.
The residents of Acton and Macclesfield Apartments, Branch Place
Sir: My partner, toddler and I were hoping to move out of our shared-ownership, two-bedroom flat last year. We put it up for sale and found a buyer instantly. However, we then received a letter from our housing association saying they had to test the cladding. The results: timber, render, zinc cladding and insulation all failed to meet new guidelines and need removing. Our buyer, understandably, pulled out. We lost the new house we had fallen in love with. We were heartbroken and disorientated.
Our street is made up of about ten high-rise blocks — we’ve now been told all need some kind of work. This will affect thousands of people on one street alone. The block next to ours is about a fifth of the size and it will cost £3 million to replace the cladding. What would this mean if those kind of costs fall on us as leaseholders?
There is nothing fair about any of this. The emotional and financial strain can feel unbearable. I have got better at reminding myself of the positive things in my life to get me through this. I wonder, though, whether our voices will be heard by the government — and if action will be taken.
A self-inflicted problem
Sir: I am one of the 300 chartered fire engineers able to complete an EWS1 form which thousands of homeowners now require to sell their homes, as Emma Byrne reported last week. Though the scale of the fire at Grenfell was most obviously a result of the use of combustible cladding, the tragedy resulted from a combination of further factors — lack of suppression, sub-standard workmanship, poor management of the escape routes and an uncertain firefighting response. By banning the use of combustible cladding materials in new high-rise buildings, this will at least remove the opportunity for cladding fires to occur alongside other failings.
It has been disheartening, however, to see that as a result of this ban the discussion has fallen into a simple dichotomy: that existing cladding is considered either ‘non-combustible’ or ‘deadly’. Part of this problem is self-inflicted. We advertise all buildings as being equal, but the reality is that buildings exist on a spectrum of safety, and ‘combustible’ cladding sits on a spectrum of combustibility within this.
The legacy of Grenfell has led to understandably apprehensive policymaking by the government and mortgage lenders, but the ensuing chaos has been significantly exacerbated by failing to differentiate between the high- and low-risk situations in which combustible materials are used. With almost every apartment building in the country now facing review, this is diverting money, engineers and cladding contractors away from those in the greatest need, while also facilitating profiteering from those facing low or negligible levels of risk.
While it is right that we identify and replace combustible cladding used in unsafe situations, there is also a danger that thousands of people are facing excessive and little justified costs to repair buildings that have previously been and would continue to be suitably safe.
Sir: Emma Byrne’s article highlights that housing policy works for everyone but the consumer. If she had bought a car with faulty brakes, the product would be recalled at the manufacturer’s expense. In this instance, she and millions of others have not even bought the car. All they have done is leased it. Ultimately, this problem goes beyond a fire safety certificate.
Despite being urged by government to ‘do the right thing’ and pay for post-Grenfell remediation works, freeholders — who have the power to pass any costs for replacing cladding to leaseholders — have spent three years hiding behind complex leaseholds to avoid responsibility. Building owners, many offshore and unknowable, are being propped up by a £1.6 billion taxpayer bailout.
England and Wales are the last countries in the developed world where you can buy a property but not own it. The Law Commission and others have already thrown down the gauntlet to government. Transitioning from leasehold to commonhold would end the great betrayal of the property-owning democracy.
Better tanks, not fewer
Sir: We were glad to see your leading article bring up the troubling developments in our defence programmes (‘The economy of tanks’, 29 August). However it was unfortunate that you perpetuated the same outdated talking points in regards to tanks.
You describe them as highly vulnerable and increasingly obsolete. This could not be further from the truth. Tank-protection technology is currently in the lead over other weaponry. Laser warning receivers, explosive reactive armour, soft-kill systems, hard-kill active protection systems; all are available for a price. A price we aren’t willing to pay, but our adversaries are. Even what we think of as ‘tank killers’ like Apaches are not guaranteed to counter the latest protection systems, with the best equipped tanks able to tell they are being targeted, and from where, giving them the ability for pre-emptive retaliation.
In short, the only thing on the modern battlefield capable of killing another main battle tank reliably is another MBT. Aircraft cannot take and hold ground, and cannot be counted on to be available quickly enough. Helicopters and drones rely on weapons that new defensive technology is able to defeat. The new Russian Armata is far more capable than our ageing Challenger II, and was the threat that forced the MoD to admit a re-emergent need for heavy armour. Several upgrades have already been prototyped, but these appear to have been tossed aside with the latest news.
C. Toler and J. Kenyon
Sir: Your leading article says a lot about defence capabilities — but such discussion is largely irrelevant. At a time when individual military capabilities are at their lowest in living memory, a clear definition of our grand strategic objectives is necessary to establish what the nation wants to do and be. Without such clarification it is impossible to define a defence policy, and thus a military strategy. This should identify the required capabilities and how they can be best interlocked to form an affordable shield of protection against all foreseeable threats. This requires intellectual discipline that will ultimately have to decide the resources to be allocated and the constraints to be applied. Without such a framework the armed forces will once again fall victim to fashionable fads.
Sir: While making the case for increasing university places (‘Tory uniphobia’, 22 August), Jo Johnson states that 83 per cent of current Tory MPs went to university compared with only 68 per cent in 1979. Without wishing to denigrate any member of the House of Commons, has there been a commensurate increase in the calibre of Tory MPs over the past 41 years?
Sir: Christopher Howse’s article (‘Public art’, 29 August) reminded me of my childhood hobby in the 1970s, making rubbings of coal-hole covers in Camden pavements. I was able to capture a gratifyingly wide range of designs and remember being fascinated by their intricacy. My collection was a source of much pride, and my child’s-eye view of the streets and interest in detail gave me my own creative ‘street art’ outlet. Returning to the area in recent years, I was sorry but not surprised to find that the majority of the original plates have vanished, no doubt in the interest of street ‘improvement’. Sadly, my own rubbings were disposed of long ago as equally anachronistic.
In the zone
Sir: Martin Vander Weyer notes (Any Other Business, 29 August) that detractors of working from home suggest it won’t appeal to the young, who will be forced to work from depressing Zone 3 bedsits. Surely the reason the young were forced into this situation in the first place was the expectation of living within commutable distance of an office, with the cost supercharged by Nimbyism and a lack of planning reform. Perhaps if the expectation of working in an office every day goes, these young people can start to look at areas with less intense housing demand. If they look outside of cities, they might even be able to think about buying.
James Sean Dickson
Sir: I completely agree with Andrew Marr’s comments in his diary (29 August) about the ‘prissy way so many organisations are priding themselves on doing sod all’. I share his frustration at the closed arts centres, theatres, cinemas and so on. However, he needs to acknowledge the role of the organisation he works for in making people too frightened to get this country going again. If the BBC and many newspapers continue catastrophising, organisations that should be re-opening will remain shut.
Sir: I have spent a quiet bank holiday afternoon revisiting recent issues of this magazine. While many articles deserve renewed attention, it is the cartoons that have given me as much consolation as on first viewing. Occasionally it is even possible to feel sympathy for the seemingly invincible but hopefully doomed coronavirus, portrayed as a cheeky little chap who has pervaded so many aspects of our lives. When the time is right I hope you will publish a compilation of these excellent observations of a truly remarkable era.
Write to us: email@example.com