Marwa al-Sabouni is a Syrian architect who watched her home city of Homs destroyed during the Syrian conflict between 2011 and 2014. Out of that experience, she penned an intensely moving and haunting account of what the idea of home means. She writes of how the dwellings we live in are intimately connected with our own sense of self:
‘Our homes don't just contain our life earnings, they stand for what we are. To destroy one's home should be taken as an equal crime to destroying one's soul.’
It’s a statement that echoes the biblical vision of every person able to ‘live in safety, under their own vine and under their own fig tree.’ Yet it’s also a sentence that also haunts me whenever I go near Grenfell Tower or spend time with its survivors. It should also resonate with the hearts of Conservative politicians, as they promote the benefits of home ownership, expressing themes such as the importance of place, personal responsibility and individual enterprise.
We are fascinated by Homes under the Hammer, Location, Location, Location or numerous other TV programmes that focus on the process of choosing and then building a home. Our homes matter to us. It also matters that we feel safe in them. We put down roots in a place because we were somehow made to do so. The threat of our homes being destroyed, even if we were to survive, is a threat to our sense of belonging in the world.
For many years, Conservative governments in particular have focused on home ownership as a key foundation stone of our economy and building strong communities. The link between freedom and personal property is well established in conservative political philosophy. As Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State at MHCLG tweeted recently: ‘Enabling more people to buy their own home is at the heart of the mission of this government.’ Sixty five percent of people in the UK own their own homes, compared to just over 51 per cent of Germans for example, where many are content to rent. However, our home ownership rate still lags behind many other nations, which is why the government wants to raise that figure.
We can argue about whether this is the right policy or not – that isn’t the point of this article. However, with decisions, come commitments. Buying a house is not a marginal financial choice – we are encouraged to put our life savings into housing, especially through government-backed schemes such as Shared Ownership or Help to Buy. Yet if the government encourages people to buy their own homes, surely it also has a duty to make sure those homes are safe.
If we were encouraging people to rent homes which were then found to be unsafe, tenants would be free to move on until they find a home that was suitable. A primarily rental model for home occupation would leave the responsibility for making homes safe with those who buy up houses to make profits from rental income. Landlords would have an incentive to make their homes safe, otherwise they would struggle to find tenants willing to live in them.
Yet despite its rhetoric, and despite the Prime Minister promising that leaseholders should not have to cover the costs, the government still has not found a way to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediating unsafe cladding or other building defects on tall residential blocks. And this is over four years after Grenfell.
When the Fire Safety Bill was going through Parliament, many of us in the Church sought, through bishops in the House of Lords, to ensure there was explicit protection for leaseholders. We were told by the government not to worry, that the Fire Safety bill was a simple bit of legislation, too flimsy to carry such a guarantee – the Building Safety Bill was where the problem would be solved.
The draft of the Building Safety Bill, which has had its second reading in the Commons, gives leaseholders little comfort. Government ministers are now telling us that the Building Safety Bill is not the place to address the issue either. The Bill offers some comfort looking forward – a new Building Safety Regulator to make safety a key factor in new builds, for example. The recent announcement that buildings under 18 metres won’t need a safety certificate will be a relief to some. But for many others with flats in taller buildings, facing huge insurance bills, rises in service charges and bills to remedy past building defects, these steps are not much help. The government has trumpeted the increase in time from six to 15 years in which residents can seek compensation for substandard construction work, but this still leaves the onus on leaseholders who do not have the time, expertise or money to launch expensive legal campaigns against large corporations with large resources. That is not a level playing field.
The Building Safety Bill is the government’s last chance to remedy this injustice by implementing a solution that absolves the burden of dealing with the crisis from those who did not cause it. Campaigners have argued for applying the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle, based on existing environmental legislation, where a wide pool of those responsible for causing the problem in the first place bear the responsibility to cover the costs of putting it right – in this case, developers, subcontractors and others, as opposed to innocent leaseholders or the taxpayer. Polluter Pays can also be seen an expression of conservative values such as taking proper responsibility, avoiding excessive burdens on the taxpayer and restraints on the influence of the powerful.
If the government wants to be true to its own principles, to continue to argue for an increase in home ownership as vital to solving our housing crisis and establishing a stable and prosperous society, then it also bears a moral responsibility to find urgent ways to release the pressure on leaseholders facing these life-changing challenges. The Building Safety Bill as it stands is not enough. The government can’t have it both ways – persuading people to buy their own homes, but then pushing all the onus on leaseholders to cover the costs when the buildings they have bought in good faith turn out to have been shoddily built. The ‘polluter pays’ principle ought to be at the heart of the government’s response. As yet no-one has come up with a better plan to raise the funds to solve this urgent problem.
Giles Fraser recently wrote how the more conservative he becomes the less he is inclined to vote for this government. If this problem is not resolved soon, he may not be the only one.