The temperature outside has barely risen above freezing for the better part of a week. The pavements are icy and the side roads that the gritters can’t get down aren’t a lot better. Even were the cycle-paths not quite so treacherous, and the temperature not so unconducive to cycling, one would be inclined to try to avoid doing anything that had even the remotest chance of ending with a visit to A&E in times of Covid-19. So, with the exercise bike still squatting uselessly in the corner of our dining-room with its missing part still unavailable – held up, I’m told, at Customs (thanks to Boris and his misled Brexit voters) – getting much in the way of exercise involves methodically walking the stairs: six times up to the top floor and back amounts to 192 stairs climbed and descended.
At least I have stairs, and at least they get me down to ground level for a quick exit should I need one. As I walk them, I thank my lucky stars that I am not locked down in a totally unsalable two-bedroom flat, home-schooling two or more children on the umpteenth floor of a tower block still clad in lethally flammable cladding three and a half years after the Grenfell fire killed 72 people and injured as many more. Grenfell Tower has been back in the news as the Inquiry into the disaster gets underway again following a Covid-19 enforced break, and campaign groups like End Our Cladding Scandal intensify pressure on the government finally to do something meaningful to assist the roughly 700,000 people financially trapped into staying in some 275,00 flats in high-rise buildings that could go up in flames and incinerate them at any moment.
Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – he of the corrupt housing deal with Richard Desmond whom I wrote about on June 28th – stood up in Parliament yesterday, positively glowing with self-esteem, and announced that £3.5 billion was to be added to the already committed £1.6 billion, to sort the matter out once and for all. The news did not receive the rapturous welcome he seemed to expect. A House of Commons select committee report in 2020 had estimated that the cost of addressing the problems of the tallest buildings, the ones taller than 18 metres, i.e. those with more than six floors, would be at least £15 billion, other estimates go as high as £100m. Leaseholders on the lower floors will have to contribute to the costs of replacing the cladding for which they were no more responsible than were the flat-dwellers on the 7th floor and above but, as Jenrick magnanimously announced, ‘no leaseholder will ever pay more than £50 a month towards the removal of unsafe cladding’, which the builders in many cases knew perfectly well to be highly flammable. £50 a month may not sound like a vast amount, but at a time of increasing unemployment and hopelessly inadequate social welfare it can easily make the difference between having food on the table and going hungry. Why the seemingly utterly arbitrary 18 metre cut-off? For some peculiar reason Mr Jenrick apparently thinks that flats on the sixth floor are much less likely to be incinerated than flats on the seventh floor. It would, at least, be more logical, if perhaps marginally less politically defensible, to think that people on the 6th floor have a better chance of making an escape if the block of flats goes up in flames that people on the 7th floor.
But the problems don’t stop with the cladding. The unfortunate lease holders, some of whom are being bankrupted by the trap they find themselves in, are paying hundreds of pounds for ‘waking watch patrols’ in the absence of the fire-alarms and sprinkler systems one might have expected to be compulsory features of high rise buildings. In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, hundreds of blocks of flats have been found to have inadequately filled wall cavities that will have to be filled if they are not to contribute to the spread of fires. Leaseholders are being faced with huge increases in insurance costs as insurers cash in, while mortgage lenders are understandably hesitant to advance the necessary funding to anyone perverse enough to want to buy a flat in one of the affected blocks in present circumstances.
The leaseholders, even those who aren’t killed or injured in uncontrollable conflagrations, are the victims of the progressively lighter-touch regulatory regimes favoured by successive Conservative governments and their Tory-lite New Labour counterparts over the past three or four decades. The consequences for the victims range from bankruptcy to sleeplessness, perpetual anxiety and acute mental health problems. So far the developers responsible appear to be getting away scot-free. When the Inquiry is finally over and blame comes to be apportioned there is a chance that a few senior managers might find themselves in the dock charged with corporate manslaughter. Perhaps the deregulation wouldn’t have happened, the Grenfell victims wouldn’t have died, the leaseholders wouldn’t have had to wait so long for the wholly inadequate £5bn, had there been any remotely similar legislation available with which to hold negligent and incompetent governments to account. But that would require parliament to pass the necessary legislation, and no turkey ever asked another one to vote for Christmas.