The government has failed to recover a penny of the £450m it is giving landlords to fix unsafe cladding – despite promising to get tough with those responsible for installing the highly dangerous material.
Last year, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people, ministers began “naming and shaming” those who still hadn’t removed the flammable coverings on hundreds of high-rise buildings.
The government department in charge of housing approved nearly £450m of handouts to those same landlords to speed the work along – but there were strings attached.
Unveiling the scheme in 2019, the government said: “As a condition of funding, we will require the building owner to take reasonable steps to recover the costs from those responsible for the presence of the unsafe cladding.”
Yet HuffPost UK has learned from a series of Freedom of Information requests that no money has been recovered to date. The Labour Party accused the government of “taking the side” of building developers and large property owners at the expense of flat owners, who have been left to pick up the financial and emotional burden.
Robert Jenrick’s department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), initially refused to tell us whether any cash had been given back, instead telling us to contact the two agencies administering the handouts.
Once we established from Homes England and the Greater London Authority that nothing had been returned, the government admitted that recovering the money would be a “lengthy and complex process”.
The funding in question is found within two schemes, both with the mission to remove the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding that was blamed for the rapid spread of the Grenfell blaze.
One is ring-fenced for publicly-owned social tower blocks, the other for private sector residential buildings. Together, they have £600m available, three-quarters of which has been allocated.
The latest official figures, up to March 31, 2021, show that 243 high-rise social and private buildings are receiving or have received funding to strip the properties of cladding. Some £272m has been approved for social housing, and £166m for private blocks.
Fixing the buildings is not being covered entirely by the taxpayer, however. Private developers and freeholders have committed to pay for the remediation of 88 further high-rise buildings, and successful warranty claims will pay for 21 buildings to be repaired.
The MHCLG says this means more than half the private sector buildings that still have unsafe ACM cladding have had their costs paid for without the aid of state funding. But this excludes hundreds of buildings less than 18m in height, which are not getting anything.
Remediation works for 17 social buildings are being funded through “a combination of existing funds and litigation action”, the MHCLG said.
The department adds successful partial recovery of money before funding was approved has saved £27m in grants it would have given out – but that still means a developer avoided paying the full 100%.
Either way, the state is still paying for the brunt of the work, and the lack of repayment sets a worrying precedent since £5bn has been committed to remedy the wider cladding crisis, including removing cladding other than ACM, with money from the Building Safety Fund only now starting to get approval.
HuffPost UK has attempted to establish if the money to remove the cladding is going to the same companies who put it there in the first place, given the specialist nature of the sector means only a small number of companies have the requisite skills. But under the FOI request, the department refused to provide details of any of the successful applicants for funding, claiming that identifying the buildings would put the lives of residents at risk.
Shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire told HuffPost UK: “Over the last four years, fire safety testing has revealed an epidemic of shoddy building practices which put people’s lives at risk.
“When a building does not meet acceptable safety standards – as is the case in many of these buildings – the government must do everything possible to recover the costs. Why should either residents or taxpayers pay for such negligence?
“Sadly, the cladding scandal has repeatedly shown the Conservative Party always takes the side of building developers and large property owners. In contrast, leaseholders have been frequently left with the financial burden and responsibility for a problem they did not cause. This must end.”
An MHCLG spokesperson said the recovery of funding from those responsible for the presence of unsafe cladding would be a “lengthy and complex process” and that the department “expects it to take some time to see money returned in cases where a grant covering the full cost of remediation has been made”.
He said: “Building owners must take all reasonable steps to recover costs before they can receive funding from the government – more than half of all private sector high-rise residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding have had their remediation costs paid for by those responsible.
“Applicants that have recovered funding for part of their remediation costs will have this reflected in their grants, resulting in over £27m savings for the taxpayer as of February 2021.”