LONDON — Britain’s housing secretary announced plans on Monday to overhaul the government’s approach to building safety issues across England, saying the financial burden should fall on developers to address lapses in fire safety in hundreds of apartment blocks.
The plan also includes funding to remove flammable material from mid-rise buildings, which had been neglected in a previous plan, and could free homeowners from burdensome costs.
In the nearly five years since a devastating fire killed 72 people as it tore through Grenfell Tower, a high-rise residential building in London that was encased in a flammable exterior covering, countless other instances of unsafe building practices have come to light in England. Apartment owners found themselves stuck in unsafe homes that they cannot sell, or facing excessive bills to fix dangerous fire safety lapses that include the use of similar exterior materials as those used on Grenfell, known as cladding.
“Four and a half years on from the tragedy of Grenfell, it is long past time that we fix this crisis,” Michael Gove, Britain’s housing secretary, told Parliament on Monday. “And through the measures that I’ve set out today, we will seek redress for past wrongs and secure funds from developers and from construction product manufactures and we will protect leaseholders today and fix the system for the future.”
Most private apartments in England are sold as long-term leases, with the owner known as the “leaseholder,” and the buildings themselves are owned by a “freeholder,” often an investment group. Residents in buildings with fire safety issues have struggled to hold developers accountable for the use of dangerous materials.
The widespread nature of the issues is rooted in decades of deregulation in England, which led to lenient building rules that saw some developers prioritize cutting costs over safety. Industry experts have estimated that the remediation costs for cladding issues across England could amount to more than 50 billion pounds, $67 billion, far higher than the pledges made by the government.
Mr. Gove took over the role of housing secretary in September, inheriting the housing crisis from his predecessor Robert Jenrick, whose plans to address the issue with billions of dollars of additional funding had been widely criticized for not budgeting enough money or addressing the scope of the issue, even within his own Conservative party. The earlier plans did not account for lower-rise buildings that have the same safety lapses.
Crucially, Mr. Gove said developers could be held legally accountable if they do not contribute to the cost of making buildings safe. A letter written by Mr. Gove to building developers on Monday offered a “window of opportunity” from now until March to agree on a settlement to address the cost and proposed discussions between the government, developers, leaseholders and the bereaved families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.
“We will give them the chance to do the right thing,” he said of the development companies. “I hope they take it. If they do not, and if necessary, we will impose a solution upon them in law.”
Opposition lawmakers, however, called into question whether the new promises will spur real change. Lisa Nandy, the opposition Labour lawmaker responsible for housing, called the announcement a “welcome shift in tone” and said that she hoped the new measures would prove fruitful.
“But the harder I look at this, the less it stands up,” she added. “We were promised justice and we were promised changes to finally do right by the victims of this scandal, but that takes more than more promises, it takes a plan.”
While many leaseholders are hopeful that the announcement could alleviate both the financial burden and psychological burden of living in unsafe buildings, many have pushed for a legally binding plan for ensuring developers shoulder these costs.
“I think most leaseholders, myself included, are kind of cautiously optimistic,” said Sophie Bichener, 29, who owns an apartment in Stevenage, about 30 miles north of London. “But, I think there are lots of details that we still don’t know.”
Ms. Bichener has been among a number of leaseholders who met with Mr. Gove in recent weeks, and she said she came out of a meeting with him just hours before the announcement feeling positive. She noted that the announcement definitely marks “a new tone from the government about the building safety crisis,” but it does not alleviate all of her concerns.
Two years ago, fire safety surveys determined that the building she lives in is unsafe and would need to be fixed. Not only is it wrapped in a potentially flammable material, but there are also a variety of other concerns. A cost of 208,000 pounds, around $280,000 was passed along to all leaseholders in her building, and they have also experienced increases in their insurance and fronted the costs for fire safety patrols.
About 30 percent of the remediation costs to ensure Ms. Bichener’s building is fire safe are for defects that have nothing to do with cladding — like potentially flammable insulation, timber balconies and more — which were not covered in this new announcement. She feels like she has been left in limbo and said the toll on her mental health has been immense.
“They are still going to be life-changing sums of money for leaseholders to fork out for themselves, even though a lot of those things were against the regulations at the time they were built,” she said.
End Our Cladding Scandal, a leaseholder group that advocates for a solution to the crisis, said it welcomed the announcement but said there were still gaps, and it criticized the housing secretary for a lack of government accountability“There must be a recognition, too, of the part that successive governments have played in this wider scandal,” the group said in a statement. “Homeowners may have been failed by the construction sector and by cladding manufacturers — but they have also been failed by the ministers and officials meant to regulate those industries.”
Deepa Mistry, the chief of BuildingSafetyCrisis.org, owns an apartment in a London building where fire safety hazards were identified.
She has been advocating for an amendment to building safety legislation currently making its way through Parliament that would allow the government to pursue developers for costs to fix homes, and which advocates believe will protect buyers and restore trust by forcing wrongdoers to pay.
Ms. Mistry and her young family have felt trapped by the crisis, unable to sell their apartment and move on. She said that while Mr. Gove’s statement reflected some positive developments, she believed the solution must include global fire safety reforms, pointing to a deadly fire in the Bronx on Sunday as just the latest example of how better protections are needed in high-rise buildings.
Ms. Mistry hopes that the cladding crisis leads to a fundamental shift in fire safety practices and makes it “so that the innocent aren’t left with the burden — either paying through their pocket or through their lives,” she said. “It’s just not right.”