More than half a million people are living in unsafe private apartments wrapped in combustible cladding, according to a survey by property agents, as pressure grows on ministers to launch a bailout that could cost more than £2bn.
The estimated scale of the post-Grenfell cladding crisis is far higher than previous government figures have suggested and comes before a rally in Westminster on Tuesday, when leaseholders who are facing unaffordable bills of up to £100,000 each will demand action from ministers.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has identified 175 private sector residential buildings with ACM cladding similar to Grenfell Tower’s. But the Association of Residential Managing Agents (Arma) believes leaseholders in another 1,375 buildings are at risk from other types of combustible cladding materials including wood and high-pressure laminate.
“The Grenfell tragedy highlighted the dangers of ACM cladding, but it has also revealed a much wider building safety crisis which could affect over half a million people,” said Nigel Glen, the chief executive of Arma.
“These buildings are being fixed by building owners and managing agents as quickly as possible but, without government support, the process could take decades and leave leaseholders with life-changing bills on top of the anxiety that has already been caused.”
Many residents with unsellable homes and soaring mortgage and insurance costs disagree that freeholders are moving fast enough to fix buildings. Of the 175 buildings identified as using ACM cladding, works to fix 143 of them are yet to start, almost 1,000 days after the Grenfell fire killed 72 people.
But leasehold agreements show costs fall on the leaseholder, not freeholder, an arrangement upheld by property tribunals. Most leaseholders, including many first-time buyers, can not afford the bills and as a result, works to fix buildings have not been commissioned.
In January, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, said the government would start naming and shaming those responsible for buildings where work to replace the ACM cladding yet to start. He said they would only be removed from public lists when the work began, and more public funds could be released to help.
But landlords, property managers and resident groups believe this approach will not work.
“The government saying building owners should do the right thing doesn’t help because legally the leaseholders are liable and they can’t afford it, so with the best will in the world you can’t remediate,” Glen said.
Affected leaseholders, freeholders and managing agents from across the country wrote to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on Monday to demand funds to tackle “one of the biggest safety crises in British history”.
“Building safety policy, dating back decades and overseen by governments of all political colours, has failed in its totality,” the letter said. “Why should homeowners pay the price for such systemic failure. The government deserves credit for funding Grenfell-style ACM cladding remediation, but the problem is much wider than this and that funding doesn’t go far enough. The list of unsafe materials and hidden safety defects that were never identified when these buildings were signed off, is growing by the day”.
The letter said the government must establish a multibillion pound emergency fund and “ensure the safety of residents up and down the country for generations to come”.
Rituparna Saha, a leaseholder at the affected Northpoint block in Bromley, south-east London, and founder of the UK Cladding Action Group, which signed the letter, said: “We know naming and shaming freeholders is not going to work. We know they are not legally responsible for paying for this.”
So far leaseholders in just one private building have successfully applied for full funding to fix their homes from a £200m government fund for private buildings. Social housing has been fixed more rapidly with the help of a £400m government fund, because there is no dispute over who is responsible for the safety of the homes.
There has been uncertainty about what materials will be allowed under building regulations in the future and some builders and designers are struggling to secure adequate professional indemnity insurance cover in order to carry out works.