Cladding Crisis: Government is in 'dangerous place' over fire safety bill

24 February 2021, 14:51 | Updated: 24 February 2021, 14:56

The Cladding Crisis continues
The Cladding Crisis continues. Picture: LBC/PA
Rachael Venables

By Rachael Venables

More than thirty Conservative rebels have signed an amendment aimed at protecting leaseholders from the cost of fire safety works ahead of the return of key fire safety legislation today.

From the start, it’s important to stress that this is a very uncomfortable, even dangerous, place for the Government and Boris Johnson to be in.

They insist that the more than £5 billion package they’ve already put forward to just fix cladding on high rise buildings is “the right balance.”

But campaigners, flat owners, opposition MPs and, increasingly, more and more of their own Tory backbenchers - disagree.

They believe the Government need to go much further and protect leaseholders not just from the costs of cladding remediation, but all historic fire safety defects in their buildings.

These issues like missing or defective fire breaks, combustible insulation, and problems with fire doors can all add up to be just as common, costly and even as deadly to residents in these blocks.

So, there’s an expected showdown in the Commons this afternoon surrounding the Government’s Fire Safety Bill.

It’s meant to strengthen regulations following the Grenfell Tower fire, but it also confirms that freeholders (building owners) could pass the costs of fixing the fire safety issues to leaseholders (flat owners) with just 21 days’ notice.

Effectively, in an extreme situation, you could have a bill of more than £100,000 land on your doormat, with less than a month to find the cash, or go bankrupt.

When the Fire Safety Bill made it to the House of Lords, they added a number of amendments to combat this and sent it back to the Commons with the requisite that freeholders couldn’t pass those sorts of bills on.

Members of Parliament then added their own, very similar, amendments to the Lords’ additions, with the aim of protecting leaseholders from unfair, unaffordable costs.

Most notable is the amendment from the Conservative MPs Stephen McPartland and Royston Smith:

"Depending on the terms of the lease and the costs involved, this could easily be a requirement for a leaseholder to pay £50,000 within weeks," Mr McPartland said in a message posted on his website urging his colleagues to back the move.

He’s encouraged ministers to either accept the change or come forward with their own proposals.

More than 30 MP’s signed up to his rebel amendment against the Government.

It’s not enough for a defeat today, but is enough to send a powerful message of rebellion to Ministers.

The most likely outcome today is that the Bill gets sent back to the House of Lords, these amendments “rejected.”

It will be a legislative “win” for the Government, but a PR loss.

It’s thought they don’t want to be seen to be voting against something like this, especially while knowing that several dozen of their own MPs are deeply unhappy with their stance.

What’s more, in a sign of how hugely significant this issue is, we’re hearing that instead of accepting the Common’s verdict, the Lords are likely to pick up the issue again, and table yet more amendments of their own.

This would force the bill into a ‘ping pong’ stage, which could kill it, and would be very embarrassing for the Government.

All the while, leaseholders watch, and wait, for some political respite from the crisis that has made their homes unsafe and unsellable, forcing them into crippling financial hardship.

Downing Street has criticised Tory MP Steve McPartland's amendment to the Fire Safety Bill, arguing it would "slow things down" for leaseholders with potentially dangerous cladding.

The Prime Minister's press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said: "We're talking to colleagues ahead of it. Of course we don't support it.

"Our problem with McPartland's amendment is that, far from speeding things up for constituents across the country who are worried about finding themselves in these properties, it would actually slow things down.

"We feel Conservative colleagues need to look carefully at an amendment that would actually slow it all down rather than get action as we want, which is as soon as possible."