Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
As Minister for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (how much is the name change costing taxpayers?) Michael Gove’s in-tray will be overflowing.
We’re told that the Prime Minister has ordered the prioritisation of the ‘cladding crisis’ – easier said than done, I fear.
Recent revelations that research during the early 2000s allegedly questioned the safety of certain materials adds to the complexity, currently leaving more than 3 million leaseholders trapped in unmortgageable flats and facing hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund fire safety patrols and remedial works to strip flammable materials from blocks taller than 59 feet. Having bought their homes in good faith, this is totally unfair since the works are the result of construction, rather than routine repair and maintenance – for which flat owners are responsible.
Although the Government has allocated £5.1 billion in grants, MPs estimate that total costs are likely to be around £15 billion. This figure could balloon with a new code of practice to check fire risks in external walls; commissioned by the Government, the finished document (PAS 9980) is due to be published in December, potentially extending the cladding crisis to a further 1.3 million flats in blocks taller than 11 meters, leaving a total of around 12 million people in limbo.
Politicians need to remember that these are voters, who have worked and saved hard to buy their own homes.
With National Insurance and other costs, including energy and food, spiralling out of control, many flat owners have already stretched their finances and will struggle to meet their commitments, including mortgage payments. However, lenders won’t want to punish their customers due to circumstances beyond their control, by repossessing properties which cannot be sold, making people effectively bankrupt and homeless.
Exacerbating the problem are the government’s diktats, ‘banning’ new gas boilers by 2025 and forcing people to give up their diesel and petrol powered cars in favour of electric by 2030. These changes alone demand massive investment and different infrastructures to sustain living standards: more insulation and electrical charging points for a start! The current energy crisis increases concerns.
Problems are caused by a lack of government strategy in a bid to woo environmentalists, and, frankly, incompetence. Developers and their suppliers have made billions, and it is especially galling to learn of outrageous multi-million bonuses paid to senior executives at some developers, guilty of the worst failures, as the victims of such failures despair about their futures.
These issues will, inevitably, impact landlords and businesses – large and small – as well as the public sector, having to upgrade commercial, industrial and retail units, and social housing (and NHS buildings, when NHS Providers are already demanding a further £1.5 billion for ‘maintenance’).
With finances stretched following Covid shutdowns, they simply cannot afford the huge costs to comply with the environmental changes, as well as to replace cladding. The shortage of building materials means prices escalating, and the steel industry warned successive governments of pending energy inefficiencies, making the sector increasingly uncompetitive compared with its European counterparts. Warnings, which we now know, fell on deaf ears.
People have a right to feel safe in their homes, and the public sector – at all levels from the Government down – have a duty to ensure that safety. Time is of the essence, so attempting to prosecute developers and suppliers is a waste of time and public money. Money would also be wasted if works on cladding and adapting to meet environmental demands aren’t co-ordinated in single projects for each building, perhaps including sprinklers.
So, what is the solution?
Covid lockdowns have changed working practices for much of the service industry, with a growth in homeworking, which is likely to remain, whilst retail continues to evolve. As a result, there are empty offices and retail units across towns and cities, and even questions about whether staff will return to their Westminster offices.
We also have to consider where and how the first tranche of 5,000 Afghan refugees is housed. They can’t remain in hotels but deserve to rebuild their lives, with education and employment prospects.
So, a radical option could be for partnerships across the public and construction sector, together with businesses, to buy certain blocks, repurposing the lower floors for business/local authority use, enhancing communities with services on the doorstep, whilst releasing unused commercial space for conversion to more (quality) housing, contributing to High Street revival.
It wouldn’t be appropriate for all locations, but could be a start, and an opportunity for local authorities to rationalise their footprint, sharing space with different services, e.g. libraries and museums and/or nurseries. Some councils are already sharing offices and staff, making them more cost-efficient. With further council tax rises inevitable, value for money is essential.
West Suffolk Council is a pioneer in this approach, recently opening a £40 million hub at Mildenhall, an area long in need of ‘levelling up’. Bringing together a new school, gym, fitness studios, 3G pitch, swimming pools and sports hall, a new town library, health centre, children’s centre and Citizens Advice and job centre. It also provides office space for the NHS, police, Suffolk County Council and West Suffolk Council.
“This new hub has turned our nationally ground breaking vision and ambition into reality and is the result of extensive consultation and co-operation across a wide range of organisations and individuals, to bring significant benefits and opportunities to both our local and the wider community,” explains West Suffolk Council Leader, John Griffiths:
“We are delighted at its success already, and congratulate all involved in our partnership with health, education, leisure and more for their hard work and collaboration to create this radically different and efficient complex – designed and built to high and environmentally friendly standards – and within budget. The opening of this building is just the start of a new beginning and one we believe will have a major impact on future design and strategy.”
Meanwhile, the energy crisis (and potential petrol shortages due to a lack of delivery drivers) should be a reminder to the Government that ‘ordinary people’ have a finite amount of cash to splash; now is not the time to introduce yet more charges without risking the economic revival.
Yet, it is rumoured that the Treasury is considering introducing mileage charges for drivers. Will that apply to all drivers, including the public sector? In my experience as a councillor, senior managers regularly chose to use their own vehicles for business trips, claiming substantial mileage expenses (45p-75p a mile plus five pence or more for each passenger) instead of using fleet cars.
As Communities Secretary, Gove should be aware that such a benefit doesn’t apply to the general public, who may also use their vehicles for business purposes. Millions of people in smaller towns and villages, and rural areas, have limited access to regular, (affordable) public transport when providing a daily taxi service for children, elderly relatives, hospital visits etc. Fairness should be applied in policy.