World News

UK Asks, Who Pays to Prevent Another Grenfell Tragedy?

Posted January 18, 2018 6:46 p.m. EST

LONDON — Apartment residents, government officials, and property owners and managers are arguing over who should pay the heavy price to replace flammable cladding on structures across Britain, after that material contributed to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people last year.

Residents of one London apartment block were told last week that replacing the cladding — the outer skin of the building — would cost $2.5 million to $2.8 million, and that they were expected to pay. They protested that the assessment, which could exceed $40,000 for some units, was unfair and unaffordable, in some cases exceeding their annual incomes.

The dispute over that building, reported Thursday by The Guardian, is the first to gain widespread attention. But the building, Citiscape, is just one of more than 70 privately owned apartment towers around the country with the same kind of exterior. The cladding was legal when installed, but after the Grenfell Tower disaster, the government ordered its removal.

A government review last year found more than 200 buildings with the same kind of exterior as Grenfell Tower, but most are owned by public agencies, which are not expected to charge residents to fix them.

“We are actually stuck between government and builders, because we got the flats believing that yes, all government regulations have been complied to,” Anuj Vats, who lives in the Citiscape high-rise, told BBC radio.

Some Citiscape residents have said the cost of replacing the cladding is so high that they might be unable to afford to stay in their homes. Until the work is done, fire marshals are patrolling the building, and the residents expect to be billed for that cost, too.

Members of the Conservative government have suggested that landlords should pay for the work on private buildings, while some Labour members of Parliament have said that the government should step in.

The government has pledged support for the replacement effort but has not offered specifics or taken a formal stance on how the costs should be shared.

“Given the pressing need to undertake these essential safety works and the potential costs to leaseholders, we and others in the property industry welcome any clarity the government can provide on what support will be made available,” FirstPort Property Services, which manages Citiscape, said in a statement Thursday.

The Grenfell fire, June 14, came to be seen as a national tragedy that raised hard questions about attitudes that put profit over safety, the extent of deregulation, and ethnic and class divides in London. A memorial service for the dead was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral and was attended by Prime Minister Theresa May and members of the royal family.

FirstPort and Proxima GR Properties, which owns the Citiscape building, contend that the long-term leases signed by the residents make clear that the occupants are responsible for needed repairs.

FirstPort has asked a court to rule on responsibility for the cost, and a hearing has been set for Feb. 6, which could provide a legal answer to the dispute. But Alex Nekrassov, a spokesman for Proxima, conceded in an interview that the court may not offer an ethical or practical resolution.

“This cladding was up to the standard required by government,” he said. “For the government to say we want people to take it away, that’s fair enough to say, but they’re the ones who changed the standard.”

The Association of Residential Managing Agents, a trade group, said Thursday that many other buildings had lease terms demanding that residents shoulder the cost of replacing cladding. The government should offer them interest-free loans, the group said.