The Grenfell inquiry is unlikely to report on the causes of the tower’s catastrophic fire until next Easter at the earliest, but as many expect the aluminium composite cladding used in its refurbishment to be blamed, property owners have already undertaken urgent safety tests to assess their stock.
Preliminary results suggest more than 200 UK buildings require “immediate action”, but many of these, like the Grenfell highrise, are owned by cash-strapped local authorities.
With remedial costs estimated to run into the tens of millions, the arguments are already starting over who will foot the bill.
Unfathomably perhaps, given the levels of public grief and outrage at the disaster, central government has refused outright to pay.
Campaigners blame poor construction materials and a lack of national social housing investment, but last week communities secretary Sajid Javid was on the offensive. Local authorities face a “crisis of trust” if they don’t act, he said, in a bid to shame them into funding refurbishments.
Meanwhile, the Local Government Association is adamant that councils simply can’t pay after years of core funding being slashed.
Against this backdrop, associations might well look to their private tenants to shoulder some of the expense – that is, those who own their homes on long leaseholds purchased from the councils
A legal anomaly means that some homeowners of such local authority properties will soon discover that they have fewer rights than the common or garden private lessees when it comes to challenging service charge demands issued by a council.
During the 1980s, the perceived risk of abuse in the area of service charge collection was so great that the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985 was passed to offer comfort and redress to tenants facing large invoices. Consequently, they now have the right to be consulted on planned big expenditure, to nominate a preferred (usually cheaper) building contractor, to receive a summary of service charge accounts and to make a detailed inspection of them.
Under later laws, private leasehold tenants are often able to take matters (and property management) into their own hands.
The problem is that these protections do not extend to private leasehold tenants of local authority landlords. A landlord’s failure to comply with some protections is a criminal offence, but since local authorities were charged with prosecuting offending landlords, they could clearly not be expected also to prosecute themselves.
Rights to thwart major expenditure or the appointment of certain contractors might meanwhile offend complex public procurement rules.
Large numbers of leasehold tenants are therefore effectively excluded from statutory protections.
The issue has been coming to light gradually, as decades of under-investment and budget cuts mean increasingly bulky maintenance bills. Now the tower block refurbishments are pushing it into the spotlight.
To some extent, private tenants can look outside the relevant property statutes for redress. Civil remedies are often expensive, but pressure might be applied with a formal complaint or a freedom of information request. Still, this process is time consuming, and fire safety upgrades are urgent while there are other accidents waiting to happen.
As far as everyone involved is concerned, the clock is already ticking. These buildings must be refurbished, but at whose expense?