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Fire safety advice for low-rise blocks to be withdrawn, Gove says

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Safety advice that has left thousands of households unable to sell their homes after the Grenfell Tower fire will be withdrawn by Christmas, Michael Gove has announced.

The secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities told MPs the government would revoke advice that has stood since January 2020 and has led to hundreds of low-rise buildings being deemed unsafe, meaning mortgage companies refused to lend against them.

The advice note introduced by the government called for building owners to check cladding systems on all blocks, regardless of their height. Previously, checks were only needed on buildings over 18 metres tall where the difficulty evacuating from a fire created a risk to life.

Gove told MPs: “The government has a responsibility to make buildings safe, but we also have a responsibility to relieve some of the obligations faced by leaseholders at the moment who are innocent parties in this and in many circumstances are being asked to pay disproportionate sums when there are individuals in business, some of them still in business, who are guilty men and women.”

He also announced that he had “paused” a planned scheme to lend leaseholders money to pay for repairs found to be necessary after Grenfell, saying he was unhappy with leaseholders footing the bill and that he was seeking a “polluter pays” approach for covering cladding and other fire safety costs.

In evidence to the Commons select committee on levelling up, housing and communities, he also admitted that in the years before the Grenfell Tower fire, the government made mistakes on fire safety.

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In the coming months, the public inquiry into the disaster will examine the role of government ministers and officials in the coming months. Gove said: “The deregulation of assessment [of building materials] and the way in which it was done was mistaken, and I also think that the department itself will be seen to have, on a couple of occasions, not necessarily appreciated the importance of fire safety and not necessarily done everything in the wake of the Lakanal House tragedy [a 2009 tower block fire where six people died] that it should have done.”

He admitted: “We collectively, the department, some in local government, others in the private sector, failed people at Grenfell.” But he said he wanted a better assessment of which buildings actually were at high risk of fire and he wanted to “minimise risk in lower-risk buildings without creating a situation where people can’t move and cannot access mortgage finance”.

Campaigners for leaseholders affected by the building safety crisis, which has left homeowners across England facing bills totalling over £15bn according to some estimates, welcomed the decision to finally change the advice on what constitutes a risky building.

“We are hopeful [it] will relieve a lot of the pressure on many of the buildings, but we need to see what replaces it, and the mortgage companies and insurers need to buy into the process,” said Giles Grover, a spokesperson for the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign.

Florence Eshalomi, MP for Vauxhall, told Gove her constituents were sharing bills of £5,000 a month for waking watch patrols to check for fires, and Gove said these were “not the only rip-off in the system”. He drew a parallel between firms that were responsible for causing problems and advisers now saying leaseholders need to pay large sums to make their homes safe.

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He said that some companies now proposing to fix buildings, sometimes at a cost of over £100,000 per leaseholder, “have seen an opportunity to make money for themselves”.