Half a million people are living in a building with some form of potentially deadly cladding. About three million people are living in up to 1.3 million flats that could be unsellable for years to come.
In other housing news, newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and her predecessor Dominic Raab – who has just been demoted to Deputy Prime Minister – are bickering over who gets Chevening House, a 115-room residence in a 3,500-acre estate in Kent.
Access to the 17th-century pile is usually granted to the Foreign Secretary, but Mr Raab is said to be citing recent precedent, as previous deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg was also given a key.
It is the latest sign of an extraordinary tone-deafness by ministers in the face of Britain’s various housing crises.
In April, Boris Johnson was embroiled in a row over the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, with the bill rumoured to be up to £200,000. During the previous national lockdown, as a household became homeless every three minutes, the Prime Minister was devoting time to not revealing who initially met the cost of his £840-a-roll gold wallpaper (Tatler magazine reporting that he had been keen to transform a ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’).
All the while, thousands are trapped in homes not with ghastly high-street curtains but combustible cladding and a mind-boggling plethora of other safety defects, from faulty fire cavity barriers to insulation made of flammable polystyrene.
If only ministers were treating the problem as seriously as they appear to take their own accommodation issues. The Government has churned through ten housing ministers in ten years.
The incumbent, Christopher Pincher, still has enough time on his hands to write a wine column for The Critic magazine. In January, without a trace of irony, he recommended readers glug £174-a-bottle champagne. Trapped in unsafe and unsellable homes? Let them drink Krug!
Yet when BBC’s Newsnight devoted its entire programme to the crisis this month, despite weeks of notice, neither Mr Pincher nor any other minister or Conservative backbencher was made available to defend the Government’s position.
Historically, it has been on housing more than anything else where politicians’ offhand utterances have revealed the chasm between their own lifestyles and those of the people over whom they preside.
Tory MP Michael Jopling (as quoted by diarist Alan Clark) once said of another deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine: ‘The trouble with Michael is that he has had to buy all his own furniture.’
In 2017, the then chancellor Philip Hammond (estimated fortune £8.2million) said of a proposed Brexit transitional deal: ‘When you buy a house, you don’t necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it.’ One Twitter user responded: ‘Note to Philip Hammond: Most people only have one house.’
And in 2019, Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted he would have been too bright to have died in the Grenfell Tower fire (leaving aside the fact that his estimated £100million fortune would have saved him from residing on the 24th floor of an inner-city tower block). Referring to the 72 people killed while the official advice was to stay put, he told LBC radio presenter Nick Ferrari: ‘I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building. It just seems the common sense thing to do.’
What is most politically risky for the Government is that the cladding and fire safety scandal is not even a Labour/Tory issue. Just two per cent of those who voted Conservative at the 2019 general election believe ‘the people who live in the building’ (a building they do not own) should pay for the costs of making it safe, according to a poll published last month by The New Statesman.
A higher percentage of Brits dislike Sir David Attenborough and a larger segment of Americans believe Elvis is still alive than the proportion of Tory voters who think innocent homeowners should pay to fix the fire safety blunders of others. Nevertheless, that is exactly what is happening up and down the country. Recent legislation did nothing to shift the ultimate responsibility from leaseholders, many of whom face repair bills greater than the cost of their homes.
Not so long ago, the Conservative Party used to regard fulfilling Brits’ dreams of home ownership as a gold-plated path to victory at the ballot box. However, they seem to have been asleep on the job, as for thousands – including many of their supporters – this thoroughly conservative aspiration has turned into a nightmare that puts the PM’s John Lewis hell into sharp perspective.
If any of his ministers want to glimpse the tennis court, lake, maze or parterre gardens of Chevening again after the next general election, they need to focus less on feathering, gold-wallpapering or arguing over their grace-and-favour nests and a lot more on solving the woes of a generation trapped by a catastrophe the Government has done far too little to avert.