Fire chiefs have intervened in the financial crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of high-rise leaseholders by urging insurers to think twice before they hike premiums on towers with fire safety problems.
With some leaseholders facing increases of up to 1,200% in building insurance and others unable to get any cover, the National Fire Chiefs Council has met the Association of British Insurers to argue for a “more informed approach”. The fire chiefs are concerned that insurers have been increasing premiums sharply regardless of the degree of danger uncovered in the wake of the Grenfell Tower.
One group of leaseholders at the M&M buildings in London saw their premium rise from £100,000 to £700,000, increasing annual service charges by an average of £3,500.
Residents at Brindley House in Birmingham had no buildings insurance for at least six weeks this year as a result of insurers’ reluctance to provide cover, campaigners in the city said. At another Birmingham block, Islington Gate, premiums rose from £37,000 to around £200,000.
Some directors and officers of leaseholders’ management companies have also been denied cover, meaning they face huge legal bills if claims are made against them.
The UK Cladding Action Group, which represents affected residents, is also due to meet the ABI on Thursday to demand change. Social landlords have not experienced the same premium hikes, according to the National Housing Federation.
“We want a more informed approach to allow any change to insurance to be appropriate,” said Daniel Daly, head of the protection policy and reform unit at the NFCC. “We have always been concerned about the impact on leaseholders.”
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Ritu Saha, co-founder of UKCAG, said insurers must realise “buildings already have interim measures in place mitigating the fire risk so to increase insurance premiums 10-fold is ridiculous”.
A spokesperson for the ABI said changes in premiums “closely reflect current understanding of the fire risk”.
“We need strong and effective fire safety precautions that protect lives and buildings,” they said. “Removing dangerous cladding must be prioritised, alongside fundamental reform of the building control system to ensure proper accountability and safety.”
The moves came as the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, told the Guardian “helping trapped leaseholders … is one of the most complex and challenging tasks” currently facing government. In the coming weeks he wants to “bring some hope and a sense of greater direction” for victims of the crisis.
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The government has faced criticism over the slow progress in fixing thousands of high-rise buildings with potentially dangerous cladding or other construction faults. More than 70 people died in 2017 in the Grenfell Tower fire. Ministers have announced £1.6bn to help but half of the 458 buildings found to be wrapped in Grenfell-style panels are yet to have the dangerous material removed, official figures show. The problem is worse for privately owned towers with many owners refusing to fund works. Only 15% have had the aluminium composite panels removed.
“There are no simple solutions to it, but … I feel like there’s a great deal more work to be done,” Jenrick said. “Because I have huge empathy for people who felt they were doing the right thing, purchased homes and now find themselves in this absolutely appalling situation of living in a home which … is potentially unsafe, and which they can’t sell.”
Roy Wilsher, chairman of the NFCC, said fire chiefs have held case conferences with housing ministry officials about buildings that haven’t been fixed yet, but “the problem is finding someone responsible who are under UK jurisdictions”.
He said: “You have [tower block owners who are] foreign nationals who live in different countries and are using a holding company in the Cayman Islands,” he said.
The NFCC has also issued new guidance on the use of expensive waking watch patrols which are sometimes demanded by insurers when defects are found. Daly said they should be temporary and can often be replaced more cheaply with fire alarm systems or other more proportionate measures. These include removing car parking from the base of buildings to limit the risk of a fire starting close to combustible cladding or installing heat detection systems trained on the external walls.