The threat to gag families demanding government help to fix homes rendered almost worthless by the Grenfell disaster has been lifted by House Secretary Robert Jenrick.
He pledged that no one would be punished for speaking out about safety failings which have trapped them in flats they cannot sell.
Mr Jenrick acted after being told by the Daily Mail that leaseholders hit by the cladding scandal were now terrified of talking openly about their ordeal.
The threat to gag families demanding government help to fix homes rendered almost worthless by the Grenfell disaster has been lifted by House Secretary Robert Jenrick, pictured above
They feared they would be banned from benefiting from a £1.6billion government fund to make their property safer from fire.
This followed the revelation that contracts which applicants must sign to qualify for aid disallowed ‘any communication’ with journalists on certain aspects – even if it was in the public interest.
Leaseholders were not to speak publicly ‘without the prior written approval’ of government press officers, the Sunday Times reported.
Boom-time building firm rakes in £3.3bn sales
By Miles Dilworth, Money Mail Reporter
Britain’s most profitable housebuilder has raked in another £3.3billion in sales while leaseholders are left facing huge bills to fix unsafe flats.
Persimmon has started the year with a £1.2billion cash pile and a record order book, it said yesterday. Analysts predict that it made £854million in profits in 2020 despite the coronavirus – and paid shareholders dividends worth £351million.
Profit building: Workers on a Persimmon site. The firm has a record order book
Persimmon said revenue in 2020 fell by less than 10 per cent from £3.65billion to £3.3billion, despite the first national lockdown. Its average sale price was around £230,500, up from £215,709 in 2019, while its total agreed sales are already worth another £1.7 billion.
Hundreds of thousands of leaseholders across England and Wales are facing average bills of £40,000 each to replace dangerous cladding, similar to that found on Grenfell Tower. They are legally obliged to foot the bill of the cladding replacement.
Last week, the Mail revealed Persimmon had made pre-tax profit of £2.1billion since the Grenfell tragedy, not including its 2020 figures. The firm has not said how many of its homes have safety issues, or how much money it was putting towards fixing the problem, although some experts expect that Persimmon will set funds aside.
But chief executive Dean Finch (pictured below) yesterday hailed a ‘robust’ year, adding that 2021 had ‘opened well’. He could earn £3.6million a year if he reaches performance targets.
A Persimmon spokesman said: ‘Although we have not historically built many high-rise residential buildings, we continue to review previous developments to identify any issues. Alongside other builders and the Home Builders Federation we are liaising with government to find a way forward.’
Last week, Barratt Developments, Britain’s biggest housebuilder, said it would resume dividend payments after selling a record number of homes in the past six months.
It did not comment on the cladding issue yesterday.
But Mr Jenrick has intervened to promise families can speak out, free from the threat of sanction. His spokesman told the Mail: ‘The Government is not stopping people raising their concerns and people should have no fear in speaking publicly.
‘The department wants a constructive working relationship with building owners who apply to the fund and applicants.’
Mr Jenrick was backed by housing minister Chris Pincher, who said: ‘We live in a free country.
‘Let them (the leaseholders) speak.’ A senior government source added: ‘We want to help leaseholders, not silence them.’
One resident, who was initially prepared to be named and photographed, had told the Mail: ‘I’m worried they will see I have spoken to the Press and then we won’t get the funding.’
Mr Jenrick is also poised to scrap the government-run Leaseholder Advisory Service, known as Lease, after complaints that it has failed to help with cladding problems.
He plans to replace it with a new body, with extra funds and high-powered experts.
Hundreds of thousands of owners are trapped in flats they cannot sell because their blocks have cladding similar to that at Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire in 2017.
The Mail is calling on ministers to fix Britain’s dangerous buildings within 18 months and end the cladding scandal.
This paper is also demanding that leaseholders are spared hefty repair bills of up to £115,000 – and wants the firms responsible for the cladding to pay their fair share, minimising the burden on the taxpayer.
The Government has allocated £1.6billion to replace dangerous cladding similar to that found at Grenfell.
But officials acknowledge privately that campaigners’ claims that the true cost will be closer to £15billion is ‘probably accurate’.
Unless leaseholders get more help, they face being left to pay full repair bills.
Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley, who has campaigned for leaseholder rights, said: ‘I welcome Mr Jenrick’s assurance.
‘I now appeal to him to pull the clause in the contract completely and declare in Parliament that it is ineffective.
‘That will remove leaseholders’ fears for good.’
The agreement, between the building owner or leaseholder and the Government, says: ‘The Applicant shall not make any communication to the press or any journalist or broadcaster regarding the Project or the Agreement (or the performance of it by any Party) without the prior written approval of Homes England and [the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government] and its press offices.’
It says an exception can be made ‘where such disclosure is in the overwhelming public interest’ – but says Homes England, the body which funds affordable housing, and the ministry must be allowed to make representations.
When the gagging clause was revealed, the UK Cladding Action Group said: ‘No [government] department should be hiding behind non-disclosure agreements to stop scrutiny.’
Another campaign group, the Manchester Cladiators, said the existence of the clause would make residents feel intimidated.