By Andrew MacAskill
LONDON, May 9 (Reuters) - The British government will spend 200 million pounds ($260 million) to replace combustible cladding on the outside of high-rise buildings after some private developers refused to pay to make them safe in response to fire that killed 71 people.
The announcement comes two years after a blaze engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-story London social housing block, the deadliest domestic fire in Britain since World War Two.
The fire raised questions about building regulation and the quality of cladding in particular. Officials have said aluminium cladding with a plastic core contributed to the rapid spread of the blaze.
After spending months trying to persuade property companies to pay to remove the cladding with only limited success, the government has decided to step in with public funds to fix the cladding on about 170 high rise buildings.
Prime Minister Theresa May said although some private companies had acted, many had failed to do or had tried to pass on the cost of the work to people living in the buildings.
“It is of paramount importance that everybody is able to feel and be safe in their homes,” May said. “We will now be fully funding the replacement of cladding on high-rise private residential buildings so residents can feel confident they are secure in their homes.”
Government figures show 166 private buildings out of 176 identified with the cladding after inspections carried out after the Grenfell fire have yet to start removing the material.
The government has already committed to funding replacement of the cladding for all social housing. But, currently 23 blocks are still covered in it.
The housing minister James Brokenshire said he had changed his mind on waiting for developers pay up for safety work because of the stress on the residents living in the buildings.
“What has been striking to me over recent weeks is just the time it is taking and my concern over the leaseholders themselves - that anxiety, that stress, that strain,” he said.
Residents of tower blocks wrapped in combustible cladding are suffering bouts of depression and suicidal feelings, a survey found last month.
Leaseholders were facing bills of tens of thousands of pounds each to fix their homes.
Building owners will have three months to claim the funds, with one condition being that they take “reasonable steps” to recover the costs from those responsible for the cladding.
Grenfell United, a group of survivors and the bereaved, said the news offered hope to people feeling at risk at home.
“This result is a testament to residents themselves, in social and private blocks, who refused to be ignored,” the group said. “The truth is we should never have had to fight for it.” (Reporting By Andrew MacAskill; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)