Michael Gove's 20-word warning to landlords after 'landmark' Herts court win

Michael Gove has issued a 20-word warning to landlords: "If you fail to fix your unsafe buildings and ensure the safety of residents, we will see you in court"
Michael Gove has issued a 20-word warning to landlords: "If you fail to fix your unsafe buildings and ensure the safety of residents, we will see you in court" -Credit:Lucy North/PA Wire

Michael Gove has welcomed a "victory" for leaseholders in a Stevenage tower block where surveyors found fire safety issues in 2019. In a statement, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said it had won a "landmark" victory in a first-of-its-kind case.

Railways pension fund-owned Grey GR Limited Partnership, which owns Vista Tower near St Georges Way, must remove potentially flammable materials from the building cladding. Work began to fix the unsafe cladding, which may feature a polystyrene core and timber panels, in January 2024. Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland, who sits on Conservative benches, told the House of Commons in 2022 that leaseholders had received bills of £220,000 for remediation work - more than the £200,000 that some buyers had paid for their flats.

Following the legal action, Mr Gove said on Thursday, May 9: "Leaseholders have lived with uncertainty for far too long while Grey GR delayed essential works to make homes safe. It is hugely disappointing that Railpen - the ultimate owner of Grey GR and who manages £34bn in ‘assets’ - has kept leaseholders in limbo in this way. Railway workers with their pensions invested in this fund, as well as innocent leaseholders, deserve better."

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Vista Tower, Stevenage
Vista Tower, Stevenage -Credit:Google Maps

In an address directly to building owners, the Levelling Up secretary said: "This court case should serve as a warning to all building owners. If you fail to fix your unsafe buildings and ensure the safety of residents, we will see you in court. We will not stop until we secure justice for leaseholders."

When Mr McPartland told the House of Commons about Vista Tower in March 2022, he said: "Leaseholders paid about £200,000 for their properties and the remediation bills they received were £220,000, so the remediation costs are more than the value of the properties." He added: "My constituents were paying more in walking watch costs every month than they were paying on their mortgages - and that was just one fire safety cost."

Sophie Bichener, a leaseholder in Vista Tower, said: "I am very pleased to see this remediation order has been made. This gives leaseholders the reassurance we deserve and is the closest we have been to regaining our freedom after what has been an extremely difficult few years.

"We thank the secretary of state for bringing this remediation order – it will have a huge impact on our lives and we hope our involvement in this case will bring hope to many others who are waiting for their freeholders to do the right thing and make their homes a safe place to live too."

The Vista Tower case was the first legal action brought by the government under Building Safety Act 2022 powers, at a property tribunal, DLUHC confirmed in its statement. The remediation order will provide an exact date by which the work must be completed or Grey could face court sanctions.

The Building Safety Act prevents building owners from charging "qualifying" leaseholders for work to remove or fix potentially flammable cladding in tall buildings - usually more than five storeys or 11 metres in height.

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage, former Stevenage Borough Council leader and now Labour's Levelling Up spokesperson in the House of Lords, said she is "very pleased" the government has secured a remediation order. "I am sure this will be a great relief to residents that at last, this is moving in the right direction," she said.

"There are still questions for the government to answer about why it took them so long to act, leaving the residents with years of extreme anxiety about the homes that should be their place of safety and security, and whether they will be reviewing the deregulation of building control which brought about the free-for-all that caused this situation in the first place."

When works began earlier this year, a Grey GR spokesperson told The Comet newspaper in Stevenage that it was "committed" to the remediation of Vista Tower. They said: "We completed internal works throughout the building during 2023, and extensive remedial work will begin to the external façade in the next few weeks.

"A lead contractor has been appointed and site set-up commenced [earlier this month], with a provisional completion date of autumn 2025. We understand the works will cause disruption to residents and we thank them for their continued patience while we improve the safety of the building as quickly and safely as possible. We have been communicating regularly with leaseholders, including hosting a leaseholder meeting in December, and we will continue to do so throughout the project."