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‘I live in a flammable box’: cladding scandal threatens to overshadow Johnson’s levelling up agenda

levelling up

‘I live in a flammable box’: cladding scandal threatens to overshadow Johnson’s levelling up agenda

Anastasia Frost often wonders why she listened to the Tories when they talked about aspiration, the benefits of home ownership and levelling up. She lives in a two-bedroom flat in the Ancoats area of Manchester with her husband and their 11-week-old son. “We put trust in this system. We were told you must buy a flat, you must get on the property ladder, but what good is it really?” she says.

The Frosts spent 10 years saving up and finally were able to buy their home in 2015. But then, in 2017, came the Grenfell Tower disaster and, more than four years on, as they wait for their block to be declared safe – if it ever is – their home is worth nothing.

It is not fit for sale. No purchaser could get a mortgage to buy it. Insurers run a mile. The Frosts have already spent £7,000 of their own money paying the safety fees demanded of leaseholders, including those for waking watchmen who patrol the block in case of fires, and special alarms. It is money that Frost, a housing resettlement worker, wishes she could have spent on her first child.

“It has been very stressful. When you are pregnant, you don’t need any extra worries. You don’t need the constant reminder that you are living in a flammable box. It is not what I had hoped for. I would rather have spent the money on my son,” she says.

On Sunday, as the Conservative party hits Manchester for its first full conference since it won an 80-strong majority in the 2019 election, having broken through the red wall and taken dozens of former Labour seats in the north and Midlands, Frost will address a parallel conference in the city centre on the cladding scandal.

It could hardly look worse for Boris Johnson’s government. The meeting, organised by the Manchester Cladiators, a voluntary group formed by residents in early 2019 to pressure government “to protect innocent people fully and fairly from exorbitant costs to fix the collective state and industry failure”, will also be attended by the bishop of Manchester, David Walker, the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and, the organisers hope, a number of worried Tory MPs in northern seats who were part of the 2019 intake.

While the cladding issue is a national one, those MPs know the struggles of low-income homeowners do not sit well with the government’s mission to “level up” the country, revive deprived urban centres and advance home ownership and the one-nation cause.

Robert Jenrick, the cabinet minister who was, until weeks ago, in charge of housing (he was replaced by Michael Gove in the recent reshuffle), set up a national £5bn fund to help those hit by the knock-on effects of the Grenfell disaster, but it was too late, and nowhere near enough, said Frost.

Manchester is known as the cladding capital of the north, with the biggest number of high-rise flats and applicants to Jenrick’s building safety fund of any region outside London. Many people affected say they applied for help but have not heard back.

One is Tom Brothwell, who bought a flat in 2017 a stone’s throw from where the Tory conference will open on Sunday. “We had the survey … [and] applied to the building safety fund in September 2020, and have heard nothing,” he says. Brothwell works in a bank but also spends 30 hours a week of his own time trying to help those who are facing the nightmare combination of having to pay huge bills to make their homes safer, while being unable to sell them.

Lucy Powell, the shadow housing secretary and MP for Manchester Central, says the area has 15,000 residents caught up in the crisis and says data from the Land Registry shows sales of affected buildings in Manchester have plunged to almost zero. Those who are able to sell are finding they can only do so to cash buyers – and at a substantial loss.

“They were promised as leaseholders that they wouldn’t have to pay for fire remediation costs, yet the bills just keep coming, adds Powell. “The new building safety bill makes the situation worse, and the government’s fund just isn’t working. It’s time to assess, fix, fund and certify every tall building and put in law that leaseholders won’t pay.”

More broadly, the presence of Johnson and his party in Manchester has turned the focus on to the prime minister’s agenda of “levelling up” the country. Conservative MPs who represent seats behind the “red wall” know that their chances of retaining them at the next general election, which could come as early as spring 2023, will depend on him putting flesh on the bones of what many think is still a mere slogan.

In private, many Conservatives complain that there is no detailed plan. “The fact is that the government and the prime minister don’t really understand how people outside the prosperous south live,” said one former minister with a northern seat. Increasingly, they are using the phrase “southern privilege” to describe an attitude and a national divide that is not being bridged.

The recent announcement of an increase in national insurance and the Tories’ commitment to end the £20 a week uplift in universal credit are both causing deep unease in sections of Johnson’s party, as fears grow of cost-of-living and fuel crises caused by labour shortages.

At Labour’s conference in Brighton last week, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves announced that it would scrap business rates and undertake the “biggest overhaul of business taxation in a generation”. Plenty of Tories want their party to offer some relief.

Esther McVey, the former work and pensions secretary, said last week: “Reducing business rates for retail would have a significant impact on those areas of the country most in need of levelling up. Cutting the ‘shops tax’ would unlock investment, create jobs and grow local economies.”

Today Bright Blue, an independent Tory thinktank for liberal conservatism, publishes new analysis, entitled Beyond the Safety Net? showing that a quarter of universal credit claimants, more than 1 mllion people, were receiving informal financial support from family and/or friends in the early stages of the pandemic. Ryan Shorthouse, its chief executive, said: “The Conservative government cannot really represent left-behind places and people if it now makes the biggest single cut to working-aged benefits ever seen.”

John Stevenson, the Conservative MP for Carlisle, is one of many northern Tory MPs who also question the £20 universal credit cut and how it sits with promises to level up. “Universal credit has actually been a real success. I just think it slightly undermines what we’ve achieved because of the loss of £20.”

“In the wider context, complacency in any political party is a danger. Speaking for my northern colleagues, I do not think there’s any complacency among us at this moment in time. We realise that we made a substantial breakthrough in the last election. You’ve got to consolidate that. The only way we’re going to consolidate that is to demonstrate to the voters that it’s worth voting for us in the first place. That’s got to be showing things happening in your locality, your community, or across parts of the north.”

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Environment

Lagos govt shuts 367 churches, mosques, others over environmental violations

The Lagos State Government has shut 367 churches, mosques, night clubs and others over environmental violations in the last three months.

This was disclosed by the Commissioner for the Environment and Water Services, Tokunbo Wahab, at a ministerial news conference on Friday.

Wahab said the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) undertook the 367 enforcement activities in households, markets, hotels, warehouses, service centers, eateries, stores, church, mosques as well as 140 hospitality facilities including; Supermarket, Nightclubs, Bake houses with a view to ensuring compliance with the state environmental laws.

He said 76 abatement notices were served to individuals and organizations violating laws on indiscriminate discharge of raw sewerage into the lagoon or other forms of water and land pollution, saying that a 25% compliance rate with environmental laws was recorded compared to the previous year.

Wahab also warned residents of the State to desist from unhealthy environmental practices that could undermine government effort in protecting the environment against degradation and other climate change effects.

He added that its various agencies on environmental sustainability have been empowered to prosecute individuals or organizations that may be caught degrading the environment in any form .

Wahab revealed that the State government is committing huge resources on environmental protection against all forms of degradation, especially, the fight against climate change and its attendant effects on human health and the ecosystem.

He revealed that the State government would intensify efforts on enforcement to ensure compliance with the environmental laws to achieve a vision for a sustainable environment.

Wahab warned that LASEPA has been empowered more than before to ensure total compliance with State environmental laws 2017 across the State to safeguard the environment against further degradation because of its consequences on human health and the ecosystem.

The Commissioner, who explained that various enforcement operations carried out by his Ministry and its agencies across the State were in the interest of the public, noted that the State government would not fold its alms while allowing selfish few to continue undermining its reform efforts in preserving the environment for a better living and sustainable growth.

Wahab, who expressed worry over poor air quality level in many parts of the State as contained in LASEPA ‘s weekly reports of the Air quality index of the State warned against unfriendly environmental behaviours that could trigger climate change action

He stressed the need for green and improved air quality across the State to ensure healthy living for the citizenry, noting that the present air quality in many parts of the State as indicated in LASEPA’s report of the State’s Air Quality Index is unhealthy.

The Commissioner who highlighted some likely consequences of poor air quality as indicated in the index, stated that people in the affected areas may suffer from respiratory-related diseases such as lung infections, asthma, cystic fibrosis,   mesothelioma, pulmonary hypertension and running nose among others.

Other common diseases that may be found in areas with poor air quality, according to Wahab, include; high blood pressure, sight problems, irritation, heart problems, worsened underlying health conditions and other related health issues.

He, therefore, warned against activities that might lead to air pollution such as generator and vehicular emissions, industrial and agricultural activities such as burning of cow skin and electronic wastes, bush burning among others.

Wahab urged people to join the State government’s various advocacy programs targeted at improving the state of the environment for the better.

“The current air index reports in many parts of the State are not acceptable, this is largely caused by poor and unfriendly environmental behaviour which needs urgent change, we should be guided that whatever we do to the environment, it throws it back at us, we must therefore be conscious of what we do to the environment to enable us to live in peace” the Commissioner warned.

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Environment

NiMet predicts 3-day sunny, cloudy atmosphere

The Nigerian Meteorological Agency, NiMet, has forecast cloudiness and sunshine from Friday to Sunday across the country.

NiMet weather outlook released on Thursday in Abuja forecast sunny skies in hazy atmosphere on Friday over the northern region, with exception of Taraba State, where pockets of clouds could be visible during the forecast period.

The agency said sunny atmosphere patches of clouds are anticipated over the North Central region during the forecast period.

It stated that the cloudy atmosphere is expected over the southern region, with prospects of morning thunderstorms over parts of Cross River and Akwa Ibom states.

According to the agency, later in the day, isolated thunderstorms are expected over parts of Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Bayelsa, Rivers, Edo, Delta, Osun, Ogun, Ondo, Abia, and Imo states.

NiMet predicted sunny skies in a hazy atmosphere on Saturday over the northern region, with prospects of afternoon and evening thunderstorms over parts of Kaduna state.

It envisaged sunny skies with patches of clouds over the North Central region during the morning period.

Later in the day, isolated thunderstorms are expected over parts of the Federal Capital Territory, Niger, Nasarawa, Kwara, Kogi, and Plateau states.

Cloudy atmosphere with intervals of sunshine is expected over the southern region, with prospects of isolated thunderstorms over parts of Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, and Rivers states in the morning hours.

Later in the day, isolated thunderstorms are expected over the region,” it said.

According to NiMet, sunny skies in a hazy atmosphere are expected over the northern region during the forecast period on Sunday.

The agency predicted a sunny atmosphere with patches of clouds over the North Central region during the morning period.

NiMet forecast isolated thunderstorms over parts of Kwara, Kogi, Nasarawa, Benue, Plateau, and the Federal Capital Territory later in the day.

NiMet predicted a cloudy atmosphere over the southern region, with prospects of morning thunderstorms over parts of Lagos, Akwa Ibom, and Cross River states.

It anticipated isolated thunderstorms over parts of Edo, Osun, Ogun, Ondo, Imo, Ekiti, Abia, Anambra, Delta, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, and Lagos states later in the day.

“Strong winds may precede rains in areas where thunderstorms are likely to occur; the public should take adequate precaution.

“Airline operators are advised to get updated weather reports and forecasts from NiMet for effective planning in their operations,” NiMet added.

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Environment

31 states, 148 LGAs risk severe floods, FG warns

The Ebonyi State Government has denied that it  borrowed from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund contrary to a report by the Debt Management Office.

The DMO had reported that the Ebonyi State under the current administration led by Governor Francis Nwifuru, was among the 17 states that had borrowed $125.1 million (N111.24 billion) from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Debunking the report, the Ebonyi State Commissioner for Finance, Dr. Leonard Uguru, said  Nwifuru had not borrowed from either internal or foreign creditors since he assumed office on May 29, 2023.

He said:  “Since the inception of this administration, the Ebonyi State Government has not borrowed any money, whether foreign or domestic loans. So, any organisation that’s writing that Ebonyi is among the states that have borrowed money, I don’t know where they are getting their data.

“Among the South East states, Ebonyi is still the least in both domestic and foreign debts. Even though we have a trace of debt, which is the 150 million dollar loan from Africa Development Bank and Islamic Bank inherited from the past administration in the reconstruction of Ring Road, which is what made the loan increase, it is worth it as the road cuts across various local government areas of the state. Outside that, I don’t think there’s any other debt owed by the previous state government.”

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