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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

Hurricane Ian: Cities flooded and power cut as storm crosses Florida

Hurricane Ian: Cities flooded and power cut as storm crosses Florida

Hurricane Ian made landfall at around 15:10 local time (19:10 GMT) on Wednesday, smashing into the coast with wind speeds of up to 241km/h (150mph).

Dramatic scenes saw a hospital roof blown off, cars submerged and trees ripped out of the ground.

The category four hurricane was later downgraded to a tropical storm.

However, Floridians were warned that the most dangerous 24 hours lay ahead and the mayor of Tampa urged people to shelter in place through the night into Thursday morning.

“We are going to get the majority of the rain and the higher winds starting about 20:00, and they are going to last throughout the night,” Jane Castor said during a Wednesday evening briefing.

In a message posted on Facebook, the Weather Prediction Center told residents in the Central Florida Peninsula to expect “widespread life-threatening, catastrophic flash and urban flooding” continuing into Friday morning, with potentially up to 76cm (30ins) of rain falling locally.

Residents were ordered to leave their homes, but many have decided to remain and seek shelter indoors.

Mark Pritchett, who lives in the city of Venice, some 95km (60 miles) south of Tampa, described the “terrifying” moment he stepped outside his home as the hurricane made its way across the Gulf of Mexico.

“Rain shooting like needles. My street is a river,” he said in a text message to the Associated Press news agency.

In Lee County – the south-west region where Ian made landfall – police were prevented from responding to reports of looting at a petrol station because of the storm damage.

As a result, a curfew has been declared “until further notice”.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said that the Fort Myers community had “been – to some extent – decimated”. According to news agency AFP, some neighbourhoods in the city of 80,000 had been left resembling lakes.

State Governor Ron DeSantis described Ian as the “biggest flood event” south-west Florida had ever seen, and announced that 7,000 National Guard troops are ready to lead rescue operations in flood zones.

President Joe Biden will receive a briefing on Thursday from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ian is now continuing to move north through Florida. Jacksonville International Airport, based in north-east Florida, cancelled all flights scheduled for Thursday.

The storm is forecast to emerge into the Atlantic by Thursday morning.

It is expected to reach Georgia and South Carolina on Friday. Virginia has also joined Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida by declaring a state of emergency.

Cuba’s western coast was hit by Hurricane Ian on Tuesday. Power has now been restored in some areas after the island was plunged into a total blackout. Two people are understood to have been killed in Cuba and more than 20 Cuban migrants are believed to be missing at sea.

Predicted path of Hurricane Ian. Updated 27 September

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Environment

Flooding: 18,406 Persons Displaced In Borno

Heavy flooding across 14 local government areas of Borno State has displaced 18,406 persons and destroyed properties worth millions of naira.

The victims, comprising women, children as well as elderly, have been forced to relocate from their homes since the commencement of the rainy season.

This was disclosed by the Director-General, State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), Yabawa Kolo in a television interview on Tuesday.

He said varying degrees of damages have been reported after heavy storms wreaked havoc on houses and infrastructures in Shani, Kwaya Kusar, Biu, Damboa, Askira Uba, Chibok, all in Southern Borno and Kaga, Dikwa, MMC, Jere, Mobbar, Gwoza, Monguno and Kala Balge local government areas in northern and Central Borno.

According to her, Kala Balge, Jere and Monguno are mostly affected by the flood due to the downpour that occurred between August 15 and 29 and displaced the residents in the areas with serious damages to shelter infrastructures and farmlands.

Kolo stated that the damage assessment carried out indicated that Monguno suffered more from the flooding affecting 1,735 displaced populations and destroying 681 shelters in GGSS IDP, NRC and Gana Ali camps.

The SEMA boss added that the flood also damaged 81 toilets and 31 bathing facilities.

“Accordingly, reports from International Partners in different field locations and local government areas indicate that a total of 4,989 houses were damaged by the flood leaving a total of 16,393 victims affected which prompted the State Emergency Management Agency to conduct a rapid independent assessment to ascertain actual level of damage,” she said.

“Most of the displaced are seeking shelter in primary schools in neighbouring communities. They are now in need of Shelter kits, mats, blankets and food items.

Kolo further stated that the Government Flood Response Committee headed by the Deputy Governor, Alhaji Usman Kadafur, has been working to avert further destructions as well as compensate victims affected by the disaster.

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Environment

Hurricane Ian makes landfall in Cuba en route to Florida

Hurricane Ian makes landfall in Cuba en route to Florida

A strengthening Hurricane Ian’s rain and winds lashed Cuba’s western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people, as it became a major Category 3 storm early Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

The storm made landfall early Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the island’s west coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge.

Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” hurricane center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.

After passing over Cuba, Ian was forecast to strengthen further over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h).

A strengthening Hurricane Ian’s rain and winds lashed Cuba’s western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people, as it became a major Category 3 storm early Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

The storm made landfall early Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the island’s west coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge.

“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” hurricane center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.

After passing over Cuba, Ian was forecast to strengthen further over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h).

In Havana on Monday, fishermen were taking their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon seaside boulevard, and city workers were unclogging storm drains ahead of the expected rain.

Havana resident Adyz Ladron said the potential for rising water from the storm worries him.

“I am very scared because my house gets completely flooded, with water up to here,” he said, pointing to his chest.

In Havana’s El Fanguito, a poor neighborhood near the Almendares River, residents were packing up what they could to leave their homes.

“I hope we escape this one because it would be the end of us. We already have so little,” health worker Abel Rodrigues said.

The Hurricane Center said in a 4:30 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT) update that Ian made landfall in Cuba as it continued to strengthen, with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 km/h). In an update about a half-hour later, the center said Ian was located about 5 miles (10 km) south of the city of Pinar del Rio, moving north at 12 mph (19 km/h).

The center defines a major hurricane as a Category 3 storm or higher, meaning maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 km/h), and Ian became a Category 3 hurricane earlier Tuesday.

The center said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” were occurring Tuesday morning in western Cuba.

Ian won’t linger over Cuba but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, growing wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said.

A surge of up to 10 feet (3 meters) of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) inches in isolated areas. That’s enough water to inundate coastal communities.

As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.

“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency and warned that Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies as it swirls northward off the state’s Gulf Coast.

“You have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “That’s going to cause a huge amount of storm surge. You’re going to have flood events. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts.”

DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilized 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.

Playing it safe, NASA planned to slowly roll its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Monday night that the football team was relocating football operations to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buccaneers said the team will leave Tampa on Tuesday.

Flash flooding was predicted for much of the Florida peninsula, and heavy rainfall was possible for the southeast United States later this week. With tropical storm force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.

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