The clock is still ticking on Grenfell response

Originally posted on November 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For all the admirable clarity in Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s phase one report from the Grenfell Tower inquiry, 28 months on from the fire the official response is still running to catch up.

This week’s leaks and row about the role of the London Fire Brigade (LFB) only serve as reminders of how much else remains to be done.

The other major event of the week ensured that the building safety legislation promised in the Queen’s Speech to implement the Hackitt review will have to wait until after the election.

The same goes for the social housing white paper. It has now at least been promised by the prime minister and housing secretary  but the clock is still ticking on regulation, fighting stigma and all the other fine words in the green paper published 14 months ago.

That too will have to wait until after December 12, probably with yet more new ministers who will need to get up to speed with the issues.

Sir Martin’s phase one report found that the cladding was the ‘primary cause of fire spread’ and the judge ruled that it breached the building regulations.

He had not intended to rule on this point in the first part of the inquiry focussing on what happened on the night of 14 June, 2017. But he says there is ‘compelling evidence’ that the external walls did not meet the requirement in the regulations to ‘adequately resist the spread of fire’ and adds that ‘on the contrary they promoted it’.

This may seem self-evident to anyone who has followed events since the fire but the fact that he has made the judgement clears the way for phase two and moves the inquiry closer to deciding on who was responsible for the actions and inactions that led to it.

The basis of much of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s criticism of the LFB is based on its ‘failure to educate firefighters in the dangers associated with combustible cladding systems’ and ‘the absence of any training for incident commanders in how to recognise the need for evacuation’.

He finds this ‘surprising’ given a history of fires involving cladding on high-rise buildings dating back to 1991 and Knowsley Heights and 1999 and Garnock Court and a specific warning to London boroughs about external fire spread from the head of the LFB fire safety regulation department after the Shepherd’s Court fire May 2017.

However, exactly the same point about awareness of cladding fires can – and almost certainly will – be made about the companies and consultants involved in the design and construction of the refurbishment of the tower and about those in central government responsible for the building regulations.

It also raises the question not asked in phase one of how, if the Grenfell cladding was so clearly in breach of the regulations, similarly hazardous material ended up on hundreds of other buildings around the country.

In the wake of the report naming individual firefighters, Emma Dent Coad, Labour MP for Kensington, named those she said were ‘at the top of the pyramid of responsibility’ in the Commons debate on Wednesday. They included the chief executives of three of the companies involved in the refurbishment, two Kensington and Chelsea councillors, three former ministers and the prime minister and chair of the Conservative party.

She warned that:

‘These failures of corporate interests, the complacency of politicians over many years and the failures of this report mean, to my mind, that Grenfell 2 could happen tomorrow.’

Phase two is due to start in January but away from Grenfell itself progress is still painfully slow on those wider issues of building safety.

True, the government has banned combustible cladding on new residential high-rises and is consulting on reducing the height threshold for sprinklers.

Yet, despite the £600m of funding eventually provided ministers, even the most urgent post-Grenfell task of removing similar ACM cladding from existing buildings around the country remains incomplete.

There are perhaps 60,000 people living in buildings with ACM cladding and there are still 201 buildings, including 144 private residential blocks, where work has not even started to remove it.

As Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, put it in Wednesday’s Commons debate:

‘Only three buildings in my constituency have had the work done. There are 39 private blocks in which people cannot sleep at night.’

One big reason why remediation progress has been so slow is that the cladding scandal is wrapped up with the wider leasehold scandal as freeholders refuse government exhortations to ‘do the right thing’.

Pressed on this in the debate on Wednesday, housing secretary Robert Jenrick said:

‘We will name those building owners that are not remediating ACM cladding at the pace that is required and take enforcement action against them.’

But that is just ACM. Around the country tens of thousands of people are living in other buildings with other types of combustible cladding

The UK Cladding Action Group says the government has taken some steps to make them safe but they are ‘too little, too late’:

‘The government refuses to engage with us and seem set on repeating the mistakes of the past. Fire does not distinguish between different types of dangerous cladding.’

In total the owners of up to 500,000 high-rise flats are caught up in the wider situation, unable to sell or remortgage because of uncertainty caused by government advice.

And that is just the high-rise residential buildings. As Steve Reed, Labour MP for Croydon North, pointed out on Wednesday:

‘The Government have now announced, belatedly, a partial ban on flammable cladding on some new buildings, but they are still allowing it to go up on schools, hospitals and residential blocks less than six storeys high, and on hotels. I cannot imagine a single parent who would be happy to know that their child’s school was covered in flammable cladding, but the Government do not seem to think that it is a problem.’

And that is just the cladding. Large London housing associations estimate that the total costs of making their high-rise blocks safe could be almost £7 bn and that even meeting a fraction of that cost themselves after potential insurance and warranty payments would reduce their ability to build new homes.

Birmingham City Council says it faces a £93m bill for its tower blocks, including £31m for sprinklers, £34m for fire doors and frames and £28m for window infill panels. With no financial support from central government, it is cutting its repairs budget.

The phase one report refers to the Lakanal coroner’s recommendation in 2013 that landlords of high-rise residential buildings should consider the retrofitting of sprinklers but says he cannot many any recommendation at this stage because he has not yet heard any evidence about their effectiveness.

But it also calls for the premises information boxes that former communities secretary Eric Pickles rejected as ‘unnecessary and disproportionate’ when the Lakanal House coroner recommended exactly the same thing.

Ten years after Lakanal House, six years after those recommendations and two years after Grenfell, the clock is still ticking.




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