Ministers still running to catch up on fire safety

Originally posted on January 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

This week’s flurry of announcements on fire safety comes from a government desperate to show that it is getting on top of the crisis.

But it still leaves ministers running to catch up and facing yet more questions about the adequacy of their response.

Timed to coincide with this week’s government response to phase one of the Grenfell inquiry and next week’s start of phase two, the announcements from housing secretary Robert Jenrick included a new Building Safety Regulator, clarified and consolidated fire safety advice and a pledge to name building owners who have not acted to make their buildings safe.

He is minded to lower the threshold for sprinklers in new residential buildings from 18m to 11m and match that in a consultation in the ban on combustible materials and he also launched a call for evidence on the prioritisation of risks from external wall systems in existing buildings.

More help for residents of buildings with non-ACM cladding could be on the way as Jenrick told the Commons that he was discussing the options with the Treasury and that the chancellor ‘will set out further details in due course’.

Finally, testing results of other cladding materials are to be published next month but the housing secretary said these would confirm the decision to prioritise ACM and make it clear that it is ‘significantly more dangerous than any other substance’.

Presented this way it seemed that the government is finally coming up with a response that is moving faster than the problems are mounting up on thousands of buildings around the country. As Jenrick summed it up: ‘As that work continues, it becomes ever more evident that problems have developed over many decades, leading to serious incidents and the risk of further loss of life. This is completely unacceptable.’

But that feeling soon began to dissipate under scrutiny from MPs in debates on Monday and Tuesday.

As shadow housing secretary John Healey put it:

‘ I never thought that, two and a half years later, I would be standing here facing a secretary of state—the third secretary of state—who still cannot say that all the necessary action has been taken and that a fire like Grenfell cannot happen again in Britain.’

MP after MP raised problems that went far beyond the original concerns with high-rise blocks with the same sort of ACM cladding as Grenfell.

If the height threshold for the combustibles ban and sprinklers needed to be reduced for new residential buildings why for not existing ones?

If there is funding to remediate high-rise ACM, why not for mid-rise ACM? And why not for the removal of other combustible cladding or for sprinklers?

And looking beyond housing, why should those measures not also apply to schools, hospitals and care homes? Incredibly, sprinklers are not required in new schools.

There was also noticeable criticism from the Conservative as well as opposition benches. Peter Bottomley quoted evidence that ‘people do not die in buildings where there is a fire if there are sprinklers’, while Kevin Hollinrake pointed to continued ambiguity in the guidance on limited combustibility materials and Bob Blackman raised criticism of safety tests.

When Jenrick was questioned about the talks with the Treasury on funding for the remediation of cladding he implied that loans rather than grant were under consideration:

‘There are already examples of building owners or private finance providers bringing forward low or zero-interest loans, on a hardship basis, to help individuals who are on low incomes or without savings to make the payments required to remediate their buildings. There may be a role for the Government in ensuring that that works, that the loans are affordable, and that it is done as quickly as possible.’

However, MPs highlighted cases where that will not be remotely enough. Labour’s Hilary Benn pointed to evidence from three blocks in Leeds where ‘the cost of a waking watch risks bankrupting leaseholders even before we get to the point of determining who will pay for the replacement of the cladding’.

And Labour’s Lucy Powell said there were still 79 unsafe blocks in Manchester and in most cases remediation costs of ‘upwards of £80,000 each’ were being passed on to leaseholders.

This is where the cladding and fire safety scandal crosses over with the leasehold scandal to make solving the problems even more difficult.

A Draft Bill on leasehold reform is promised but action is long overdue and any legislation seems unlikely to go far enough.

In social housing, Labour’s Karen Buck pointed to the problems that council landlords that have run into with rights of access when they want to install sprinklers and other safety improvements.

She said at least a third of the flats in buildings in her Westminster North constituency had been sold under the right to buy and some of them were now owned by corporate and overseas landlords:

‘Almost all of them have different leases. So there is massive complexity there and at the moment the legislative framework simply does not allow local authorities to go ahead, even if they wish to and have put the money aside to do so, with carrying out the necessary works to retrofit sprinklers and, in some cases, fire doors.’

In the private sector, Robert Jenrick told the Commons that: ‘Inaction must have consequences. From next month, I will name those responsible for buildings where remediation has not started and remove them from the public list only when it has.’

This threat may have generated some headlines but Kevin Hollinrake pointed out the flaw in the thinking behind it:

‘In most cases freeholders—the owners of a property’s ground rent and the ground on which the building stands—have no legal responsibility to carry out remedial maintenance work on a high-rise building. We can talk tough all we like and say, “We’re going to make them do this and make them do that”…but there is no legal way to do that. I do not know of a way to impose on anybody a retrospective legal requirement in a contract. It is simply not possible in our legal framework, and that leaves leaseholders in limbo.’

And that in turn raises the question of who is responsible for the state of the buildings. As Bob Blackman put it:

‘One fundamental concern that I have is that some leaseholders and other individuals who believed they were buying a flat or other property that was perfectly safe, are now being told that they might have to pay towards removing the cladding and replacing it with a safer type. The fact is that someone, somewhere said the cladding was safe according to the building regulations— and if they did, who is responsible, and why should leaseholders be funding the work? Clearly, there is a failure of corporate governance across the piece in preventing that from happening.’

So who is really responsible for the fact that the buildings are unsafe? Not leaseholders, not freeholders, but the developers, contractors and consultants responsible for their inadequate construction and the governments responsible for the lax regulations that allowed it.

Tory MP Bernard Jenkin summed up the situation in exactly the terms that the government has spent the last two and a half years trying to avoid:

‘In this case, the problems that have been created regarding the wider building stock and liability are no fault of property owners, tenants or leaseholders, and that leaves a liability that falls on the Government, at least to a degree. Otherwise, there will be widening injustice, bankruptcy and failures across a whole sector of housing, because we are trying to remediate the failure of regulation in the past.’

Jenrick told him these were questions for the second phase of the inquiry and he could not prejudge the answers.

That may be true but it will no comfort whatsoever for all those tenants and leaseholders and landlords who need those answers now – not in another two and a half years.


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