Three years on from Grenfell, where does the buck stop on fire safety?Posted: June 12, 2020
This Sunday is the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. There are still 2,000 high-risk residential buildings out there with dangerous cladding.
Let that sink in for a second because it’s easy to let time obscure the scale of the problem if you’ve followed the twists and turns of the cladding saga since 2017 from afar.
Not so easy if you are one of the tens of thousands of people living in thousands of flats in those buildings. In a survey released by the UK Cladding Action Group on Thursday, 23 per cent of residents said they had felt suicidal or a desire to self-harm as a result.
This morning (Friday) the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee describes the situation as ‘deeply shocking and completely unacceptable’ in a report that lacerates the government’s slow and inadequate response. The committee has a Conservative majority but is doing an increasingly impressive job of holding ministers to account.
As the Grenfell inquiry drags on, delayed by Covid-19 but due to start up again next month, this is about what’s happened – or in too many cases not happened – to all the other dangerous buildings around the country.
There are 457 high-rise residential and other public buildings with the same type of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding that was on Grenfell. Last year the government set June 2020 as the deadline for remediating them but work has only been completed on 149. Of the remaining 307, work has not even started on 140.
But other types of cladding are also dangerous and potentially combustible. Nobody knows for certain how many but the minister responsible for building safety (the fifth one since Grenfell) put the total at 11,300, of which 1,700 are classed as high risk.
The problems go well beyond the immediate fire safety risks, as a combination of official guidance, caution by lenders and a shortage of surveyors to carry out checks means that the market in flats has ground to a halt.
It’s clear that responsibility for this appalling situation must be shared between successive governments for their failure to ensure that the building regulations kept new buildings safe and the developers, consultants and building product manufacturers that have exploited them.
At every stage, ministers have appealed to developers and building owners to ‘do the right thing’ while dragging their feet about funding the work when they don’t. The result, all too often, is that the bills are landing with the only people who are definitely not responsible: the leaseholders of the individual flats.
Take the £1 billion Building Safety Fund for non-ACM cladding. Announced in the Spring Budget this year, the fund applies to private and social residential buildings that are over 18m high.
The problems with this quickly became clear: there are plenty of dangerous buildings below 18m (as shown by fires in Bolton and Barking last year); social landlords are effectively excluded unless they can prove they are ‘unable to pay’; and the fund does not apply to buildings where owners had done the right thing and work had already started (like Skyline in Manchester).
But even in its own terms the fund is inadequate to the scale of a problem that will cost an estimated £3 billion of more to fix. .
And that is just for the cladding. It takes no account of interim costs like waking watch or the costs of fixing other fire safety problems in the buildings.
The National Housing Federation estimates that the cost in the social sector alone could be £10 billion so the total bill will be even higher.
As the committee puts it:
‘There is no point fixing the cladding, but leaving a building fundamentally unsafe. We believe that there is no reason to fund the remediation of some fire safety defects but not others. Our view is that funding will need to be increased to address all fire safety defects in every high-rise or high-risk residential building—potentially costing up to £15 billion.’
The Building Safety Fund should cover all of this, says the committee, rather than leave residents facing massive bills and social landlords forced to cut their new-build plans to pay for it.
However, the burden should not fall solely on taxpayers, say the MPs. The government should actively seek to recover the money from the construction companies, architects, product manufacturers, approved inspectors and any others found to be responsible for the fire safety defects.
To cover the remaining cost, the government should review taxes on freeholders, developers and others, including consideration of a temporary levy linked to the sale of all new-build properties. Given the impact of Covid-19 on housebuilding, that is likely to be the last thing the government wants to do.
Aside from the funding, the other issue is how quickly the buildings that can be made safe. A realistic target, says the committee, should be December 2021 for ACM cladding and June 2022 for buildings with any other fire safety issue. Compulsory purchase orders should be used to take direct ownership of any buildings where work has not started by December 2020.
June 2022 will be five years after Grenfell. Will we still be talking about this then as ministers continue to duck responsibility for fire safety or will one of them finally decide that ‘the buck stops here’?