Doing the right thing on fire safetyPosted: June 18, 2020 | |
Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 18.
In the 36 months since Grenfell ministers have repeatedly appealed to others to ‘do the right thing’ and pay for the replacement of dangerous cladding on high-rise homes.
Ministers have resisted doing anything themselves but the pressure has always told eventually.
After 11 months, a £400 million fund was announced for social housing blocks with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. After 23 months, another £200 million was found for private blocks with ACM. After 32 months, the £1 billion Building Safety Fund was announced in the Spring Budget this year to cover hundreds more high-rise blocks with non-ACM but still dangerous cladding
Three years on from the fire, work has only been completed on a third of the ACM blocks – 149 out of 457 – according to the latest government statistics. Of the remaining 307, work had not even started on 140.
The minister responsible for building safety (the fifth since Grenfell) told the Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee that there are another 11,300 buildings with other types of dangerous cladding and that 1,700 of them are classed as high risk.
Even as the funding has been grudgingly announced, so the estimated cost of fixing the problem has risen. Add the costs of other internal and external fire safety measures that go well beyond the clading, and the HCLG committee puts the total cost at £15 billion.
In a report published on Friday, it called on the government to expand the Building Safety Fund to cover all of this and set a deadline of June 2022 – five years after Grenfell – to complete the work.
Rather than let the bill fall solely on taxpayers, the MPs say the government should review taxes on freeholders, developers and others and consider a temporary levy linked to the sale of new-build properties.
All these issues came up at Housing Communities and Local Government questions in the Commons on Monday in a session that was otherwise dominated by the row over housing secretary Robert Jenrick, Tory donor Richard Desmond and planning permission for the Westferry development (a subject I’ll return to later).
Chris Pincher had answers that could just as easily have been made by any of the five housing ministers since 2017 .
‘Building safety is a priority for this Government and for me personally,’ he told Kensington’s (and Grenfell’s) Conservative MP Felicity Buchan. ‘The Government recently announced the biggest change in a generation on building safety, to be delivered through the upcoming building safety Bill, together with, now, £1.6 billion of support for remediation of unsafe cladding. We will leave no stone unturned to ensure that residents are safe now and in the future.’
When she pressed him on what progress he expected in the next six months, he revealed that applications for the Building Safety Fund had reached 458 since it opened on June 1 (so a third of the total of high-risk buildings) and that the Building Safety Bill would be published soon.
Labour’s Clive Betts, chair of the HCLG committee, told him it was ‘shocking’ that there were still 2,000 high-rise blocks with dangerous cladding but the Building Safety Fund would only be enough to remediate 600 of them. The Fund also did nothing for thousands more lower-rise blocks that are below 18m or to pay for other fire safety defects.
He directly challenged the minister go back to the Treasury with the committee’s £15 billion cost estimate and ensure that all buildings are made safe within the next two years.
Mr Pincher stuck to his script and brushed that bit aside: ‘We would expect some of that funding to come forward from the building owners so that those who let or are leaseholders in the buildings do not fall liable for the funds. We believe that £1 billion, now, to get on with the job, will go a great deal along the way to make sure that buildings are made safe for their residents.’
His Labour shadow Mike Amesbury told him that it would take 39 years to remediate the cladding at the current rate and threw in a barb about ‘high-value chicken dinners to get things done’.
That was ‘ungenerous’, said Mr Pincher, before returning to his script about making £1.6 billion available:
‘We want these buildings to be made safe as quickly as possible. That is why we have put the money on the table, why we will press for action to be taken and why the buildings will be made safe under this Government.’
However, two weeks after the fund opened for applications, the questions are mounting up about eligibility.
Quite apart from buildings below 18m being ineligible, the HCLG committee’s report highlighted the way that applications from social landlords are effectively excluded unless they can prove that they are ‘unable to pay’. .
And Labour’s Lucy Powell raised the plight of residents of Skyline Central 1 in her Manchester Central constituency.
The building is not eligible because the freeholder has already begun work to remediate the cladding, billing leaseholders £20,000 each. What more could the government do?
Mr Pincher said residents should first seek to recover the costs from the owner (something he must know is not possible) and the owner should look to the developer.
‘The point of the fund is to get the remediation work under way quickly. I can quite understand the points she has raised and I am happy to talk to her further about that case.’
That is just one example of the impasse that will surely mean that the cladding crisis drags on for many more months, with knock-on effects for residents’ mental health as well as their finances, for the housing market in new-build flats and for social landlords’ budgets for new development.
As they have at every stage, ministers will attempt to resist any further injection of cash and they will run a mile from the committee’s recommendations that it should stump up £15 billion and recover the cash from builders.
But hiding behind the money committed so far will not be any more successful than it has in the last 36 months.
Responsibility for the crisis rests with successive governments for the way they managed the building regulations and with developers, consultants and suppliers for the way they exploited them.
Without more government support, those appeals to building owners – social landlords and private freeholders – to do the right thing will only mean the costs being passed down the chain.
Passed down until they fall on the people least responsible for any of it: the leaseholder owners of flats with dangerous cladding; and all those on the waiting lists for new affordable housing that will not be built.