Four years of broken promisesPosted: June 16, 2021
Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.
Four years on from Grenfell and a solution to the fire safety crisis looks further away than ever.
The litany of broken ministerial promises highlighted by Pete Apps in his analysis this week only adds to the impression of abject government failure and of a crisis that continues to escalate faster than its fumbling attempts to tackle it.
From James Brokenshire’s ‘expectation’ of ACM remediation by June 2020 to Lord Greenhalgh’s ‘ambition’ that it should be completed this year, even the programme most directly related to Grenfell keeps slipping into the future.
And despite Theresa May’s pledge that ‘we cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes’ to Boris Johnson’s promise that ‘no leaseholder should have to pay’, thousands are doing and facing exactly that.
In mitigation they could plead that in June 2017 hardly anyone expected things to escalate to the stage where it seems that virtually any residential block built in the last 25 years has come under suspicion.
The public inquiry has rightly concentrated on the causes of the fire and the run-up to that night in June 2017 but it was clear even at the time that the problems went well beyond the refurbishment of one tower block and the actions of one landlord and council.
Evidence revealed at the public inquiry has amplified those wider concerns many times over – but so far the government has not even kept its promises to implement the inquiry’s initial recommendations.
Monday’s Housing, Communities and Local Government questions saw more ministerial obfuscation over the issues as Labour’s James Murray asked what estimates the government has made of the number of buildings that will still have dangerous cladding and other fire safety defects beyond June 2022.
That would be the fifth anniversary of Grenfell rather than the fourth but housing minister Chris Pincher ignored the question and instead predicted that 84 per cent of ACM remediation will be completed by the end of this year with all blocks that have made an application to the Building Safety Fund on site by the end of September.
But for all his talk about the ‘fundamental change’ that the Building Safety Bill will bring, that leaves a litany of issues with existing buildings.
James Murray pointed out that the government’s own figures show that 107 of the 469 buildings over 18m with ACM cladding still have it – and that there is no data on buildings below 18m or which have non-ACM cladding. ‘How many of the 77,500 blocks between 11 and 18 metres may be unsafe?’ he asked.
The answer spoke volumes:
‘With respect to buildings that have had non-ACM but dangerous cladding put on, I can tell him that some 685 buildings have now been registered for the building safety fund, with £359 million of public funds allotted for their remediation. We are determined to go further and faster to make sure that people’s homes are safe and that this issue is finally and completely put to bed.’
Because the ‘further and faster’ the government goes, the more the crisis seems to accelerate. While new mid-rise blocks are still being built with combustible materials, the EWS1 process has left owners of existing flats facing huge bills that render them valueless. In one case, leaseholders in a block where the cladding has successfully been remediated are now going through the same nightmare all over again over other fire safety defects.
Housing secretary Robert Jenrick told the Commons that the government is consulting on an industry levy so that ‘those who do not need to be trapped because of this issue are not unduly trapped and those who created this situation in the first place—the builders and the developers—pay their fair share’. How it will work remains far from clear.
There are still no details of the loans promised for leaseholders in blighted buildings below 18m and the scheme itself may be many months away. The fact that details are promised ‘shortly’ will come as no compensation to those facing final demands that have already landed on their doormats.
The mystery is that so many of them are exactly the sort of first-time buyers whose aspirations the government is so determined to meet in all its other policies.
Instead the government has resisted all attempts, including by its own backbenchers, to amend the Fire Safety Act in line with Boris Johnson’s promise that leaseholders should not have to pay.
At no stage have ministers attempted to get ahead of the crisis, or make a proper assessment of the ultimate number of buildings and costs involved once buildings below 18m, other types of cladding and other fire safety defects are included. The government has also consistently resisted calls for an Australian-style taskforce to rank the urgency of the work required.
One clue perhaps came in Robert Jenrick’s answer to a question from Labour’s Matthew Pennycook about soaring buildings insurance premiums. The housing secretary said that ‘I am working with the insurance industry, and we should ensure that it brings forward market proposals, not simply have the Exchequer step in and subsidise it’.
But where exactly are the market proposals from all those involved in developing the defective buildings and all those who were quite happy to sign off on them?
Four years on from Grenfell, the buck still seems to stop with the only people with no responsibility for any of it.