Cladding questions have not gone away

Originally published on April 30 as a column for Inside Housing.

The first parliamentary questions on housing since the Coronavirus lockdown saw pleas for construction and housebuilding sites to get back to work.

But this was anything but a return to normal as a socially distanced and virtual House of Commons saw scrutiny of ministers truncated by the parliamentary timetable and technical gremlins.

Though questions about the costs of Covid-19 for local government took top billing, Tuesday afternoon’s Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) questions only underlined the fact that the top housing issue before the outbreak has not gone away.

Six short weeks ago there was some good news for victims of the cladding scandal as the Budget extended government help beyond Grenfell-style ACM cladding to cover other materials such as High Pressure Laminate (HPL).

Full details of the £1 billion fund are expected in May but there are still big questions about how it will operate.

And in the meantime the plight of residents has got worse as bills escalate for insurance premiums and for waking watches in blocks where work to replace the cladding has been halted by the lockdown. These interim measures are not covered by the fund.

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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.

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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.

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Two years on from Grenfell but still ‘only a matter of time’

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on June 10.

Almost two years on from Grenfell, Sunday’s huge fire at a block of flats in Barking is a horrifying reminder of how much there is still to do to keep residents safe.

Thankfully, everyone seems to have got out but the parallels are all too clear in the terrifying speed at which the fire spread and previous safety concerns raised by residents of the mixed-tenure block that appear to have been brushed aside.

Attention will inevitably focus on the safety of timber balconies and the apparent failure of fire retardant treatment of the materials used as well as the actions of those responsible for the block.

More broadly it underlines a whole series of questions about regulation and the construction industry and relationships between developers, freeholders and leaseholders that have still not had adequate answers.

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Remembering Ronan Point

Originally posted on May 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of what was seen until recently as the biggest disaster in the history of council housing.

At 5.45 in the morning on May 16, 1968, a cake decorator called Ivy Hodge put the kettle on for a cup of tea. A gas explosion triggered by a faulty connection to her cooker blew out the walls to her flat and triggered the progressive collapse of one corner of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block in Newham in east London.

Four tenants were killed and several more had miraculous escapes but the fact that the explosion happened so early in the morning prevented an even worse disaster – most people were still asleep in the relative safety of their bedrooms rather than exposed to the collapse in their kitchens.

That aside, the most shocking thing about the disaster was that it happened in a new building and the first tenants had moved in two months before.

A public inquiry quickly established not just the fault in the gas connection but fundamental flaws in the large panel, system-built design. The collapse could have been triggered not just by an explosion but also by high winds and fire

That led to reform of the rules on gas safety and a shake-up of the building regulations to ensure that the structure of tall buildings became more robust.

Over the years, Ronan Point came to be seen as the high water mark of both council housing and modernist architecture.

As time went on the blame was increasingly laid at the door of architects, local authorities and even the whole idea of council housing. It’s certainly true that some designs were flawed and untested and that some councillors arrogant, self-aggrandising and even corrupt.

But some important factors are edited out of that account.

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Lessons from the collapse of Carillion

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on January 16.

On the face of it, housing seems set to escape relatively unscathed from the crisis at Carillion but there are still some important lessons to be learned.

The construction and outsourcing firm that sounds more like a heavy metal band went into liquidation on Monday leaving £1.5 billion owed to the banks, 19,000 workers facing an uncertain future and a £600 million hole in its pension fund.

That’s before we get to the egg on the faces of ministers who continued to award it lucrative contracts despite clear warning signs about its future, the controversy about executive pay and dividends and the awful knock-on effects on smaller companies and workers in the supply chain owed money that may not get paid at all.

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A damning verdict on the building regulations and fire safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 18.

Six months on from the disaster that changed everything it sometimes feels like not much has changed.

Despite the promises made in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, progress has been painfully slow on rehousing families from the tower and surrounding block.

The police will not complete a full forensic assessment and reconstruction of how the fire spread before autumn 2018 and potential suspects in the criminal investigation will not be interviewed until after that.

Interim findings from the public inquiry were originally due by Easter 2018 but the judge leading it says the scale of the work that is required means that will not now be possible. No date has been set for the final report.

With up to 2,400 witnesses to be interviewed, 31 million documents to be examined and 383 companies identified as having played some role in the refurbishment of the tower, it’s not hard to find good reasons why things are taking so long.

Establishing the causes of the fire to stop the same thing happening again will be complicated enough but that is just part of getting justice for the victims and survivors.

Finding who was to blame will take time and all the while questions will remain about building safety elsewhere.

Tangible progress towards finding some of the answers comes with today’s publication of the interim findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

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