Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.
Who is guilty, who is innocent and who is merely collateral damage? The answers, when it comes to building safety, are not as simple as it first seems.
Guilt in a legal sense remains to be seen but just about everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower seems to bear some responsibility, starting with the governments that set the building regulations and reaching down via organisations involved in product testing and certification and building control to the companies that supplied the cladding and insulation, the contractor, designers, subcontractors and client.
All of the above plus developers are seen as ‘guilty’ when it comes to the wider building safety crisis while leaseholders are the innocent parties that the government has finally accepted should be protected from the costs.
And yet scratch a little deeper in the debates over the Building Safety Bill and the new approach initiated by Michael Gove and the dividing line between innocent and guilty is not remotely as clear cut as that.Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.
Where does the buck stop? It’s the question that has hung over much of the Grenfell Tower inquiry ever since phase two opened with what lead counsel Richard Millett called a ‘merry-go-round of buck passing’ between the organisations and companies involved.
The opening statements in the latest part of module 6 this week take us at last to where, how and why decisions were made within government.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) admits in its opening statement that it ‘presided over an overarching building safety system that has been shown to be unfit for purpose with catastrophic consequences’.
It acknowledges a series of failures in its oversight of the regulatory system, internal governance, and the nature of its responses to the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner and issues raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fire safety.
And it says that: ‘Cumulatively these failings helped to create an environment in which non-compliance was widespread and such a tragedy was possible. For that it is deeply sorry.’Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.
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.
Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.
As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.
The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.
The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.
And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.
Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.
Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.