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 decade in housing

Originally published in Inside Housing on January 10.

It was a decade of four elections, four prime ministers and three referenda. It began in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and ended with the political crisis of Brexit. It was scarred by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

All but 15 of the 520 weeks in the 2010s had a Conservative prime minister but four different governments brought four different approaches. David Cameron was all about cuts in coalition followed by radical (but mostly failed) marketising reforms once he had elbowed Nick Clegg aside. Theresa May brought a profound change in rhetoric and some significant changes of substance. Boris Johnson shifted the emphasis back to home ownership.

Here is the decade summed up in 10 headings: Read the rest of this entry »


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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The housing-shaped hole at the heart of the Queen’s Speech

Originally posted on October 15 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Granted, the Queen’s Speech was more pre-election political broadcast than genuine legislative programme for the year to come but it still sends some worrying signals about  where the government’s priorities lie.

Given Boris Johnson’s Commons majority of -45, Her Majesty’s utterances could be voted down for the first time since 1924 and even if the government somehow stumbles through its own desire for an election only the most uncontroversial bits of it are likely to make any progress.

it’s still good news that the Queen’s Speech proposes building safety standards legislation that would implement the Hackitt review by establishing a new safety framework for high-rise residential buildings.

Although, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his response, progress on blocks with Grenfell-style cladding has been so slow that ‘not a single private block has been made safe under this prime minister’.

While the details of the new system will be debated, few would doubt the central purpose of developing a new system to oversee the whole built environment or the principles of clearer accountability for building owners, designers and constructors, a stronger voice for residents in the system, stronger enforcement and sanctions and a clearer framework for national oversight of construction products.

And if many will doubt that a New Homes Ombudsman will be enough to bring developers into line, the fact that the proposal is tacked on to the new Bill means it can still be improved.

However, with one other small exception, housing was otherwise entirely missing from the Queen’s Speech.

That absence was felt not just in a lack of action on housing and homelessness in general but also in missing specific measures that had been anticipated across different parts of the housing system.

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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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Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

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.

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10 things about 2018 – part one

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.

It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.

It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.

Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.

1. New names, new ministers

January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.

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