WITH the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy approaching, a Government consultation on building safety proposals has fuelled frustrations in what many see as slow progress on the issue of dangerous cladding.
In a letter to the communities secretary, James Brokenshire MP, yesterday, Labour’s shadow housing minister Sarah Jones MP, said: “As we approach the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, the risk of such a tragedy being repeated is still far too high.
“Almost 60,000 people are still living in buildings wrapped with deadly ACM cladding. Countless more may unknowingly be living in dangerous buildings covered in ‘non-ACM’ flammable materials as [MHCLG] has still not properly tested suspect cladding of this type. Progress has been too slow at every stage, lives are at stake, and we must do better.”
Yesterday, the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) opened an eight-week consultation on its plan to make building regulations stronger and more effective. Building a Safer Future, as it is called, seeks to ensure that highrise residential buildings are safe to live in, with new laws intended to ensure this is the case.
The plan, published in December 2018, proposes a “stronger voice” for residents of highrise buildings, along with measures to ensure their “concerns are never ignored”. This includes better information regarding their buildings so that they can participate in decisions about safety, as well as clear and quick routes of escalation for their concerns if things do go wrong.
Both the National Housing Federation (NHF) and the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) have welcomed the opportunity for industry and the public to put their views to Government, but the latter was concerned about the “short time scale” for the consultation.
“We are pleased to finally see the full consultation on the reform of building safety regulation — almost two years after the horrendous events at Grenfell Tower when 72 people lost their lives,” the CIH said in a statement.
“It’s good to see more detail and clarity on the Government’s proposals – including the new duty-holder regime and the role of the BSM (building safety manager). We also welcome the proposals to put residents at the heart of the new regulatory system. There is a lot of detail to be absorbed, and we will work closely with our members to ensure the views of housing professionals are reflected in our response to the consultation.
“However, we are worried that the Government is only allowing eight weeks for this consultation rather than the statutory 12-week period. Given the many important issues it raises and the level of technical detail it covers, such a short timescale risks denying many groups, including residents, the chance to contribute in a meaningful way. We urge Government to think again about this.”
CIH chief executive Terrie Alafat added: “We welcome the consultation and will work closely with our members, the sector and the Government to ensure that the proposed reforms are robust and practical and, once agreed, are implemented swiftly and effectively, so we never have a tragedy like Grenfell again.”
Victoria Moffett, the NHF’s Grenfell Programme lead, said: “We welcome the Government’s proposals to improve safety in highrise buildings. We agree there needs to be radical improvements to our current regulations. In particular, it’s really positive to see the Government adopt the recommendations for clear lines of accountability.
“Housing associations’ first priority is the safety of their residents. Over the last two years, they have been working tirelessly to replace unsafe cladding, carry out in-depth safety checks and put in place interim safety measures where necessary to ensure all buildings are safe. Some housing associations are already piloting the Government’s key recommendations.
“This work to remediate buildings is essential, but it is complex and costly. The Government needs to ensure the implementation of the new system is fully funded so that housing associations can ensure existing residents are safe in their homes, and continue their other essential work to tackle the housing crisis.
“We will actively engage with the consultation process, working closely with our members, Government, local authorities and other stakeholders.”
During a debate on Grenfell Tower in the House of Commons yesterday, the Government was further criticised for its slow pace, with shadow housing secretary John Healey likening ministers to “rabbits in the headlights”.
“We do not underestimate the Government’s challenge in responding to Grenfell. Some progress has certainly been made over these long two years, which we welcome and for which ministers, including the current secretary of state, deserve credit,” Healey said.
However, a national disaster on the scale of Grenfell Tower requires a national response from the Government — that has not happened. Ministers have been like rabbits in the headlights. For two years, the action they have taken has been too slow and too weak on every front.”
He went on to say: “When the far-reaching changes that are demanded in this country by the Grenfell tragedy must mean tougher safety regulations, stronger enforcement powers for councils, clearer legal duties for private block owners, and greater rights for tenants and for leaseholders, it is clear that the fundamental problem lies not in slow administrative decision making or in the lack of compassion from individual ministers; it lies in the basic beliefs of the Conservative party in Government about hands-off government, light-touch regulation and private sector market solutions.”
But housing minister Kit Malthouse MP spoke up for the Government’s record: “In the time since the fire, this Government have acted with the utmost urgency to address the most serious fire and public safety risks that the tragedy so ruthlessly exposed. With the support of local authorities and fire and rescue services, we identified a total of 433 high-rise residential buildings, hotels, hospitals and schools with unsafe ACM cladding. These buildings were assessed by fire and rescue services, and interim safety measures were put in place.
“We have amended the law explicitly to ban combustible materials from use in the exterior walls of all high-rise residential buildings, but I recognise that residents across the country will truly have peace of mind only when unsafe cladding has been removed and replaced with safe materials.
“We have made £400 million available to pay for the remediation of ACM cladding for those buildings owned by local authorities and housing associations, and that work is almost complete, with 87% of buildings done.
“We have allocated £259 million of that £400 million to 140 buildings. We do not anticipate that there will be any further claims, but if there are, they will be honoured. We gave owners of buildings in the private sector enough time to step up and meet their responsibilities, and many did, but I regret that some did not.
“Last month, the Government acted decisively, providing a fund to unblock progress and ensure that remediation takes place on all buildings that need it.”
Back in May, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) hit out at what it said was Government complacency over the preparedness of fire and rescue services around the country to deal with another Grenfell type incident. It warned of a ‘postcode lottery’ and said austerity cuts had weakened fire service capability.
“It’s no longer possible to claim that fire like Grenfell is unforeseeable,” said Matt Wrack, the FBU’s general secretary. “Firefighters were placed in an impossible situation that night. But two years on, the Government still has not provided the planning and resources necessary to prepare firefighters for what are now completely foreseeable risks.
“Grenfell proved the UK government’s utter complacency on fire safety. We need robust national standards to make sure that the lessons from that night are applied everywhere.”