NAO: Government ‘lagging behind’ in replacing high-rise cladding

Progress with remediating dangerous cladding on high-rise residential buildings is ‘lagging behind’ expectations, government auditors have found.

The National Audit Office (NAO) found that while the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s Building Safety Programme has led to some progress with replacing cladding, it has not been as fast as expected, especially in the private residential sector.

In a report, the NAO said that the COVID-19 pandemic is also likely to have had an impact on the programme, which the government established after the Grenfell Tower fire in the summer of 2017.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: ‘MHCLG has made progress in overseeing the removal of dangerous cladding from many buildings, particularly in the social housing sector.

‘However, the pace of progress has lagged behind its own expectations, particularly in the private residential sector. It has a long way to go to make all high-rise buildings safe for residents.

‘Going forward, it is important that the department successfully manages the administrative challenges of funding building owners to carry out remediation work, particularly given its intention to commit a further £1 billion in full by the end of March 2021.’

The government established the Building Safety Programme in July 2017 to oversee and support the remediation of high-rise residential buildings fitted with unsafe aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding.

The MHCLG announced £400 million to fund remediation in England’s social housing sector in May 2018, and a further £200 million for the private housing sector the following year.

The NAO found that by April 2020, only 149 of the 456 buildings at 18 metres and above with unsafe ACM cladding systems had been fully remediated, while work had not begun on remediating 167 of them.

Only 13.5% of private sector residential buildings had been fully remediated, compared to over two thirds of student accommodation blocks and 46.8% of social housing buildings.

This lack of progress in the private sector has been due to difficulties in identifying those legally responsible for the buildings and the sector requiring ‘more support than expected’, the NAO said.

The MHCLG currently expects that all buildings within the scope of its funding will be remediated by mid-2022 – later than the previous expectation of June 2020, excluding exceptional circumstances. This does not cover the effects of COVID-19, which is believed to have put many remediation projects on pause.

However, not all buildings with dangerous ACM cladding, such as those under 18 metres in height, fall under the scope of the government’s existing funding schemes, and therefore rely on building owners or leaseholders to pay for remediation themselves.

Although the government has now launched a new £1 billion Building Safety Fund to remediate buildings with unsafe non-ACM cladding, the NAO said administrating the new scheme ‘may present significant challenges’ given the demands around the existing ACM funding schemes.

Responding to the NAO report, Lord Porter, building safety spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA), said: ‘This report highlights various difficulties that have hampered remediation, including identifying the responsible person within often complex ownership structures, the complexities of state aid rules, the shortage of skills or personnel needed to complete remediation work, structural issues and difficulties of access.

‘Councils have worked closely with MHCLG to resolve these issues and ensure private building owners fulfil their responsibilities to residents.”

The report adds to pressure on the government to speed up its remediation of unsafe high-rises, as a recent HCLG Select Committee report found that further funding will be needed in order to resolve all fire safety issues.

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