The building safety crisis: still no end in sight

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The Grenfell tragedy uncovered serious fire and building safety defects in hundreds of thousands of flats across the UK, but in the seven years since, politicians, developers and the construction industry have failed to ensure that safety-critical remediation works are carried out quickly and at no cost to innocent leaseholders.

Seven years after Grenfell, residents and leaseholders of flats across the country are still paying the price for the decades-long collective failure of the state and the construction industry. Everyone deserves a safe home in which to live, work, care for their families and make plans for their future – but an estimated 600,000 people will go to bed tonight in homes that are still unsafe, and almost three million are trapped with homes they cannot sell, unable to move on with their lives.

Photograph: iStock/Asergieiev

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is – finally – due to report in September. However, to paraphrase recent pieces by Pete Apps, long-term friend of our campaign: justice for the Grenfell bereaved, survivors, residents and community remains far away. Every year, the politicians say that they are committed to ensuring nothing like this can ever happen again but, with each passing year, justice is still on the horizon with little to show in terms of progress towards real change. The warm words of politicians only ring hollow without meaningful action.

As we said in our piece for Safety Management last August, Michael Gove’s attempt to deliver a comprehensive solution to end this crisis is too complicated. Too many people – whether those with more than three properties, in buildings under 11 metres in height or in resident-managed buildings – are still ruled out of help. The wider construction industry – such as manufacturers of combustible cladding and insulation products who have benefited from taxpayer funding and are profiting from remediation – has not been made to pay despite Mr Gove telling Parliament that he would ensure that happened nearly two-and-a half years ago.

Issues with the current approach

If we simplify the current approach, the funding schemes can be put broadly into three categories: the Developer Contract, Social Housing and Grant Funding. Unfortunately, each is beset with its own difficulties. To name but a handful of real-world examples that we see daily, there is no visible oversight of the Developer Contract as building owners and developers battle it out at each building within the contract. Social Housing providers say they must follow a lengthy process and engage in protracted disputes with developers and contractors before work can begin, and Grant Funding schemes continue to focus on cladding systems with buildings being left half-safe as a result. All parties continue to pass the buck and blame others for the delays, and these issues are compounded by a continuing shortage of fire engineers, contractors and materials.

Despite government statements in Parliament that the situation is being remedied rapidly, the actual pace of making homes safe remains shockingly slow. Ministers pat themselves on the back for a ‘step change’ in remediation but the reality is that the efforts are still too little and too late to put an end to this unrelenting scandal. At this rate, it could take at least another decade, if not longer.

The Government previously conceded that as many as 10,000 mid- and high-rise buildings are likely to need remediation works, with the latest statistics now reporting on 4,374 buildings (an increase of 38 compared with the data in the previous monthly release). There may be a new dashboard showing the number of buildings over 11 metres in height that are being “monitored” in remediation programmes; however, the grip of these schemes remains weak at best.

The need for remediation is still unknown at 1,567 buildings in the Developer Contract scheme. The Cladding Safety Scheme was expected to “involve more than 5,000 buildings”, yet for months the numbers in that funding scheme remained relatively static at around 1,000 buildings (the vast majority of which have been known to the Government for years as they were originally rejected from previous funding schemes due to not meeting the 18-metre height threshold). Despite our repeated requests, the Government could not answer why so few buildings had applied for the Cladding Safety Scheme, but it then suddenly found another 3,000 or so buildings to be “investigated”.

Funding schemes have committed funding running into the billions, yet only a quarter has been spent so far. After the general election, we will continue to urge the Government to get a grip of all remediation programmes, to be bold and intervene where there are delays and to move away from the piecemeal efforts thus far.

Developer Contract ‘must be enforced’

The Developer Contract must be enforced robustly and without hesitation. In January 2023, the Government made a huge song and dance over how the developers would now be forced to fix their buildings and would face “significant consequences” if they failed to comply with the terms of the Developer Contract, yet this just isn’t happening. Even where developers’ assessments repeatedly fail the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (DLUHC) audit, the developers are simply given another chance.

Unfortunately, the terms of the Developer Contract allow them to commission their own building assessments with no visible oversight. We remain concerned that this is reducing the scope of work or leading to decisions to not remediate at all. One such example is the development in east London we highlighted in our last piece for Safety Management, where there is flammable cladding and other safety defects and the developer, St George (part of the Berkeley Group), subsequently commissioned its own Fire Risk Appraisal assessment. Unsurprisingly, the developer’s reports found that the buildings were not in need of remediation as the risks are now deemed to be “tolerable”.

The Government and industry may continue to stress the need for “proportionality”; however, this seems to be focused on reducing the scale of the building safety crisis. We regularly receive reports of work being minimised at buildings in the Developer Contract with subjective assessments of risks and unsafe materials now due to be left wrapped around homes of all heights. In 2018, the Government moved to ban the use of combustible materials in and on the external walls of new blocks of flats, yet it wavered over-extending this ban to buildings below 18 metres after industry baulked at that proposal. A new class of buildings has now been created – those that would not pass building control today if they were new but are somehow deemed to be “safe”.

To make matters worse, other stakeholders – such as freeholders, insurers, mortgage lenders or fire and rescue services – often disagree with the minimum standards that developers insist are sufficient to meet their legal obligations. There simply must be a clear and consistent risk assessment standard that can be applied to buildings of all heights.

After years of deregulation and warnings being ignored, it is the fault of successive governments that we are in this mess, so it is imperative that the next government takes a leadership role to break the deadlock decisively and brings all parties to the table to agree an acceptable standard of remediation. Until they do, safety issues are set to remain unresolved – and innocent leaseholders will continue to face financial ruin.

Serious safety defects remain

Sadly, even those buildings that have allegedly “completed” remediation works can be left with serious safety defects. Most of these buildings applied to government funding schemes, which only covered certain types of unsafe cladding systems – as such, they do not fix internal defects such as faulty compartmentation, smoke extraction systems or fire doors. Unfunded defects – including those found during works – may simply be covered up again and left for someone else to deal with. It is self-evident that buildings cannot be made “half-safe”– the Government’s developer remediation contract terms already recognise internal building defects can be life-critical, so it should not be a game of chance where these defects are remedied if you are (for want of a better word given the known issues) “lucky” enough to be in a building covered by the Developer Contract.

Photograph: iStock/CHUNYIPWONG

It is evident that a truly holistic approach must give equal consideration to non-cladding defects that require remediation, such as balcony structures, means of escape and internal safety defects. Clearly, there must be a robust national standard for assessing internal building safety issues – including the building structure, roof voids, compartmentation and fire-stopping – which is comparable with the national standard for external wall assessments. Both cladding and non-cladding defects should be remediated in a single holistic project for each building, wherever possible; otherwise, work will drag on for years in separate phases, causing even more unnecessary disruption to leaseholders’ and residents’ lives.

No firm deadlines for making homes safe

A key factor in the snail-like pace of remediation works is that the Government has not set any firm deadlines for making homes safe, which means that building profitable new homes continues to take precedence over fixing existing ones.

The G15 – an organisation of the largest housing associations in and around Greater London – expects work to continue to 2036, nearly two decades after the avoidable catastrophe at Grenfell. Clearly, it is incumbent on the Government to set robust deadlines for all remediation programmes and ensure that all parties are held to account and face real consequences for delays.

After seven years, some people desperately need to move home – because they can no longer afford to live there or need to relocate for work, move in with a partner, or upsize to allow their families to grow – but homes are frequently unsellable until remediation is complete even where they are in the Developer Contract. Meanwhile, the rent-seeking behaviour of many corporations involved in the building safety industry has mushroomed. The Association of British Insurer’s Reinsurance Facility has now – belatedly – been launched yet it remains unclear how many people will be able to benefit and to what extent. Exorbitant building insurance bills continue to drain ordinary people’s finances – it is common for premiums to have rocketed by several hundred per cent or more and they are recorded to have increased ten-fold in some cases. Shockingly, these insurance costs remain elevated even after remediation works.

The 2022 Building Safety Act, while well-intentioned, has further exacerbated the problem with impossible timescales and enormous costs for high-rise buildings to be registered and reports to be produced. These charges – for example, the costs for Safety Case Reports, consultant fees and managing agent charges, which can all be classed as “Building Safety Measures” and therefore chargeable to leaseholders – are costing leaseholders an additional £500 each per year. If, or more likely when, issues are found, the leaseholders are charged again, with defects often being classed as “wear and tear”. Costs for replacing individual fire doors, for example, are typically charged to leaseholders anywhere from £400 to an eye-watering £2,000 each. We have repeatedly raised such issues with the Government and the Health and Safety Executive’s Building Safety Regulator; however, the response to this assault on leaseholders’ finances has been lacklustre and hands-off to date. If residents are at the heart of the new regime, and the Government is on the side of leaseholders, as we have repeatedly been told, this must change.

Residents ordered to leave unsafe homes

In April, The Sunday Times documented how more than 15,000 residents have been ordered to leave their unsafe homes since Grenfell. Ordinary people have been left homeless or forced to pay rent on top of a mortgage and charges on a flat that they cannot even live in, much less sell. Alarmingly, evacuations are on the rise: last year residents were ordered to leave at least 21 buildings. Between December 2023 and March 2024, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), says it “assisted local regulators in preventing at least 800 residents from being decanted”. The fact that last-minute interventions are happening at this scale demonstrates the very real and present risk that so many people are living with on a day-to-day basis. The impact on leaseholders caught up in this scandal has been dire. A 2020 survey by our campaign co-founder, the UK Cladding Action Group, found that 23 per cent of individuals had considered suicide or self-harm, yet there has been no support from the Government on this vital aspect despite promises made to our team by DLUHC as long ago as 2021.

It is worth repeating that these fire safety defects are life-critical. Recent cladding fires, from Wembley to Valencia, have clearly demonstrated why remedial action remains so urgent. Being “in negotiations” about remediation or having “plans in place” counts for little when dangerous cladding – or other construction defects that enable fire to spread rapidly – remain on people’s homes. Fire won’t wait while the legal and administrative battle continues between responsible parties whose primary focus will always be on mitigating their own real or perceived liability.

In the past year, Remediation Orders and Remediation Contribution Orders have begun to work their way through the First-tier Tribunal, including five applications by the Secretary of State against large freeholders. With average legal costs of £170k per building, this route to justice is clearly out of reach for most ordinary citizens. The Vista Tower case took 18 months at a cost running into hundreds of thousands of pounds – we simply can’t wait that long, and we shouldn’t have to. Even where there may be a successful judgment, people with more than three properties, who have been deliberately ruled out of help by the Government’s leaseholder protections, are still on the hook for life-changing sums.

Buildings under 11 metres

Another case-by-case approach that just isn’t working is that being taken on buildings under 11 metres. Rather than ensuring these buildings are covered by the leaseholder protections and/or in funding schemes, the Government’s preferred process has been to not “spook the market” and only audit assessments at these buildings. Unfortunately, these low-rise buildings are at the back of the queue for assessment, and we are aware of several buildings where either remediation or mitigation has been confirmed as required post-audit, with costs running into tens of thousands of pounds per leaseholder, yet these buildings remain trapped in limbo as there is no funding solution in place.

It is especially dispiriting to see the same arguments being made about “no systematic risk” at low-rise buildings when these are the same weak arguments made by Robert Jenrick’s “independent expert panel” in 2021. That was a clear attempt to justify the awful loan scheme proposed by his team – and these arguments have now been rejected, with the move towards funding schemes for mid-rise buildings – yet we are still seeing the same dithering with low-rise buildings.

We must also see specific measures taken swiftly to support leaseholders on limited incomes who bought unsafe homes via government-backed schemes, such as Help to Buy or Shared Ownership, but are now trapped. While the Government may have written to Registered Providers in December 2023, the request to apply a range of policies that would help innocent shared owner leaseholders – through measures such as buying back their flats and allowing them to set their own rents – has largely fallen on deaf ears.

The way forward

We have repeatedly shown the Government that the solutions are straightforward if there is the political will to implement them. Making homes safe, and ensuring residents feel and are safe, must surely be the first priority. Our manifesto sets out our key asks and the steps to deliver a permanent solution to this unrelenting horror show.

We reiterate that it is already within the power of the Government to make homes safe at the pace we need and deserve, and to fully protect all blameless leaseholders and residents. A great deal of what we need to see on the ground should not require primary legislation as the mechanisms are already in place.

We have met government politicians and officials as well as arms-length bodies such as the Building Safety Regulator, Homes England and the Leasehold Advisory Service several times in the past year, and we will continue to stress the need for a joined-up approach nationally and locally alongside local and combined authorities and fire and rescue services.

With the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Report due in September and the National Audit Office’s follow up on its 2020 Investigation scheduled to be published in autumn 2024, we remain hopeful that the winds of change are with us.

Whichever party forms the next government has the opportunity to step up and deliver a much fairer and faster end to the building safety crisis – and it is time to grasp the nettle. As we told Michael Gove when we first meet him: politicians and officials will come and go, but we will be here until we see justice and we won’t stop campaigning until this crisis is fixed, for good.

This opinion piece was written by the campaign team at End Our Cladding Scandal.

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