Dermot Mckibbin reports on government foot-dragging on fire safety
It is now clear that this country is facing a major problem of fire safety standards in residential properties which the Government is failing to tackle effectively. Stage 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry heard recently that the company that made the insulation material used on the Grenfell Tower did not disclose that their product had failed relevant tests, and went so far as to threaten legal action against the regulator who were questioning its suitability. Prior to 2006, inflammable insulation had been banned in high-rise buildings.
The Government has set up a building safety fund of £1 billion to allow the owners of blocks of over 18 metres with AMC cladding (similar to that at Grenfell) to apply for funding to have it removed. This is grossly inadequate, as a cross-party Commons Select Committee report estimated that the cost of dealing with all fire safety defects in high-rise buildings could be up to £15 billion. The Government has encouraged the building industry to introduce the External Wall System form (EWS1). Homeowners cannot sell, buy or remortgage unless they can provide a satisfactory form. Where flat-owners fail this safety check, they find that their flat has a nil value. They are trapped until the property is made safe. Leaseholders are running the risk of bankruptcy to pay for interim safety measures.
The Sunday Times on 15th November estimated that up to 1.5 million flats in modern buildings with 4 or more storeys could be unmortgageable because they cannot prove that their walls satisfy this new test. In September 2019 there was a fire at Richmond House near Wimbledon. This was an “award winning” high value, low-rise block of 23 flats with no cladding issues. The block was completely destroyed in 11 minutes once the fire had taken hold. Andy Roe, the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, told the London Assembly’s Fire, Resilience and Emergency Planning Committee on 13th October that the cause “was entirely due to problems with internal compartmentation and poor standards of construction”.
Andy Roe also told the Committee that the problem is far wider than cladding. It “speaks to the competency of construction, renovation and inspection over probably a 15 to 20-year period. Therefore, what we’re seeing is an emerging picture of increased risk across all types of building”. The Government believes that there are over 72,000 premises in London alone in the higher risk category. This includes care homes, sheltered housing blocks, hospitals and other buildings where vulnerable residents live. The history of fire safety reform unfortunately follows major incidents such as the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985 that claimed 56 lives.
The Government has two bills in Parliament on this issue. The draft Building Safety Bill proposes to set up a Building Safety Regulator and other measures. The all-party Housing Select Committee welcomed the aims of the bill, though was critical of the means to secure its objectives and the lack of detail. The definition of high-risk building is limited to high-rise despite all the evidence to the contrary. Leaseholders will be liable for all the costs of making their flats fire safety-compliant. Page 64 of the bill’s impact assessment gives a potential cost of £78,000 per flat in a block above 30 metres high. Leaseholders in Salford have recently received bills of up to £100,000 to make good fire safety defects that are unrelated to cladding. The Fire Safety Bill seeks to amend the law to make responsibilities to tackle fire safety issues clearer. It is not possible for Ministers to explain how the bills will enact the political commitment to accept all of recommendations of the Grenfell Inquiry, which has yet to conclude stage 2.
Labour MP Clive Betts asked an urgent question in Parliament on 24th November on the liability of leaseholders to pay for these costs. The Minister was unhelpful. So many Conservative MPs spoke in this debate from all over the country that the Daily Mail described it as the next Tory revolt.
The Sunday Times and the housing magazine Inside Housing have sponsored a 10-point plan to end the cladding crisis. All members of the Greater London Assembly have voted to support this campaign. This campaign has been endorsed by TV property guru Phil Spencer and by MPs of all parties. The campaign is based around the recommendations of the influential cross-party House of Commons Select Committee Report on Cladding. In response to mounting negative publicity, on 17th December the Government announced £30 million in grants to cover the cost of interim safety measures. This will not include costs already incurred, is limited to only high-rise buildings, and will not cover the 600 buildings in London alone with “waking watches”.
Labour MPs have been very active in holding the Government to account in Parliament. Local constituency parties, especially in Conservative areas, need to be seen to be campaigning on this issue. Party members should ask their local council to sign up to the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign.