Updated: Oct 18, 2021
In the gamut of health and safety incidents, there are those that stand out, even on the same day as serving to teach us how to better protect people in the future. We remember the lessons learned from the Aberfan mine disaster, the crowds at Hillsborough and most recently, the terrible fire which engulfed Grenfell Tower in June 2017.
Anyone who knows anything about building fire safety (which is a lot more people post Grenfell) knows that it starts with the principle of compartmentalisation. If you can contain the fire, it’s damage is limited. Tolerances on fire doors and utility access is in the 2 or 3 millimetres to ensure nothing can get through which shouldn’t. So it was, and still is, alarming to be schooled that fire can spread up, down and around a building by virtue of the cladding used on the outside.
The legacy of the Grenfell cladding is still a hot topic, for the construction and for the housing industry, but also for our politicians who are sparring over the best way to keep people safe while not leaving them out of pocket.
In a 2018 paper for Landmark Chamber, Matthew Fraser tallied that there were 457 ‘high rise’ blocks in the UK which needed to review their fire safety in wake of the new legislative provisions. At the time of writing that paper, the government was funding the retrospective refurb of all social blocks which did not comply with up to date fire safety regulations and was optimistically encouraging private freeholders to pay to do the same. As we’ve seen before, a dithering on stance from the government had left both leaseholders and private freeholders in a worse position than before.
Since then, it’s been a messy business to look into the 400+ cases which need urgent attention, one by one. It’s been said by many that the Grenfell tragedy was a ticking time-bomb. Well, we have a lot more of those now and the only difference is that tenants, landlords and the government all know about them.
If you’re a leaseholder living in one of these blocks there are two life-worsening potential consequences for you. The first is that your freeholder may ignore the government advice and chose to pass the cost of fire safety works onto you under the term of your lease. To replace the cladding on a substantial block is a job that could run into the millions of pounds and even with all the notice in the world, many leaseholders will never be able to find their share of that burden. The second problem is that the leaseholders are effectively trapped in their agreements because they cannot sell a property which is not up to regulation, and indeed, who would want to buy it and take on the coming bill?
It’s taken years to get to grips with the so-called cladding crisis. In early 2020, Anna Timms writing for the Guardian, estimated that over 500,000 hopeful movers were affected by the “cladding limbo” the regulations have unwittingly caused. Just one month before, the Homes and Communities Agency had announced some new blue sky thinking and funds set aside to tackle the growing problem.
It seems that although it’s a year on – and everyone agrees, it’s been a disruptive year – there’s not been enough progress. At the start of this month, Keir Starmer has called for a cladding taskforce to urgently rectify the problem, to assign some funds to help protect Leaseholders and stamp out the ‘rogue builders’. It’s hard not to take those comments personally if you’re anyone who built a block in the last 40 years, in line with existing regulations and hoping to make a dent in the housing crisis.
If you’ve every worked in the fray of a property services division of a large housebuilder, whether social or otherwise, you’ll know that the day to day is quite full-on enough without adding these requirements into the mix. Inspecting and qualifying every aspect of each asset is complicated and time consuming. Until a year ago only certain experts, of which there were not enough, were allowed to make the inspections, and to make the job more difficult, the policy on fire safety is still changing.
Yesterday (10th February 2021) the government announced a provision of £3.5 billion to assist in the cost of the cladding and fire safety repairs but that this would only apply to buildings over 18 metres tall. For those under this threshold, there is a government assisted loan fund to help leaseholders shoulder the burden of paying for the works themselves. The commentary so far is that this is welcome news but three years too late, and that it still doesn’t go far enough for leaseholders living in buildings which are deemed too short to be a priority.
This is a big moment, an asbestos like moment in construction. It’s an unimaginably large clean-up job but once it’s done, it will make homes safer. Keir Starmer has suggested a deadline of 2022 to get a safe home standard across the board. It goes without saying that until each one of the reported 457 blocks are signed off on, the occupants will continue to be in both an unenviable and unsafe position.