The government still hasn’t fixed the cladding crisis. Here’s how it can

Three and a half years since the tragedy at Grenfell, the government has unveiled a new plan to improve safety. But with thousands of homes still unsafe, ministers must do far more to prevent future disaster

February 18, 2021
Photo: Mark Waugh / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Mark Waugh / Alamy Stock Photo

Why is the government finding it so difficult to do what would seem the most crucial task following the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire: remove other forms of dangerous cladding from people’s homes as quickly as humanly possible?

We stand more than three and half years on from that devastating blaze, and not only are seriously combustible materials still present on the walls of other buildings, but it is in many cases the residents of those buildings who are being pursued for the cost of making them safe.

The government unveiled its latest plan to remedy this situation last week, with a £3.5bn top-up to existing funding, taking its overall commitment north of £5bn. But this effort has been widely panned by campaign groups for still not going far enough. So what should ministers be doing?

To answer this question, we need to understand how we have arrived in this position, and how so many buildings have become unsafe. The nutshell version is that a combination of loose regulation, poor enforcement, cut corners and missold products, as well as builders who prioritised architectural flourishes and cheap routes to energy efficiency, resulted in designs that used combustible materials with abandon.

At the same time, a focus on speed, cost cutting and a general fall in construction standards, alongside a weakening of oversight, has caused major build defects which affect critical safety features like fire barriers.

All this is exacerbated by the UK’s long-standing reliance on “stay put” advice during a fire, meaning we have built most of our towers with a single stairwell, no sprinklers and, astonishingly, no fire alarms. Walls of tower blocks are prone to spread flame like a wick, with residents expected to stay inside them during a fire.

Grenfell was the ultimate expression of this crisis which has built up over many years, and must now be fixed.

But doing so is no easy task. Why, many ask, can the builders who constructed these dangerous homes not be sued?

Unfortunately, they are protected by a legal system which sets a limitation period of six years for any defects to be reported. Even where this clock has not run down, the ambiguous nature of regulations before Grenfell means they may well be able to argue after a blaze that they did nothing wrong. Warranty and insurance providers have also proved adept at slipping liability. In their absence, English property law allows the freeholder of the building—typically a shell company which exists for little purpose other than to collect ground rent for investors—to bill the costs of the work to the building’s current leaseholders.

And here we arrive at the current crisis: tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of flat dwellers suddenly receiving a service charge notice informing them that they owe a £40,000 bill for a suite of urgent fire safety repairs.

This is made worse by the fact that, as a consequence of government advice notes, lenders will not offer a mortgage until the works are complete. So homeowners cannot sell, and are trapped in a building with fire defects and a looming bill which will ruin them.

And on top of that, they are required to meet costs for a 24-hour fire patrol, soaring insurance premiums and all of the various required surveys and inspections which can together amount to thousands of pounds a month.

Jenrick’s additional funding will not bring an end to this crisis. It only covers the specific work to remove cladding panels, meaning all the other unpayable costs still sit with the leaseholder. And in buildings below 18m, it is to be given in the form of a loan, not a grant.  

There are no quick or easy answers to this crisis. The starting point must be to clarify the true scale of the problem. Serious and rapid work must go into identifying the buildings where risk is highest. Efforts to do this have so far been lacklustre: the government has tasked underfunded local authorities with emailing building owners and requesting information about their cladding materials.

But if this were done properly, the focus would narrow onto a smaller class of seriously dangerous buildings, allowing some of those currently impacted to simply go back to their normal lives.

The government must also figure out a way to make those who have caused the crisis (or at least, profited from it) pay. Despite saying for more than three years that residents of the buildings should not pay, it has been remarkably reluctant to legislate to protect them—in fact, forthcoming legislation only entrenches the current position.

It could look at a system of levies (which it has begun to do, but at a relatively trifling amount) or tougher penalties for builders who have broken the rules and failed to contribute to the repair.

And finally, it must take active and direct control of the remediation work, prioritising the most at-risk buildings first and seeing to it that it is properly done.

There have been those who have advocated for this sort of approach since the very first buildings with dangerous cladding were discovered in the weeks and months after Grenfell. But the government has always resisted it, preferring to rely on its mantra that fire safety is “the responsibility of the building owner,” and to sit back, issue advice notes, and increase the amount of money it is throwing at the problem only when the negative headlines start to build up.

This laissez-faire approach must end. This is a crisis which is crying out for leadership. And if it feels costly to act now, it will feel even more costly if we leave it too late.