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Two and a half years on from Grenfell we have barely begun to make our buildings safer

Why has the response to the tragedy been so limited? (Prospect's housing report is kindly sponsored by RICS, Sovereign Housing, Atkins and the Building Societies Association)

By Peter Apps  

Photo: Two and a half years on from Grenfell we have barely begun to make our buildings safer

Two and a half years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, why are so many buildings still burning down?

When flames ripped through combustible cladding on the walls of The Cube in Bolton in November, it was the fifth huge fire this year a multi-occupancy building.

The truth is that these fires are the most visible evidence of a national crisis: too many of the buildings in which people sleep in this country are wrapped in combustible materials, or built from them.

This state of affairs appears to have resulted from of a number of failures over the last 30 years: loose and ambiguous regulations, unreliable product testing and marketing, slipping construction standards and a sharp reduction in the rigour of enforcement.

Unlike many other countries in the world, our high rises mostly have no sprinklers, no fire alarms and just a single exit staircase. This is a recipe for disaster, and if we do not act, the Grenfell tragedy will not be the last of its kind.

The headline reform since the fire in west London has been a ban on the use of combustible materials on the exterior walls of new buildings. It took until the end of last year for this to come in and even then it came reluctantly: ministers had originally said a regulatory requirement of this kind was not necessary. The furious response of survivors and bereaved families made the government change its position.

But the ban is limited—it only applies to buildings above 18m tall. The Cube in Bolton, which slipped narrowly below this threshold, could be built again tomorrow using the same materials. Beyond this ban, a complex new system of building safety managers and responsibilities for safety is due to be implemented. While this will make a positive difference, it is not expected to come into force until 2021.

Why has the response been so limited? Part of the problem is the preference for non-intervention and light-touch regulation that has guided policy in many areas for decades. Another is simply bandwidth, and the limited time in the political agenda for anything other than Brexit.

The other side of the official response is the urgent work to remove dangerous cladding from existing buildings. This work is progressing at a glacial pace. A total of 436 buildings have been identified which have dangerous aluminium composite material systems, the product used on Grenfell. Of these, just 118 have completed remediation work. In the private sector, progress is particularly bad, with just 15 of 184 buildings finished.

The slow pace is the result of a number of factors. First, the supply chain is limited, with the specialist contractors required for this sort of work suddenly very busy.

Second is the question of who should pay. In the private sector, it originally appeared that the cost—running to more than a million per block—would fall to residents. The government promised £200m in May, but it is yet to allocate any money at all.

The slow pace is particularly worrying because of the limited work carried out to ensure buildings are safe in the interim. Government guidance to install 24-hour waking watches (patrols for signs of fire) is applied across the board and nothing has been done at a national level to identify the blocks most at risk.

What’s worse is that these 436 blocks are just the tip of the iceberg. There is currently no official programme or public funding for the removal of other dangerous materials: including timber, polystyrene or the high pressure laminate panels, of the sort used on the building in Bolton. Once these materials and others are considered, the final number is expected to run into the thousands.

Again, an 18m cut-off is applied which means only 12,000 buildings are in scope. If it is lowered to 11m, as is the case in Scotland, that number will rise to 100,000.

This lack of action has started to hit the property market, with residents of blocks of flats currently unable to get a valuation if combustible materials are found on their homes. Such is the widespread use of these materials, one senior industry figure recently warned this could result in “a complete stall in flat selling in England.”

The fact is, the scope of the response has been as narrow as possible. Grenfell happened in a tall building with aluminium composite cladding, so that is where all the effort is going. But this approach is terribly short sighted and means reform can only come after a major tragedy.

The opposition parties don’t have many better ideas. Labour has promised £1bn to fit social housing high rises with sprinklers. This is good news for the 4,000 buildings that would benefit, but meaningless for the 100,000 that would not. The Liberal Democrat manifesto did not mention the issue at all.

This is a major problem that has festered for 30 years. There are no quick fixes and making buildings safe could prove a lifetime’s work. But, two and a half years on from 72 preventable deaths at Grenfell Tower, it is a task we have barely started.

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