The government’s £200m cladding fund is seen by some as just a welcome first step. There is still plenty more that needs to be done to reassure worried tower block residents across the country, argues John Biggs
The government’s decision to make £200m available to fund the removal of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding in private residential towers should be welcomed, but it does not go far enough.
Across the country, there are tens of thousands of people going to sleep in high-rise blocks every night not knowing whether they are safe and secure in their own homes.
In my own borough of Tower Hamlets, we have more affected blocks than any other local authority, including many private sector residential towers.
I have met with residents who have faced stress, anxiety and sleepless nights. Some have found that their physical and mental health has deteriorated as a result.
In too many cases these are people who stretched and saved to get on the housing ladder, and who are now trapped, through no fault of their own, in worthless and potentially dangerous flats.
Fearing another disaster on the previously unimaginable scale of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, they looked to their councils and to their elected representatives for reassurance, for information and ultimately for action.
They are struggling to understand why, despite the widespread acceptance that fire safety remediation is needed, they have just been left to deal with lengthy periods where very little has happened. They feel as if they have been left in limbo by this inaction.
Councils have tried to use every resource available to bring building owners to the table and to emphasise the need for co-operation and action, but there is a limit to the powers we have at our disposal.
“In other buildings where non-ACM systems have been installed, residents still do not know whether their homes are safe in the event of a fire”
Those residents who know their buildings are clad in ACM panels will be reassured by the offer of financial support contained in the government’s announcement.
However, given the scale of the challenge and the likely cost of replacing the panels on some of the largest buildings, it remains to be seen if £200m will be sufficient.
We also need to know more about how funding bids will be considered and how the funds will be distributed.
The buildings at risk are not evenly distributed around the country and we will need reassurance that if a concentration of funds is needed in one area, it will be forthcoming.
The issue also extends beyond ACM cladding alone.
In other buildings where non-ACM systems have been installed, residents still do not know whether their homes are safe in the event of a fire.
Non-ACM tests commissioned by the government have been delayed for too long and this latest funding announcement doesn’t make any money available for the repairs that will no doubt be required once they are eventually carried out.
Other costs that have so far been borne by councils and residents’ groups – for example the waking watches necessary to keep people safe while they sleep – are not included either.
Last year, the government committed to funding the cost of cladding removal on social housing blocks.
Now it has made a new commitment on ACM cladding on private residential towers.
Both represent positive progress but they don’t reflect the breadth of the fire safety challenge we all face.
“I would urge the government to look again at the fund it has proposed and to consider whether it goes far enough”
For those of us in local government, the terrible events of 14 June 2017 are a constant reminder of the responsibility we have to all our residents. That responsibility extends to the government in Westminster, too.
We all have a moral duty to ensure that no more lives are lost because the money couldn’t be found to keep people safe in their own homes.
I would urge the government to look again at the fund it has proposed and to consider whether it goes far enough.
Inside Housing’s End Our Cladding Scandal campaign that calls for an end to the cladding crisis will continue. I pay tribute to the residents’ groups, particularly the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, who campaign alongside us.
It’s time for the government to go further still and end this cladding crisis in its entirety.
John Biggs, mayor of Tower Hamlets
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