Ahead of a new government being formed, Inside Housing revisits our national cladding scandal and sets out what needs to be done to prevent any further tragedies. Peter Apps reports. Pictures by Esra Forrester, GMFRS, Nathaniel Barker and Press Association
Above: Recent fires in Barking, Clapton and Bolton
The current approach is not working. Almost 30 months on from the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, we are still nowhere near close to getting a grip on the most pressing question that the fire prompted: how can we stop it from happening again?
Around the country there are 318 tower blocks with dangerous aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding – like that used on the tower in west London. But that number really just scratches the surface.
The number of buildings with other dangerous materials remains unknown and uncounted – but industry data suggests that there are thousands with timber, high-pressure laminate or plastics like polystyrene on their walls, all of which are capable of being deadly.
These numbers will multiply when buildings below the government’s 18m threshold are considered. And none of this considers the other issues Grenfell has thrown up: tens of thousands of defective fire doors, no fire alarms or evacuation plans, and flawed compartmentation.
But the government’s approach has been to hand off responsibility. First, to its expert panel. And then to local authorities, building owners and fire authorities. It is increasingly clear, however, that this is a crisis which demands national leadership and a nationally co-ordinated response. That, and funding where appropriate, is what our End Our Cladding Scandal campaign asks the next government to provide.
All in all, the issues point to a serious problem that is not going to be solved through the current approach of delegation. And we have not even touched on the issues of defective fire doors, internal compartmentation and the need to fit fire alarms and develop evacuation plans.
This is why we are calling on the next government to do two things: first, to create a building safety fund that can help pay for this work and reduce or remove the burden on leaseholders. This fund can no longer be limited to simply ACM or buildings above 18m.
Instead, a more sensible approach would be to consider the more complex but pressing question of which buildings are most at risk.
Second would be to set up a taskforce that can help take control of the issue, prioritise the work and ensure that the interim measures are suitable. This would be based on the model in Victoria, Australia, where progress, while still slow, is far better co-ordinated than it is in the UK.
The messy debate about who is to blame for the situation we find ourselves in will roll on. It is increasingly apparent that no one is totally innocent. Builders, architects and product manufacturers have all cut corners and ignored risks. But the government has, too – whether in the form of its regulations and guidance or its system of building control.
And in the end, that does not matter. What matters is who can put that problem right. And the only organisation with the capacity to solve a national crisis is the national government. Whoever forms the next one must rise to the task.
Below we set out the key areas where the current approach is failing:
The Orwell Building in West Hampstead, London, where flames ripped through combustible balconies in summer 2018
After Grenfell, the government identified 457 other tall buildings with dangerous ACM cladding systems. It has since revised this number down to 433 without explaining why.
Under pressure from survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, the government did release funding for this work: £400m for the social housing sector in 2018 and £200m for the private sector earlier this year – both carved from other housing budgets. It also set a December deadline for the completion of the work.
But progress is stalling. Only a quarter of the 433 buildings, and less than 10% in the private sector, have been remediated and in the whole month of October just four more buildings were finished.
While the funding will undoubtedly help speed the process up, the private sector fund is proving problematic. Difficulties, including the mass collection of state aid forms, mean just one block has reached pre-contract approval – of 86 estimated to require the fund’s help.
This tells us that this work will take years, whether the government likes it or not. And that brings in two major flaws with this approach.
First, we know very little about the specific risks in each building. Which ones would burn like Grenfell if they caught fire? And which are less risky? This means there has been no prioritisation of the remediation work. The supply chain is stretched: each job requires suppliers, materials and specialist contractors. At the moment work is going to the highest bidder, not the most at risk.
Second, there are serious questions about the interim measures. Dr Barbara Lane, one of the experts working on the Grenfell Inquiry, said last month that her “primary concern” was that the government’s “starting position” has been “to assume these buildings are safe to occupy” – but that it was “unclear how this had been derived and validated”.
As it stands, on the back of guidance from the expert panel, most buildings are provided with a ‘waking watch’. But is this enough? In a fire in one such block in Manchester earlier this year, the waking watch was unable to rouse all the residents.
So who would take charge of the evacuation in a fire? What about residents who cannot self-evacuate? There are still no sprinklers and no fire alarms in many of these buildings.
In Victoria, Australia, a government-run taskforce has taken control of ensuring prioritisation and suitable interim measures at affected buildings. In the UK, it has been delegated.
It was in 2018 when Michael first discovered the flat that he had put years of savings into just a few years earlier, was in a building covered in aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding.
After finding out he was sleeping at night surrounded by the cladding that was a major contributor to the spread of the Grenfell Tower fire, he was understandably horrified.
This fear for his life was compounded by the threat of financial ruin after it emerged as a leaseholder he and his neighbours would be liable for the bill to remove it.
A mature student, he had worked for years to buy the flat, but now faced a costs of tens of thousands to get the Grenfell-style cladding removed.
However, in May this year there was a glimmer of hope for Michael when the then-housing secretary James Brokenshire announced he would be setting up a £200m fund to pay for the removal of ACM cladding from private blocks where work had not begun.
“All of us were massively pleased,” he tells Inside Housing. “I said to my management company, ‘can you apply for this’ and thought that would be that.”
After the announcement of the £200m fund in May, guidance on how to apply was released in July, and the government said it would open the fund in September.
Michael had to leave the country for a number of weeks for his university course, but when he returned after the September opening date he was surprised to find that the building manager had not started the application.
A stipulation of the bidding process was that the building manager had to collect state aid forms from all leaseholders within the block.
“I told them, ‘you need to do this, this is important’,” he says.
However, despite agreeing, progress from the manager was slow and after a few weeks it emerged that the management company had only received a fraction of the state aid forms.
Taking matters into his own hands, Michael sent out a circular email to the addresses he had, urging his neighbours to fill in the forms. He had some success but the total number is still well short.
But that was not the only issue his block has had with the application. As part of one of the conditions of the applications, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said that building owners need to get a survey carried out on the building to assess where the ACM was and the coverage of the ACM.
“The problem with this is you need £20,000 lying around as a block. After spending most of our sinking fund money on things like a waking watch, we don’t have any money left,” he says.
Blocks can apply for pre-contract funding to cover survey costs, but that involves another lengthy application.
Even if they manage to find the funds, a Section 20 process would likely have to be carried out to consult leaseholders on the costs. The Section 20 process is carried out when major works on a block needs to be done and costs collectively over £250 each.
The process can take at least three months, meaning it would be completed well after the government’s deadline which states all applications need to be in by the end of December – 40 days away.
Making that deadline has been put further in doubt by the property manager on Michael’s block looking to relinquish their duties as building manager, due to concerns over applying for the fund.
A replacement is now likely to be brought in in the coming weeks, a process that will delay the application further and increase the chances of Michael’s block missing the deadline.
“There is no guarantee the new manager will be any quicker. I just can’t see how we will apply in time,” he says.
Michael’s block is not the only block that will likely miss the government’s deadline. In recent building safety stats it was revealed that not one block had successfully bid for the full costs of cladding removal, while 67 had still not even submitted an eligibility bid.
“The government would help leaseholders so much if they just said, ‘look we know a lot of you are having issues with applying for the fund, we can extend the deadline by a bit’,” he says. “But when we email, all we get back is a reply saying that you need to apply ASAP.”
“Imagine the situation where they say after the deadline passes, ‘those who haven’t applied need to pay’,” he adds.
So for Michael the anxiety continues, knowing that he is still living in a flat that is a 24/7 fire risk and is nowhere nearer getting it removed.
“This has really had an effect on my mental health, it is a source of financial worry every day and it has ruined my university experience. There is not a week that has gone by in the past two years that I haven’t thought about it,” he says.
By Jack Simpson
This may be where the can of worms is truly opened. With almost no restriction in the government guidance regarding the use of combustible materials on buildings below 18m, once these buildings are examined they are likely to reveal a cornucopia of problems.
There are more than 100,000 medium rise buildings in this category - almost 10 times the number of high rises.
Worse, regulations have not even changed since Grenfell – with the combustibles ban stopping abruptly at 18m. Anecdotal evidence shared with Inside Housing suggests that this has had the obvious effect: architects are deliberately designing buildings to just below 18m to circumvent the ban and permit the use of a range of combustible products.
The fires over the summer, particularly the terrible blaze at Samuel Garside House in Barking, show that these buildings demand attention. Grenfell Inquiry experts believe that 11m is a more sensible threshold and in Australia, the audit kicks in from three storeys (18-metre tall buildings have around six storeys). No work has been commissioned in the UK to quantify the risks in buildings of this size.
Again, this is an issue that requires clear national leadership: an understanding of the risks to buildings, prioritisation of work and – where appropriate – funding. As it stands, the burden of remediating any of these buildings – ACM or otherwise – will fall to social landlords and private residents.
Residents of City Point 2 in Salford discovered they had dangerous cladding a few months after Grenfell. The block’s managers, Urban Bubble, got in touch to say that unless residents stumped up for the cost of fire alarms and a waking watch the building would have to be evacuated.
Juliet Morris, a grandmother in her 60s, was able to scrape together the money to pay for this cost but it was a challenge. “I’m retired and I’m on a limited budget,” she says. “I didn’t just have extra money lying around.”
But the problem was going to get worse. After an evaluation of the structure of the property, built by Bellway, further issues with the structure were identified as well as the dangerous cladding. Residents were hit with bills of £35,000 each for the repair work.
With the building below 18m, no help is available for the cladding costs. With the building out of warranty, there is no recourse against the builder for costs. The bill simply falls on homeowners to pay.
“It was an absolute bolt from the blue,” says Juliet. “Nobody will give me a loan because of my age and I’m not working. I don’t know how I will pay this.”
Lucy Ireland runs a small business, a vintage shop, and takes home a wage which is less than minimum wage each year. “[£35,000] is an unthinkable amount of money for me,” she says. “We would just have to go to court and offer to pay what we could. But that would just be a few pounds a month.”
She has tried to sell her home but has been unable to find a buyer – even though she has reduced the asking price for her home from £140,000 to £114,000.
Both say they are aware of the impact this has had on the mental health of residents in the block. “There’s one guy in my block who I worry about,” says Juliet. “He has mental health issues and is just recovering and I worry about what it’s going to do to him. When the bill landed he messaged me simply saying, ‘I have no way to pay this’.”
No support has been offered so far from government. “I feel let down, badly let down,” says Juliet. “It said quite clearly in that document that the issues did not comply with regulations but they were signed off anyway. So the government has to take some responsibility.
“When I speak to people about it they all assume I haven’t looked into the issue properly because they can’t believe the government would just abandon us like this in this day and age. I can’t believe it’s not a frontline issue at the election.”
She says she will go and live with her brother if she can’t resolve the issues – but there is no solution in sight. “I sometimes wonder, am I still going to be alive at the end of this?” she says.
By Peter Apps
The position of buildings clad in dangerous materials but not ACM was always going to be a major headache. For months there have been buildings requiring major cladding remediation that fall outside the scope of the government’s ACM programme.
In the social housing sector, this means the social landlord foots the bill – with the resulting cost affecting maintenance and new build budgets. But in the private sector, it is individual leaseholders who are expected to pay. These bills are crippling and are leaving residents trapped in a spiral of debt and escalating mental health problems.
This has been compounded recently by the publication of government guidance Advice Note 14 last December.
This note encouraged the removal of all combustible materials – effectively suggesting that they could be compliant with building regulations only if they passed a large-scale test.
But this means that hundreds, possibly thousands, of tower blocks are suddenly in the scope of this issue and an estimated 600,000 flat owners are unable to sell. This is a major issue: a senior industry figure last week said it was leading to the “complete stalling of flat selling in England”.
Like with ACM, there has been no prioritisation and no thought given to interim measures. No distinction has been made between buildings with an all-encompassing system of flammable timber and those with a strip of decorative plastic.
The government has also published only one of a series of tests of non-ACM cladding products, leaving residents and building owners in the dark about what is safe and what is not.
Identifying buildings has also been delegated to local authorities, which were asked to begin gathering data on high rises in their area last June. But with stretched budgets and limited powers to demand owners release information, this work, too, is stalling.
Early figures seen by Inside Housing show that some councils are yet to identify the cladding materials on a single building outside their ownership.
In January this year Anna Johnston and her partner decided to put their flat up for sale.
After 10 years living in the one-bedroom shared ownership flat in L&Q’s Centre View apartments in Croydon, she and her partner decided to upscale and move to a new home.
It came after a difficult two years for Anna.
A year-and-a-half ago she was diagnosed with a serious skin condition which means she has to go through monthly injections at the doctors.
During one of these check-ups, the doctors found a found melanoma on her leg in March. In June, she underwent a major operation on her leg to remove some of the cancerous cells.
“With all that, I remember while doing the viewings, I said to my husband, ‘shall we just pack it in or shall we just wait?’” she explains. “But we were like, ‘no, let’s go for it, we have to do this’.”
After a short period of searching, they soon found the perfect new place. “It was a three-bedroom house, with a little garden, and was closer to the train station, it was great,” says Ms Johnston.
A first-time buyer was also found for their flat. Then the issues began.
After an initial survey and successful financial checks, Ms Johnston believed everything was moving forward and she would be moving soon. However, that was until she heard the words ‘Advice Note 14’ for the first time last month.
“It was then I found out through my estate agent that I had had my valuation, and the lender was happy with everything, except for the cladding,” she explains. “They said, ‘as it stands if you don’t come back with a succinct statement saying you adhere to Advice Note 14, your property will be valued at zero’.”
It is a situation facing thousands of leaseholders across the country. After Advice Note 14 was introduced in December last year, lenders and surveyors have been giving properties a technical £0 valuation.
Advice Note 14 calls on building owners to check for materials that are not of limited combustibility to be removed from external wall systems, and if these materials are found advising that they need to be removed. The sheer volume means that these checks are moving at a glacial pace.
In some cases, this means those trying to remortgage their flats are being forced into more expensive variable rate mortgages, as they are unable to secure new deals.
In others, the buying and selling of flats is being held up, and ultimately cancelled, as a result of the new guidance.
“I initially though it would be quite easy to get my hands on something that showed whether it was safe or not, so I went back to L&Q asking for this and I was sent to their cladding team,” she explains.
“To this day, I haven’t heard back from the cladding team.”
Instead she was sent an email from an L&Q homeowner officer saying that while they were “extremely sympathetic”, they were having trouble obtaining such reports and it was not their intention to be obstructive.
The email said that it was the advice note that was the problem and that they were having issues securing fire safety officers due to those officers securing correct public liability insurance to be able to sign off the documentation.
It added: “This requirement by insurers’ and lenders’ insistence to receive the report is somewhat out of the hands of L&Q; however we are trying to lobby all interested parties (lenders, surveyors and the government themselves).”
Inevitably the sale and the purchase fell through.
“The vendor was so understanding about our situation and she waited an additional five to six weeks longer for us, but eventually she had to move on,” Ms Johnston says.
But Ms Johnston was also frustrated by the amount of money and time spent on the process despite the housing association being aware of the Advice Note 14 issues, and believes she could have been warned earlier about potential issues.
She was made to buy a buyer’s pack for £360 in August and was taken through the whole sale process until finding out from a surveyor in October that her property had a £0 valuation. She has asked for a refund.
In a response to Inside Housing on this point, L&Q said it would never initiate a sales remortgaging process in the knowledge that a mortgage could not be secured and said that lenders were taking different approaches on to the situation with some lending on buildings where others will not.
It added that it is now advising homeowners wishing to sell, staircase or remortgage to seek advice from lenders before progressing.
Ms Johnston has now given up on selling her home.
“It’s crazy to think of the knock-on effects to this,” she says. “In the short-term I have ruined my buyer’s short-term chance of getting on the property ladder.”
All of this worry and stress has come as Ms Johnston deals with the effects of her illness.
“I’m so ill all the time, my immune system is down, I get stressed, it has been a heart-breaking process.”
"We would like to reassure residents affected by this this situation that the inability to obtain the certification that mortgage lenders are requesting does not mean that a building is unsafe. Resident safety is our utmost priority. All of L&Q’s purpose-built blocks received Building Control sign-off at the time of build, approval from a licensed warranty provider after they were built, and have up-to-date fire risk assessments in place.
"Along with our colleagues at the G15, a group of the largest housing associations in London, we will be calling on the new government to step in and offer clear guidance for building owners and mortgage lenders on the proportionate implementation of their building safety advice notes."
By Jack Simpspon
The cladding scandal is far from over. Here’s why we need a fresh approach
Ahead of the general election, Inside Housing revisits our national cladding scandal and sets out what needs to be done to prevent any further tragedies. Peter Apps reports.
The cladding crisis Down Under: what we can learn from the response to Grenfell in Australia
Five years ago a fire spread up Grenfell-style ACM cladding on a high-rise in Melbourne. This prompted an overhaul of the Australian state of Victoria’s building safety regime. Peter Apps finds out what the UK could learn.
More than 100,000 buildings outside scope of fire safety measures, minutes reveal
There are more than 100,000 medium-rise homes that fall outside new regulations aimed at making buildings safe in the aftermath of Grenfell, including the ban on combustible cladding, Inside Housing can reveal.
It’s only a matter of time until the next Bolton unless the parties step up to the plate on fire safety
Inside Housing’s new election campaign calls on the main political parties to commit to taking action to prevent what currently seems like an inevitable further tragedy. It’s time for everyone to step up, writes Martin Hilditch.
Leaseholders fear missing out on £200m cladding fund as bidding deadline approaches
Leaseholders living in blocks seeking government funding for the removal of Grenfell-style cladding have raised concerns over meeting the deadline for applications, while criticising the lengthy process being run by the government.
Government refusing to test polystyrene panels, despite request from London boroughs
The government has no further plans to carry out testing of cladding products despite a specific request from London boroughs to test systems comprising polystyrene, a document obtained by Inside Housing has revealed.
The next government must: