Tower Hamlets looks set to be the first council in the country to use new enforcement powers against building owners refusing to remove dangerous Grenfell-style cladding from blocks.
Inside Housing understands that the east London borough is aiming to serve an improvement notice on the 87-apartment Victoria Wharf in Bethnal Green in the coming weeks, making it the first private block with aluminium composite material cladding to undergo the process.
The borough has told residents that it is the highest-risk building in the borough due to the high levels of cladding across the building, and the lack of a remediation plan in place from the building’s property managers and offshore owners.
The Victoria Wharf block enforcement action comes following the creation of new powers brought in by housing secretary James Brokenshire last November, aimed at increasing the pace of remediation work on private residential blocks.
As part of the plans, the government brought in an addendum to the housing health and safety rating system, to ensure that cladding was covered by the guidance.
The mechanism is usually used to force building owners to take action over smaller hazards such as damp and electrics.
Sources have told Inside Housing that Westminster City Council is also preparing to take enforcement action, and has laid the groundwork by looking at potential buildings which may need an intervention.
A spokesperson for Westminster Council denied this, and said: "We are in the process of investigating all of the privately owned buildings in Westminster with ACM cladding. To date, building owners have fully cooperated with this process. Once our investigation is complete we will consider what enforcement action, if any, is appropriate.”
Residents at Victoria Wharf have become frustrated by the lack of a plan to remove the cladding, more than 18 months after the Grenfell Tower fire.
The freeholder of the property is Vuillard Holdings, a company registered outside the UK.
Residents have told Inside Housing that they are yet to receive any direct correspondence from the freeholder over cladding concerns, and have instead had to direct most communications through the building’s property manager Sterling Estates Management.
Inside Housing understands that the council has received legal guidance to get it to a stage where it is confident to take enforcement action and the improvement notice could happen in the coming weeks.
As part of the process, the council will now need to serve the notice not only against the freeholder but also against all other interested parties, including mortgage companies that have charges on the properties.
The freeholder will then be given a period to make the improvements. If the changes are not made by the end of that period, the council could then step in and act.
Due to the untested nature of this part of housing law, there are concerns that the enforcement action could be challenged by the freeholder and could be taken to the property tribunal.
Residents have said that they were told last week by Sterling Estates Management that it remained the responsibility of the leaseholders to pay for the replacement cladding and if they didn’t it would be forced to take recovery action.
Fire safety expert Graham Fieldhouse, who is working for Sterling Estates Management in an advisory role, told Inside Housing that the company had asked Tower Hamlets for a meeting to discuss the best way forward.
He said: "We are not saying we are not changing it, we are trying to find the right product at the right cost for leaseholders, we are all looking to find the right answer."
He said a waking watch was in place at the block and blamed a lack of clarity in the industry over what cladding materials can be used to replace ACM as part of the reason for the hold up.
He added: "Sterling Estates is happy to put this right but we have a duty of care to the leaseholders to do the right thing and get the right product on, and not simply say we will change that to this."
A Tower Hamlets spokesperson said: “We recognise the serious concerns of leaseholders at Victoria Wharf, and across Tower Hamlets, facing the current uncertainty about their homes.
“The Council is engaged in specialist legal advice and actively considering the range of enforcement powers to ensure that the building owner complies with their responsibilities under the Housing Act. The serving of a statutory notice is one of the courses of action open to the council to ensure that residents get a satisfactory conclusion to the current unacceptable and deeply worrying situation.”
Update: at 11.32 on 19.02.19 This story was updated to include Tower Hamlets’ comment.
Update: at 12.32 on 19.02.19 This story was updated to include Westminster City Council’s comments.
Inside Housing is calling for immediate action to implement the learning from the Lakanal House fire, and a commitment to act – without delay – on learning from the Grenfell Tower tragedy as it becomes available.
We will submit evidence from our research to the Grenfell public inquiry.
The inquiry should look at why opportunities to implement learning that could have prevented the fire were missed, in order to ensure similar opportunities are acted on in the future.