Better late than never at all – here we are some 11 months on from the Grenfell Tower fire and we are finally seeing some positive action from the Government. But the pace of change has to seriously pick up if public confidence is to be won back.
In recent days the Prime Minister announced some £400 million is to be made available (in grants) to councils and housing associations to pay for the removal of Grenfell-like cladding and its replacement with suitable alternative materials. This will ensure that social landlords’ budgets for normal reactive and planned maintenance work can be used for their original purpose and not diverted to cladding removal.
We have no idea if this money (as welcome as it is) will be sufficient to complete all of the removal works, or if there is enough specialist labour around to complete this work within a reasonable timescale. Time is not on our side given how long the residents of affected tower blocks have already been waiting for their homes to be made safe.
Significantly there is no money for cladding removal from privately owned tower blocks with the Government insisting that freeholders or property managers find the money themselves. Flat owners fear they will face bills running into tens of thousands of pounds or have their homes’ market value severely written down.
Worryingly (particularly for high rise residents) there is also no money for the installation of water sprinkler systems or indeed other safety works such as providing a secondary means of escape. This is despite fire safety experts demanding such remedial works are delivered as a priority to avoid similar tragedies to Grenfell.
The Hackitt Review has now reported on its findings, surprisingly and somewhat concerningly, Dame Judith decided against recommending a ban on the use of combustible materials in cladding systems. The great dame has said she should not be prescribing in this sort of detail, but this ignores the political enormity of the Grenfell fire’s impact. The nation will simply not accept a repetition of the Lakanal House fire – in that case, a lethal fire killed six people just a few miles across London in 2009, but it has had virtually no impact on building practices or regulations some nine years on.
New housing secretary James Brokenshire showed his greater political awareness by announcing a consultation on banning combustible materials in cladding on high-rise blocks, but this was not enough for his shadow John Healy who told him to proceed with an immediate and outright ban. Oddly we then heard Dame Judith saying just a few hours later that she agreed with the proposed ban. The Government could have saved itself a lot of aggro by announcing such action many months ago.
Meanwhile the public inquiry into the Grenfell fire is due to recommence next week with the survivors giving their eyewitness accounts of the tragedy. They are expected to complain about being ignored before, during and after the refurbishment works in 2014/16. This will make for harrowing listening before we hear from the expert witnesses from next month onwards.
We were given a sneak preview of the evidence when a report written by the Building Research Establishment was leaked to the Evening Standard. This included the awful conclusion that the refurbishment project turned a safe tower block into a tinderbox, which needlessly claimed the lives of 72 people.
There is often a problem when MPs legislate in haste to deal with a specific problem. The Dangerous Dogs Act is but one example and Dame Judith appeared to recognise this when she said: “simply banning something from happening is no guarantee of compliance”. Instead she has proposed a new regulatory body to oversee a change in building regulations and industry practices. She also appears to be advocating the construction industry should oversee its own compliance. Sadly this is never going to satisfy a public impatient for action 11 months on from the fire.
The leaked BRE report also revealed that a large number of the door closers in Grenfell Tower were either faulty or missing. This was followed by a revelation from the Metropolitan Police that tests undertaken on a fire door, which had survived the tragedy, showed it only resisted a fire for half of its specified 30 minutes life
There have also been suggestions that the fire tests carried out on panels removed from tower blocks across the country have been manipulated, akin to the scandal of rigged car engine emissions testing. Put this alongside the questionable quality of fire safety desktop reviews and it is easy to see why the public has lost faith in the framework designed to safeguard them. As an absolute minimum we need to see fire risk assessment reports being published in the interests of safety and transparency.
It is awful to think that as the first anniversary of the fire approaches only a third of the survivors from the Grenfell tragedy have been permanently rehoused. We also need to spare a thought for the inhabitants of dozens of tower blocks across the country, with thousands of residents relying on fire wardens armed with megaphones for their safety. In the 21st century this is not acceptable and it needs to be put right as a matter of urgency.