Long way to go

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower continues. Another flat-block fire this last weekend is just the latest reminder that the review of building safety is urgent and important.

The all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has been looking at improvements that can be made to regulations and rules on buildings and building safety to make other people safer in their homes and other buildings they are in in the future. We have had ‘robust’ discussions with Dame Judith Hackitt – leading the government’s review – and government ministers. We have had a very detailed exchange of correspondence with both and we’re still waiting for some answers.

Although the government has taken some action, overall the response has been inadequate or un-finalised.

It is a story about cladding, the requirement for unsafe ACM cladding to be removed, and it is a story of other materials that may be just as dangerous as ACM cladding. It is a story not merely of high-rise residential buildings, but of other high-risk buildings such as hospitals and old people’s homes. It is a story not just about new building, but also about existing buildings.

A year after the Grenfell disaster, the Government came forward with £400 million to remove the cladding off high-rise social housing. But there remains a real problem about private flats and the refusal of freeholders to accept responsibility.

The issue gets complicated because, in some cases, developers are no longer responsible for the buildings. It really is a situation that would never get resolved. Ministers have failed to face up to the reality.

Last July, we recommended that an immediate fund be established, initially at a very low rate of interest, at least to provide the wherewithal to get this work done, and we could argue about who would pay for it afterwards. We are still very much in that position.

The government has now announced a £200 million fund for private sector properties, but there are a lot of questions about it. First, who applies for the fund? Who ensures the work is carried out? Is there a timeline by which all this work has to be carried out? What happens if no one applies and the building is still there with this cladding on it? What happens to the local authority if it goes in and does the work in default: does it get the money back? What happens where a developer has already, rightly, paid for the work themselves: can that developer claim the money back from the fund, or does it apply only to work that currently has not been carried out? In the end, who is responsible for the work being signed off as satisfactory?

There are a lot of questions that need addressing and we are still waiting for ministers to answer them.

But, at the heart of the matter is making sure that materials are right and are properly tested. In the end, it is not even about the building regulations in relation to fire; it is about the building industry as a whole and how it operates.

This is about making sure not merely that the materials are right, but that the materials specified are actually used, that the buildings are properly signed off and that they are properly maintained and managed. This is a whole-system issue.

Currently, there are a whole series of conflicts in the process. Materials’ producers going around different testing organisations until they found the one that actually approved their material.  Fire authorities testing their own work and recommendations, which is wrong. This is also about the whole testing regime for products. Building inspectors being appointed by developers and then signing off the work of the people that have appointed them. This cannot be right.

The more we uncover, the more we realise that the whole construction industry is not fit for purpose. We need a fundamental review of how it operates, considering not just specifications, but including the management of projects and ensuring that people have homes and other buildings that are safe to live in.

Families at Grenfell lost their lives. Many who survived are still trying to re-build their lives. And thousands of leaseholders are stuck in homes which no-one is prepared to buy until the issues are resolved or are facing costs of tens of thousands of pounds in remedial works.

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