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Housing

Grenfell five years on: Cladding scandal still haunts thousands across UK

At least 10,000 buildings are still covered in the flammable cladding at the centre of the Grenfell disaster. Five years later, what are the options for residents?

Five years after the Grenfell Tower fire exposed critical failures in the safety of high-rise buildings in the UK, the resulting “cladding scandal” continues to affect thousands of homeowners.

For those living in tower blocks deemed unsafe – at least 10,000 in England alone – the scandal has had a huge impact on their lives – affecting even their decision to have a family.

The problem became apparent in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017. External cladding made of aluminium composite material (ACM), installed when the 1970s tower block was refurbished between 2012 and 2016, caught light during a kitchen fire and rapidly spread.

The building, which contained 129 flats over 20 floors, became a blazing inferno killing 72 people.

An inquiry into the fire, the second phase of which is still ongoing, found that the ACM cladding had a highly combustible core. Insulation boards beneath it were also made of a combustible material.

ACM cladding has been used in many high-rise developments, along with other flammable materials.

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Speaking in the Commons ahead of the five-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said: “The situation in which the residents of Grenfell Tower were placed was unforgivable.

“And the fact that those in the tower were not safe, exposed failures which for too long have been overlooked. Failures in our system of building control and safety, failures which it is absolutely vital that we address.”

But the government’s response to the scandal has been described as “piecemeal” by one high-rise resident living with dangerous cladding, while another said it had not been tough enough on developers.

So far £5bn in public funds has been put forward to fund work to remove dangerous cladding, which is being handed out according to the height of affected buildings.

The Government has said it will pay for the removal of unsafe cladding for leaseholders on all residential buildings over 18m, or six storeys, high in England (housing is a matter for the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales).

It has also launched a Building Safety Fund to support leaseholders in buildings between 11m and 18m high, or four to six storeys, with a levy on developers to help pay for remediation work.

That levy is expected to raise half the estimated £4bn cost of fixing unsafe cladding on 11-18m buildings, of which “the vast majority are safe”, the government has said, leaving the rest down to residents.

“It is neither fair nor decent that innocent leaseholders, many of whom have worked hard and made sacrifices to get a foot on the housing ladder, should be landed with bills they cannot afford to fix problems they did not cause,” Gove said in a letter to the property industry in January.

But many residents are still in the dark about who will pay for this critical work, and until that becomes clear they are trapped in limbo, unable to sell and move on. The scandal has forced residents to become campaigners, taking on the government and developers.

Government ‘tried to do the bare minimum… rather than get a grip’

Giles Grover, 43, co-founded the Manchester Cladiators campaign group to do just that. Grover bought a flat in the 36m high-rise City Gate development in Castlefield, Manchester, in 2012. 

He has been working as a full-time cladding scandal campaigner for the past three and a half years, even taking on the role of property manager of his building from January 2019 to May 2020. Work is underway to remove dangerous cladding at City Gate, but Grover is critical of the government’s response to the scandal so far.

He said: “If they’d actually taken this seriously and kept their heads out of the sand a few years ago they might have actually broken the back of this crisis, but the fact is they’ve just dilly-dallied. They’ve tried to do the bare minimum, in the most piecemeal of ways, just to manage the media [and keep] their own Tory backbenchers from rebelling, rather than get a grip.”

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He said if the government had forward funded remediation works on unsafe buildings they could have “clawed that money back” from developers, manufacturers, insurers and building controllers over ten years “and saved us the pain and heartache, financial, mental suffering that we’ve had”.

“All we’ve ever wanted is simple legislation to protect the innocent leaseholder, to say it’s not your fault therefore the government will fix it through an independent body, a task force, whatever it is. If they’d done that two or three years ago we’d be a lot further along the line,” Grover said.

“Michael Gove said it’d be morally wrong to ask leaseholders to pay the price. Well, he’s still making us pay the price.”

He said the rising rate of inflation, which is forecast to hit 10 per cent, was also adding costs to remediation work as materials have increased in price.

Not all necessary work is covered by the government’s fund. Grover said the balconies on his development are considered attachments, not part of the external wall. They are made of timber, which poses a fire risk.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of people are still stuck in this mess in three, four or five years’ time, if not longer,” he said.

Married couple in ‘limbo’ and facing hefty bill

Charlotte Meehan, 33, an operations manager who bought a flat in the Mojo Development in Bow, east London, in 2016, said that while parts of the development over 18m will have dangerous material removed using government money, her 15m tower block has had no such confirmation.

“They’ve essentially cut our building up into segments. The rest of the development is not eligible for funding, even though it’s intrinsically linked. It was all developed at the same time, same developer, same materials, so it’s extremely confusing,” she said.

“It makes no sense that they would consider one portion of the development as having severe enough issues to warrant funding, but the rest of us that are made up of the same materials are not considered to be eligible.

“We’re attached, so if there was a fire in one part of the building then it would spread [to us].”

Her building is covered in combustible insulation and is missing cavity breaks to stop fire, said Meehan, who lives in a third-floor flat. The development has 86 flats in total and sits in the borough of Tower Hamlets, which has one of the largest concentrations of unsafe buildings in the UK.

Charlotte Meehan is among leaseholders campaigning to end the cladding scandal. Image: Supplied

Meehan’s block has twice been rejected for the Building Safety Fund, despite having been accepted for the Waking Watch Relief Fund – covering the cost of a manned patrol in buildings where there is no alarm system– despite the two funds having “the same categories and requirements”, she said.

Leaseholders are currently facing a bill of £600,000 for interim works, including the waking watch, which would cost between £7,000 and £10,000 per flat.

The site’s developer, Bellway, has offered to cover half the costs “but won’t commit to further spending” until there is clarity over the proposed government levy on property developers, said Meehan.

“So we’re still on the hook for anywhere between £3,000 and £5,000 per flat, which is obviously a significant amount of money that a lot of us won’t be able to pay.”

Bellway is one of 45 housing developers to have signed a pledge to commit to remediate life critical fire safety works in buildings over 11m that they played a role in developing or refurbishing over the last 30 years in England. 

Meehan said: “These are developers that say leaseholders should not be responsible for paying, yet they’re making us responsible for paying.”

Bellway has said: “We take very seriously the issue of building safety and agree with the principle that residents should not have to fund life-critical fire safety remedial works.”

I’m worried… I might not have the opportunity to have a family

Meehan said she and her husband – the couple married in 2019 – were “in a state of limbo” living in their “matchbox” one-bed flat. “I’m 34 this year… I’m getting quite worried that I might not have the opportunity to have a family, if we decide that’s what we want…

“Not only would I not want to bring children into a flammable home, I couldn’t because we just don’t have any space for it. So [the scandal has] had a huge impact on our lives. 

“We’ve definitely lost the opportunity to continue living in London, we won’t be able to afford to do that when this is all over – if it’s all over. I don’t know when we’re going to be able to get out and not lose everything.”

Meehan said campaigners were simply asking “for people in high-rise buildings to be made safe in their homes, and for future developments to be developed in a safe way – and that’s still not happening. A pledge means nothing if they’re not forced to carry out the remediation and pay for it.

“There’s not a universe where it is justified that leaseholders, people who bought their homes in good faith, had all the surveys done at the time, where they should be liable for paying  anything related to this, whether it’s interim measures like waking watch, or the remediation project itself.

“The government needs to be tougher, they are the only body that can really solve this in its entirety. They know what they need to do, but there’s still this protection for the developers and it needs to be removed.”

Government should ‘focus efforts’ on ‘truly dangerous’ buildings to bring cladding scandal to an end

Pete Apps, deputy editor at Inside Housing, which supported the cladding groups in relaunching their campaign in 2020, said the government’s response to the scandal had been “nothing short of abysmal”.

“The only body that could really have gripped this crisis has always been central government, but their efforts have been marred by an unwillingness to step in directly,” he said.

Apps, named Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards for Specialist Media in 2018, said that in order to bring the scandal to a close and avoid it dragging on for years longer “the government needs to more clearly embrace the need for additional layers of protection”.

“If we were more serious about sprinklers and evacuation strategies for moderately risky buildings, we could focus our efforts on the ones that are truly dangerous. But the government remains wedded to a fantasy that every building can be fixed to a standard which allows the safe adoption of a ‘stay put’ policy (on fire safety, where residents are told no to evacuate during a fire).

“There should also be much clearer guidance about what constitutes a ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ building. We have enough knowledge now that these statements can be made reasonably accurately, but they need to be set by government not left to the judgement of individual building owners.”

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