Shortly after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017, about 350 residents (we prefer the word residents to leaseholders as we feel leaseholders dehumanises us) in the Green Quarter in Manchester learnt that their homes were covered in unsafe Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding.
Their freeholder took the residents to a Tribunal and successfully argued the residents were liable under the terms of their lease to meet the costs of replacing the cladding and other fire safety works, which eventually amounted to £7m, equating to £20k per apartment. On top of this they had borne waking watch costs and been forced to raise £12k to defend themselves at the Tribunal. These were, and are, life-changing costs.
The Green Quarter residents did not take this lying down. They mounted an intelligent campaign, bringing the brand-conscious previous developer Lendlease into the mix. After many months of campaigning the residents successfully persuaded Lendlease to pay for the remediation works in full in February 2019.
Around this time residents from other local buildings started asking the Green Quarter residents for help. It was immediately clear that every building’s circumstances were different, but the common thread was that none were likely to benefit from the same arrangement that was struck in the Green Quarter. Whilst the Government was focusing on asking freeholders and developers to ‘do the right thing’ and foot the bill, the Green Quarter residents instead agreed to help fellow residents launch a campaign asking the Government to fund these costs.
The #EndOurCladdingScandal campaign
We initially approached the Editor of Inside Housing magazine in March 2019 and got them on board to launch a campaign. We liaised with UKCAG to ensure the campaign had support in London. The resulting #EndOurCladdingScandal campaign was launched in April 2019 and we collectively brought on board supporters including Grenfell United, National Housing Federation, Shelter, MPs, Bishops and celebrities.
The Manchester Cladiators
At the same time as our campaign co-launch, we brought the growing number of residents and buildings together under the umbrella of Manchester Cladiators. The name was deliberately chosen to reflect the fight that we knew we were embarking upon with the Government.
We have been told by the Government that developers and freeholders would pay for remediation and the Government would not contribute, but they realised they had to change their position and launched the £200m ACM Fund in May 2019.
For nearly a year, we were told by the Government that ACM cladding is more risky than other forms of cladding and they would only fund ACM remediation, but, a week after we met Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State, they again realised the unfairness of their position and launched the £1bn Building Safety Fund on 11th March 2020, to cover other dangerous cladding systems.
In between we persuaded the Housing Minister to bring together senior mortgage industry figures to prevent lenders overcharging residents when their mortgage comes to an end - this was announced in December 2018. Three times we have persuaded the Government to do the right thing. However, our battle is still only partly won, as you will see below.
Today, Manchester Cladiators (and sister organisations Northern Cladiators and Liverpool Cladiators, which we helped to launch) represent around 100 buildings across the North West and we are growing every day. As well as using social media to get our voice across, we have pulled together successful events, such as our powerful Parliamentary lobby organised with the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and also attended by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, in February 2020.
Our ability to make this impact is due to the huge support we have received from Andy Burnham, Salford Mayor & Chair of GM High Rise Task Force Paul Dennett , Manchester City Council’s Cabinet Member for Housing Suzanne Richards, Lucy Powell MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, and Tony Hunter and Jenni Seex from GMFRS. We are immensely grateful to these and many other honorary Cladiators. Knowing they have our back and our strong sense of community has made a difficult situation at least a little bearable.
Although we are primarily a campaign group, in common with the current Coronavirus outbreak, something good has come from this very difficult time in the form of a stronger sense of community amongst those living with unsafe cladding and fire safety issues. For some time now, we have run a wellness programme (ranging from mental health advice to yoga and meditation sessions) to help residents who are living with the stress and anxiety of this dangerous and financially devastating situation. At the start of the outbreak we also launched @CladCommunity to bring our residents together virtually regularly and to share positive stories about how we are supporting each other.
A battle may have been won but the fight is not yet over
The announcement of the £1bn Building Safety Fund was a step forward but it is clearly nowhere near enough.
The cross-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee has estimated remediation costs to be potentially up to £15bn and its June 2020 report chastised the Government for only allocating a fraction of the required sum and this, perversely, being on a first-come-first-served basis rather than based on an assessment of risk. As we told the Guardian in March, the £1bn would clearly only scratch the surface of some of the issues our residents are facing.
The Government is still not taking this problem, that it created, seriously.
Recently we have seen our comments on the Building Safety Fund, and those of the HCLG Select Committee, echoed by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee.
As the PAC reported, the Government has accepted that the British system of building safety regulations had been “not fit for purpose” for many years and the “system-wide failure” had left a legacy of issues, extending far beyond the immediate need to remove the dangerous cladding systems wrapped around our homes.
Even by the Government’s own (low) estimates, the £1bn would only meet around a third of the total costs and the Government currently has no plans to support residents or social landlords in buildings below 18 metres. This is despite the Government’s Advice Notes, updated in January 2020, trapping all those residents in this quagmire.
The criticism from the Public Accounts Committee was clear – “The Government has repeatedly made what turn out to be pie-in-the-sky promises – and then failed to plan, resource, or deliver”.
The daily conversations we have with our residents confirm what we all now know but the Government continues to refuse to admit: hundreds of thousands of people across the country have been condemned to lives of stress and fear in unsaleable, and potentially dangerous, homes.
As the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee reported, tens of thousands of residents are facing life-changing bills for more than just combustible cladding. These problems are not our fault and, in many cases, will be a financial burden from which we will never recover.
We are of the firm, clearly-evidenced opinion that the Government is taking too long to provide the funding for remediation and its actions to-date have only served to add to the financial and mental injury being suffered constantly by our residents.
Ultimately, we are flexible as to whether the required funds are allocated and funded directly by Government now or “loaned” by Government to the Building Safety Fund and paid back through levy systems with those at fault, i.e. not our residents, being made to repay these “loans”.
We simply demand that this must happen NOW. The Government can then take its time deciding how to ensure those responsible are made to pay for remediation.
Only the Government can make this happen at pace. We are told in private that no options to protect us are off the table. We firmly believe the Government could and should release sufficient funding to remediate all buildings where there is a risk to life, including those below the prescribed height limit and / or non-External Wall issues.
We often wonder how Government Ministers / MHCLG Policy Team members would react if they received a letter, often out of the blue, saying the cost to make their home safe far exceeded their annual salary, often by multiple amounts. We remain unconvinced that Government’s actions will ever match the repeated platitudes and intentions around protecting us from the unaffordable costs, which are clearly not our fault.
Government’s continued flawed approach to tackling this crisis has only increased the uncertainty our residents are suffering. The Government must step up and put this right now.
It is time to finally and effectively #EndOurCladdingScandal.