Five Key Recommendations - Detail

HCLG Select Committee Submission - May 2020

Recommendation 1 

The Government must be held to account for its flawed strategy and resulting severe delays and now take urgent steps to make buildings safe

We made it clear to the Government from the outset that their strategy of pursuing freeholders and developers to meet the costs of remediating blocks would not succeed without real teeth (such as legislation) due to the nature of Leasehold Law in this Country, something that the Government has known all along. For many months, despite its slow progress, they carried on with this defective strategy. When they eventually decided to launch the ACM Fund they received legal advice which highlighted that freeholders and developers they had taken months to persuade to meet the costs could in fact now apply for the Fund. They made frantic contact with the committed freeholders and developers to try to persuade them not to apply for the ACM Fund and went to great lengths to keep this embarrassing situation quiet.
Also because senior figures in Government were concerned that the ACM Fund may make them liable for meeting the costs of other forms of cladding and fire safety works they seemed to hatch a plan to avoid this. When their initial non-ACM cladding tests came back, which they knew would not give a complete picture because of the limited cladding/insulations combinations chosen, they held back the results and decided not to commission more tests. They then publicly stated that the (limited) results had confirmed that ACM had an ‘unparalleled risk’ compared to other forms of cladding and this justified only paying to remediate ACM cladding systems. Subsequent private tests have shown this to be demonstrably untrue, which we believe that the Government knew, or certainly should have known, all along.

These are just two examples of the flawed strategy the Government has adopted over the past nearly 3 years. The result of this has been severe delays, meaning now hundreds of thousands of residents across the Country are trapped living in unsafe buildings, in fear of losing everything which they have worked hard for and unclear when their homes will be remediated. We believe all of the Ministers and Officials within Government that we have worked with are sincere in recognising the potential life threatening impact of these unsafe buildings. However, our experience is that they are remarkably slow and we are now close to the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy with the Government’s own data showing only 24% of private sector blocks with ACM cladding systems have started remediation. During which time two other buildings (in Barking and Bolton) have had life-changing fires for many residents.

Whilst the Committee’s brief is primarily forward looking, we ask that they hold the Government to account for their flawed strategy and severe delays to date and in doing so stress the need to urgently make buildings safe now. Once the Government has a proper
grip on this crisis, they should take steps to hold to account those developers, contractors and other parties that undertook negligent work or warranty providers that have tried to wriggle out of their liabilities. But that should not be a priority just now.

Recommendation 2

A review of interim measures is urgently needed and alarms should be introduced wherever appropriate with costs met through the Building Safety Fund

Waking watch is costing residents i n Greater Manchester up to £400 per month. Higher insurance costs compound this. This is on top of our mortgage, service charge and ground rent payments. Whilst we are grateful to see the Government belatedly acknowledge these ‘inflated’ costs we are concerned their recent interest is deflecting attention from the true ticking time bomb of interim measures.

In Greater Manchester alone, there are currently thousands of residents living in over 30 blocks with ‘ waking watches’, where someone walks the block’s corridors and lets off a klaxon and knocks on doors to evacuate residents if there is a fire. Waking watches were originally anticipated by fire service chiefs to be a short-term solution, for up to 12 months. Most blocks have now passed this period.

There have been examples of small fires in Greater Manchester where the waking watch has failed to wake everyone up. Fortunately, GMFRS
have been quick to respond and done an excellent job, meaning no fatalities so far.

However, had these been on a larger scale like the Bolton student block in November 2019, which fortunately had an alarm, significant deaths could have occurred. This is why Grenfell United talk of the next tragedy ‘ being in the post’, which is a chilling thought for any resident living in an unsafe building. When YOU go to bed tonight, please ask yourselves whether you would be able to sleep knowing the only difference between life and death might be IF you hear the knock on your door?

What we want to see is an immediate review of interim measures and a prompt move from waking watch to alarms, where they are appropriate, which should mitigate the need for waking watch. Not only are alarms generally more economic for residents than waking watch, but they will be a much safer interim measure as advised by the National Fire Chiefs Council. In fact, to speed up their replacement and given the forecast timeframe for permanent remediation, we believe the Government should meet the cost for new alarms through a first call on the Building Safety Fund. The Government should also work with the insurance industry to help ensure alarms bring down exorbitant insurance costs, partly offsetting the significant waking watch and other costs residents have already incurred.

Recommendation 3

The Government must put significantly more funding into the Building Safety Fund

The National Housing Federation called for £10bn to address cladding and fire safety issues in social housing. We believe the cost to remediate privately owned blocks will be a similar level. At present we have been collectively offered £1bn. To the public this appears to demonstrate a huge Government commitment to fire safety. However, to us this means, on average, residents of privately owned blocks will receive only 5p in every £1, assuming social housing does not exhaust the £1bn first.

We need the Government to make more funding available - £1bn is simply not enough.

Our recent discussions with Lord Greenhalgh indicated he recognised this and that £1bn may not be a strict cap as the amount to be allocated to make our homes safe would likely be an ongoing negotiation with the Treasury. However, this is far removed from the Government’s Coronavirus commitment to ‘ do whatever it takes’. The idea that Coronavirus vaccines, when available, would be rationed is impossible to imagine, so why should the Building Safety Fund be limited to £1bn and rationed on a first come first served basis?

There is also the perversity that remediation of unsafe cladding and other fire safety works are subject to standard-rated VAT. This means that the £1bn Building Safety Fund is really only a £833k commitment. In practice much of this work is replacement of shoddy new build work, not in fact refurbishment work. We firmly believe that, given the specific and unique context of these unfortunate circumstances, the Government should work with HMRC to remove these rules, with retrospective application to any remediation already undertaken.

Recommendation 4

The Building Safety Fund should be available to all residents needing it, not just those who fall into its currently limited categories

We have long campaigned about the Government’s policies being a Cladding Lottery, leading to ‘ winners and losers’. Whilst the launch of a £1bn Building Safety Fund hopefully means more ‘winners’, we are also acutely aware of a number of groups of potential ‘losers’.

Firstly, the Building Safety Fund, like the ACM Fund before it, is primarily designed to meet the costs of cladding systems. However there are lots of residents whose issues are not with unsafe cladding, but other serious fire safety issues including, but not limited to, the structural steel framework of the building not being fire protected, serious fire door issues and issues with deficient internal compartmentation between floors, flats and communal areas. We do not understand why these issues are acknowledged in the Government’s Advice Note 14, but they are not currently eligible for the Building Safety Fund. They must be aligned.

Secondly, there are those who live in blocks of under 18m. What we want to see is a direct connection between the Government’s fire safety rules and the Building Safety Fund. It should not be the case that residents living in a block centimetres under the 18m limit are
forced to address cladding and other fire safety issues, yet are unable to access the Fund for which there is only modest flexibility on the heights that are eligible. The Secretary of State himself acknowledged that developers have been gaming the system for years, which is clearly not the fault of residents but those who designed the system.

Thirdly, making residents safe cannot be put on hold whilst the Government deliberates over the parameters of the new Building Safety Fund. We want to ensure that blocks that have already proactively moved forward with remediation work are able to retrospectively recoup costs from the Fund, rather than leave residents to foot the bill. For instance in Manchester,
over 120 residents of Skyline have already been forced to enter into payment arrangements with their freeholder for £15-25k, or else risk losing their homes.

Recommendation 5

The Government should meaningfully take on board residents’ experience

We are accidental campaigners, but we are not amateurs. By necessity we have made ourselves experts in fire safety. Our residents include building managers, procurement specialists and lawyers. We also receive pro bono support from many other technical specialists.

We can reliably predict that the Government will engage with us in the run up to Ministers being asked questions in the House of Commons or the lead up to an anniversary of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. At other times, our experience is that they are not interested in our views.
We hope that Lord Greenhalgh i s sincere in his commitment to engage with us ahead of the Building Safety Fund prospectus being launched, so that the delays and mistakes with the ACM fund can be effectively learnt from. We have been contacted by his Officials to follow up on this and we are sharing our feedback with him later this week. However, despite this recent engagement, we would still ask the Committee to stress to the Government the importance of meaningful ongoing engagement with residents until this crisis is over.
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