It has been three years since the Grenfell Tower fire. 72 people lost their lives and hundreds more were displaced.
It’s also over a year since Theresa May, in her resignation speech on the steps of Downing Street, claimed pride in her government’s response to Grenfell and specifically, the establishment of a public inquiry.
Phase one of the inquiry, which concentrated on the events of the night of Wednesday 14th June, concluded with a report released last October – over two years since the inquiry’s launch.
Conclusions from this phase found that no resident was responsible for the fire, and the principal reason the fire spread was due to the building’s aluminium composite cladding (AMC) with the plastic interior on the building’s exterior.
The inquiry’s second phase began in late January this year. It comprises eight modules of focus, ranging from the 2015-16 refurbishment of the building to central and local government responses to the disaster.
This phase was already beleaguered before the COVID-19 pandemic. An advisory panel member resigned after links to the cladding panel manufacturer were revealed. Witnesses were unwilling to testify on the building’s refurbishment without reassurances that evidence provided would not be used in future prosecutions. This was granted, to the victims and families’ dismay.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the inquiry’s proceedings were halted a week before national lockdown. Plans are now being made to recommence limited hearings in July. Prior to its commencement, Phase Two was projected to last 18 months.
In short, the wait goes on for complete answers for the victims and their families and is unlikely to end until 2022 at the earliest, 5 years since the disaster took place.
In announcing the inquiry, Theresa May stated its priority was to ‘to establish the facts of what happened at Grenfell Tower in order to… prevent a similar tragedy from happening again’.
Yet the government’s attempts aside from the inquiry to ‘prevent a similar tragedy’ can only be described as piecemeal, slow and chronically underfunded.
Two reports published in recent weeks highlight this. One is by the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) select committee and the other a survey of leaseholders in high-risk buildings by the UK Cladding Action Group (UKCAG). The HCLG committee’s report is an updated assessment of cladding remediation.
The government identified high-risk buildings with ACM not long after Grenfell, and in 2018, passed a law to ban future construction of combustible cladding on buildings 18 metres above ground level. There the credit ends.
In the committee’s own words, ‘it is deeply shocking and completely unacceptable’ that approximately 2,000 buildings remain in England which are still considered high risk from combustible cladding three years after Grenfell.
By the government’s figures, of the 457 buildings over 18 metres high with ACM cladding identified originally, only a third (149) had completed remediation works.
The government has missed its target to remedy at least the ACM buildings by this month so spectacularly that the relevant minister declined to provide the committee with a specific target for the future.
The pace of remediating non-ACM combustible cladding high-risk buildings is even slower. The Labour Party estimates that if the rate made safe per month over the past three years is not improved upon, it will take 39 years for all of these high-risk buildings to be remedied.
A total of £1.6bn has been allocated by the government for the urgent safety works, £600mn for ACM clad builds over 18 metres high and £1bn only made available this year for non-ACM clad high-risk builds.
The HCLG committee estimates remediating all non-ACM clad high-risk builds would cost around £3bn. There are significant restrictions on accessing these funds as well.
According to the HCLG committee, ‘with a limited application window, the effective exclusion of social housing providers, and a ban on applications where works started before March 2020, the Government is clearly trying to find ways to fit a £3 billion liability into a £1 billion funding pot.’
The committee recommends that the government be prepared to provide approximately £15bn to address the existing shortfall for cladding remediation, pay for interim fire safety measures and address other fire risks in high-rise and high-risk buildings.
The report also criticises the callous indifference of some freeholders whose primary responsibility it remains to organise the cladding remediation. It recommends the government making Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on any building at high risk due to cladding where work has not already begun by December 2020.
UKCAG’s report highlights the emotional and financial toll on leaseholders living within the high-risk buildings.
Of 550 affected leaseholders surveyed, 90% said their mental health had deteriorated as a result of the situation in their buildings, and 23% reported suicidal feelings or self-harm. The HCLG committee describes it as ‘a public health crisis’.
The UKCAG report also found that service charges had risen 50% as freeholders pass all too often the cost of interim fire safety measures such as ‘waking watches’ onto leaseholders. 20% also had difficulty getting building insurance and of those who did, one in three reported a rise in prices.
72% felt unsupported by the government. It’s difficult not to agree, given the HCLG committee’s stark findings.
That report described Grenfell as an ‘avoidable tragedy’ which it indisputably was, regardless of where exactly the public inquiry eventually places blame.
There remains – three years on – 2,000 high-risk buildings with combustible cladding and there’s likely to be over 11,000 buildings with some form of combustible cladding. That should be a source of national shame.
The UKCAG survey followed up with respondents following the COVID-19 pandemic. 82% said they were concerned they would be forgotten about by the government in the wake of COVID-19.
It is beholden on us, the public, to ensure that doesn’t happen. Otherwise, Grenfell won’t be the last ‘avoidable tragedy’ of a high-risk building catching fire and claiming the lives of innocent residents. We must never forget.