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UK sees progress in cladding scandal as inquiry continues

The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster has left many English high-rise residents knowingly living in unsafe properties. Five years on, as the Grenfell inquiry deepens, builders are beginning to take responsibility for critical safety renovations.

(CN) — The U.K.’s four largest housebuilding firms have pledged to replace dangerous combustible cladding on high-rise apartment blocks they have built, a major step in a British building safety scandal that has been left unresolved since a catastrophic residential fire five years ago.

In 2017, Grenfell Tower — a high-rise block in a west London estate — caught fire, leading to the deaths of 72 residents. The disaster was by far the U.K.’s most deadly residential fire since the Second World War.

The spread of the fire was rapidly accelerated by the exterior cladding material on the building, which turned out to be dangerously flammable. It was subsequently revealed that hundreds of towers around the U.K. had the same or similar unsafe cladding fitted, making the properties unsellable and leaving thousands of people living in potential death traps.

The failure to resolve the dangerous living conditions has been a source of anger and fear among British high-rise residents for years. In a statement last month, the campaign group End Our Cladding Scandal chastised the years of inaction.

“It truly is shameful that this situation is yet to be properly resolved,” the statement read. “Solving both the building safety and housing crises is, and always has been, a matter of political will and choice.”

By 2019, the government had identified at least 446 towers in the U.K. fitted with the deadly cladding. However, the figures are only collected for properties higher than 18 meters. It is unknown how many people in smaller buildings are living with the flammable exteriors; estimates run into millions.

Cladding inspections have also revealed a number of other widespread safety issues in high-rises, including combustible laminate, missing firebreaks and substandard fire doors. The discoveries have expanded the issue into a general building safety crisis. Compounding the scale of the crisis further, some towers have had their cladding replaced with different material that has subsequently also been found to be unsafe.

The issue has been left unresolved for so long because building owners have been able to pass financial responsibility for the cladding’s removal onto leaseholders, the owners of the individual apartments. However, most leaseholders are unable to afford the enormous costs of refitting, which can sometimes exceed the original value of their apartment.

As apartments are often bought by first-time buyers, lower-income property owners are most affected. As a result, those leaseholders who have chosen to foot the bill to ensure their own safety have often been left in financially ruinous positions.

“It’s an absolute disgrace. People are going to become bankrupt,” resident Alison Hills said to the BBC last year. “You have to sit here in a flammable flat 24 hours a day, especially in lockdown, knowing that you aren't safe.”

The inability to resolve funding disagreements over the renovations has been compounded by a slow government response. An initial announcement of 200 million pounds ($261 million) in 2018 to address the issue fell far short of the estimated 15 billion pound ($19.6 billion) cost of the required renovations.

However, the government changed its tone back in January, when housing minister Michael Gove told the House of Commons that “no leaseholder living in a building above 11 meters will ever face any costs for fixing dangerous cladding. They are blameless and it is morally wrong that they should be asked to pay for the price.”

This week’s announcement from major housebuilding firms that they will cover the costs of refurbishment comes after a renewed government push to resolve the issue. It is reported that the government had threatened firms with trading bans and increased taxation if they did not voluntarily agree to fund the work.

The announcement may well finally provide some relief for residents living in dangerous housing, though the amount of money pledged by firms so far still falls far short of the estimated cost of refurbishments, and the timescales in which work will be complete remain unclear.

Meanwhile, a public inquiry into the Grenfell disaster is a reaching a critical stage. Thus far, the inquiry has examined the response of the fire service, the actions of the local government authority who owned the property and the firms who produced and fitted the cladding. The inquiry already appears to have exposed criminality in the cladding and insulation industry, with some workers admitting to having forged successful safety tests, and saying that they were instructed to do so.

The current stage of the inquiry is examining government culpability, and whether years of cutting building safety regulations, in order to lower costs for building firms, contributed to the tragedy.

Barrister Stephanie Barwise, speaking to the inquiry on behalf of survivors’ groups, accused successive British governments of a “grotesque abdication of responsibility” when it came to the stripping of building safety standards.

“The overriding deregulatory imperative meant there were no fetters and safety considerations were not balanced against … industry freedoms,” Barwise claimed. The Building Act of 1984, Thatcher-era legislation which reduced building regulations from 306 pages to just 24, has been attributed as the start of a process of continual deregulation to which later governments contributed.

In addition, Barwise highlighted “an extraordinary suppression of information” relating to alarming residential fires stretching back decades, alluding to suggestions of a cover-up at government level.

The testimony of a former minister before the inquiry this week has left survivors’ groups far from impressed. Eric Pickles, housing minister at the time of the fire, began his evidence by telling the inquiry not to take up too much of his time, as he had other engagements. He later incorrectly cited the death toll from the fire as 96 and rejected claims that deregulation had anything to do with the disaster.

The Grenfell United group described Pickles’ testimony as demonstrating contempt for victims and residents’ safety, and demanded his removal from Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords.

The inquiry is expected to continue throughout the rest of the year. After the publication of its findings, it is expected that criminal or corporate manslaughter charges may be brought against those found responsible.

For Grenfell survivors seeking justice, however, their priority remains preventing a similar tragedy from taking place. It is hoped that this week’s announcement will go some way to making that aim a reality.

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