This week, the Commons voted by 263 votes to 0 to urge the government to speed up remediation works on buildings with unsafe cladding. Several Conservatives spoke against the government, although they all ended up abstaining on the vote. The vote will not be binding, but it shows that the cladding scandal is an issue that cuts across party lines. It has even made it to the pages of The Spectator. On this issue, caveat emptor does not apply, it seems.
In June 2017, just after the Grenfell fire, I wrote a blog for Inside Housing in which I said: “But as time goes on I am certain that cladding and fire safety concerns will be uncovered in all sectors and all property types. Above all this will become an urgent issue for legislators and the government. They will both need to take a hard look at their primary role – to keep us safe. This they have not done.”
If you read Inside Housing’s timeline of the cladding scandal, it builds up month after month like a distant tsunami until it becomes overwhelming. Immediately after Grenfell, the government assumed the problem was mainly confined to the social sector and that only a few buildings with ACM cladding would be affected. Later, it was estimated that around 700,000 households were affected. Almost four years on from the fire, not only has dangerous cladding been found in all sectors and property types but if you include blocks of less than 18 metres with all forms of combustible cladding there could be perhaps 100,000 buildings involved, with up to 11 million people affected. Many have no immediate prospect of relief: they cannot sell, re-mortgage or staircase their homes.
Yet from the outset the government promised to act to make building owners carry out remediation works and pledged that leaseholders would not have to pay. In December 2017, Sajid Javid told private building owners not to pass on costs to leaseholders but that is exactly what is happening with some leaseholders being charged up to £600 a month to pay for waking fire watches.
The government has made a total of £1.6bn available to help with the cost of works but it is estimated that around ten times that amount will be required. The pandemic is likely to cost us well over £400bn, so the government could easily add a bit more to that bill in order to resolve this tragedy.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of leaseholders are stuck in limbo, sandwiched between their building’s owner and the government with an unsellable property. Every day, heart wrenching stories of bankruptcy, depression and suicide emerge.
When the National Audit Office looked at this last year it found that the pace of remediation was painfully slow. By April 2020, 456 buildings had been identified with ACM cladding (the type used at Grenfell) but only 149 had been fully remediated.
Why should buying a house be any different from buying a car or any other product? If the product is defective then you would expect to be compensated and not to suffer financially. When you buy a new car, or a new home, most of us have little idea what is under the bonnet, or behind the walls. You buy bricks and mortar and you assume that the place is built on solid foundations, that the structure is sound, that the builder has used safe materials both internally and externally, that there is insulation in the walls, that the windows fit properly and that it will be fit to live in for several decades without any major remediation.
Above all, you assume that you can insure the property and take out a mortgage. You buy largely on trust. ‘Safe as houses’ goes the saying. Of course, most people will employ a surveyor to check the property – but anyone who has bought a home will know that surveyors’ reports are riddled with caveats, listing all the things that he or she was not able to see.
Likewise, the builder will take on a warranty from the likes of NHBC, LABC, or Zurich. You also naively assume that these outfits have inspected the property before issuing a warranty, that the builder has employed a clerk of works to inspect the work in progress, that the local authority building control team have visited the site at least once to ensure it is being built in accordance with the approved plans.
In fact, it is likely that few of these things have happened. Ever since the building control teams were privatised in 1985 and design and build contracts were introduced, most of the onus now sits with the contractor. He can choose his own independent inspector. Everything is done on trust. Add this to the mix of a booming housing market where you can sell any old rubbish and you have a recipe for certain disaster.
As the Grenfell public inquiry has shown, the contracting system is now so opaque that everyone can blame everyone else. The buck stops with no one. Dame Judith Hackitt summed it up in her report: “The mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings to others must stop.”
With any luck the measures in the Building Safety Act will help to improve the situation but we will have to wait for the final report of the Public Inquiry, which I hope will lead to a fundamental review of the Building Regulations.
Actually, I have some sympathy with building owners. After all, it was the government and its agents that wrote the Building Regulations and deemed many of these deadly materials to be safe. It was this and previous governments that privatised building control and determined that we should build ‘as cheaply as possible’. We need to return to a regime where quality and safety come first. There might be a short-term cost but the long-term benefits will be much greater.
(This blog was first published by The Housing Quality Network on 3rd Feb 2021)