Going over old ground is never much fun. It is then with some hesitation, and a great deal of frustration and regret, that I pen yet another column on the cladding scandal, with little progress having been made since my last in January.
Given the additional, very welcome £1bn Building Safety Fund announced by Rishi Sunak in March, this is, I understand, a matter of opinion open to some debate. But, as those delivering public services will know, the promise of cash is not in itself enough: it must be backed up by real, tangible action on the ground.
Unfortunately, so far, all evidence points to the opposite. The process of remediation continues to move at a snail’s pace and hundreds of thousands of families remain in dangerous, highly flammable buildings.
To put this into some context, of the initial £200m fund unveiled last May (designed to support those in the private sector blighted by aluminium composite material cladding), to date, just £26.4m has been approved, with only £1.4m spent. In fact, 13 months after it was announced, a solitary nine buildings, out of 94 eligible, have received funding.
While a mixture of state aid rules, uncooperative freeholders and, more recently, COVID-19, have all hindered progress, these should not cloud our appraisal of what lies behind the delay.
It is bureaucracy, that old foe of central and local government alike, that’s culpable. That is why, in spite of the £1bn package announced at the Budget, it is imperative ministers do not ease their foot off the pedal.
Indeed, the recently published terms of the Building Safety Fund have already raised more questions, not least on the adequacy of the package. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is itself working on the assumption that there are around 1,700 buildings over 18 metres tall with unsafe cladding, estimating that the cost of remediating all of them could be up to £3.5bn. At the same time, having conceded that these buildings are indeed unsafe, it has confirmed that once the £1bn ceiling of the fund has been reached, no more public money will be made available.
What’s more, by managing this limited funding on a first come, first served basis, rather than framing it in terms of severity, the Government risks reducing this to a race that pits leaseholder against leaseholder as they each attempt to desperately submit their application as quickly as possible – not recognising that some of the most serious cases will be the ones that take longest to resolve. For even after approval, agreements will have to be tendered, contractors hired, planning permission secured, materials sourced and scaffolding erected before the flammable panels can begin to be removed.
Worryingly, the more we delve into this problem, the bigger we realise it is. Not even touching on the considerably inflated insurance bills and waking watch costs I outlined in my last article – which are costing innocent leaseholders tens of thousands of pounds each month this drags on – there is the problem of insufficient fire breaks, combustible or missing insulation, timber balconies and walkways, as well as inadequate fire doors. Who will pick up the tab for these defects, which again, are as a result of a failure in regulation?
The appointment of Stephen Greenhalgh, who has significant local government experience, is to be welcomed. His eagerness to engage with those leading the charge, not least the UK Cladding Action Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Leasehold and Commonhold Reform, of which I have recently become a co-chair for cladding, has already helped to restore some trust previously lost. Under his stewardship, I hope we will begin to see a more joined-up approach to tackling this problem, bringing the expertise of local government together with leaseholders, the Fire Service, the construction industry, and insurers.
Whichever course is taken, we need to break the deadlock. The testimonies of, among others, my constituent, Ritu Saha, at a recent evidence session of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee serve as a stark reminder of the awful toll this continues to take on people’s mental and physical health.
Sunday will mark the three-year anniversary of the tragic fire at Grenfell. The promises made in its aftermath – namely, that no one will be left in an unsafe home – cannot be allowed to fall by the wayside. The Building Safety Fund must deliver.
Sir Bob Neill MP is a former local government minister and is chair of the Commons Justice Committee