This summer marked three years since the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower. It was also a stark reminder that people continue to live in buildings with unsafe cladding and while the government has finally announced a £1 billion Building Safety Fund it remains to be seen if this will be enough for those who have already waited such a long time for a resolution.
In Tower Hamlets we have one of the highest numbers of high-rise buildings in the country. When I was first elected as local Mayor I commissioned a review of fire safety of council owned blocks back in 2016 and we invested over £6m over 3 years to keep council tenants safe. Following the Grenfell tragedy we carried out further safety checks. However, our powers are fairly limited when it comes to private blocks and for them the situation remains uncertain.
I’ve met with residents from many of the blocks affected and heard for myself their concerns that having saved to buy a property they are now effectively trapped, in the stressful situation of knowing their block is unsafe but having to fight for government to take some responsibility on the costs. Developers have been reluctant to step in and meet costs as they wait to see if the government will provide funding and uncertain of what costs legally they can pass on to the leaseholders. Leaseholders facing uncertain futures are blighted, with in some cases unsaleable or ‘unmortgageable’ homes. Properties have effectively been made worthless by the decision that they have, with hindsight, always been unsafe. Add to this that many people are trapped at home and face an uncertain economic situation due to the pandemic and my heart goes out to those left in this mess. They feel they have been passed from pillar to post.
Having initially been concerned with the safety of social housing, with whose providers we more normally deal, and along with Councillors and MPs, we’ve had our inboxes inundated with concerned leaseholders in private blocks contacting us about the safety certification they require to borrow or sell, and of course provide reassurance.
Tower Hamlets has some of the highest numbers of residential blocks needing EWS investigations and some residents have been told that they will need to wait for a significant length of time – regularly more than a year – before these assessments take place due to a shortage of surveyors, and the priority their block has been assessed as meriting. This of course means that those in ‘lower risk’ blocks might have to wait longer than those with higher risk – the obvious approach from a risk assessment perspective, but potentially just a blight of uncertain length for them. Some haven’t even been advised of a timeframe, leaving them in limbo. While it’s obviously crucial that buildings are fully and properly assessed for fire risks it is unfair for leaseholders to be left waiting. It is worth asking whether there is another way?
Where blocks have been deemed unsafe works to remedy this are very expensive. While I welcomed the government finally announcing a £1 billion fund to address some of the costs of making buildings safe it is unlikely to be anywhere near enough. Recent figures showed that Tower Hamlets had the highest number of buildings that have registered for the fund with 282 applications within the borough, more than twice as many as any other authority.
We await funding to be allocated but it feels like too little too late as even when the money is allocated it will obviously take time to carry out the works. It also won’t cover other additional safety measures that leaseholders might be covering such as wardens. And it doesn’t cover the additional costs which often seem to arise once intrusive work is started.
I’ve raised the issue of cladding consistently along with other council leaders when we have spoken to ministers. In Parliament Labour has called a Westminster Hall Debate and pressed for government to hold a debate in the House of Commons. However when given the chance the government recently voted down Labour’s attempt to implement the recommendations from the Grenfell public enquiry as part of the Fire Safety Bill. The Grenfell Tower inquiry published these recommendations last October but following a consultation the government has continued to dither. All the while people are waiting, unsure if their buildings are safe, or who will meet the costs. Government needs to make sure the funding is adequate to end the scandal of unsafe cladding.