Michael Gove’s building safety announcement today addresses the two contrasting problems of the cladding scandal, but fails to provide any convincing solutions.
On the one hand, the Secretary of State for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (with the unmemorable acronym DLUHC – apparently pronounced 'de-Luck') has finally brought to an end the absurdity of people living in buildings of between three and six storeys (11 to 18 metres), which are clad in unsafe external wall systems, being required to take out loans to remediate homes that were never fit for the purpose of keeping them safe when purchased. And, on the other, he has tackled the elephant in the room of people living in perfectly safe homes (especially in buildings under 11 metres high) believing that they are not. Unfortunately, an exaggeration of the building safety crisis has swung the risk pendulum too far in the wrong direction. Everyone concerned, from Michael Gove to the construction and fire safety industries needs to restore confidence in buildings where the life-safety risk is very low.
Gove is right to put the focus on the construction sector in terms of funding remediation work to set right these issues of building safety. But he is wrong in resisting any calls to use public money to support this expanded remediation programme. Many construction companies and developers have already accepted the responsibility to fund remediation work and I expect that this will now extend to buildings less than 18 metres. Others will no doubt procrastinate by continuing to pass the buck of blame (especially, and wrongly, to the building control profession) and, of course, some will no longer be in business. Where do the funds come from in such cases? If there is no safety net of public funding where other pockets are either unwilling to cough up or no longer in existence, then the opportunity for funding the necessary remediation becomes a lottery.
It is wrong to place all the blame on construction. Successive governments have played a game of political pass-the-parcel with an all-party consensus on deregulation since the 1980s. Each government has evolved its own means of slimming down the state and reducing regulation and this is especially the case with building regulations and building control. The upshot of all the reductive movement from clear and objective regulations to subjective generalisation – reliant on such things as desktop studies and guidance in manufacturers’ marketing materials – has been a recipe for uncertainty and for the regular repetition of errors ('if it was OK on that project then it must be OK here'), which explains the proliferation of unsafe cladding on so many buildings.
Another elephant in the room is the reason why rain screen cladding was used with such alacrity on high-rise buildings. Examine the briefs and it becomes clear that combatting climate change and gentrifying ugly buildings were key factors. So in order to pursue one objective (reducing carbon emissions) another essential requirement (keeping residents’ safe) was taken for granted.
For these reasons, the government cannot avoid culpability for this building safety crisis. To use the public purse to pay for the remediation of an 18 metre building – and not for one of 17.5 metres – seems iniquitous to say the least. Gove should make it clear that the government will be the pocket of last resort if all other funding avenues fail.
The biggest problem in the extension of the net for remedial work is the capacity of the construction and fire safety sectors to carry out the work. The programme to remediate buildings with the same or similar Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) in the External Wall Systems (EWS) as used on Grenfell Tower is largely complete; but the £5 billion fund to remediate other safety concerns in the use of non-ACM EWS has hardly been touched. This is not for want of applications (more than 1,500 at last count); it is largely to do with a lack of competent installers and the ongoing availability of appropriate insurance. The former problem is so acute – made worse by the post-Brexit exodus of workers from the EU – that the industry and government have worked together to establish a new training course for cladding installers. The insurance issue is such a problem that some kind of government intervention is essential in order to unblock this barrier. The government could – and should – act by self-insuring projects funded under their expanded Building Safety programme.
Estimates of how many buildings between 11 metres and 18 metres high will be added to the ever-expanding pool of buildings awaiting remediation vary from 38,000 to 80,000, and the Housing Select Committee has already indicated that around £10 billion more is required to make buildings safe. It is an enormous programme of work and expectations will need to be managed accordingly. The worst thing that could happen is that there is another blaze in a high rise tower where the cladding issue has not been fixed; the next worst thing is that future building safety problems are stocked up by rushing work with an incompetent workforce.
Gove’s statement is welcome. The construction industry should accept its responsibility for allowing the profligate use of unsafe materials on the outside of buildings and failing in a fundamental duty to keep residents safe. But the government also needs to do more to provide reassurance to residents in buildings of 11 metres to 18 metres that they will not have to endure ongoing uncertainty; and it needs to work with the industry and the insurance sector to improve the capacity to be able to make all buildings safe.