The writer is chief executive of the National Housing Federation
Four years have passed since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower and the UK is still in the midst of the building safety crisis it uncovered.
Today thousands of residential buildings, schools, hospitals and offices remain covered in flammable materials while arguments over who should pay to make them safe continue. It could take over a decade to make all of the affected buildings meet safety standards.
We now know that it is not just cladding that is the problem. There are safety risks within buildings as well, such as inadequate fire stopping systems. The immense cost of all this work, estimated by parliament to be £15bn, threatens to bankrupt thousands of homeowners and affect the supply of much needed new social housing.
With the consequences so far-reaching — not only affecting people’s safety but also their livelihoods, families and futures — resolving this crisis is a tall order for any government.
In an effort to both widen homeowners’ access to funding and to ensure that work was prioritised on buildings it deemed most at risk, the government increased the Building Safety Fund to £3.5bn in February. This will fund the work to remove cladding other than the aluminium-composite material that was on Grenfell, but which is now also considered dangerous, on buildings over 18 metres tall where homeowners are living.
The fund is aimed at prioritising the tallest buildings, those likely to pose the greatest risk in the event of a fire. However, since it is restricted to funding for homeowners, no money is available for the thousands of buildings covered in non-ACM flammable cladding where social housing residents live.
This decision could have unintended but serious consequences. The deadline for applications to the fund passed this week. A requirement of securing the funding is that work to remove and replace the cladding must start on site by September 30, a mere three months away.
This means that, in a race to meet the deadline, the UK’s limited cladding removal resources are likely to be concentrated on making private blocks safe first. Social housing residents will have to wait.
Housing associations are in the process of prioritising the buildings they own according to risk. However, the vast majority of private buildings that will have qualified for funding are owned by private freeholders. This pressure on resources could create a two-tier system, where social housing residents are left in limbo in equally high-risk buildings.
Alongside this, some buildings that have not qualified for funding are over six storeys high but under 18 metres. These buildings are considered high risk enough to be in scope of the new safety regulations due to be published in the imminent building safety bill, but apparently not high risk enough to be prioritised for safety work. There is currently no prioritisation for buildings under 18 metres no matter how tall, how much cladding they have or how dangerous they are deemed by experts.
The lesson that should have been learnt from the Grenfell tragedy is that safety is paramount. Safety must always be the number one priority. No matter what and no matter who.
We urgently need a government-led nationwide programme of prioritisation that takes into account all buildings and all safety risks so we can co-ordinate the country’s limited resources to where they are needed most.
For this to work effectively, the government must fund all building safety work upfront, putting all buildings on an equal financial footing. They can then claim the costs back from those responsible for this crisis — developers and the manufacturers of dangerous materials — once the work is complete. We owe it to everyone affected to put their safety first.