Building safety reform campaign continues

2021 marks four years since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower that claimed 72 lives. It shouldn’t take a horror of that scale, or any scale, to prompt change, but yet political divides still seem to be preventing meaningful action taking place. As well as this grim anniversary, 2021 marks the beginning of long overdue regulatory reform, where we expect to see some of the biggest changes to building safety laws for over 40 years.

Since the last time I wrote about the ongoing work led by the LGA, Lib Dem councillors, Lords and Parliamentarians to fight for tenant and leasehold rights, the Government has finally announced a series of steps it is taking to address the cladding crisis.

The trouble is that, not only is this action coming far later than necessary, I don’t think it goes anywhere near far enough.

The £3.5 billion package unveiled by Robert Jenrick fails to address the problems faced by residents living in unsellable flats in unsafe blocks. The fund is restricted to buildings over 17.7m in height, meaning around 88,000 buildings between 11m and 18m require remediation work but have no recourse to funding.

The fact that recent fires in Barking, Crewe, Worcester Park and Bolton all occurred in buildings below 18m shows the risk of this approach.

There will be Government funding for the removal of cladding for buildings of between 11 and 18 storeys, but crucially this is in the form of what the department has termed a “long-term, low-interest, Government-backed financing arrangement”. In other words, leaseholders will have to foot the eventual bill, with the Government pledging that no leaseholder will ever have to pay more than £50 a month towards the removal of the cladding.

Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government failed to mention anything to do with other widespread defects such as missing firebreaks and defective firedoors or paying for 24-hour fire patrols and steep insurance premium hikes.

The building safety crisis continues to affect hundreds of thousands of people across the country and yet not a word about this was to be found in the Chancellor’s Budget announcement. The Government is still under-estimating the scale of the problem.

Earlier in late February, as well as when the bill returned to the Commons for the second time in March, we saw Government reject cross-party amendments submitted to the Fire Safety Bill to protect leaseholders from the spiralling costs of fixing fire safety problems. Also defeated was an amendment to force the government to implement key recommendations from the Grenfell Tower inquiry including making owners tell fire brigades what materials are in wall systems, inspect fire doors annually and lifts monthly – all things that failed during the Grenfell fire.

The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire inquiry exposed deficiencies in the building safety regime and the potential abuse of safety tests by companies supplying cladding and insulation across the UK.

Whilst the draft Building Safety Bill introduced last year is a profoundly important step towards remedying the faults of the building safety regime, the current building safety crisis – which goes beyond problems with cladding systems – is the consequence of decades of regulatory failure under Governments of different political compositions.

What is required is a new and comprehensive approach. This must begin with the acceptance of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Recommendations. After which the bill must further address the levels of competence in the construction industry and the wider chronic shortage of fire engineering and similar expertise in the UK as well as improve competence framework for building safety managers, make product testing regime more transparent, and introduce a fair system which would protect all leaseholders, not just those in blocks over 18 meters.

Designers, developers, product manufacturers and building owners need to be given clear duties in relation to building safety and clear guidance on those duties. It is important that the new regulatory framework does not create a two-tier safety system. To avoid this we need a partnership between the new building regulator, councils and fire services, with local authorities given effective powers, including meaningful sanctions.

The campaign to end the building safety crisis continues with Lib Dem councillors, Lords and Parliamentarians proudly leading the charge to make meaningful change happen to save lives and livelihoods.

 

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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One Comment

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Apr '21 - 7:22am

    There is also the subject of Power Wheelchairs and charging, that is another safety issue.
    With the lack of suitable accessible housing category 3, I think its little known about or understood just how many disabled people are living in an environment that could be classed as a Fire Hazard as per the Guidelines of the Fire Officers.
    I charge my Power Wheelchair behind my front door, making it impossible to get out of my property should a fire happen. Lithium batteries produce hydrogen, a gas lighter than air, you can imagine what could happen.
    We need tighter laws on fire hazards, I understand that their has been other situations of concerns than the fire at the flats in London.
    This article highlights the failure to understand the lack of safety within buildings, one loss of life, should reflect the need to react in a positive way and make fire safety the important issue it is.
    Could I also add, no mobility scooter should be charged on an extension lead, that applies to a Power Wheelchair too. I was advised I was advised by the Fire Officer that an RCD should be used as a safety back up.

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