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Tue, 4 August 2020

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The Government's scandalously slow progress of removing flammable cladding has left residents trapped, desperate and living in terror

The Government's scandalously slow progress of removing flammable cladding has left residents trapped, desperate and living in terror

Of the 455 high-rise buildings identified to be covered in ACM cladding, 155 have had the cladding removed and 300 are yet to be remediated, writes Rushanara Ali MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Three years on from Grenfell, it's time government prioritised funding to protect the 60,000 residents still living in unsafe tower blocks with highly flammable cladding.

Three years on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy we remember the seventy-two people who lost their lives on that terrible night. We stand with their friends and families and we stand with the survivors and campaigners who continue to fight for justice.

It is clear the fire spread so fast because the building was clad in a highly flammable material, and the way it was fixed to the building created spaces for the flames to leap up the building.

The first reports from the official inquiry headed by Sir Martin Moore-Bick show that Grenfell Tower's cladding was not compliant with building regulations ‘because they did not adequately resist the spread of fire over them. On the contrary they promoted it.’

Knowing what we know, it is beyond belief that there are still an estimated 60,000 people living in tower blocks with the same or similar types of cladding on their homes. Ministers have made promise after promise to remove this cladding, but progress has been scandalously slow.

The Government’s latest release in June revealed that of the 455 high-rise buildings identified to be covered in ACM cladding, 155 have had the cladding removed and 300 are yet to be remediated.

The Government has repeatedly missed its own deadlines – it said the job would be finished in 2019 for social sector blocks, and by June 2020 for private sector blocks. Then the pandemic struck, and the process of making these blocks safe was slowed even more.   

Our cash strapped local authorities and housing associations must not be forced to pay for urgent remediation works from their own budgets

The recent report by the HCLG Select Committee found that the £1 billion Building Safety Fund would only pay for around 600 buildings out of 1,700 currently deemed at risk.

There are concerning limits in the small print of the prospectus. The fund effectively excludes social housing providers from applying for full cladding remediation costs, unless the works ‘threaten’ the ‘financial viability’ of the provider.

Our cash strapped local authorities and housing associations must not be forced to pay for urgent remediation works from their own budgets.

Not only will this have a damaging impact on the number of affordable homes they can build and hinder the maintenance work needed for existing buildings, it also risks leaseholders being left to foot the bill, which can amount to thousands of pounds each. 

Lives are being ruined.

People cannot easily sell or re-mortgage their properties. Responsibility for paying for repairs can easily get passed around the complex ownership structures of private blocks, with many owners based in other countries. 

People living in these tower blocks are well aware of the dangers, and go to bed each night knowing that a fire would be fatal for themselves and their families. The pressures of three months of lockdown, and the looming recession, have been exacerbated by the fear of a fire.

One of my constituents told me “I spend all day stressed at the thought of losing my home. At night, I’m anxious about the possibility of fire. I haven’t slept well for months and don’t see any end to the situation. I’m trapped, I cannot sell, I’m not allowed to rent the flat out - I’m forced to stay here. It now feels like a prison.”

Another said “ I can’t sleep from worry. Because of COVID-19, I could lose my job any day now, and when that happens I won’t be able to pay my mortgage or sell my flat. Because of cladding, I will end up losing everything I have worked for. It’s a big worry that affects my mental health and sleep. It’s not fair for the government to allow housing associations and construction companies to sell us unsafe houses. We are now getting punished for their mistakes.’

There are thousands of similar stories from trapped, desperate people who are living in terror, while ministers, despite some money being made available, appear mostly unmoved by their cries for help.  

The Government should increase and adapt the limited first-come-first-served Building Safety Fund according to need. Where private sector landlords are dragging their feet, the Government should step in with compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) and secure the repair costs from the owners. The threat of a CPO would push property owners into action, rather than relying on their goodwill.

The HCLG Select Committee recommended a new national body be established to buy up the freeholds of buildings which pose a fire risk and expedite the repairs before making the building a leasehold property.

I hope ministers will look at this idea, and others, to get things moving. The pandemic is of course a priority, but so is the wellbeing of 60,000 citizens in unsafe buildings. We need action now.

 

Rushanara Ali is the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

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