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The disgrace of the building safety crisis – and what it says about those in charge

Under current government policy, dangerous cladding removal resources are likely to be prioritised for private housing, with social housing residents forced to wait, writes MATT WRACK

THE Grenfell Tower disaster exposed the appalling situation facing hundreds of thousands of people in relation to building safety in Britain. 

While the British government can launch drone strikes in countries thousands of miles away, it cannot ensure the safety of British citizens sleeping in their own homes. 

In the Fire Brigades Union we have called Grenfell an atrocity and that remains an accurate description of what happened. 

It was an atrocity because so many died in a block which had been turned into a death trap by the refurbishment. 

Every element of fire safety within the building failed. These are the measures which are supposed to prevent fire spread or allow people to escape. 

This was most notable in relation to the application of flammable ACM cladding — effectively wrapping a residential building in petrol. 

What has emerged since the tragedy is that large numbers of purpose-built blocks of flats face similar fire safety failures. 

In many cases these relate to cladding, but they also involve problems with fire doors, windows lifts or other such fire protection measures. It is — or should be — a national disgrace.

Shockingly, despite the fact that Grenfell happened in a council block (14 flats had been bought under right to buy), social housing tenants are at the back of the queue when it comes to replacing dangerous cladding, according to National Housing Federation chief executive Kate Henderson. 

To understand what exactly she means and understand the full picture we need to look at the detail. 

In May 2018, the government announced that it would provide £400 million for the replacement of ACM cladding — the cladding type present at Grenfell — on social housing over 18m tall. 

This work has now largely taken place, with the most recent Building Safety Programme Data Release stating that 98 per cent of social sector buildings had now either completed or started remediation of ACM cladding.  

However, as even the government acknowledges, this is only the start of the problem. Beyond ACM cladding, there are, according to Inside Housing, “dozens of other systems known to be dangerous including, but not limited to, some timber, high-pressure laminate and polystyrene cladding and insulation systems.” 

Furthermore, as the FBU has argued for some time, fire doesn’t respect arbitrary limits on height set by government. 

There will be many dangerous social housing buildings below 18m tall, with ACM cladding problems or other types, or with other safety problems. 

In June 2020, Inside Housing estimated that the scandal would “undoubtedly” affect “millions” in all types of housing, when we take these factors into account. 

So there is much to be done. We are clear who should pay, and should have paid all along: those who profited. 

Where private companies were involved in the building or refurbishment these properties, cutting corners in the name of profit, they should be made to pay the price of their corruption. 

For too long, from the 2008 financial crash to, quite possibly, the current energy crisis, the story has been that the fat cats get to play casino capitalism — then demand the taxpayer bail them out when it all, predictably, goes wrong. Enough is enough. 

However, we recognise that in the short-term getting companies to pay can be difficult. 

The End Our Cladding Scandal campaign group’s position is absolutely right: that the government should step in and pay for repairs, and then set about reclaiming the cash from any responsible parties. 

That would deal with the most vital aspect of this issue: the fact that people, in social housing, private housing, schools and offices, are still having to spend time in dangerously unsafe buildings.  

The government has taken some steps in terms of providing this cash, but it is nowhere near enough. 

It has promised £5.1 billion, although this is only for buildings over 18m and only for cladding (including ACM), thereby missing other building safety failures that form part of the crisis, like missing fire-breaks in cavities or non-compliant fire escape rules. 

Moreover, this figure falls far short of the £15bn which the housing, communities and local government select committee estimated is required to fix the defects — and that’s just in residential buildings. 

But the most stunning shortfall of this fund is the one which is touched upon above. Since the Building Safety Fund is only available in relation to homeowners, it provides no money in relation to homes where social housing tenants live.

There is a particular, potentially deadly, consequence here. The scheme has a requirement that work to remove and replace cladding must start by the end of this month, if it is to be paid for from the scheme. 

This means that cladding removal resources will, at the moment, likely be prioritised for private housing. As a consequence, social housing residents will be forced to wait. 

In its reporting on the building safety crisis, our country’s media has appeared unable to widen its focus from leaseholders to these additional victims of the crisis. 

Their plight is receiving little attention. Instead we need to build campaigning unity among all those affected by the building safety crisis.

Before Grenfell, the voices and demands of tenants and residents were ignored in the most disgraceful and condescending ways. 

We need to build a housing movement that simply cannot be ignored. 

As trade unionists and socialists, it is our responsibility support the building of such campaigns — for safety, against evictions, against overcrowding. 

That’s why on the Grenfell walks, the FBU marches with the slogan: Decent, safe homes for all. It’s not too much to ask for. 

Matt Wrack is general secreatary of the Fire Brigades Union. The FBU will be hosting a fringe event at Labour conference called Grenfell Tower And The Building Safety Crisis: Decent, Safe Homes For All. It will be taking place at 5pm on Monday September 27, with speakers including Mr Wrack, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, Mike Amesbury MP (invited), Kate Ewert of Labour Campaign for Council and building safety campaigner Natalie Carter, and with the FBU’s Rosa Crowley-Bennett chairing.


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