In 2017, the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people. It was reported soon after that the building materials used as insulation cladding in the tower’s 2009 renovation were highly combustible, and had caused the fire’s rapid upward spread.
This preventable tragedy should have been met with quick and committed action on behalf of the government to remove—or to compel private developers to remove—similar materials from other residential buildings. But four years and a global pandemic later, residents in hundreds of thousands of flats across the country are still waiting for their homes to be made safe.
‘At the start of last year this was affecting a few hundred buildings, and it’s just got exponentially worse since the government’s Consolidated Advice Notes were published in January 2020,’ explains Giles, a Manchester-based organiser with End Our Cladding Scandal. ‘In the last year and a half, every couple of weeks, there are two or three new buildings that come to us for help.
‘Sometimes the buildings just receive a letter saying they need to do more checks; sometimes the checks have been done and they have specific issues. Other times it’s the waking watch: people will come home and just see someone with a high vis. Often you don’t really find anything out until it’s too late – until you get a letter through with your bill.’
This was the experience of Ben and Philip, two affected leaseholders who volunteer with the Cladding Scandal Map, a project created by residents in a development in East London that uses crowdsourced data to illustrate the nationwide extent of the problem.
‘In March, we saw the high-vis jackets of the waking watch teams on our property,’ Ben says. ‘We didn’t know anything about it. We didn’t know how much it was going to cost and didn’t know how long it would be for. The first thing I did was go online to try and find if there were any buildings around us that have also been affected and to reach out and talk to others in a similar situation.’
At time of writing the buildings logged on the map number 603, and stretch from Cornwall to Glasgow. The government has been making a show of not leaving the residents in these and other affected buildings in the lurch, and in April, Parliament passed the Fire Safety Act.
The act clarifies building safety responsibilities, with further legislation forthcoming in the form of the Building Safety Bill. Despite a considerable Tory backbench rebellion and failed attempts by the Lords and Labour, however, the Fire Safety Act does not include any amendment to prevent the costs of making buildings safe from being passed onto the leaseholders who bought flats without knowing they were at risk, or who were led to believe they were safe due to poor regulatory oversight.
Instead, the government has offered a pot of dedicated funding—£5.1 billion—to protect leaseholders from the costs of remediating their buildings – but only those that have problems with cladding, specifically, and measure over 18 metres high.
‘It’s not anywhere near enough,’ says Philip. ‘People might look at that fund and say, “Oh, that’s great. The government is doing something.” But when you look into it and you realise that it could be a £50 billion problem you see that £5 billion isn’t going to achieve anything.’ (Other estimates have put the cost at £15 billion, but both figures are disputed.)
Giles notes that £5.1 billion is a step forward from when the campaign started, when there was no money whatsoever on offer for buildings with flammable cladding that differed in material from the aluminium composite used on Grenfell (the government has pledged to fully fund high-rise ACM remediation costs, although in March this year Inside Housing reported that 223 high-rise buildings with ACM cladding were still waiting for work to begin). But he agrees that much more needs to be done.
‘It’s not just cladding,’ Giles says. ‘That’s one obvious element of it, but you’ve got the whole question of insulation, balconies, internal compartmentation. As far as we’re aware they keep saying that the money to replace cladding in buildings over 18 metres isn’t going to run out, but that brings us to the question of what proper risk prioritisation is. We have one building in Manchester that’s fifteen metres high and built with timber. They’re just going to have to remediate completely, and they’re not going to get any money for it.’
And costs for leaseholders are piling up before remediation has begun. Ben and Philip currently have to pay £300-400 a month for the waking watch and are expecting a potential £400 per month hike on their insurance. ‘And then at some point we’ll have to pay for an interim fire alarm,’ Ben adds, ‘which will be around £1500 per flat.’
The bills for the actual remediation, of course, will be far bigger. ‘When we look at social media, we know that across the country, there are already people living in buildings where they have had bills of £75,000, £85,000, or even higher,’ says Philip. ‘People are anxious. There are already some people in our development who are unemployed, people who are still on furlough who don’t even know whether or not they’ll actually have a job to go back to. We’re talking about people who already rely on food banks to survive. So the potential costs of £300 a month – that’s going to be enough in some cases to push people over the edge, to a point where they can’t cope.’
The pressure of these costs and the risk they represent, combined with the trauma of Covid, has been high. ‘You’re locked down for 23 hours in a flat that might be unsafe – is unsafe,’ Giles says. ‘We’ve had a few bankruptcies, and two suicides that we’re aware of.’
To palliate these costs, the government promised a loan scheme for residents in buildings that don’t qualify for the £5 billion fund in early February. ‘Three and a half months later they’ve got no idea how that loan scheme’s going to work,’ Giles explains. ‘They keep saying it’s not going to affect credit ratings or property prices, but you’re still imposing essentially £600 a year on someone who might be in a tight financial situation themselves. It’s a horrible and unfair way of dealing with it.’
The government’s failure to get a handle on the ongoing scandal and its consequences, particularly for those not insulated from its costs by wealth, is mirrored by its failure to pursue justice for the survivors and bereaved of the Grenfell disaster. Speaking after her attendance at the ongoing inquiry, Yvette, one of the founders of Justice for Grenfell, explains that bereaved families and survivors are feeling increasingly frustrated with the public inquiry process as it rolls on and are anxious to see a criminal investigation followed by prosecutions instead.
‘Hillsborough had to beg for the best part of two decades for an inquiry,’ she says. ‘Orgreave is still waiting. So what we’ve worked out, going as far back as Aberfan, is that inquiries are the gift of the government of the day. They can choose to give one or not. And they cost a lot of public money. But they have no legal recourse, so they can’t call for prosecutions, and very few of them ever find against government policy, government practice, government culture.’ She adds that there is no legal requirement for the government to take notice of the findings, either.
When the government has accepted inquiry recommendations in the past—Yvette cites the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence as an example—those findings are often watered down in any subsequent policy changes. There is concern that this is already happening: the recommendations of Phase 1 of the Grenfell inquiry have yet to be enshrined in law.
What about the technical turn of the conversation around Grenfell and the cladding scandal more broadly? Yvette feels that those in power risk losing sight of the fact that this is, at its core, a question of humanity. ‘People get lost in the inquiry process,’ she continues. ‘But people are the priority, because people have been affected – at worst they’ve lost their lives. You have to start with the people. The whole reason why those materials went up in the first place is based on who was living there. The reason why there was cost cutting on the project is because ‘they’ viewed the residents as ‘undeserving’ of a safe and decent home. A cheap refurbishment for the tenants, and maximum profit for the business owners.
‘If the inquiry had people at the heart of it,’ she continues, ‘you would have to question a whole host of government policy going back decades, in terms of how we treat people in social housing, in terms of how public services are outsourced and privatised and cut, and in terms of how these things adversely affect black and working-class communities in particular.’
Giles echoes Yvette’s sense of the relationships between Grenfell and the cladding scandal and the entrenched inequality that makes Britain’s economy so fragile. ‘This has the potential to be a whole kind of systemic shock,’ he says. ‘The government recognises that, but it’s not doing enough to actually correct it. We make allusions to the 2007/8 financial crisis, and some might say that’s overdoing it, but it could be that sort of thing where, if the first rung on the property ladder is broken, or it’s kept exclusively for people who don’t need a mortgage, it speeds up any gentrification.
‘Then you get into the conflicted relationships between Conservatives and developers, and the optics are horrible.’ He points to the 2009 fire at Lakanal House, which killed six—including three young children—and the failure to implement the subsequent recommendations as evidence that these problems long predate Grenfell.
Philip is more specific about the relationships between the Tories and developers. ‘The government can fix the problem when it puts its mind to it, but in the case of Grenfell, they’ve chosen not to not to make it a priority,’ he says. ‘They’re not putting their mind to it. And that’s most likely because the Conservatives have received millions of pounds of donations from some of the very companies that are responsible.’
With the anniversary of the Grenfell fire approaching, those involved in organising around fire safety in buildings are anticipating the influx of sympathetic social media posts from the politicians now showing disinterest in taking the necessary steps to prevent this kind of disaster from happening again. That anticipation is mixed up with a broader fear that the government might prove able to play for time long enough to wear out the public anger before a resolution—for the survivors, the bereaved, and the residents now at risk in their own homes—is found.
‘We’ve got Covid,’ Yvette says. ‘We’ve got Black Lives Matter. We’ve got Marcus Rashford campaigning for food for our kids. We’ve got food banks opening up all over the place. You can’t always use your energy to respond to messed up politics in which there’s an establishment class who at best are indifferent.’
But it’s the relationships between these issues that Yvette feels offer the best chance at meaningful change. ‘I’ve made this point before, but it would be a ‘tragedy’ itself if Grenfell’s legacy was only about cladding,’ she says. ‘This is a real opportunity for Britain to wake up and change itself into a society in which we want to live. We need to fight for this, and more importantly, we need to fight to win.’