Government’s plan to end building safety crisis still has large holes

Millions are affected, but the Treasury seems reluctant to stump up the cash to fix problems resulting from decades of failed regulation, writes Ben Chapman

Monday 10 January 2022 19:28
<p>Michael Gove said it was ‘long past time’ to fix the crisis </p>

Michael Gove said it was ‘long past time’ to fix the crisis

A devastating fire at a residential block in New York this weekend should have reminded Michael Gove of how urgently he needs to fix Britain’s building safety crisis.

At least 17 people died, including eight children, bringing back memories of the Grenfell Tower inferno that killed 72. It could all happen again.

The horrors of that night in 2017 should have immediately triggered a wholesale review of risky buildings. It should have resulted in rapid work to make the most dangerous blocks safe, with the state agreeing to cover all necessary costs, recovering money where possible from industry.

Yet, four-and-a-half years after Grenfell, Gove, who is in charge of fixing the mess, admitted on live radio that he did not even have a reliable estimate of the number of defective buildings. It is an indictment of the lack of urgency with which the government has approached this crisis.

Ministers have sought to minimise the scale of the problem, claiming that buildings under 18 metres are safe, which they aren’t, and that leaseholders would not be forced to pay, which they have been.

Addressing the Commons on Monday, Gove said it was “long past time” to fix this crisis, as if his party had not been in government for more than a decade.

He criticised building owners and lenders for being too risk-averse on fire safety issues, without admitting that this was a result of the government’s own flawed advice.

He called for a “proportionate” and “balanced” approach, without acknowledging that this is only possible if you understand the relative risks posed by each building, which the government clearly does not.

Interim costs are bankrupting leaseholders now. Many people cannot wait months for relief

While the progress Gove has promised is welcome, it is only thanks to the heroic efforts of campaigners that he made his statement to the Commons at all.

An additional £4bn to be squeezed out of developers and the scrapping of a loan scheme for mid-rise buildings are positive steps, but large holes remain in Gove’s plans.

The £4bn is to be made up of voluntary contributions from developers who seem less than willing to cough up. If the money isn’t forthcoming, additional taxes will be levied, the secretary of state said. But the Treasury has not yet agreed this, meaning cash may have to come out of Gove’s own budget for levelling up.

Funding is still set aside only for cladding, and there remains a lack of clarity about who will pay to fix a host of other safety defects such as missing firebreaks. As Gove’s opposite number Lisa Nandy pointed out, you cannot make a building “half-safe”.

There will be statutory protection to prevent leaseholders being ordered to pay any remediation costs, but leaseholders still await confirmation on exactly what this protection covers.

There seems to be no plan for flats in buildings below 11m where defects have been found, many of which remain unmortgageable, although the government’s change of tack may encourage banks to lend again.

There will be £27m more funding for fire alarms and sprinkler systems to end the rip-off of “waking watch” patrols that have been bleeding leaseholders dry while offering no proven safety benefit.

However, these “interim” costs are bankrupting leaseholders now. Many people cannot wait months for relief. There will also be no money to reimburse people who have already spent money on remediation.

If the government were starting from the fact that buildings must be made safe and that the people in them must not pay, it would surely have announced a more comprehensive set of measures.

Instead, it appears to have been working backwards from the idea that fire risks are not all that great, and the overriding concern is keeping the bill to a minimum.

Arguably this is a continuation of the cost-cutting attitude that created the building safety crisis in the first place.

The Grenfell inquiry has heard that the tragedy was not caused solely by rogue developers but was the culmination of a toxic culture, fostered over several decades, that demonised health and safety as an expensive imposition on businesses.

An obsession with scrapping red tape through arbitrary rules like ‘one-in-two-out’ under David Cameron created the circumstances in which Grenfell was allowed to happen

Specific building safety requirements were replaced by vague and ambiguous “functional requirements”. Organisations that certified products and signed off on construction work were privatised, so they became financially reliant on the companies they should have been scrutinising.

Product manufacturers and builders that gamed the system should be held to account, but it must also be acknowledged that the system they gamed and the environment in which they operated was created by government.

An obsession with scrapping red tape through arbitrary rules like “one-in-two-out” under David Cameron created the circumstances in which Grenfell was allowed to happen.

Ministers and senior civil servants knew in the early 2000s about the dangers of combustible cladding but did not stop it from being used on high-rise buildings, partly because of the financial implications.

Most importantly, this resulted in needless loss of life, but there is another fundamental issue to be addressed. Deregulation, cost-cutting and privatisation also failed on their own terms because the savings that were promised proved to be illusory.

The cost of ripping up old work and doing it again is several times greater than doing it correctly in the first place, and this does not even begin to factor in the incalculable psychological costs imposed on innocent leaseholders.

It would be an unforgivable – and potentially deadly – failure if the government does not learn from past mistakes and continues to prioritise short-term cost savings over comprehensively fixing the building safety crisis.

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