Everyone in the UK should feel embarrassed that the UN has formally warned Britain that its failure to strip combustible cladding from high-rise residential buildings may be a breach of international law.
Three years on from that terrible fire there are still 300 high-rise residential and public buildings which have similar aluminium composite cladding panels and are yet to be remediated.
The Grenfell Inquiry has heard evidence of how the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was planned. This reminds us of precisely those questions, about ensuring responsibility for fire safety is properly allocated and discharged, that has led to plans a new Building Safety Regulator. The Bill has arrived in Parliament in draft form but it has all taken far too long.
Housing is a key human right, set out in the 1948 Declaration, in Article 3 – the right to live in safety – and in Article 25 – a right to housing. The UN’s special rapporteur on adequate housing has written to the government to express “serious concern about allegations of multiple violations of the human right to adequate housing, of which safety is a key component – contrary to international human rights law”.
It has been hard to prove who owns some blocks, difficult to make arrangements that do not bankrupt leaseholders facing huge bills to replace flammable cladding, and the interim costs such as fire-watching in the meantime. Residents in many flats live in fear of another funeral pyre, while freeholders and developers refuse to pay to fix the problems because legally they are not obliged to.
This has three consequences – the fear and mental distress of the fire risk, the worry about the cost, and the fact that many of these flats are now unmortgageable and unsellable. People are trapped in an impossible situation.
Workplace health and safety advisors have a simple role, to understand risks and then explain them so that sensible decisions can be made to manage those risks. Whether the cladding panels were or were not in breach of building control standards, it is clear from the Hackitt Review that the standards were at best confusing and unenforced.
The regulatory system failed every one of the people who died, and also those now caught up in this nightmare. When regulatory systems fail, it is Government’s responsibility to sort it out.
As a result of COVID-19, we are discovering that the Bank of England can continue to print money without a problem, and that construction activities are one of the better ways to kick-start the economy – arguably with longer term positive benefits than encouraging drinking.
So far the Government has spent less than 25% of the money it allocated to deal with flammable cladding. Most public landlords have addressed the issue, but for private owners the picture is much bleaker.
The British Safety Council is in favour of both good safety standards and fairness – and on these grounds we are urging the government to identify cladding on high rise buildings as a suitable priority, to encourage more productive construction activity and help people trapped in unsafe homes.
By Lawrence Waterman OBE, British Safety Council on 18 September 2020
This is my last column for a while, after something over two years of monthly musings as chairman of the British Safety Council. I had prepared some sort of summing up, looking at the key themes explored.
By Katherine Metcalfe, Pinsent Masons LLP on 03 September 2020
The Fire Safety Bill, introduced to the UK Parliament during lockdown, is likely to become law in the autumn.