The cladding scandal has been in the news again this week, with Labour calling on the government to provide upfront funding and set a hard deadline for the removal of the deadly cladding.
The government has been under pressure from campaigners for some time and promised a solution would be coming. But the scandal, now over three years old, has gone on too long. It is yet another example of a housing system that is not fit for purpose, in which the right to a safe home comes second to other priorities. From those currently trapped in unsafe homes that they can’t sell and can’t afford to make safe, to the social tenants whose voices have been ignored for years.
The government must take the steps necessary to end the cladding scandal and then it must set about changing the system for good.
Ending the cladding scandal
Thousands of homes across the country remain clad with unsafe, combustible materials. The buildings’ residents have been forced to set up ‘waking watches’, round the clock patrols to ensure their homes haven’t caught fire. This is a truly alarming situation to find yourself in. The seriousness of the situation, however, has not been matched by action. A lengthy, exhausting campaign to find a solution to this crisis has rumbled on and come to a head this week, over three years on from the fire at Grenfell Tower which tragically took the lives of 72 residents.
Bursts of public pressure have forced the government’s hand a few times. Funding to support the correction of unsafe buildings has been announced in small chunks. Each time the government have accepted that expecting others to pay for it won’t make it happen quick enough, but have never promising enough support to fix the problem for good.
So far, the government has announced a total of £1.6bn funding to remove aluminium composite material (ACM) and non-ACM cladding. However, estimates of the total costs to complete the works are nearer to £15bn.
Rumours this week suggest that government has been persuaded to pay again after a flurry of public and media attention, and an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill supported by over 30 Conservative MPs. This must signal the end of this crisis. The government must ensure that enough money, skills and materials are available and that the cladding is removed as soon as possible. This must be the priority.
Our failing housing system
The injustice felt by residents forced to live in homes that aren’t fit for purpose, through no fault of their own, is one that is shared by so many others across the country. Leaseholders and tenants impacted by this relatively new crisis, are yet another group in the long line of people suffering at the hands of an old problem – our failing housing system. After years of neglect, there are no quick or cheap solutions.
Poor regulation in the social rented sector and in building safety has seen housing quality and the safety of residents compromised in a drive to ‘cut red tape’ and boost new housing supply. In a system like this, crises like the cladding scandal are inevitable. The cost of fixing the problem now far outweighs what it would have taken to prevent it happening. When the government implements changes to building safety and improves regulation in the social rented sector, it has to recognise that getting those reforms right will save money and lives – it could prevent the next cladding scandal or disastrous fire.
New supply is vital of course – we will never tackle our housing emergency without a major increase in social housing – but it’s no use if those homes aren’t safe. We shouldn’t have to choose between the two because they’re both essential to one central goal: defending the right to a safe home.
As Kate Henderson – from the National Housing Federation – explains, if social landlords are made to foot the huge bill for removing cladding on the buildings they own their “ability to build new homes for the next decade or so could be hamstrung”(1). New social homes that the thousands of people trapped in cramped, unsuitable temporary accommodation, or street homeless, so desperately need. This is a classic example of the either-or system created by a lack of ambitious housing policy.
Defending the right to a safe home
Whatever the deeper roots of the cladding scandal, the unavoidable fact is that thousands of homes are clad with unsafe material and pose a threat to the safety of everyone living in them. Fixing this situation must be the focus of attention. A lasting solution must be found.
Another disaster will be just around the corner if we can’t come to terms with a simple fact: our housing system is not fit for purpose. Access to good quality, safe housing does not currently come top of the list. Turning this around requires bold solutions, with the right to a safe home at their heart.
 From Kate Henderson’s Inside Housing piece
Photo credit: Oxyman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13073218