OPINION: Five years on from Grenfell, the Government must do more

Campaign group Ipswich Cladiators rally at Ipswich Waterfront. The rally is part of a National Day o

L-R: Julian Gibbs, Chu Man, John Cook, Cllr Carole Jones, Alex Dickin, Cllr Elizabeth Johnson. - Credit: Cladiators

Last week saw the fifth anniversary of one of Britain’s worst disasters in modern times – the Grenfell Tower fire.

It started with a fire in a fridge freezer on the fourth floor, which spread through an open window and ignited the combustible external cladding on the rest of the block. By the time the “stay put” advice was abandoned it was too late for many people in the higher floors to evacuate.

A total of 72 people died in the most horrific circumstances.

The surviving residents lost their homes and all their possessions.

As terrible as this tragedy was, even more shocking is the evidence uncovered by the ongoing enquiry into how this happened.

It tells a tale of greed, incompetence, penny-pinching, ideology, and the effects of Government spending cuts.

Greed from companies who sold lethal cladding panels they knew were not safe for high-rise buildings.

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Incompetence from the regulatory authorities who were hoodwinked into ruling that the panels were safe.

Penny pinching from the local council with £241m in reserves who switched to combustible cladding to save less than £300,000.

An ideology that stopped the Government banning cladding after six people died in similar circumstances eight years earlier, because of ministers’ determination not to introduce new regulations.

Government spending cuts that had seen the council’s building control department lose ten experienced inspectors and gain just one graduate, leaving one person overseeing 130 projects – including Grenfell.

The Government’s response has been extremely disappointing. Interim safety recommendations from the inquiry have not been implemented. They have refused to put in place personal evacuation plans for all disabled high-rise residents.

Ministers should commit to implementing all the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry.

The Government’s response to the thousands of people living in similarly affected buildings has been shameful.

Across the country it is estimated that just under 10,000 residential blocks are unsafe. 

Until these are fixed, leaseholders – many of them young first-time buyers – are stuck in flats they cannot sell and incurring huge monthly payments fees for 24-hour “waking watches” and sky-high insurance premiums. Some have already been tipped into bankruptcy.

For years leaseholders were faced with having to pay huge sums to fix the safety problems in their blocks – problems they played no part in creating. The cost in Ipswich is estimated at between £2m and £7m per affected block.

After determined campaigning from groups like Ipswich Cladiators, the Government has now belatedly given protection to leaseholders from these costs but there are still loopholes. Not all leaseholders are covered – despite the promise that they would be – and this only covers cladding costs, not other fire safety works.

But actual progress on making affected blocks safe has been extremely slow.

In Ipswich it is estimated that 19 blocks need remediation to fix fire safety defects, which includes more than just cladding. Of these, only Saint Francis Tower has seen works commence. One of the first privately owned blocks in the country to gain funding for cladding removal in 2018, work is still not complete.

This is a direct result of the Government largely leaving it to the market to fix the problem, leading to an uncoordinated and fragmented approach. Nobody has overall responsibility for making high-rises safe. Note that it is only “believed” that there 19 blocks needing remediation in Ipswich – this information isn’t publicly available.

The pace of remediation works needs to be picked up dramatically. Every day’s delay increases the risk of another Grenfell. Every day’s delay means additional costs and a life put on hold for thousands of leaseholders.

Labour has proposed setting up a Building Works Agency – a central body responsible for deciding what works are needed, commissioning and paying for them, signing blocks off as safe and pursuing those responsible for putting unsafe materials on homes.

Its overriding priority would be safety over cost, but its economies of scale would almost certainly make it cheaper than the current piecemeal approach.

The fire at Grenfell was a terrible tragedy but the evidence uncovered by the inquiry has shown that it was also a very avoidable one.

Five years on there needs to be a renewed national commitment that such a tragedy will never happen again.

- David Ellesmere is the Labour leader of Ipswich Borough Council.