A senior government official has declared it ‘unacceptable’ that high rise buildings are still covered in unsafe cladding three years on from the Grenfell Tower fire.
Jeremy Pocklington, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), highlighted to MPs on Monday that progress in the private sector in particular has been “inadequate”.
He faced questions from members of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee over the pace and scope of Government funded efforts to remove remove aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding from buildings above 18 metres in the wake of the west London tower block fire.
Mr Pocklington said: “While we have made progress on removing unsafe cladding, we’ve not made as much progress as any of us would want.
“It’s clearly unacceptable that unsafe ACM cladding remains on any building three years after the tragedy of Grenfell.”
He said in the social sector progress had been made with councils and housing associations, but in the private sector “progress remains inadequate”.
Mr Pocklington added: “At the heart of the problem, too many building owners have not stepped up to their responsibility to make sure that these buildings are safe for leaseholders and for residents”.
The Government has identified a total of 455 buildings over 18m tall covered in ACM like that which was on the Grenfell Tower.
It has made a total of £600 million available to fund work to remove the dangerous cladding in both the social and private sectors.
Mr Pocklington told MPs that tackling the issue, known as remediation, had been hindered by challenges in identifying affected buildings, finance liability issues, technical construction challenges and complex building ownership
He explained: “We are dealing with incredibly complicated ownership structures, often involving overseas financial investors that don’t really have any interest in the welfare of residents of leaseholders and that has undoubtedly been a challenge that we are dealing with.”
He added: “A sad reality is that our ability to seek regress, as it were, if necessary, from an overseas financial investor is of course very limited in this case.”
But Neil O’Connor, director, Building Safety Programme at the MHCLG said it had identified a UK contact for every building in the programme.
Mr Pocklington said local authorities had some enforcement Housing Act powers, and the support of a government funded joint inspection team, to make building owners to take action over improving building safety.
He said strengthened enforcement powers would be provided through the Fire Safety Bill currently going through Parliament.
His comments follow a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) last month that said the Government plans have “lagged behind (their) own expectations” when it comes to stripping all buildings over 18m of their ACM.
The report said at the time that 155 of these buildings had had all of the ACM cladding removed, and 300 are still undergoing work to clear the material, while removal work had not yet begun on 160 of these high-rises.
The NAO noted that work has been particularly slow on private sector buildings, of which only 14% of the 207 identified had had the cladding fully removed by May 2020.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Pocklington said remediation work was underway in 95% of social sector buildings.
He said it was the Government’s ambition to work to start on site for all buildings with ACM by the end of the year, with it completed by the end of 2021.
He explained that up to 81 active building sites had paused work during the Covid-19 pandemic, with 57 having now resumed and 23 still paused.
In March, the Government announced a £1 billion Building Safety Fund to meet the cost of removing unsafe non-ACM cladding on residential buildings 18 metres or more tall.
But MPs also raised questions over identifying the number of buildings under 18m that may have unsafe cladding.
Mr O’Connor said the department intended to collect data on lower rise buildings, of which there are around 88,000 between 11 and 18m, to understand the extent of cladding issues.
Mr Pocklington acknowledged his department did not have data on the number of care homes under 18m, but said they “already come under stronger regulation around fire safety than residential properties do”.
Asked by Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Conservative MP for The Cotswolds, how long the Government expects it would take to make all buildings in the country safe in terms of cladding, Mr Pocklington said he was unable to give a “programmatic timeline”.
He said there was no specific departmental programme targeting buildings below 18m but enforcement and obligations on owners would be strengthened through the Fire Safety Bill.