1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (the Department) about the remediation of dangerous of cladding on high-rise buildings.
2.On 14 June 2017 a fire at Grenfell Tower claimed the lives of 72 people. The presence of flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding on the exterior of the building has been found to be the principal reason why the fire spread so rapidly. In the wake of the fire, the Department established the Building Safety Programme “to ensure that residents of high-rise residential buildings are safe, and feel safe from the risk of fire, now and in the future”. As part of its activities under this programme, the Department has adopted an objective to “oversee and support the remediation of high-rise residential buildings that have unsafe aluminium composite material cladding”. By June 2020, the Department had identified 455 high-rise residential buildings with unsafe ACM cladding.
3.In May 2018 the Department announced it would make £400 million available to fund the replacement of unsafe ACM cladding on high-rise buildings in the social housing sector, followed in May 2019 by the announcement of an additional £200 million for similar buildings in the private leasehold sector. From this £600 million, the Department expects to fund the replacement of unsafe cladding from 232 (of the 455) high-rise buildings (140 social sector and 92 private leasehold buildings). It expects building owners to fund the remainder. In March 2020 the Department announced a further £1 billion for the removal and replacement of other forms of unsafe cladding; it estimates there are 1,700 buildings that lie within this scope.
4.At the time of our evidence session, three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, only a third (155 out of 455) of high-rise buildings with clad with unsafe aluminium composite material (ACM) panels have had their cladding replaced with a safe alternative. The Department agreed with us that it is unacceptable that any tower blocks still have Grenfell-style cladding on them. While greater progress has been made in the student accommodation (where 68.5% of affected high-rise blocks have had their ACM cladding replaced) and social housing sectors (50.3% replaced), the Department conceded that “progress has been inadequate” in the private sector (where only 14.1% of buildings have had their cladding replaced). The Department blamed private building owners for, in too many cases, not stepping up to their responsibility to make their buildings safe. Where building owners were not “doing the right thing” by paying for cladding replacement themselves, the Department said it had been forced to fund these works itself. Even with this funding, the Department explained the private sector was still lagging behind other sectors for a number of reasons, including a lack of interest or skills among building owners in managing cladding replacement projects. The Department said it had responded by offering bespoke technical and financial support, to assist building owners in managing these projects. It said that it would pay out funding as quickly as building owners were moving to plan and carry out their cladding replacement works themselves. By the end of April 2020, however, the Department had only paid out £1.42 million (0.7%) of its £200 million funding for private sector ACM cladding replacement.
5.Previously (July 2019) the Department had expressed the expectation that, other than in exceptional circumstances, all high-rise buildings with ACM cladding would have had their cladding replaced by June 2020. It told us its new “ambition” was for all remaining buildings to at least have begun replacement works by the end of 2020, and for all works to be completed by the end of 2021. The Department believed this new timetable was achievable even though it would require an acceleration of building works; however, it also noted there was uncertainty about the potential for COVID-19 to cause prolonged disruptions, which is why this was only framed as an ambition. The Department assured us it was monitoring the progress of building works closely, and reporting the latest state of cladding replacement overall transparently. However, it did not respond to the specific criticism made by the National Audit Office, which found it was difficult for observers to judge whether overall building works were on track to meet the Department’s timetable, because the Department did not publish updates of cladding replacement against milestones of expected progress towards a target date.
6.In a review commissioned jointly by the Department and the Home Office in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, Dame Judith Hackitt found that the building regulatory system was “not fit for purpose” to protect high-rise buildings. While the Department stressed that it was the construction industry that was first and foremost to blame for the safety flaws brought to light following the Grenfell tragedy, it accepted that “there was a failure of the regulatory regime over many years to stop those bad practices happening”. The Department was clear that it took responsibility for the regulatory system when it came to reforming it. It drew our attention in particular to a range of new measures to enhance building safety, including the establishment of a new Building Safety Regulator, to be introduced through its Building Safety Bill.
7.Aluminium composite material cladding is not the only form of flammable cladding that has prompted serious safety concerns. In January 2020 the Department published advice from its independent expert advisory panel on fire safety, that nonfire-retardant panels made from high-pressure laminate (HPL) present a notable fire hazard on high-rise residential buildings, and should be replaced immediately. The Department told us there were around 1,700 high-rise buildings with such unsafe non-ACM cladding. In March 2020 the Chancellor announced a £1 billion Building Safety Fund to finance the replacement of such cladding in the private leasehold and social housing sectors. The Department was clear that a key reason for this funding, as in its funding to remove ACM cladding in the private sector, was to protect leaseholders from facing “unacceptable costs, in the tens of thousands of pounds”.
8.The Department told us it estimated the costs of replacing this cladding as between £3 billion and £3.5 billion; the new £1 billion fund would therefore be expected to cover up to a third of these costs. It said the fund was not designed to fund the replacement of all unsafe non-ACM cladding from high-rises, but would focus on those cases where affordability to leaseholders was the greatest barrier to cladding replacement. The Department said it was operating with an expectation that those private building owners which could afford to pay for cladding replacement themselves would do so; however it was unable at this stage to say what proportion that might be. It further expected that all those social landlords (housing associations and local authorities) which could afford to, would also pay for these works themselves—though it was unable to suggest how many were already taking this work on without funding, nor what the impacts would be on their finances if they absorbed these costs themselves. Despite these uncertainties the Department was confident that the fund would be sufficient to pay for all the buildings in the private sector, where building owners would not pay for the works themselves. At the same time, it said it would operate a ‘first come, first served’ approach to distributing the fund, which we took to suggest that funding might in fact run out before all claims were met. The Department was unable to provide details on what ‘first come, first served’ would mean in practice, including how it would date applications to ensure they were paid in the order they came in; nor could it assure us that those buildings with the greatest risks would be prioritised.
9.The Department intends for the £1 billion Building Safety Fund for non-ACM cladding to be committed in full by the end of the 2020–21 financial year. The National Audit Office has suggested that this timetable would pose potentially significant challenges for the Department to address. It would certainly require an acceleration in administration compared to the existing fund for the replacement of ACM cladding in the private sector: the Department told us that in the months since that fund had opened at the start of January 2020, it had committed £33 million (of the total £200 million available). Regarding the private sector ACM fund, the Department has imposed stringent financial checks on applications, which it believes have been essential to safeguard public money and legality. Additionally, building owners have in practice required significant technical support. As a result, administration of the private sector ACM fund has been resource-intensive. The Department told us that one of the main lessons it had learnt from this ACM fund, and which gave it confidence it could commit the much bigger Building Safety Fund in full by the end of March next year, was the need to provide extensive support to applicants. This suggests the Building Safety Fund will also be resource-intensive to administer.
10.The Department said it was unacceptable that buildings of any height had unsafe cladding, not just high-rise buildings (i.e. those above 18 metres in height). Nevertheless, it said it was not funding the replacement of cladding in buildings below 18 metres, but was seeking to strengthen the legal obligations on building owners to take action themselves. The Department said it was about to begin a data collection exercise to help it understand the prevalence of dangerous cladding on buildings between 11 and 18 metres in height. It estimates there are around 88,000 buildings in this height range in total in England, but could not yet estimate what proportion have unsafe cladding. It was not aiming to establish a comprehensive database on every building between 11 and 18 metres, but would review what was feasible to achieve in this review after an initial three-month pilot phase.
11.One category of buildings below 18 metres that might present increased risks are care homes. In January 2020 the Department published advice from its independent expert advisory panel that buildings of any height with residents who need significant assistance to evacuate exacerbate the risks presented by dangerous cladding. While acknowledging that the presence of elderly or vulnerable residents would exacerbate the risks posed by unsafe cladding, the Department pointed out that care homes were subjected to enhanced fire safety checks.
12.The Department understands there are around 40,000 care homes, sheltered homes, and hospitals (i.e. buildings with residents who might need significant assistance to evacuate) below 18 metres in England, of which 98% are below 11 metres (less than four storeys). That 2% are above four storeys would still equate to around 800 care homes, sheltered homes, and hospitals between 11 and 18 metres in height. The Department said that in its data collection exercise on buildings in this height range it was “going to look at sampling in key areas where we know there are particular types of building”, but did not explicitly say it would prioritise buildings with elderly or vulnerable residents. Neither did the Department suggest it was seeking to identify how many of the approximately 39,200 low-rise care homes, sheltered homes, and hospitals have dangerous cladding on them.
1 C&AG’s Report, Investigation into remediating dangerous cladding on high-rise buildings, Session 2019–21, HC 370, 19 June 2020.
2 C&AG’s Report, paras 1–2
3 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Building Safety Programme: Monthly Data Release – June 2020, 16 July 2020.
4 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Building Safety Programme: Monthly Data Release – June 2020, 16 July 2020.
5 Q 28
6 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Building Safety Programme: Monthly Data Release – May 2020, 11 June 2020.
7 Qq 18, 72
8 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Building Safety Programme: Monthly Data Release – June 2020, 16 July 2020; Q 19.
9 Q 19
10 Q 59
11 C&AG’s Report, paragraph 11
12 Hansard HC, 19 July 2019, vol 663, col 56WS
13 Qq 20, 22
14 Qq 23–24; dated 17 July 2020 from Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
15 Q 24; C&AG’s Report, para 1.32
16 Dame Judith Hackitt, Building a Safer Future: Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report (Hackitt report), Cm 9607, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, May 2018.
17 Q 25
18 Q 26; dated 17 July 2020 from Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
19 C&AG’s Report, para 6
20 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings, January 2020.
21 Q 28
22 HM Treasury, Budget 2020: Delivering on our promises to the British people, HC 121, March 2020, p 80.
23 Q 131
24 Q 81
25 Q 93
26 Qq 84, 125–6
27 Q 114
28 Qq 65–69
29 C&AG’s Report, para 2.21
30 Q 59
31 C&AG’s Report, para 1.20
32 Q 64
33 C&AG’s Report, para 2.21
34 Q 64
35 Qq 145, 146
36 Qq 101–3, 110
37 Q 128
38 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, Advice for Building Owners of Multi-storey, Multi-occupied Residential Buildings, January 2020.
39 Q 109; C&AG’s Report, para 2.8
40 Q 109
41 Qq 108–11
Published: 16 September 2020