After Grenfell, progress on safety after has been frustratingly slow

Peter Johnson is chairman and founder of rainscreen cladding provider Vivalda Group

To hear news outlets giving unequivocal statements while an incident is in progress is highly unusual and yet this is what we all woke up to on June 14, 2017.

Long before the incident was brought under control, newscasters were reporting that many had died and flammable cladding had allowed the fire to spread so quickly.

Sadly, neither statement turned out to be wrong; later confirmation came that 72 souls had perished and the wholly unsuitable aluminium composite panels, installed barely a year before, were indeed responsible.

But what I could never have believed is that five years later we would still be going through the prolonged legal process to bring those responsible to book for their lethal deeds – or that people would still be living with unsafe cladding and waking watches on their corridors.

Remediation work

I run the UK’s largest firm of rainscreen cladding distributors and have been following the Grenfell Inquiry with sheer dismay at the chain of events leading to the tragedy.

I have also been frustrated by the slow progress of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) when it comes to remediation.

I have been involved in the government’s taskforce to manage cladding remediation across the UK.

Instituted by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (now the DLUHC), this committee regularly publishes figures relating to re-cladding projects.

The latest report confirms that, as of April 2022, 94 per cent (455) of all identified high-rise residential and publicly-owned buildings in England had either completed or started remediation to remove and replace unsafe aluminium composite cladding (ACM).

“‘Grindingly slow progress’ have been the three defining words of the government’s approach to the Grenfell tragedy. It is a national disgrace”

On the face of it, this is very encouraging news – and I know first hand how complex some of the challenges have been to secure finance and replace faulty cladding, which often includes non-conforming insulation and framework behind the facade.

The DLUHC group deserve credit for their unerring determination to navigate the maze of red tape, pedantry and bureaucracy to enable projects to begin.

Recognition should also go to the handful of world-class contractors out there who have completed remediation works, liaising closely with residents and building owners to replace faulty cladding.

These firms are professional, capable, honest and a credit to the construction industry.

Like me, they have been frustrated by the lack of funds available, lack of skilled people and endless paperwork required to commence urgent recladding projects.

Insurance and liability have also been huge issues that have contributed to slow progress in many cases.

Time to ask ‘why?’

Earlier this month, the government also confirmed that the use of metal composite material panels containing an unmodified (flammable) polyethylene core will be outlawed as part of an overhaul of building regulations, which we can expect in December 2022.

Maybe it was the timing, just before the Grenfell fifth anniversary, but this news came as a sobering surprise to me.

Frankly, I had assumed that this material had been banned years ago.

Certainly, my business took it off sale well before Grenfell took place.

This material was originally developed for shopfront signage and was never designed to be used as cladding. I’m surprised that its official blacklisting will take nigh on six years after the Grenfell tragedy.

That says it all really – it takes six years for our system to ban a patently dangerous product that spreads fire on high-rise buildings.

Grim at it was, we all saw it with our own eyes on some of the Grenfell footage; this stuff was bad news and should have gone years ago.

‘Grindingly slow progress’ have been the three defining words of the government’s approach to the Grenfell tragedy.

It is a national disgrace, made worse by this apparent lack of ‘grip’ on the situation.

I keep just asking ‘why?’

Why was lethal cladding allowed to be used on Grenfell when the decision-makers knew it was flammable?

When are we going to see those responsible for Grenfell account for their actions in a court of law?

Why have we only just put a date in the diary to ban the type of ACM used on Grenfell?

Why are some victims of the tower still not being adequately re-homed?

Why are there still – no doubt, many – thousands of people still living in unsafe high-rise buildings?

The families of the victims and the nation as a whole deserve better than this.

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