In the 2018 Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, Dame Judith Hackitt describes the UK regulatory system covering high-rise and complex buildings as “not fit for purpose”.
Shocking words that form the sombre backdrop to the Grenfell tragedy, where 72 people lost their lives, and the subsequent fire-safety nightmare, affecting hundreds of thousands of residents living in flats across the UK.
Not just cladding
Immediately after Grenfell, the focus was, naturally, on unsafe cladding, in particular, the ACM cladding which allowed the Grenfell fire to spread so lethally. Then fire authorities began to look more closely at buildings in their jurisdiction. It is fair to say that these buildings did not fare well under such close scrutiny.
Along with cladding issues, there were found to be a whole range of fire-safety defects, including missing fire breaks or combustible balconies.
People who were once perhaps merely pondering if they could afford to update their IKEA sofa suddenly found themselves facing huge bills, some in excess of £100,000, to rectify complex building faults which were not of their making.
People who had felt no need to question the documents they had filed away, telling them their building had been signed off as safe, were now told that the regulations governing the construction of their building had been insufficient, or simply ignored by builders.
Campaign groups and goals
The names of the national and local groups that have sprung up to fight for the rights of residents reflect the initial focus on cladding, for example End our Cladding Scandal, and Manchester Cladiators.
However, the campaign goals of these organisations cover the whole range of fire-safety defects, as well as the resultant ramifications for residents.
End our Cladding Scandal sets out ten clear, comprehensive campaign aims, which range from the immediate removal of dangerous cladding to mental health support for residents facing danger, uncertainty, and huge financial pressures.
There is little doubt that these campaign groups were decisive in persuading the government to create the Building Safety Fund, and there are signs, with Michael Gove’s recent announcement to the Commons, that the government is at least now making the right noises.
However, the Building Safety Fund remains severely limited in its reach, and the general government response is still far removed from the ten goals outlined by campaigners.
There is still a long road ahead.
The human cost in the North West
The cities of the North West are among the most affected by the fire-safety crisis. Northern Cladiators, Manchester Cladiators and Liverpool Cladiators together represent around 100 buildings across the North West, and this continues to expand. They have strong support from a number of local politicians, including Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, and Manchester Central MP, Lucy Powell.
The Manchester Cladiator website has published powerful first-hand accounts from affected residents: those trapped in buildings where they feel unsafe; those with disabilities whose needs are not taken into account; those unable to sell in order to move for work or to find space for an expanding family; those spending the equivalent of a second mortgage on waking watch; those with a 50 percent ‘affordable’ shared ownership, now liable for 100 percent of the repair bill for their flat. (For full disclosure, I belong to the latter group.)
Homes built for profit or people?
It seems we are in a situation where we are governed by people and institutions so careless of the lives and well-being of their citizens as to allow building regulations that are unfit for purpose. The profits of developers are prioritised over the safety of human beings, and monied companies and individuals donate and lobby their way through regulatory obstacles. According to the Financial Times, over a quarter of donations to the Conservative Party come from property related companies.
To make matters worse, it often seems that growing disregard for people and communities is masked by increasingly earnest and elaborate corporate pronouncements on social responsibility.
It is surely time to make the talk about social responsibility real, and discuss what it really means to build housing, including social housing, for people rather than profit. This will involve working together with communities, and involving them in planning decisions. It will also require electing governments who are not obsessed with deregulation, or beholden to wealthy property magnates.
I write this from Sweden, an example of a country with some interesting collective, cooperative approaches to housing, and a fascinating history of folkhemsarkitektur – planned communities built with people’s needs in mind. The UK has its own interesting examples of cooperative developments, both past and present.
These local, international and historic models can all serve to inform a fairer approach to housing in the future. But will there ever be the necessary political will?
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