The coronavirus pandemic has delayed already slow progress in removing deadly Grenfell-style cladding from other residential high-rise buildings, a watchdog has warned.
A report by the National Audit Office shows up to 60% of projects to replace flammable cladding across the country had been paused as of April, after the UK was put under lockdown.
But progress was already slower than ministers expected before the pandemic took hold, particularly in the private rented sector, where just 13.5% of buildings have been made safe.
the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government set up the Building Safety Programme in the wake of the fatal fire at Grenfell Tower three years ago, with a £400m fund for social housing.
Its aim was to oversee the replacement of aluminium composite material, which covered the tower and accelerated the spread of the blaze, on all other high-rise residential buildings.
In May last year, the government announced it would put up a further £200m to help re-clad buildings in the private sector.
But by April 2020, just 149 of the 456 buildings which needed remedial works had had them completed, 307 were unfinished and on 167 work had not begun – despite the government’s initial June 2020 deadline.
Progress was fastest in student accommodation and social housing, the NAO said, with 66.7% and 46.8% of buildings made safe respectively.
The watchdog said progress had been much slower in the private sector because those legally responsible for the buildings had been “difficult to identify and have required more support than expected”.
Lord Gary Porter, building safety spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said: “This report highlights various difficulties that have hampered remediation, including identifying the responsible person within often complex ownership structures, the complexities of state aid rules, the shortage of skills or personnel needed to complete remediation work, structural issues and difficulties of access.
“Councils have worked closely with MHCLG to resolve these issues and ensure private building owners fulfil their responsibilities to residents.”
But Porter said government funding would need to be increased to address all fire safety issues, as well as reform of building safety legislation “including the granting of effective powers and meaningful sanctions to regulators”.
By the end of April 2020, MHCLG had paid out £1.42m (0.7%) of the £200m private sector fund and £133m (33.3%) from the £400m social sector pot to remove unsafe cladding.
The department claims all buildings within scope of its funding will be remediated by mid-2022, with more than 95% completed by the end of 2021.
But the NAO said while early signs suggested the pandemic has slowed the project down, the department “had not at the time of this investigation assessed how its timeframe for completing remediation will be affected”.
An MHCLG spokesman said: “We are clear that building owners must keep their residents safe and we are providing them with unprecedented support to do so.
“The government has provided £1.6bn to ensure unsafe ACM and non-ACM cladding is removed swiftly from high-rise buildings, and is bringing forward the biggest change in building safety in a generation.
“We have made progress with the removal and replacement of ACM cladding, but it is clear there is much more still to be done and building owners have a legal responsibility to ensure their building is safe.”