Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government perm sec Melanie Dawes sought a written ministerial direction from James Brokenshire before signing off on a £200m grant scheme to replace dangerous Grenfell Tower style cladding on privately-owned buildings, it has emerged.
The scheme, launched this week, offers to fully fund the replacement of unsafe aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding on privately owned high-rise residential properties – the type of product that contributed to 2017's tower-block tragedy in west London in which 72 lives were lost.
Housing secretary Brokenshire said the funding would give “reckless” building owners who had so far failed to take action over the inappropriately installed materials no excuse not to do so.
Around 170 privately-owned high-rise residential buildings with non-compliant ACM cladding were identified in the months following the Grenfell Tower fire. MHCLG said this week that work to replace the cladding had yet to start on more than 150 of those blocks.
Brokenshire said that while temporary measures – such as fire-warden patrols – were in place to ensure that people living in those these buildings were safe, “too many owners” were treating the situation as a permanent fix.
“Others are trying to pass on the costs to residents by threatening them with bills running to thousands of pounds,” he said.
The new MHCLG fund, which will be open to applications for three months, aims to ensure that upgrade work on those buildings takes place “urgently” and calls on building-owners to “take reasonable steps” to secure compensation from the firms who installed non-compliant ACM on buildings in the first place.
A letter dated 8 May and sent from Dawes to Brokenshire reveals that the perm sec took the unusual step of demanding a written ministerial direction from the secretary of state to confirm his support for the scheme.
Dawes said the move was necessary because the scheme was contrary to the principles set out in public-funding probity guidance Managing Public Money.
In her letter, Dawes acknowledged there was a balance to be struck between achieving the government’s objectives of ensuring privately-owned housing blocks were fitted with fire safety compliant material, doing so quickly, and doing it in a way that was fair to the taxpayer.
“I have concluded that it is not possible to reconcile a grant scheme with the principles of Managing Public Money,” she said.
“However, there are clearly strong wider public policy reasons why you may wish to go ahead. Above all, there is an imperative to ensure public safety in the face of known and serious risks from ACM cladding.
“It is clear that the lack of a funding solution is now the main barrier to achieving this. And there are strong arguments of moral principle in favour of protecting leaseholders in these exceptional circumstances.
“However, it is important to ensure that sufficient steps are taken to ensure that the scheme does not create a precedent whereby leaseholders – or freeholders – expect the government to stand behind failures in the construction or maintenance of residential buildings in future.
“In the language of Managing Public Money, we need to have mitigations in place to prevent this scheme from being repercussive.”
Dawes noted that the failure of many private-sector building owners to act in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy was in stark contrast to public sector landlords and building owners, where 85% of buildings with ACM were either under refurbishment or have had work completed already.
Last year, Department for Education perm sec Jonathan Slater sought a written ministerial direction in relation to the timetable for the introduction of T-Levels. A few weeks earlier – in April – Department for International Trade perm sec Antoina Romeo sought a direction from trade secretary Liam Fox to spend £9m on setting up the Trade Remedies Authority ahead of a statutory remit.