Nearly six years after 72 lives were lost in the Grenfell Tower fire, MPs have set out a list of ongoing concerns about the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ approach to the building-safety crisis that the disaster exposed.
Earlier this year, a Public Accounts Committee session was told that 24 high-rise buildings were still fitted with aluminium composite material cladding of the kind that caused fire to engulf Grenfell Tower in June 2017 and that work to remove the dangerous material had yet to commence.
In a letter to DLUHC permanent secretary Sarah Healey, MPs said they were concerned to hear the department was not treating two of the buildings with ACM as a priority because they were vacant.
Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said the fact the blocks had no residents in them did not make the cladding they were fitted with safe. “These are still a risk and are not providing the dwellings they were built to provide,” she said.
Hillier also said the PAC evidence session, with Healey’s predecessor Jeremy Pocklington, had heard that most of the 24 remaining high-rise buildings with ACM cladding had “come to light in recent times”.
Pocklington left DLUHC to become perm sec at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero when it was created in February. Healey joined DLUHC from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where she had been perm sec since 2019.
Hillier’s letter, dated 24 February but only published on 30 March, called on Healey to give further details of the 24 buildings, including whether they were occupied, when remediation work was due to start and whether enforcement action was under way. MPs also asked for dates when work to make the buildings safe was due to conclude.
The letter told Healey to set out what action DLUHC was taking to ensure it was aware of all buildings that have ACM cladding – and other types of dangerous cladding. It also asked what assurance the perm sec could give that no more buildings with dangerous cladding would come to light.
Healey was also asked for her understanding of the “capacity and capability” within the construction and inspection sectors to support the required repair work.
Hillier and her committee gave Healey three months to answer their questions – a deadline just days before the sixth anniversary of the Grenfell fire.
The first phase of the public inquiry probing the disaster has already established that the ACM cladding added to the outside of Grenfell during its 2014-16 refurbishment, and the insulation fitted behind, was the principal reason fire engulfed the building on 14 June 2017.
Its phase-one report found the refurbishment gave the building a new exterior that not only failed to “adequately resist the spread of fire”, as required by building regulations, but one which “actively promoted it”.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry is currently working on its phase-two findings, which will look at systemic failings in the government, the construction sector and the inspection regime that contributed to the tragedy. That is expected to be published towards the end of this year.
In the months following the Grenfell fire, it emerged that hundreds of high-rise residential buildings and other publicly-owned blocks were fitted with ACM cladding. Many more lower-rise buildings also have the cladding but were deemed a lower risk.
In recent weeks, levelling up secretary Michael Gove has been pushing housing developers to commit to fixing all life-critical fire-safety defects in all English buildings over 11m that they have a role in developing or refurbishing.
Gove’s contracts also require them to developers the taxpayer where government funds have already paid for remediation.
A total of 46 developers have signed the contracts so far. Legislation is being brought forward that will prevent firms who do not sign the contract and comply with it from operating freely in the housing market.