Helen Evans, CEO of Network Homes, and Jamie Ratcliff, the housing association’s executive director of people and partnerships, sat down with Andrew Teacher of Blackstock Consulting to discuss building safety, four years on from the Grenfell Tower fire.
The first item on the agenda was how Network Homes are currently navigating the regulatory and building safety response to the disaster. The government, regulators, housing associations and contractors – the whole industry, in fact – collectively bears the blame for unsafe standards. As Evans says, “there has been a systemic failure.”
But working out who will bear the financial burden for making buildings safer so that it’s fair for everyone is a different matter. For Evans, the limitations of the government’s response seems almost arbitrary:
“With buildings over 18 metres, we have full government support for the removal of ACM, the cladding used on Grenfell Tower. The leaseholders of those buildings face no, or far fewer, financial implications than in buildings below 18 metres.”
Where there is no government funding, housing associations have borne the full cost of the construction work for tenanted homes.
“If we’re spending money remediating defective buildings, that’s money that we can’t put into other stock improvements or building new homes,” Evans continues.
Building safety standards have always been a grey area – where responsibility for regulations has been divided between different organisations and plagued by vested interests and poor governmental decisions.
Jamie Ratcliff explains: “It goes back to the mid 1980s, when building control was outsourced. This move came from the intellectually incoherent idea that if you create competition amongst regulators, you make it more effective. But it just meant that people looked for the least expensive regulation they could pay for, and the cheapest regulator is the one who checks things least.
“So you get a situation where the system of building control is self-reinforcing in looking less at things. This has played out across the years, as we’ve been building bigger, taller and more complex buildings.”
And the response to the Grenfell Tower fire, far from bringing some much-needed clarity of thought to this regulatory mess, has only added a widespread pressure to implement a disparate range of safety measures that might not be the best, most practicable, or cost-effective solutions to a serious problem, but will serve to “cover the arses”, as Ratcliff puts it, of those responsible.
“There is now an absolute aversion of all professionals in all parts of the building construction chain to take any kind of reasonable line on proportionate risk,” Evans says. “People are reluctant to make any kind of inference that something is unrealistic, overly expensive or disproportionate.”
From a potential mandate for Housing Associations to check whether the self-closing doors are working every three months — when a far more effective solution would be to “empower residents to do so themselves and report to us where necessary to fix,” Ratcliff says — to the expensive and probably ineffective use of Waking Watches, so many of these safety initiatives have become “box-ticking exercises”.
At the root of all of this lies the individuals themselves, tenants and leaseholders, living in these apartments which are not only, to different extents, unsafe, but have become mired in the regulatory and government funding uncertainty post-Grenfell.
“There is a massive human dimension to this,” Evans says. “I don’t want to be dismissive about the impact on tenants. After Grenfell, we held lots of public meetings with people living in our tall buildings and the fear was palpable. But we were able to remediate a lot of that, by retrofitting sprinklers and so on.
“But the long term impact has been on leaseholders, who are stuck in this situation unable to move on with their lives,” Evans continues. “There is also a massive sense of injustice at the almost random nature of whether the government will pay or not. And whose fault is this definitely not? The leaseholders.”
“The way forward must come from the government,” Evans insists. “We need a joined up regulatory approach, one that can take into account all the secondary implications of every building safety decision. Good communication from the government should be paired with rational, proportional decision-making around funding and future safety standards regulation.
“In all of this, we should remember that everybody needs a warm, safe, decent place to live,” Evans says. “We don’t want to achieve absolutely gold-plated standards over here if it’s at the expense of people living in temporary, unsatisfactory or overcrowded accommodation.
“We have to do more than one thing at once – we have to make these homes safe, or if they are safe, we have to acknowledge that they’re safe enough so we can continue to develop new homes for people who don’t have satisfactory accommodation.”