High rise repairs: Four years after Grenfell how did we get here?

For more than three years, the cladding crisis has been affecting thousands of flat owners.

Across the UK, it's estimated 600,000 people are living in homes that have been classed as unsafe. There are families who are unable to move and are facing huge bills to fix cladding issues.

ITV Calendar has carried out an exclusive survey to discover how these problems are affecting people across Yorkshire.

We've found these issues now go far beyond cladding after a range of other fire safety defects are also impacting thousands of buildings across the country.

So how did we get here and whose responsibility is it to solve the problem?

Before Grenfell

1980s - 2000s - Building regulations are no longer signed off by local government. Private companies could now compete to check building work. The testing of building materials is also no longer checked by the public sector. By 2005 buildings no longer have to hold a valid fire safety certificate issued annually by the fire service. These can be carried out by a third party.

2006 - Changes to UK building regulations, intended to facilitate greater energy efficiency at lower cost, arguably made combustible cladding and insulation in buildings over 18m legal, and opened the way to its widespread use.

14 June 2017 - Grenfell Tower fire kills 72 people. It was recognised that ACM cladding used in the building’s cladding had contributed to the spread of flames. 120 samples from other social housing were sent for testing. All fail, one in seven minutes.

2019 - It was found an estimated 85% of all building work requiring the notification of building control bodies was self-certified, and therefore no longer subject to external inspection.

After Grenfell

It was soon found that the type of cladding used on Grenfell (ACM) helped spread the fire and 75 samples taken across the UK failed the fire safety testing.

72 lives were lost in the fire at Grenfell Tower Credit: ITV News

In May 2018 the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced a £400m fund to remove this type of cladding off social housing and in May 2019 it announced a further £200m for the private sector.

However, it soon became clear that thousands of other buildings across the country are also covered in flammable cladding - just not ACM. After Grenfell, the government started advising "building owners" to check if their buildings were safe and what has unfolded is nothing short of a safety crisis.

There are now thought to be thousands of blocks across the country which are unsafe, with more being discovered every day. And as soon as a building is deemed unsafe, residents are met with huge bills.

In Yorkshire, our exclusive survey has found 43.5% now face bills to fix these issues of over £25,000.

Karim Mussilhy's uncle was one of the 72 who died at Grenfell on June the fourteenth 2017. As vice chairman of Grenfell United, Karim campaigns not only for justice for those victims but also for action and protection for leaseholders and tenants in all unsafe buildings.

And he's angry but not surprised that - as our exclusive research has shown - so many are still waiting for that protection, while lives remain at risk.

Waking watch and insurance

In 2017, the National Fire Chiefs Council published guidance recommending the use of a ‘waking watch’ fire patrol in buildings with dangerous cladding. The average cost of a waking watch was found to be £137 per month per flat, costs of which are passed onto leaseholders. This measure must stay in place until the building is made safe, or a compliant fire alarm is fitter. 

In January 2021, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government announced a £30m waking watch fund to pay for the removal of fire wardens by installing alarms. £700,000 was allocated for Leeds and £500,000 allocated for Sheffield.

Fire warden carries a fog horn Credit: ITV News

However, there has already been evidence that fire marshalls are still being requested even after a new fire alarm is fitted to help evacuate a building. These would still have to be paid for by leaseholders.

Insurance has also been a widespread issue. As soon as a building is deemed unsafe, for many, insurance premiums have soared. Many have reported increases of 100-200%. And, the Association of British Insurers says the slow pace of getting buildings fixed, means high policy prices reflect risks accurately.

Our survey found 66% had seen insurance increases due to fire safety issues.

Changes to building regulations

In response to widespread cladding testing, the government issued new guidance on building safety, in the form of a document called Advice Note 14.

This advised building owners that all combustible materials should be removed from buildings unless their safety could be proved through a large-scale test.

This went back on guidance that had been used for 30 years.

All builders are legally obliged to ensure the walls of buildings “adequately resist the spread of flame”. In the years before Grenfell however, guidance still permitted the use of combustible materials on tall buildings in various ways.

And, as previously mentioned, relaxed regulation rules and drops in industry professionals led to many developers simply breaking the rules.

Construction expert Steve Underwood is currently assessing buildings across the north of England where cladding needs to be removed.

He says its widespread use came from the drive to make blocks like these more thermally efficient. But the additional issues of high rise homes being built without fire breaks and other key prevention measures are, he says, the result of years of building faster and cheaper, with a less skilled workforce and less stringent regulations.

"The jobs did get dumbed down, they were made simpler and the inspection regimes became more lax, because inspection costs money ... corners got cut.

"So there are lots and lots of contributing factors which bring together a perfect storm. And the only thing that's going to solve this is a great deal of money."

By summer 2019, private flat owners were routinely being denied mortgages for what were previously believed to be perfectly safe buildings. Their homes were given a value of £0 and they were unable to sell.

Why would flat owners have to pay?

The prime argument as this crisis has evolved, is who should pay. Changes to building regulations can’t be applied retrospectively, and therefore developers say they shouldn’t pay for building in line with regulations at the time. However, intrusive surveys on many buildings have found that not to be the case. The problem is, leasehold law, means that the costs for fixing those problems can still be legally passed to flat owners. 

The government pledged a total of £1.6 billion to replace all unsafe cladding Credit: ITV Meridian

Day-to-day maintenance is contracted to a management company, while the individual flats are sold on long leases to the residents. The terms of these leases allow the freeholder to pass on maintenance costs to them.

This allows the landlord to recover the cost of any “reasonable” works from the occupants through the annual service charge. Those who fail to pay up within 21 days can forfeit their lease, allowing the landlord to sell on the property to recover the debt. 

While fire safety laws made building owners responsible for making the buildings safe, leasehold law means residents would have to pay for it. 

Cleckheaton peer Baroness Kath Pinnock has spent the last two years fighting for leaseholders who, in some cases, have been told they must pay as much as seventy five thousand pounds to make their homes safe.

Her bid to make protection from those costs part of legislation within the fire safety bill was unsuccessful last month, but she's far from giving up on what she says is nothing short of a national scandal.

More funding

After mounting pressure to start funding the removal of other types of dangerous cladding, the government announced a £1bn fund in March 2020 for buildings over 18m. Buildings under that height would have no public funds.

However, by June, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee estimated the removal of dangerous materials will cost at least £15bn. 

In November 2020, Leeds City Council passed a motion to apply pressure to the government so that costs don’t fall on leaseholders. And by February 2021 an additional £3.5bn added to fund for non ACM cladding. The government said it would fully fund the cost of replacing unsafe cladding for leaseholders in residential buildings 18 metres (six storeys) and over in England. However, for buildings under 18 metres a loan scheme was offered instead costing flat owners “no more than £50 per month” 

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insists the Government is acting to help people living in blocks wrapped in flammable cladding

They also launched a new tax for the UK residential property development sector, in a bid to raise "at least £2 billion over a decade" to help pay for cladding remediation costs. The tax is due to be introduced in 2022 and apply to "the largest developers." 

So how many flats are now unsellable?

Another crisis has emerged as a result of building owners wanting to know if their buildings are safe.

By autumn 2019, an estimated 600,000 flats were estimated to be unsellable. Leaseholders across the country were trapped and a huge number of property transactions were put on hold or scrapped.

The issue was, so few specialised surveyors and fire safety engineers meant there wasn’t enough knowledge to fully understand which systems were truly deadly and which were a minor risk so that work could be done on some and others could be left in place. 

In December 2019, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) created a system to try to certify building safety and allow flats to still be sold.

It's called an External Wall System survey (EWS1) and is supposed to be for buildings of over 18 metres. But by January 2020, Advice note 14 meant it was being widely used on buildings under that, with some reports of it being requested for terraces and thatched cottages.

A survey from the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership found three-quarters of 663 residents who wanted to sell in the last year had a sale fall through or did not try because they had no EWS1.

To try and free up the market, in April 2021, new government guidance from RICS meant it shouldn’t be used on buildings with no cladding. The government also made available £700,000 to train more assessors to tackle the backlog in the EWS1 process. Still estimates that 58,000 blocks need an EWS1 before being able to sell. 

However, property economist Andrew Wishart told ITV Calendar that despite this new guidance, 20% of flats in England remain unsellable.

The height issue

So why are buildings over 18m getting grants, while buildings under 18m still have to pay? Well the government has always said this comes down to safety. However, a number of destructive fires which took place in buildings under 18m have worried some, including the fire at the Bolton Cube.

Fire at student housing block The Cube in Bolton in November 2019.

Furthermore, publication of the Advice Note 14 we just mentioned, means buildings under 18m with combustible materials are still unmortgageable. Trapping anyone who wants to move out.

That’s because the wording states: “In relation to buildings of any height or use, consideration should be given to the choice of materials (including their extent and arrangement) used for the external wall, or attachments to the wall, to reduce the risk of fire spread over the wall.”

And a consultation about banning combustible materials on buildings 11m-18m is expected to result in a blanket ban, the same as buildings over 18m.

But currently, leaseholders in those buildings will be expected to pay to have them fixed through the loan scheme announced in February - details of which remain unclear. 

Can’t flat owners sue developers?

There is some scope to sue developers in 1970s building regulations but it's very specific and difficult to be successful. Claims must be made within six years of the defective development being completed. Most of the blocks which now have issues were built in the early 2000s meaning they're largely out of scope. 

William Martin, a junior doctor and co-founder of the UK Cladding Action Group, discovered that no fire breaks existed in his Sheffield block which was a breach of building regulations at the time it was built. 

The Metis building in Sheffield Credit: ITV Yorkshire

Yet the builder wound up the business long ago, and could feasibly claim that it had relied on the contractors to do the work.

Campaign Groups

As it became clear that more and more building owners could be passing extortionate costs onto leaseholders, pressure groups started forming in a bid to instigate change and share information.

William Martin, became one of the founders of the UK wide group UK Cladding Action Group in early 2019. 

Cladding protest Credit: It's exactly a year since protestors lobbied parliament

In December 2019, West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, first identified 13 buildings in the county which they had concerns about. When Abi Tubis found out her building was one of them, she set up the Leeds Cladding Scandal group to unite affected leaseholders in the city.

And when further buildings were found to be affected in Sheffield, Jenni Garratt co-founded the Sheffield Cladding Action Group. 

What next?

The Leasehold Knowledge Partnership has now devised its own solution. It would replace the loan scheme with a levy on developers, landlords and manufacturers to raise a fund sufficient to bankroll the cost of remediation, including non-cladding defects, beyond the proposed government grants. 

It would include a 1-2 per cent levy on all new-build properties over the next 10 years. 

But it's thought it could take decades to rectify the mistakes of the past. Construction expert Steve Underwood told ITV Calendar he estimates it'll cost £50 billion to fix all the issues that are being uncovered - ten times the government fund.

What has the government said?

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “The Government is bringing forward the biggest improvements to building and fire safety in 40 years.

“This includes a comprehensive £5 billion plan to help protect hundreds of thousands of leaseholders from the cost of making the tallest buildings with the most dangerous cladding safer.

“We will also ensure that industry pays its fair share towards the costs of cladding remediation through a new levy and tax, striking the right balance in protecting leaseholders and being fair to taxpayers.”

ITV Granada asked Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick about these issues on April 30th.

He said: "I think it's terrible the position that many leaseholders find themselves in because of shoddy workmanship by builders and developers over a long period of time.

"We are fixing this now we're bringing in to play a world class building safety regulatory regime. We need to have those high standards so this doesn't happen in the future."