Five years ago this week, fire took hold of Grenfell Tower and spread with a speed and ferocity that surprised everyone. Since that awful night, the response has plodded on at a pace that will have surprised almost no one.
Despite the loss of 72 lives, and the gathering of much evidence of bad practice, nobody has yet been found criminally negligent, while a great many people are still forced to live in unsafe flats. Efforts to prevent a repeat of the blaze have followed two winding paths: remediation to fix the mistakes of the past and a new regulatory regime to address building safety in the future.
On one level, progress looks admirable: government figures show that 455 of 486 dangerous high-rise buildings have been fixed or at least seen remediation work begin. But the government also estimates that there may be as many as 75,000 medium-rise residential buildings in England, where the proportion requiring work remains unknown. Since the night of the fire, responsibility for remediation funding has been passed around like a hot potato, initially landing with leaseholders unable to pass it on. The government’s mainly hands-off approach to funding has shifted somewhat, along with ministerial responsibilities.
Current housing secretary Michael Gove is the fourth in office since the tragedy, and has focused more determinedly on extracting cash from the property industry than his predecessors. Arguably, the quickest route to fixing at-risk buildings would have been for government to have underwritten costs from the outset. Ministers could have then decided in the years since how to recoup costs from those culpable. But this path has never been taken.
In September 2020, a parliamentary select committee estimated that £15bn would be needed to fix all affected buildings. Coincidentally, we have seen reports this month of £15bn wasted: £4bn spent on useless PPE and £11bn lost by the Treasury’s handling of national debt. Quite why one lot of £15bn can be quietly swallowed while another £15bn is wrestled over for years is unclear to me, particularly given the likelihood that at least some of the latter could be clawed back.
When it comes to preventing future tragedies, at least the government has created some clarity by passing the Building Safety Act, establishing a Building Safety Regulator and setting out a timetable for new roles, responsibilities and processes. The act also contributes to the funding question by retrospectively handing 30 years of liability to firms that built unsafe dwellings.
This responsibility becomes law on 28 June, establishing a fresh route by which developers and contractors might be pursued through the courts. Given three decades of sales, mergers, insolvencies and dissolutions, many responsible firms will have vanished. To address this, the act establishes a new legal construct: building liability orders. The act gives the High Court the power to untangle 30 years of change, tracing corporate responsibility through sales and mergers, voting rights, shareholdings and other forms of control, whether dissolved or ongoing.
It also gains the power to demand information to feed this search. Through this process, the court will be able to assign responsibility to an ‘associated body’ – which may include developers that had previously been perfectly insulated from such risks. It remains to be seen how this process will play out in practice. Sadly, the one thing we do know is that settling matters via the courts is likely to take a very long time. Five years on, we are still nowhere near the end of the aftermath.