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Thousands stuck in unsafe tower blocks three years on from Grenfell

Less than 1 per cent of the funds set aside to fix flammable cladding on private apartment blocks in England has been disbursed, leaving thousands in unsellable flats more than three years after the deadly Grenfell Tower fire, according to the public spending watchdog.

Of the £200m made available by the government last year to replace dangerous cladding in the private sector, just £1.4m has been allocated, the National Audit Office said in a damning report. 

The study highlights the slow pace of remediation works that were called for in the wake of the Grenfell fire in June 2017, which killed 72 people. 

The rapid spread of the flames was blamed on the building’s aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. 

Repairs to similar buildings, initially expected to be completed this month, are now due to finish by mid-2022. The coronavirus pandemic, which has forced 60 per cent of remediation work to pause, will probably cause further delays.

“We continue to live in unsafe buildings every day this goes on. During the pandemic we’ve had to live in these buildings for an extended time,” said Ritu Saha of UK Cladding Action, a campaign group. “You can’t sell, move or remortgage to raise extra money from these flats . . . The worst fallout is the impact on mental health.”

This month, UK Cladding Action surveyed 550 tenants of tower blocks with ACM cladding and found that almost a quarter had considered suicide or self-harm as a result of cladding issues.

As of May this year, 155 of the 455 buildings identified as at risk had been stripped of ACM cladding and had it replaced with safer alternatives. Work has yet to begin on 160 towers, with repairs on the remaining 140 being in various stages of completion

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has made £400m available for blocks in the social sector, of which a third has been dispersed, in addition to the £200m for private buildings.

In the Budget in March, chancellor Rishi Sunak committed a further £1bn to remediate non-ACM cladding in March and indicated that no more funding would be made available. That was “a fraction of what is actually needed”, said Ms Saha. 

“The pace of progress has lagged behind [MHCLG’s] own expectations, particularly in the private residential sector. It has a long way to go to make all high-rise buildings safe for residents,” said Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO.

Delays have been caused by complications in tracking down the legal owners of the buildings, and disagreements between developers, freeholders and leaseholders over who should pay for remediation.

 Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union general secretary, said the report showed that “buildings far beyond those covered in the building safety programme are at risk, while fire services do not have the investment needed to enforce new safety regulations”.

“It should shame this government that they are now not expected to remove the same cladding that was on Grenfell from high-rise homes until a full two years after their own deadline and five years since the tragedy itself.,” he said.

Berkeley Group, the high-end developer, is remediating a number of its own developments, but said government guidance on the issue was “too black and white”.

Rob Perrins, the company’s chief executive, said that cladding was only one part of fire safety. “People have to put this in perspective. It used to be about getting people out now it’s just about preventing the fire.”

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