The Grenfell inquiry continues, and as the contractors on the tower’s refurbishment give their evidence, a murky picture becomes clearer. Before the hearings paused in March due to Covid, emails from the cladding manufacturer, Arconic, revealed the company knew the panels were not suitable for use on building facades in Europe. Since the inquiry resumed in July, information has emerged about the close relationship between the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and its main contractor, Rydon, and about Rydon’s dealings with architects and subcontractors. Among shocking revelations has been that Rydon promised five times to appoint fire safety advisers, but didn’t.
Last week came the turn of Harley Facades, which installed the cladding. Its owner, Ray Bailey, said his company was not “ultimately” responsible for the building’s compliance with building regulations. In what has become a familiar theme, “price and aesthetics” were shown to have been judged more important than safety.
Bereaved and survivors’ groups are unhappy to have been excluded from the inquiry due to the risk of infection. Karim Mussilhy, whose uncle died in the fire, pointed out that with no guarantee of prosecutions, this could be “the only way we get to see these people”. They were also furious that their local MP, Felicity Buchan, voted against a Labour amendment to the fire safety bill that, had it passed, would have forced the government to implement the recommendations of the inquiry’s first phase.
Ms Buchan published a statement defending her decision, and insisting that the issue is one of timing. But campaigners are right that ministers have watered down some of the inquiry’s recommendations, including quarterly fire door checks. They are right, too, to challenge the government to follow through on commitments to improve the position of renters. A long-expected social housing white paper should have taken priority over the planning overhaul announced in August. So should plans to deal with more than 300 high-rise residential buildings still covered with aluminium composite material. The current standoff between building owners who are refusing to pay for remediation, and the government, has placed thousands of tenants and leaseholders in an impossible position. Fire safety problems with different kinds of cladding continue to emerge.
Housebuilding could be part of the solution to the UK’s housing crisis, as long as new homes are built to stringent environmental standards. Retrofitting insulation, installing solar panels and other improvements to existing housing stock should form part of the post-Covid recovery. For ministers to prioritise new development over so many unresolved issues is irresponsible. It is more than 18 months since the case for a new regulator and national tenants’ organisation was made by a commission set up by the charity, Shelter. Boris Johnson and the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, must answer for their failure to follow through on these and other recommendations.
Having vacillated for years over whether to end no-fault evictions and extend tenancies, ministers are set to end a ban brought in to protect people during the pandemic. While some exceptions have been promised, there is little doubt that homelessness will once again rise. At least it should be clear to the public, following the recent reduction in rough sleeping, that this chronic and harmful instability is a choice. There is nothing but their own reluctance stopping ministers from changing the law in such a way as to rebalance tenant-landlord relations, and strengthen people’s entitlement to a safe place to live.