Peter Johnson appreciates the frustrations of residents and the housing sector alike regarding the slow progress being made on the replacement of faulty cladding on unsafe high-rise buildings. While there have been teething problems, he believes the working group led by The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is finally getting to grips with the complex issues surrounding cladding remediation.
The Grenfell Tower disaster is now universally acknowledged as the UK’s worst housing failure. In its grim wake, we’ve had the Hackitt Review, then the Moore-Bick enquiry, which is now well into its second phase. Housing minister Robert Jenrick confirmed in February 2021 a total budget of £5bn to bring affected housing up to quality.
As the UK’s largest facades distributor – representing the majority of non-flammable, A-rated cladding products – you might have expected to see us overrun with remedial projects. While we continue to be busy on other projects, we have only really quoted a modest number of prospective Building Safety Fund jobs and are currently supplying replacement cladding to no more than half a dozen jobs.
While the ultimate budget required to fix the 470 plus* towers affected by unsafe ACM cladding is still a matter of serious debate and may need to be increased substantially in the future, this should not be stopping vital remediation projects from moving ahead. So, why are we not seeing the current £5bn fund turning into recladding activity? From our standpoint (sitting between the product manufacturers and the contractors) we know major strides have been taken to overcome most of the practical barriers to the recladding process. But the question remains: why is remediation taking so long?
First off, the application process itself is complex (according to those contractors I have spoken to) – making the process to apply for funds slow, expensive and painful. Phrases such as: ‘’One wrong entry on a page and the application needs to be completely restarted,’’ are typical. We also understand that there are still significant numbers of project funding applications stuck in the pipeline awaiting further clarification before final approval or just waiting for that final bureaucratic go ahead.
Data from the MHCLG shows that in May 2021 more than 650 projects were in application with only 22 funded projects either started or completed. However, at the same time the volume of ineligible applications, or ones that that were incomplete totalled some 1,400.
What’s obvious is that we need a simpler application process and perhaps even more proactive support to help contractors complete this onerous and complex application process. Having said that, it does appear many proposed funding contracts are still held in the hands of the landlords and managing agents, resulting from what appears to be demanding contractual clauses regarding future and past liability. While ultimately designed to protect taxpayers, which is all well and good, it is also clear a contractual stalemate doesn’t exactly help those tenants or lease owners living in unsafe properties.
Devil the detail
Contractual details surrounding the release of funding is another issue that is worrying many contractors. Funding penalties relating to late delivery; liability for poor workmanship associated with the original cladding system and insurance cover for the project are all factors that have led to contractors questioning their confidence in the funding system and how much risk they are prepared to accept. As the economy starts to pick up, we have to remember these same contractors, who are in limited supply, have other options, many of which are much more straightforward and less risky.
In addition, there is the part funding scenario created when assessment consultants or contractors peel away old cladding material only to find non-conforming insulation, framing and fixings beneath of which need to be replaced. In this regard we need to remember while the government is funding the replacement of illegal cladding boards, the funding does not include other elements within the façade system – which can easily double the overall project cost if total replacement is required.
Another hugely significant cost that appears to have been overlooked is that of accommodation for residents while remediation work is undertaken. While not needed in all cases, it can be quite significant. The challenge is enhanced if we consider that it is needed in an environment of a chronic housing shortage.
People and materials
Finally, labour shortages (already a challenge before the recent exodus of workers originally originating from the eastern European countries) mean that the construction industry is struggling to find enough skilled installers to undertake the remediation work. The correct installation of cladding – including fire breaks, insulation, fixings and boards – is not a simple task and requires specialist skills.
Granted, there are plans to fast track training to fill this gap, but this takes months to deliver to the required standard. These are projects that must be done correctly – however skills shortages and the lack of available training within and for the contractor market will surely act as a further brake on progress.
As well as people shortages, there are also major material supply issues, with some contractors quoting 20 plus week deliveries on hard metals, insulation and wood. Not to mention recent volatility in timber and aluminium prices – making cost estimations extremely difficult. Add to this the impact of Covid, the blocking of the Suez Canal, HS2 and demand from other sectors of the industry and it’s easy to see the scale of the challenge facing contractors.
Looking ahead, I think despite the lack of materials and labour and the ongoing contractual discussions, we will start to see more recladding projects coming on stream soon. In fairness, the MHCLG has faced a momentous and complex task and they should be given some credit for their genuine efforts to bring non-specification cladding up to standard – but it seems their job is far from complete.
I appreciate that balancing the rights of the taxpayer, managing limited budgets and addressing very complex questions surrounding contractor and landlord liability is not an easy task. The current modus operandi of keeping a tight hold on budgets and making applications for funding as convoluted as possible is not working. Instead, let’s make the forms simpler, the money available now to fix the problem and then pursue those responsible once the housing has been made safe.”
This article originally appeared in Housing Today magazine, July 2021.
* NAO quoted in Roofing Today (June 2020)