Living and campaigning in the building safety crisis

This is a special blogpost written by leaseholders affected by the fire safety crisis who are campaigning for comprehensive solutions and providing much needed advice and support to others. It explains the work that they have been doing over the last 5 years, and the personal toll it has had on them. The post is a long read but their story has no ending yet and needs to be heard.

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End Our Cladding Scandal

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We never could have imagined that five years after the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower – after four Secretaries of State for Housing, two (for now) Prime Ministers and countless broken deadlines and promises – we would still be fighting for a comprehensive solution to end the building safety crisis.

The fifth anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy seems an appropriate time for us to reflect on what has happened over the last five years – and how much more still needs to be done.

Seventy-two lives were lost in the UK’s worst residential fire since World War II, but we know from evidence at the Grenfell Inquiry that it was preventable. The warnings were ignored for decades but it was only in the aftermath that the truth slowly emerged, that there were in fact large numbers of shockingly unsafe buildings all across the country. It was not just external cladding defects, not just tower blocks, and not just social housing. Grenfell United have been by our side through every step of this battle. As they have said: their fight is our fight in the pursuit of truth, justice and change.

Our campaign team is made up of affected leaseholders and volunteers and none of us ever dreamed that we would become ‘campaigners’ when we bought our homes (side note: since this crisis began, we have realised it’s wrong to say we own our homes – after all, as leaseholders it’s been proven that we are nothing more than glorified tenants and not the home owners we once thought we were!).

For readers who may not have heard about the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, this article by our long-time friend, Pete Apps of Inside Housing, is an excellent introduction.

It’s been a long journey. For some of us, it began just a few weeks after the Grenfell fire, when we learned our homes were clad in the same deadly Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) that caused the rapid spread of fire across the Tower; it seems unbelievable that even now, not all of us have had the ACM cladding removed from our buildings.

From fire risk to bankruptcy risk

Early in 2018, leaseholders in blocks with ACM cladding began to realise we were on the hook to pay to remove this dangerous material. We started to get official notices that we would have to pay tens of thousands of pounds to make the buildings we lived in safe. We fought back where we could, but soon realised that our options in leasehold law were limited and this was confirmed when cases were brought at the First-tier Tribunal.

Our response was simple and logical: “We don’t own the buildings, we didn’t design them, we didn’t build them, we didn’t sign them off – so why should we have to pay to fix them?”.

Between 2017 and 2019, the Government’s ‘Independent Expert Panel’ – made up of many of the same experts who had advised the Government for years before the Grenfell tragedy – published a series of ‘Advice Notes’ for building owners. These may have been well intentioned, but the consequences were clearly not thought through. Advice Note 14, in particular, caused an exponential increase in the scale of the crisis, by causing surveyors to value many flats at (or close to) zero, trapping people in unsellable and unmortgageable flats.

Meanwhile, the Government wasted these two years. They expressed hope that building owners and property developers would simply “do the right thing”. This sounded good, but we knew it was never likely with those parties focused squarely on their own profits and self-interest.

When a handful of leaseholders from London, Manchester and Sheffield came together at Inside Housing’s offices in 2019 to launch the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign, it’s fair to say we didn’t quite know what we were getting ourselves into. All we wanted was for our homes to be safe from the spread of fire as soon as possible, and to not be forced to pay tens of thousands of pounds for that privilege. After all, we had already paid for safe homes when we bought them.

Shortly after our campaign launched, the Government announced a £200m fund to remove ACM cladding from privately-owned buildings. It was a victory of sorts, but we soon realised that this was only the first step in what would be a long battle over many years; one that is still not over.

A zero-risk world, at our expense

As leaseholders, we had no control over what happened next. Our buildings were assessed by experts, who focused primarily on mitigating their own liability. They provided reports to the buildings’ freeholders, who knew they could recharge all costs to the leaseholders at the bottom of the chain. They ordered the imposition of 24/7 ‘waking watch’ patrols, knowing that the obscene costs would fall on us.

We had to become construction experts. We were shunted from pillar to post, desperately asking building control how our homes could have been signed off and why completion certificates had been issued on unsafe buildings, only to receive the usual dismissive response that it was ultimately the developer’s responsibility to ensure a building was safe, not theirs. In response, developers simply hid behind the meaningless phrase that they had “received regulatory approval at the time of construction”.

Bills for thousands of pounds started landing on our doorsteps – for interim safety measures, extortionate insurance increases, and forced remediation work. Some of us even took on the role of the waking watch and evacuation management ourselves, trying to save our neighbours thousands of pounds.

The Government took a ‘hands-off’ approach and looked to industry to resolve the crisis. They responded by introducing the EWS1 form at the end of 2019, for the valuation of buildings over 18 metres in height with unsafe cladding. Yet only weeks later, on 20 January 2020, the Government – in its infinite wisdom – consolidated all the advice notes into one single document, with the strong direction that this guidance should be applied to buildings of all heights, not only those over 18 metres. They ushered in a zero-risk world and the cladding scandal exploded into a full-blown crisis. Residents across the country, in buildings of all heights and all tenures, started to realise that they too were caught up in this living nightmare.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety had found in 2018 that there was “a ‘race to the bottom’ caused either through ignorance, indifference, or because the system does not facilitate good practice.” James Brokenshire, then Secretary of State, had said that the Government agreed with Dame Hackitt’s assessment that the current system of building regulations was not fit for purpose. Yet despite this, the Government continued to leave it to industry to “do the right thing”. We were dumbfounded by the Government’s dereliction of duty and failure to protect its citizens. We knew that our campaign would have to step up another gear in our fight for justice.

Campaigning 24/7

We relaunched our campaign in September 2020 with a 10-Step Plan, still in close partnership with Inside Housing, and now jointly with the Sunday Times’ Hidden Housing Scandal campaign. From that day onwards, we have lived a campaigning life for almost 24 hours a day and seven days a week.

The vagaries of leasehold law and the range of fire safety issues that we face may be complex, but our campaign has tried to focus on simple tenets such as fairness, morality, decency, and not forcing victims to pay for the collective mistakes of the state and industry. This has helped our key messages to hit home with politicians from all parties and media of all stripes. We are grateful that the unfairness of this scandal has been widely recognised, by press organisations as diverse as The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, and the Telegraph to name but a few.

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In addition to campaigning all day and every day while trapped in this crisis, we have also been dealing with issues at our own buildings, in some cases as part of our responsibilities as directors of resident-managed buildings. Some of us are the “Responsible Persons” at our building, feeling like turkeys voting for Christmas as the law forces us to initiate interim safety measures or push remediation through, despite the cost implications for our neighbours.

We became experts by necessity and through our lived experience, first poring over our own building reports and then advising those who came to us for help, sharing the knowledge we had gleaned and learning from fire safety as well as leasehold law experts. We repeatedly saw similar zero-risk reports, full of assumptions and caveated language, which had usually been created without access to as-built documentation. We faced Section 20 consultations and wrote template letters to help leaseholders to respond, all while knowing the Section 20 process was consultative in name only.

Our nights and weekends were quickly taken over by cladding admin, also known as “cladmin” – trying to provide guidance and signposting that would help innocent leaseholders across the country. For a range of reasons, not all leaseholders in each building will choose to get involved, so we focused on helping core steering groups in buildings.

Our campaign has grown to a national movement, and we now collaborate with leaseholders in over 2,000 buildings through the local ‘cladding action groups’ that make up our coalition. We take a lot of comfort in being in this fight together, being part of the wider ‘cladding family’, and standing alongside the countless leaseholders across the country who step up and campaign with us, telling their stories to the press in the hope that the Government will listen.

And the meetings, oh the meetings! At one point, we had as many as ten meetings per week, usually in the evenings to fit in with our day jobs, but also during the day with the Government and civil servants (even though we had to hold down our jobs to pay the fire safety bills). Meetings with local and national politicians, peers, bishops, bodies such as the National Housing Federation, G15 group of housing associations, UK Finance and the Building Societies Association, the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA), Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), and even institutional freeholders.

Our campaign is not about buildings, it's about people

What we face in our battle is incomparable to what the Grenfell survivors, bereaved families, and community have had to face. However, we have found the grief curve is a useful analogy when helping leaseholders deal with the emotions that arise while they are living through the building safety crisis. Initially, we are all in denial – at suddenly being told the homes we have lived in for years are unsafe, and that the Government is refusing to protect its citizens. Denial soon turns to anger – and truth be told, we’re all still angry and that will never fully go away, but we try to channel it the right way. The next stage is bargaining – most often with our building owners, to push back on the scale of the work being forced through. Depression is something many of us have had to deal with next – because we, the victims of this crisis, have been left on the hook for exorbitant costs, with no clear help in sight, caught in the middle of a blame game between all the guilty parties. Our aim has always been to help people move forward to acceptance – this is never acceptance that things won’t change, but acceptance of the reality of the situation and that we must do all we can to fight it together.

Just like hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of leaseholders across the United Kingdom, the volunteers behind our campaign are trapped – unable to move on with our lives. The stories we are told still affect us profoundly. Broken relationships caused by the stress, couples unable to start families, children suffering, families who have outgrown their homes and are unable to move on with their lives, pensioners being forced back to work – these are but a handful of the heart-breaking personal tragedies we deal with.

We use social media to spread our message further, and it can be hard to ‘switch off’ from the crisis. Our campaign’s WhatsApp chat group quickly turned into what we (not always fondly) referred to as the “Monster”, due to the overwhelming scale of the crisis we were tackling. We soon streamlined our communications into task-focused groups, but these sit alongside dozens of other WhatsApp groups for our individual buildings and regions. It can be all-consuming at times.

All these activities have taken a toll on our physical and mental health. We tried to reply to all the communications, through all the channels they were received in, but this was not always straightforward given the range of complexities at individual buildings and as the scale of the crisis grew. Still, many of us logged on for countless hours every single day responding to messages for help, all the while knowing that mediums such as Twitter – while effective in raising awareness – would never be the best way to have nuanced discussions or respond to challenges that came our way. It was impossible to do everything, so we had to prioritise where our work was most effective.

We felt overriding guilt if we took time to ourselves “far from the cladding crowd”, but we recognised signs of burnout and supported each other to heed our own advice to focus on our mental health, doing what we could to share the load amongst our team and bringing on new members as our core team evolved over the years.

At times we may have disagreed on tactics and the nature of campaigning means there will always be people who do not fully align with the strategy or approach that we adopt – but we have always endeavoured to work collaboratively towards our common goal of resolving the building safety crisis fairly.

Playing politics

Little did we know when we bought our homes that we would have to become familiar with legislation and parliamentary processes in order to make our homes safe. Baroness Pinnock tabled an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill in November 2020 to protect leaseholders from fire safety costs, and from there we went on to work with MPs and peers from all parties, setting aside any of our personal political views in the name of building a broad base of support. We successfully built a coalition of cross-party supporters that led to multiple rounds of ‘ping pong – which ultimately led to an increase in government funding being announced – before the Bill finally passed without the protections we needed. The Government kept rebels at bay, by saying the Building Safety Bill would be the place to address protection of leaseholders from costs.

We knew, deep down, that the Government’s 80-strong majority meant that it could force down any protective amendments raised by others, so we focused our attention on the Housing Secretary, Prime Minister and Chancellor as the three people we had to convince to support our fight for fairness. We found that the familiar blame game we had already experienced at the micro level between developers and building control was repeated at the macro level between MHCLG (as it was then) and the developers, and between MHCLG and Treasury.

Along the way, it’s fair to say we have seen the worst of government: the media management and leaked reports to favoured press organisations, the massaging of figures (focusing only on ACM!), and the refusal to undertake tests of other products that have been shown to be just as dangerous to life. The Government also kept its head buried in the sand and refused to collect much-needed data to quantify the scale of the crisis we faced. We were initially shocked by this failure to take control, but the ongoing revelations at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry – of cover-ups, deceit and successive governments beholden to industry – made us realise what we were dealing with.

While the politicians all said “never again” to the catastrophic fire at Grenfell, we also watched their language change. At first the Government talked about protecting us from “all costs”; then it became only “unaffordable costs”, with no definition of what that meant other than suggesting leaseholders would not go bankrupt. Sadly, those warm words meant nothing to innocent people such as Hayley Tillotson.

We shone a light (literally) on this crisis, through a projection on parliament spelling out how innocent leaseholders were trapped emotionally, physically, financially and mentally. We also organised and helped facilitate protests across the country, co-ordinated by our friends Action for Fire Safety Justice, focusing on building developers who were not taking responsibility. We have engaged institutional investors in an attempt to drive change, but we know that meaningful change, whether at government or corporate level, is always long-term and painfully slow.

We have participated in government consultations, both through meetings and written representations, and given written and oral evidence to the Housing Select Committee as well as the Building Safety Bill’s Public Bill Committee. We have written multiple joint letters to the Government, to the Prime Minister (here and here) and the Chancellor (here and here) and created templates to help leaseholders, and their families and friends, send thousands upon thousands of emails to their MPs. We’ve definitely kept busy!

A highlight in our campaigning experience so far was the ‘Leaseholders Together’ rally, when we joined forces with the National Leasehold Campaign and Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, in September 2021. Thousands of people came to Parliament Square to help us push the Government to deliver a solution to the crisis, on the day that Michael Gove took office as Secretary of State. It was powerful to see so many people standing up for justice and fairness alongside us.

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Photograph by Marcus Perkins

 

protest
Photograph by Marcus Perkins
Slow progress and small wins

There have been ‘wins’ along the way, usually announcements of more funding, which have boosted our at-times flagging energy, but we have always known that these small wins were not the comprehensive solution that leaseholders need and deserve, and we have too often seen potentially promising announcements torn apart within days of being announced.

All we have ever asked for is simple legislation that truly protects leaseholders from the cost of fixing historic safety defects. This has always been about political will. If the Government wanted to end the building safety crisis, it could do so in an instant by protecting all leaseholders in law, ensuring funds are available to make buildings safe upfront, and then recouping those funds from all parties at fault over time – be they developers, product manufacturers, insurers and warranty providers, architects or building control. All of these parties are in some way culpable for this crisis, alongside government; a point we have made repeatedly over the years.

A lot of what we have lobbied for has eventually come to pass: government funding to install communal fire alarms, dropping the desperately unfair plans for a forced loan scheme, removing the narrow focus on buildings over 18 metres, and support for internal (non-cladding) defects. There is, at last, a belated recognition that leaseholders are innocent and an equally belated commitment to making the guilty parties pay but, unfortunately, the action ‘on the ground’ is still some way from matching the political rhetoric.

Robert Jenrick, then Secretary of State, eventually managed to persuade the Treasury to provide more money up front to fund building safety remediation, but we all know that this money will be paid back to government coffers through taxation on the developers or through other tax income streams, including VAT on remediation work. And we also know that the actual disbursement and expenditure of the funds which are apparently on offer has been glacially slow.

In September 2021, the Prime Minister finally realised Robert Jenrick had to make way as Secretary of State for someone with the authority to deliver a comprehensive solution. When we learned his replacement was Michael Gove, we were unsure what to make of his appointment. Was Gove appointed to assuage angry backbench rebels and muscle the Building Safety Bill through Parliament – just as the Grenfell Inquiry was exposing the failings of government? Was it just political manoeuvring or was the new Secretary being given a true mandate to ensure this crisis was resolved?

An over-complicated and incomplete 'solution'

We have engaged with Michael Gove and his team – which sits outside the usual machinery of the civil service and is able to think independently – and have welcomed the engagement he has offered. We have offered to use our lived experience to help Gove deliver a truly long-lasting solution to this seemingly never-ending crisis but despite this, the engagement – while better – has still been too little, too late; too top-down and after-the-fact.

As it stands, Michael Gove has recently delivered what he says is a solution. But it is inordinately complicated with a failure to even attempt to make the case for further up-front funding from the Treasury – funding which could and would be clawed back later.  Gove had the prime opportunity to make a case for this when he came to office and did not take it. The piecemeal approach of the last five years has remained, but with several additional layers of complexity which some fear were designed to hide the failings of the proposed solution.

The Government has continued to dodge getting a grip of this crisis. We are told that the new building safety legislation ensures that ‘qualifying’ leaseholders are at the bottom of the ‘waterfall’ when it comes to paying costs to make buildings safe. But it remains distressing that the Government is still leaving many innocent leaseholders on the hook for any costs at all. There is scant mention of the Government’s own failures in ensuring the regulatory regime was fit for purpose or any justification of why any leaseholder should shoulder costs on behalf of the responsible parties. The ‘capped’ costs they may face remain life-changing for many people.

The Government is still only focusing on buildings over 11 metres in height, despite the fact that some leaseholders in buildings under this new arbitrary threshold are still being forced to pay huge sums for remediation or find that banks will still not lend on their homes. Michael Gove and the Department have now suggested there are about 10,000 unsafe medium- and high-rise buildings needing to be made safe. Our fear, based on our experience, is that this is a woeful understatement of the true figure, merely a number plucked out of thin air, with analysis created to support this round number after the event. But more and more people, including journalists, know this game: lies, damned lies and government statistics. Whoever the Secretary of State may be, we are resigned to the fact that the Government will always choose to minimise the scale of this crisis.

In January 2022, Gove said that it would be morally wrong to ask leaseholders to pay the price for the building safety crisis, so it pains, but does not surprise, us that he has in fact legislated to enforce this “morally wrong” approach. Since the Building Safety Bill passed through Parliament, Mr Gove has not met with us himself, despite our repeated requests. It increasingly seems that his focus may have been primarily on getting the Bill through Parliament and placating backbench rebels.

We have no choice but to play Gove's game, but our trust in the system to protect us has all but gone. We can only echo the astute words of Karim Mussilhy of Grenfell United, who told the Grenfell Tower Inquiry that “the system isn’t broken; it was built this way.”

Our campaign continues

Will Gove’s ‘solution’ to the building safety crisis work? Will confidence and certainty really return to the flat sales market with what’s on the table? We fear not. So, what’s next? Like leaseholders across the country, our campaign team are all exhausted and have already lost years of our lives, but we’re certainly not giving up.

There are still too many gaps in the protection for leaseholders, including those living in buildings under 11 metres in height, owning more than three properties, or living in enfranchised buildings. All these limitations have been set with one eye on the political optics and what was ‘acceptable’ to potential Conservative rebels.

We are sad to say that we are no closer to making buildings safe at pace. Property developers who signed up to Gove’s voluntary ‘pledge’ now seem to be pushing back on the extent of work they may have to do in each building. We are also no closer to a solution to the building insurance extortion that we have suffered for years, despite presenting reams of data and evidence to the Government on this issue. We are still no closer to seeing an end to the forced imposition of waking watch, often mandated by fire services in their capacity as regulator. The Fire Safety Act 2021 will only bring these issues into sharper focus over the coming years, unless the Housing Secretary finds multiple rabbits that he can pull out of multiple hats.

There will no doubt be more announcements in the coming weeks. The Commons rises for recess on 21 July 2022, with further regulations due the day before this, and developer pledges still need to be turned into contracts. The ‘re-opening’ of the Building Safety Fund and the details of the new ‘Orphan Buildings Scheme’ – for cases where the developer no longer exists – both remain long-awaited. But we have also learned enough to know that a week is a long time in politics, and who knows what Government will be in place by then.

We are doing all we can to ensure that whatever government solution is on the table causes the least harm to the innocent leaseholders that Gove said he would protect. For example, we are working to ensure the information that residents and leaseholders get from the Government is significantly better going forward than it is right now. We’re also pushing for the Government to truly learn lessons from buildings where remediation is already underway, including where further defects are found after work begins. We are pushing for the Government to learn from residents who are living on what is, in effect, a construction site during a remediation project, so that they can implement an effective code of practice going forward – some of us are going through this experience ourselves right now and we’ve directly felt the stress that it causes.

We believe the Government knows that if they had listened to us earlier then this crisis could have been mitigated to an enormous extent – people wouldn’t have been forced into life-changing loans to pay remediation, and people might not have taken their own life. We will keep reminding the Department of the many ways in which government inaction has failed us in the last five years, because we cannot allow inaction to continue.

And finally, we are pushing forward with our plans for a judicial review and the work to gather the initial advice on causes of action is underway. It won’t be easy, but we learned long ago that nothing in this crisis ever is. We’ll keep going for as long as we can and until there is truth, justice and change. Please keep fighting alongside us – we’re stronger together.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

E. Scandal. (2022) Living and campaigning in the building safety crisis. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/blog-post/2022/07/living-and-campaigning-building-safety-crisis. Accessed on: 28/11/2022

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