Sunday, June 26, 2022

In the midst of the never-ending nightmare of the UK building security crisis

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“The last few months have been the most painful and stressful of my life,” said Giles Grover, a tenant working to end the UK building security scandal. Hundreds of thousands of residents are living through what Grover calls a “living nightmare,” complete with huge bills, years of stress, dark homes covered in plastic sheeting, and the ever-present threat of their building catching fire.

Five years after the deadly fire that killed 72 people at Grenfell Tower, it’s a nightmare that seems to have no end.

“I’m good at dividing things up,” says the activist. “But it’s been really hard lately.”

Grover has been in India for a few weeks, caring for his dying mother in her final days. Despite the most difficult of personal circumstances and the fact that he’s thousands of miles from his home on the outskirts of central Manchester, disguises are rarely far from his thoughts.

When he’s not by his mother’s bedside, he frequently hops onto calls with senior officials and the occasional Housing Secretary Michael Gove – the man tasked with fixing one of the worst public policy failures in living memory.

“I’d rather focus on my private life right now,” says Grover. “But until Michael Gove actually keeps his promises, I won’t stop bothering him.”

Apparently nothing would have changed without the tireless campaigning of Grover and many others.

The tenants have been on an arduous journey, fighting for every inch of progress against a government that seems ideologically opposed to accepting the inevitable: that the only viable solution to this crisis is for the state to guarantee that it will cover all costs will come up that cannot be restored by developers.

As things stand, tenants still have to pay up to £15,000 in costs, plus money already spent on things like smoke detectors and fire patrols. Landlords who own multiple properties, along with people living in quality housing, have to pay for their own refurbishment, which in some cases can amount to more than £100,000 per property.

The solution proposed by the government also requires developers to spend the money, which many are unwilling to do. Years of litigation loom. Other developers have gone bankrupt or are based abroad, beyond the reach of UK law.

“We warned the government that developers would just hit back and say, ‘No, we don’t want that,'” says Grover.

“What we have now is four or five different systems. It’s enormously complex. How long will this all take?”

The government’s tremors have meant that work on most of the blocks, which are covered in hazardous materials, has not even started. Now, massive increases in the price of building materials and a severe labor shortage are causing cleanup costs to skyrocket and delays to get longer.

Official numbers released each month focus on a very narrow category, that of the few hundred blocks with the worst cladding: aluminum composites (ACM).

Essentially, ACM is a piece of highly combustible plastic with a thin sliver of metal on the outside. When fire breaks through the metal, it finds a plentiful reservoir of fuel and licks up the side of a building at alarming rates, creating an inferno of breathtaking ferocity.

According to one fire engineer’s calculations, cladding a high-rise building with ACM is like mounting a 19,000 liter oil tanker to its walls.

Arconic, the company that manufactured the panels used on Grenfell, knew this but chose to resell the panels for use on high-rise buildings anyway, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard.

But the security scandal is much, much broader than just ACM. There are many other combustible materials used in construction, and the government’s initial focus on one particular material was a bit of sophistry in an attempt to hide the almost incomprehensible extent of the safety deficiencies uncovered.

More recently it has been recognized that the problem is not just ACM and that ‘exterior wall systems’ including cladding, insulation, window frames and cavity barriers need to be evaluated as a whole. But even that fails to recognize that even more problems are being uncovered behind the facade.

Tens of thousands of blocks have been affected, but the government still doesn’t know exactly how many or how insecure each one is.

Flammable cladding was banned on buildings over 18 meters in height in 2018. Under new rules, finally announced this month, only some types of combustible material will be banned on blocks between 11 and 18 meters. Grenfell-style disguises are no longer allowed on new builds.

“Everything from the government has been patchwork so far. Too many people are still being left out,” says Grover.

“All we want is a simple law that says tenants don’t have to pay.”

Grover has no idea when his own ordeal will end. Work on its development, City Gate, began months ago but has been plagued by delays.

In the meantime, local residents have lived on a noisy construction site. Sacks of rockwool insulation and rows of metal fences clog the once-pleasant courtyard.

Scaffolding adorns the outer walls and holds up a giant plastic sail that blocks natural light and sounds like thunder rolls when the wind hits it.

Earlier this year, Grover and other residents were evacuated after a fire broke out on their block. Firefighters quickly put out the flames, but it was a chilling reminder of what could happen.

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