The Socialist 12 February 2020 |
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Flammable cladding can act as a chimney, spreading flames throughout a tower, photo Jim Linwood (CC) (Click to enlarge)
Flammable cladding: 20 years of failure
Pete Mason, East London Socialist Party and chair of Barking Reach Residents Association
Twenty years of building regulation failures have been passed on to one body that is completely innocent – the residents. These were the words of former firefighter Roy Wilsher, now chair of the National Fire Chiefs’ Council.
The flammable cladding of Grenfell Tower "does not comply, and never has complied" with building regulations. Wilsher addressed 130 residents representing blocks with flammable cladding throughout London, as well as Leeds and Manchester, who met at London's City Hall on 6 February 2020 to discuss the issues.
Since the banking collapse of 2007-8, 40% of fire safety staff had been cut due to government austerity measures, he pointed out, putting lives in danger.
Another Grenfell Tower disaster, the fire which destroyed 72 lives in June 2017, grows closer with every day that passes, Wilsher said, with no sign of a resolution to the problem - leaseholders in the private blocks cannot afford the cost of the removal, yet the landlords will not pay. 85% of privately owned blocks have made zero progress on the issue.
The government is guilty and must pay, those in the meeting repeatedly reaffirmed.
Meanwhile leaseholders find themselves paying huge bills (£500 a month was mentioned) for "waking watch" security guards, who sleep in the corridors, without which the fire brigade would condemn the buildings and force everyone out - in one case at an hour's notice.
The UK Cladding Action Group (UKCAG), which jointly convened the meeting with the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, said that not a single penny has been given out for the remediation of private sector tower blocks with Grenfell-style cladding in London. The government set up a £200 million fund for private sector buildings. In London, this money is administered by the Greater London Assembly. Only £50,000 has been identified for disbursement.
The government fund, resulting from campaigning by groups like UKCAG, was only for ACM cladding, while there are untold numbers of buildings with other types of flammable cladding on their walls, like those in Barking Riverside, which are mostly plain wood. And any disbursement would only go to the big landlords, many of whom are domiciled in tax havens.
Despite invitations, no one from the Ministry of Housing or the Greater London Assembly turned up to answer questions.
National meeting proposed
I proposed a tenants' and leaseholders' national delegate conference on fire safety, as part of the way forward, which was unfortunately not put for the consideration of the meeting by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership chair, who expressed concerns about cost and the willingness of residents to travel.
The Leasehold Knowledge Partnership has played an important role in bringing representative leaseholders together, to voice their concerns, and this cladding meeting was important too. My proposal for a national meeting was in support of an initiative by Emma Dent Coad, the former MP for Kensington and Chelsea, now a councillor in that borough, who lives in the direct shadow of the Grenfell Tower. She met with the national Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to get union support. Other residents at the meeting backed up my proposal.
The Socialist Party leaflet for the event stated that the big tower block landlords, by failing to remove flammable cladding 966 days after the Grenfell tragedy, should lose their right to ownership and the blocks should be confiscated.
This was precisely what had been unanimously agreed at our 200-strong Barking Reach residents' association meeting after the Samuel Garside house fire in Barking in June of last year, in relation to landlord Adriatic Land. Leaseholders should then be granted the commonhold, namely, the collective ownership of the blocks. They should then receive funds from the government for the full cost of renovation of the blocks.
Hilary Benn MP then spoke about the parliamentary debate coming up the following week. Yet Benn's position was not dissimilar to that of a medieval petitioner to the lord of the manor. The Tories had said that they would ensure that the leaseholders would not pay, he petitioned, so they should hold to it. Beyond a few nice arguments, he had nothing.
What was entirely missing from the meeting, to the frustration of those present, was a sense of the need to organise a campaign (with the notable exception of UKCAG) and to present a political alternative to both the Tories and the Tory petitioners, the Hilary Benn types in the Labour Party, who will likely gain us little.
Residents need to join with trade unionists
Tenants and leaseholders need to join with trade unionists to make that alternative happen. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party did have a programme of confiscation of the blocks where landlords fail to remove the cladding, but will that policy continue?
After the event, Martina Lees, a journalist for the Times newspaper, asked Pete Mason what he would say to Boris Johnson in the aftermath of the fire at Samuel Garside house, caused by wooden cladding. The fire forced 79 families to flee their homes with seconds to spare, destroying some 12 homes completely and 20 more partially, traumatising both adults and children.
This was Pete Mason's response:
I would say that it is the government's responsibility to ensure that all flammable material is removed from the external walls of housing where it can spread fire. This means confiscating the property of the big landlords in the public interest, where no progress has been made on removing that material at the landlord's own cost, placing the homes into commonhold ownership of the residents themselves, and funding directly to them the cost of replacing the cladding with a non-flammable substitute agreed to by a clear majority of residents.
Now, the Law Commission has ruled that the government must not act against the human rights of the big 'tax haven' landlords, like our Adriatic Land, as dictated by the European Convention on Human Rights. However Protocol 1, Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights clearly states: "No one shall be deprived of their possessions except in the public interest". The Law Commission blindly read only half of the sentence, stopping short of the word "except".
It is self-evidently in the public interest to deprive of their possessions those private landlords that, 969 days since Grenfell, have done nothing to remove the clear and present danger to the lives of countless thousands of residents.
This posting is a longer version of the report carried in the Socialist.