‘Polluter pays’ principle fuels uncertainty in building remediation programme

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Simon Storer, Chief Executive, gives his views on the ongoing building remediation programme.

Whilst the cladding remediation issue rumbles on, with residents and leaseholders still uncertain about the future of many of their buildings, it is worthwhile taking stock of the current arrangements and identify the missing factors essential in addressing potential building problems.

Despite wild accusations from Secretary of State, Michael Gove aimed at construction product manufacturers, in which he claimed manufacturers had ‘failed to come forward with a proposal for playing their part in addressing’ the problem, manufacturers had stated from the very beginning of these discussions that if any faults were identified with their products, they would willingly take responsibility and make good if products had failed.

Unfortunately, Gove and his team were either unwilling or unable to see the absolute and essential logic in this approach, thereby missing an opportunity to develop a sensible and successful remediation programme but at the same time belying Gove’s objective of gaining political capital.  It also displayed a worrying ignorance about how the construction supply chain operates.

The construction industry was being tapped for £4bn for remediation funding to address ‘safety’ issues. Whilst major UK housebuilders have pledged £1.3bn so far, falling well short of Gove’s target, housebuilders do know which buildings they built and therefore can take responsibility only for their own buildings and no others.  A very different scenario than for manufacturers whose products are invariably sold through third party suppliers resulting in manufacturers frequently not knowing where their products end up.    

The idea that industry could sign up to a pledge so lacking in information was always in my opinion a non-starter. Gove talked about a ‘proportionate’ response, but this required as a minimum, a list of buildings in scope followed by an analysis to determine why a particular building is condemned, who is claiming this, what is the problem and if there is a problem what is the cause – wrong product, wrong specification, wrongly installed, crucial items missing, manufacturing defect or poor maintenance.  Only then could the appropriate and proportionate response be accurately applied. But this complex route did not fit with the desire for a simple solution and a quick timetable.  It also negated the responsibility of the government’s regulatory failure, and its campaign to drive down construction costs for a decade or more. We should also be asking why buildings weren’t inspected properly and why weren’t they built to the required standards.

Although housebuilders have allocated significant sums to remediate buildings they can identify as their own – and we will need to track how much is spent, where and over what period – there will be a large number of ‘orphan’ buildings where no responsibility can be identified. Anyone living in these buildings will remain in limbo until a better solution is found, which is why the Secretary of State should stop issuing threats, stop conducting discussions through the media, and develop a solution with the construction sector within a realistic timeframe that identifies and resolves the actual challenges that many householders are facing. 

This process will also identify mortgage companies and insurers claiming a building has a problem where there might not be one, but is included because it does not fit the risk profile or because it is built in a certain way.  There must be proper analysis, not least to remove the worry for occupants when there is no problem, but also to ensure that buildings that do have issues receive the remediation they require.

Gove started out wanting £4 billion from industry, but gave no indication as to how the money would be used, what it would achieve in building safety terms, or how it would be apportioned.  So there remains a huge gap between their rhetoric and the reality of the crisis. The government is trying to find a simplistic solution without first identifying what the problem is.  The sooner we can collect detailed information through accurate analysis, the sooner we can provide a solution for the many people blighted by these problems.

For too long, government has given the impression that construction can be made cheaper, but all that this has done is encourage shortcuts and compromises; one of the reasons why I believe we are in this crisis in the first place. There must be a proper inspection regime, that enforces compliance so that construction can regain essential trust for our built environment.

We all know we have major challenges ahead, not least the net zero carbon objective, but if the government struggles even to understand how to resolve the cladding issueand work collegiately with the construction sector, it doesn’t give much confidence in how it will face the even bigger challenges to come.

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