Four years ago tomorrow, the Grenfell Tower fire shocked our country. We will remember the 72 people who tragically lost their lives. We will all mourn with their families and friends who will forever feel their loss, and we continue to stand with the community at Grenfell which has steadfastly campaigned for justice and change.
As the ongoing inquiry has demonstrated, residents had been sounding the alarm for years before the fire took place. But as social housing tenants, they were too easily ignored.
In the aftermath of the fire, the government promised to ensure that a disaster like Grenfell would never happen again. They promised to reform social housing but this has fallen by the wayside. They also promised to make buildings safe. Yet thousands of people continue to live in dangerous homes, many with exactly the same cladding that caused the Grenfell fire to spread so quickly. Horrifyingly, that cladding is also still being used in the construction of schools, hospitals, care homes and sheltered housing schemes.
Four years on, change has been too slow. The government, for all its talk, has been found wanting. Its hands-off approach is failing homeowners and tenants.
At the current pace of works, it could be 2043 before all buildings over 18 metres with unsafe cladding are remediated. This is likely to be an underestimate because buildings under 18 metres and those with fire safety defects beyond cladding are not included in the figures, with some estimating that over a million homes have become unmortgageable.
The cladding scandal has become a building safety crisis. Confidence has seeped out of the system, more and more buildings are being found dangerous, or falling foul of new, ever-changing retrospective fire safety standards, and the market for flats in areas of the country has broken.
First-time buyers have been stuck on the bottom rung of the property ladder, stalling hopes and dreams, destroying lives and livelihoods, and putting untold pressure on people trapped in their homes and saddled with huge bills for remediation works, through no fault of their own.
The government’s strategy has failed because ministers have relied on industry to solve the crisis, meaning that they are doing the bare minimum and hoping for the best. Time and again, we’ve pledged to work with the government but they have dismissed our joined-up approach.
It is not good enough to simply promise funding and then wash their hands of it. To will the ends, they must will the means. The government’s lack of leadership means the whole system is clogged, and most of the money still hasn’t even been paid out.
Labour is calling for the government to set a deadline of June 2022 to make all homes safe. We cannot pass the milestone five-year anniversary of Grenfell with people still living in unsafe homes.
We need strong leadership, focus and a willingness to challenge vested interests if we’re to urgently tackle the situation. That’s why we want the government to model the successful approach taken in Australia, where a cladding taskforce with tough powers has established the full extent of dangerous materials on buildings, prioritised them according to risk, and ensured there is enforcement against those who refuse to undertake works.
Our proposal for a taskforce to grip the issue would drive forward Labour’s six demands for safer homes including immediate up-front funding to remove deadly cladding and other urgent fire safety work; legislation to protect residents from exorbitant bills, safeguarding leaseholders and taxpayers by pursuing those responsible for the scandal for costs; action to get the mortgage market moving, and reforms to stamp out rogue builders and developers.
This would sit alongside new legislation to give greater powers and a voice to social housing tenants, to fulfil the government’s promises to Grenfell campaigners.
As we commemorate the Grenfell Tower fire, Labour is calling on the government to renew its commitment that such a disaster can never happen again and to intensify its response to the crisis so that no one is living in an unsafe, unsellable flat by the next anniversary of the Grenfell disaster.
Everybody deserves a safe home, and a voice in their community. It is time for ministers to lead.
Lucy Powell is the shadow housing secretary and MP for Manchester Central