In the wake of the Grenfell tower tragedy, one of my neighbours expressed concern about the cladding on our building. Initially I was incredulous and dismissive; our building is only two years old and was built by a housing association, which would have had to conform to stringent safety standards and regulations. However, like many other residents in London tower blocks, it turns out that I live in a building clad in Reynobond PE panels – the same as those used in Grenfell Tower.
This fact came to light in emails from the housing association, which has been extremely transparent and responsive in communicating with residents. Nonetheless, there has been a degree of panic and outrage, and some residents have complained to our MP, who has demanded that we should all be rehoused immediately and the cladding removed.
But this is not social housing; the residents of my building are leaseholders. And as a local government officer myself, I believe it would be wrong to waste public funds rehousing us for no good reason.
I feel that the anger towards the housing association is misplaced. Who’s to blame here is not clear cut. It’s the same with the 600 other buildings across the UK.
At a national level, there are huge questions over the regulations, the supplier of the panels, the builders who chose to use them and whether or not councils and housing associations were aware of the issues with the cladding. Given that this particular housing association has invested almost £50m into 100 shared ownership apartments, of which they are still the primary owner, I do not believe that it would deliberately jeopardise that investment.
I’m not suggesting there is not a problem here. One of the issues is similar to the often naive or inadequate approach to contract management experienced by many councils. In the past I have complained about poor management of costs by this association and the resulting service charge increase, but on the whole it is a good housing association that cares about its residents and is committed to working with us on any issues we have.
Just after I moved in, for instance, the housing director came round to talk to residents about tackling antisocial behaviour on our estate. Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the housing association has been quick to reassure residents that fire safety was carefully considered when the the building was designed and that the fire brigade rates it as low risk.
We have a sprinkler system, and communal areas free of possessions and rubbish. There is a fire fighting lift, compartmentalisation of dwellings and areas of the building, a wet riser, emergency lighting and power and automatic opening vents, which enable escape and access routes to be kept clear of smoke in the event of a fire.
All the equipment is inspected weekly and serviced in line with manufacturers’ recommendations. Fire risk assessments are carried out annually, and last week the housing association asked the Building Research Establishment and independent experts to carry out a review and make recommendations regarding potentially removing and replacing the cladding. Additional patrols and safety checks have begun in the meantime, as well as visits to every flat to check fire doors and test smoke alarms.
With all of this in mind, I personally feel that we are lucky and should retain a sense of perspective. The focus now needs to be on addressing the failings that led to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, supporting the victims and prosecuting those responsible.