On 12 September 2019, the University of Oxford hosted a one-day conference on the legal challenges posed by remedying buildings with combustible cladding and other fire safety defects following the Grenfell Tower disaster. It is clear that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of residential buildings (both high-rise and low-rise) have been fitted with combustible and potentially dangerous cladding of a number of different types, and new fire safety problems are emerging. The questions of how we ensure that these buildings are made safe, and who pays for it, have no straightforward answers.

Copyright Susan Bright

The conference, sponsored by the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, Landmark Chambers and Leigh Day, brought together speakers and delegates from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. These included the owners of long-leasehold flats; MPs; academics; investigative journalists; government officials and lawyers not only from the UK but from Australia as well, where very similar issues have been faced following a number of high-profile incidents. Too often ‘experts’ work in disciplinary silos, but the complexity of the issues raised requires us to listen to, and learn from, one another. Too often commercial interests require oppositional stances to be adopted. And too often we fail to hear the voices of those caught up in the mess. The aim of the conference was to bring together expertise so that we might hear from those outside our own disciplinary boxes. And central to the day was to hear from leaseholders so as to be reminded of the impact this has on people’s lives, homes, financial security and well-being.

The conference, organised by Susan Bright (Professor of Land Law at the University of Oxford), Justin Bates (barrister at Landmark Chambers), and Dr Douglas Maxwell, was conducted under the ‘Chatham House Rule’: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.” This was to ensure frankness in the discussions about the controversial issues raised.

We will be writing a series of blog posts that summarise the key issues raised in each Panel through the day, and linking to the slide presentations. All persons named in these posts have, subsequent to the conference, consented to this and agreed to their slides being made available. We are very grateful for this. Where other hyperlinks have been inserted, these are our additions.

Copyright Susan Bright

The first Panel post explains where we are now in relation to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry; the experiences of those who now have to face the financial cost of putting things right; and what the response is to the similar cladding crisis in Australia.

The second Panel post discusses the system of Building Regulations in England and Wales and how combustible cladding came to be installed in spite of them.

The third Panel post considers the legal difficulties of putting things right using private law claims, and we are reminded of the maze of confusion that leaseholders find themselves in.

The fourth Panel post considers the role of insurance, as well as the powers of public authorities, particularly under the Housing Act 2004, to take action.

The final Panel post reflects on the difficulties involved in holding the government to account, and the way in which neoliberalism and financialisation of housing goes to the core of many of the issues.

In the first Panel of the day, Susan Bright explained how fire safety defects have been found in hundreds of blocks of flats and that the full extent of the problem is still not known. The key message is that things are far from being resolved. Almost immediately after Grenfell happened, it became clear that cladding was a large part of why the fire spread so quickly, and questions were then asked about other buildings with aluminium composite material (‘ACM’). Based on the idea that a fire will be contained (‘compartmentalisation’), most high-rise buildings are designed to have a stay-put policy. Since the Grenfell fire, many blocks have moved instead to an evacuate policy, bringing with it practical implications and the need to put in place additional ‘mitigating measures’. In particular, many blocks have had to employ a ‘waking watch’ to patrol the building regularly and alert occupiers if there is a fire. In relation to remediation, the government’s response for some time was that building owners and developers must ‘do the right thing’ – meaning that the owners and / or the developers must put the buildings right at no cost to the leaseholders. There have been some successes, but this well of hope has now run dry. As at the end of July 2019, government statistics show that there are 101 social blocks still to be remediated, and 166 private blocks. This represents many thousands of dwellings.

Image obtained on Wikimedia and shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence

Further, it is now clear that fire safety defects go beyond ACM cladding. For instance, recent fires show that the problem extends to buildings with timber materials, and below the 18m height where many of the regulations engage. Where ‘intrusive testing’ is conducted, a plethora of fire safety problems is often seen, particularly with compartmentation failure. For example, Hyde Housing found fire safety was compromised in all buildings over 18m in height.

The following posts will provide a snapshot of the state of knowledge and experiences as on 12th September 2019. Since then, there have been yet further fires in blocks of flats. TowerBlocks UK lists 9 major fires since 9 June 2019 (including two hotels and one school). Some leaseholders have warned that the government’s remediation for private blocks is ‘starting to feel like a PR stunt’, given the barriers on applying. In particular, the need for each and every leaseholder to sign a ‘state aid declaration’ is likely to impose an impossibly high hurdle for most blocks, which hopefully will cause the government to pause and relax this requirement. Comments on social media indicate that even in small blocks managed by leaseholders it is proving impossible to get leaseholders to complete the 5-page form required; where blocks have high proportions of investor landlord/leaseholders it is simply not going to happen. And the Fire Brigades Union have published a scathing report that asserts that the ‘terrible loss of life at Grenfell Tower was ultimately caused by political decisions made at the highest level’, and is critical that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has so far failed to produce a report and urgent recommendations to ensure such a fire never happens again.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bright, S. and Sawtell, D. (2019). The Oxford Conference: Legal perspectives on putting buildings right post-Grenfell. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/housing-after-grenfell/blog/2019/10/oxford-conference (Accessed [date])