The long road to remediation

Peter Johnson of Vivalda Group discusses the progress being made on remedying the unsuitable cladding on high rise buildings, and the complex issues which have made it frustratingly slow

While the frustrations of architects, contractors and residents alike regarding the slow progress being made on the replacement of faulty cladding on high rise buildings is understandable, and there have been teething problems, the working group led by The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is at least trying to grapple with the complex issues surrounding the replacement task.

The Grenfell Tower disaster is now universally acknowledged as the UK’s worst housing failure. In its grim wake, we’ve had the Hackitt Review, then the Moore-Bick enquiry, which is now well into its second phase. In 2020, Housing Minister Robert Jenrick announced a fund of £1.6bn to fix affected high-rise buildings. Then in February of 2021 we saw an additional £3.5bn – meant to kick-start private contractors to commence work on unsafe blocks.

Since then, progress from the contractor’s perspective has been very slow. While the funds initially sound impressive, it is now widely believed that the £5bn figure will need to increase significantly (some say tenfold) to adequately ‘make good’ all of the buildings at risk as a result of hazardous cladding.

While the ultimate budget required to fix the 470 plus towers affected by unsafe ACM cladding is still a matter of serious debate, and may need to be increased substantially in the future, this should not be stopping vital remediation projects from moving ahead. So, why are we not seeing the current £5bn fund turning into recladding activity? From our standpoint (sitting between the product manufacturers and the contractors) we know major strides have been taken to overcome most of the practical barriers to the remediation process.

Experienced installers, contractors and developers deserve recognition for their role here, but there is still a way to go. So, what are the remaining challenges that are holding back the repairs?

Form fatigue
First off, the application process itself is highly complex, making the process to apply for funds slow, expensive and painful. Phrases that have been heard include: ‘’One wrong entry on a page and the application needs to be completely restarted.’’ It is also understandable that there are still significant numbers of project funding applications stuck in the pipeline awaiting further clarification before final approval, or just waiting for that final ‘go’ document.

By way of illustration, in May 2021 more than 650 projects were in application with only 22 funded projects either started or completed. However, at the same time the volume of ineligible applications, or ones that were incomplete totalled some 1,400. In this regard it does seem at least that we may well need a simpler application process, and perhaps even more proactive support with the correct completion of this onerous and complex application process. Having said that, it does appear many proposed funding contracts are still held in the hands of the landlords and managing agents – resulting from what appears to be demanding contractual clauses regarding future and past liability. While ultimately designed to protect taxpayers, it’s clear that a contractual stalemate doesn’t exactly help those tenants or lease owners living in unsafe properties.

Liability issues
The contractual details surrounding the process of release of the funding is another issue that appears to be worrying many contractors. Funding penalties relating to late delivery, liability for poor workmanship associated with the original cladding system and its substructure, insurance cover for the project – all have led to contractors questioning their confidence in the funding system and how much risk they are prepared to expose their businesses to. As the economy starts to pick up, we have to remember these same contractors, who are in limited supply, have other options – many of which are much more straightforward, and less risky.

In addition, there is the part-funding scenario created when assessment consultants or contractors peel away old cladding material only to find non-conforming insulation, framing and fixings beneath, which need to be replaced. In this regard we need to remember while the Government is funding the replacement of illegal cladding boards, the funding does not include other elements within the facade system. The overall project can easily double if total replacement is required.

Another hugely significant cost that appears to have been overlooked is that of accommodation for residents while remediation work is undertaken. While not needed in all cases, it can be quite significant. The challenge is enhanced if we consider that it is needed in an environment of a chronic housing shortage.

Skills shortages
Finally, labour shortages mean that the construction industry is struggling to find enough skilled installers to undertake the remediation work. The correct installation of cladding – including fire breaks, insulation, fixings and boards – is not a simple task and requires specialist skills which often come from overseas.

These are projects that must be completed correctly, however skills shortages and the lack of available training within and for the contractor market will surely act as a further brake on progress.

To top it off, it appears there are also major material supply issues, with some contractors quoting 20 plus week deliveries on hard metals, insulation and wood. Not to mention recent volatility in timber and aluminium prices – making cost estimations extremely difficult. Add to this the impact of Covid, the recent blocking of the Suez Canal, HS2 and demand from other sectors of the industry, and it’s easy to understand the scale of the challenge facing contractors and this remediation process.

Looking ahead, despite the lack of materials and labour and the ongoing contractual discussions, we will start to see more recladding projects coming on stream. In fairness, the MHCLG has faced a momentous and complex task, and they should at least be given credit for their genuine efforts to bring the industry together to bring non-specification cladding up to standard but it seems their job is far from complete.

I appreciate that balancing the rights of the taxpayer, managing limited budgets and addressing very complex questions surrounding contractor and landlord liability is not an easy task. However, I fear that the glacial speed of recladding potentially dangerous high-rise buildings has done little to assuage the fears of residents or improve the reputation of the construction industry.

Peter Johnson is founder and chairman of Vivalda Group