Last Friday Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities & local government joined forces with the metropolitan mayors to assert that replacing flammable cladding constituted emergency work that must continue during the current health crisis.
“I have been deeply concerned that vital building safety work has significantly slowed down as a result of the pandemic,” the secretary of state said. “I have been clear that work must resume to ensure the safety of residents living in buildings with unsafe cladding or with insufficient fire safety measures, and it is entirely possible for this work to be done safely within health guidelines.”
Even London mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been a critic of the government policy to encourage construction sites to stay open, is backing the resumption of cladding replacement work.
However, Peter Johnson, chairman and owner of Vivalda Group, said it wasn’t quite that simple. He has opted to shut down all activity during the crisis and it seems Robert Jenrick’s words have failed to convince him he is wrong.
“While we all agree that all Grenfell-style cladding needs to be removed and replaced as soon as possible, calls from those in power to simply ‘get on with it’ reflect a failure to appreciate the various practical challenges facing the construction supply chain at this time,” he said.
“As a supplier of non-flammable cladding to more than 70 projects across the UK, we would be only too delighted to recommence operations; however a lack of political direction, muddled communication and disjointed decision making has created a confusing and contradictory situation for suppliers, contractors and project managers alike.
“On one hand, we’re now being urged to mobilise people to restart recladding sites while on the other we see daily pictures of passengers crammed into tube trains and buses. This presents any responsible employer with a real dilemma – start working on replacing faulty cladding or place your own people at risk on public transport where those on board cannot possibly conform to social distancing guidelines? It’s a huge dilemma. And to be honest, without assurance that workers can get to site safely, I’d not be happy sending my people out to work.
“Furthermore, ministers and mayors alike need to appreciate that recommencing the replacement of dangerous cladding cannot be done with the flick of a switch. Most sites closed after bowing to government pressure, leaving my company with no choice but to furlough hugely knowledgeable staff. Now we’re facing criticism for failing to continue working on these important projects. Without clarity and consistency on this important matter, the industry is faced with a non-win situation.”
According to government statistics, as of 31st March 2020 there were still 313 high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings in England with the kind of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding system that proved so lethal in the Grenfell Tower fire back in June 2017. So far, nearly three years on, combustible ACM cladding has been replaced on just 144 high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings in England.