'When the facade comes off' – the wider implications of the cladding and insulation crisis

Besides killing 71 people and shattering many more lives, the Grenfell fire has shone a light into deep fault lines in UK housing, politics, and social relationships, all of them disaster areas that are set to cause many more deaths.  In memory of those who have died, the onus is on all of us to seize this moment.
On the front line are the Grenfell survivors, many still crammed into hotel rooms and fighting for permanent homes, the right to stay in Britain, or support to recover from devastating grief and loss.  Right behind them are the residents of other tower blocks.  People who’ve been told they must go to bed each night in a flammable building unless and until they can themselves find the money to replace cladding.  And people who have had the cladding and insulation stripped off their buildings, for safety, but who now find their homes exposed to freezing winds, and damp, for months, or even years.
Grenfell has exposed:

  •  Social housing where residents – the experts on their buildings and communities – cannot make themselves heard.
  • A construction industry driven by perverse incentives and conflicts of interest, without effective monitoring, inspection, or clear lines of accountability.
  • Regulations compromised by commercial interests including the plastics industry (searching for markets for a tide of petrochemicals fracked in the USA).
  • Privatised and ineffective inspection of building processes and materials.
  • Local government removed from the control of local people.
  • Central government which can promise to “keep our people safe” and then continue to claw back the money on which safety depends.
  • Ill equipped, ill funded fire services and a shortage of fire experts.
  • Run-down skills and capacity in construction, manufacturing, and research.
  • Housing standards, duties of care, and laws on wilful neglect that can be breached with impunity, in a crisis like the present one, and even on a routine basis, day to day.
  • Leasehold contracts that leave residents without  effective protection from their landlords
  • A system which ignores the views of residents, those who know best what is happening in their own buildings/areas.
  • Regeneration that breaks up the communities on which rest people’s health and happiness
  • Leasehold contracts that leave residents without effective protection from their landlords
  •  Hundreds of thousands of flats sitting empty, many bought up as investments for the portfolios of billionaires, while people sleep on the streets outside, and Grenfell families, like others made homeless, are crammed into a hotel room.
  • A system of financial auditing – the critical safety net against corruption and corner-cutting — where the auditors are financially linked to the businesses they are inspecting.

Small wonder that as cladding comes down from new or refurbished buildings, local authorities are finding that the glossy exterior has been concealing missing fire-breaks and insulation, faulty structural fixings, holes in walls and floors, and inferior materials – the basics are not there.
Critically, they have found insulation missing – a scandal FPA are very familiar with, as residents on new build housing estates contact us, unable to heat their homes.  Their homes have high EPC ratings – deemed good on “energy performance”, but thermal imaging shows where contractors have simply saved money by leaving insulation out.  UK homes – for this reason and because little is being done to tackle draughty, damp, and hard to heat older housing – are among the coldest in Europe.  Landlords’ legal obligations, such as they are, are not enforced, and the central government funding, which paid for health and safety officers, has been taken back by Whitehall.  Official standards for insulation, won over decades of pressure by energy and fuel poverty lobbyists, are still there, on paper, but are missing on the walls.
As the changing climate removes the blanket of Jet Stream protection which has until now kept the UK climate temperate, the first people to pay will be those on low incomes living in poorly insulated housing.  Many will pay with their lives.  Every winter thousands of people die in this rich country, because they cannot heat their homes.  Like fire, cold kills.
The Grenfell Inquiry, the Hackitt Review, all the meetings, all the demonstrations, cannot be allowed to lead to business as usual.  The present lifting of the cover on “the way things are done” gives us all  a moment of power.
At our meeting “Dying from Fire, Dying from Cold”, Ishmael Francis-Murray from the Grenfell community said, “ If we don’t get change through this, we never will. . .  Right now we have a chance.”
Change must begin with justice and security for Grenfell survivors – and with warm, safe homes for all whose buildings have been immediately affected by this disaster.  It must then reach further.

Freezing cold in rural Northumberland

There is little recognition of what is happening to people who are not on the gas grid and cannot afford to heat their homes. FPA have received several emails from a father of two children Northumberland, who has agreed for us to share his story. He lives in a stone farm cottage high up in the hills, now covered in snow.
“The warm home payment scheme doesn’t cover oil and many rural homes like ours are 100% oil heating and water heating
Unfortunately we are in the teeth of this storm, here, we are effectively in the ‘red warning zone’ as we are only 15 miles from the border and the red zone ends at the border – it’s -8 with a wind chill of -12 and it’s blowing a gale, with the blizzard you can’t see 10 feet outside.
We’re warm enough but caning through our oil. I know some people have run out and the tankers can’t get through. We’ve used about a week’s supply in a 2 days because we are all in the house, the kids schools are closed and have been for most of the week, We have enough coal and wood to last until tomorrow morning, then I am going to have to head into the woods with the axe. There’s no way the coal lorry can get up the hill.
Many of us here by now had run down their fuel stocks – we had our last open fire around the 3rd March last year and didn’t light it again until the end of September because of this coal is getting tricky to find, if you can get to the filling station, and of course, it costs 4 times what the coal merchant charges and that for poor quality coal.”
If you or somebody you know is in a similar situation please contact us at [email protected] . We will do all we can to provide advice and campaign on your issues.
For more information about the cost of fuel in rural areas and the lack of insulation in old rural buildings, see more from Richard here.

Press Release. Shared Warmth: Not for all.

Trade body ADE established a Task Force last year to consider new proposals and principles for the District Heating industry.(i)  Their report Shared Warmth | A heat network market that benefits customers, investors, and the environment, came out today.(ii)

The Task Force of stakeholders acknowledged the need for regulation of the industry, since heat networks are monopolies, which “can lead to unreliable service, . . . poorly controlled and costly heating and . . . poor customer service”.

They recognised that for the industry to grow, “customers need to have a consistently good experience, fair and transparent pricing, and an assurance that when things do go wrong they will receive effective and fair redress.”

Yet they limited the scope of their recommendations to principles for future networks.  There are already some 17,000 heat networks in the UK, and while many function well, there are thousands of households in networks built over the past decade with private capital, where dysfunctional and unaffordable heating has made life a misery.(ii)

District Heating users were not invited to be part of the Task Force, but with Fuel Poverty Action a group of them, from four estates, brought their harsh experience to ADE director Tim Rotheray, in December.  They were thanked for their time, and told that their information would be helpful for the future, but that in their own situation nothing could be done.

Residents on such housing estates hope for the best for new developments, but as one says, “Whilst I appreciate many DH customers are reported as happy, that doesn’t mean we should be ignored, brushed to one side or forgotten.”

The nationwide survey “Heat Networks Consumer Survey” conducted by BEIS and published in December found that three quarters of heat network users are satisfied with their heating.  Fuel Poverty Action maintains that if, as claimed,  problematic networks are a minority, and standards are now improving, the industry as a whole bears a collective responsibility to bring all existing heat networks up to standard.  Ruth London comments:

Experience has shown that with expert intervention tariffs can be halved, and reliability greatly improved.  An industry-wide rescue plan for failing schemes would provide the consistency and certainty that the ADE Task Force says is essential for industry growth.  It would also ensure that the human guinea pigs in failed District Heating experiments get the redress they so desperately need, to keep warm.

The report’s only recommendation fo existing heat network customers is that a regulator should “eventually widen the scope” of a Supplier of Last Resort, to “include all heat networks”. The Supplier of Last Resort would step in when a heat network fails.  FPA believes that this basic protection, normal for essential services like energy or heat, should be extended to all immediately, and should apply when a network fails to fulfil its obligations to customers at an acceptable standard, as well as if it fails to meet its financial obligations.


(i)                  District Heating – like central heating for neighbourhoods, supplies heat to homes from a communal source, replacing gas boilers.  There are now about 17,000 such heat networks, but this is to expand massively in the next decade, with the help of £320 million of government money.  The industry is currently unregulated.

(ii)                https://www.theade.co.uk/resources/publications/shared-warmth-a-heat-network-market-that-benefits-customers-investors-and-t

(iii)               See for example our report of the network on Myatts Field North, in Lambeth here, and numerous  reports by Which? and Citizens Advice.

Dying from Fire, Dying from Cold: Housing Safety Post-Grenfell

Last Thursday, Fuel Poverty Action hosted an evening of discussion about the cold, fear and poor living conditions faced by residents of many housing estates in the wake of Grenfell.

One of the star speakers at the event was Ishmael Francis-Murray, a resident of Lancaster West Estate, which sits in the shadow of Grenfell tower. He was a plasterer until the fire at Grenfell – the morning he watched friends die and family members fall apart. He was shocked by the inaction of government and the lack of support offered to children and the bereaved. “The kids who no-one seems to talk about are carrying really heavy burdens,” he said. “They’ve lost classmates and they’re not being given support.”

He has devoted the last 7 months to representing the views and rights of residents in the area, and has made a documentary series about the fallout from Grenfell called ‘Failed by the State’.

Ruth London, from FPA, said the very same penny pinching, cheating building practices, unaccountability and second rate materials that led to the fire at Grenfell Tower were also causing thousands to die from cold each winter, in poorly insulated flats.

“Thousands more high rise residents are now at risk from cold since cladding and insulation have been removed as fire risks, and haven’t been replaced,” she said. “It’s not acceptable if they make things a bit safer in terms of fire but they leave people to freeze.

Emma Dent Coad, MP for Kensington spoke about her frustration at the government for not creating and enforcing strict regulations on construction companies before and after Grenfell.

She was born and raised in Kensington and Chelsea, and told of how her own negative housing experiences propelled her into politics. “I had no heating until I was 17 and I did end up in hospital,” she said. “My ceiling collapsed and almost killed my three year-old daughter – thank you Nottinghill housing.”

She highlighted the government’s “appalling” approach to housing insulation, saying, “even in the richest borough in the world [Kensington] we still have 70 excess winter deaths a year – people who die when they shouldn’t have because of the cold.”

“We are not saving money by not keeping warm. It’s a burden on the health service. People are dying who don’t need to die. Children are growing up in awful damp, mouldy situations. This is terrifying – people are being made ill by their homes.”

She stressed poor government oversight and construction company’s cost-cutting practices as the cause for this poor quality infrastructure.

Similar frustrations were raised by Sian Berry, London Assembly Mayor and Green Councillor for Camden, who described her horror at the poor practices of construction companies.

“We’ve had heating re-done in an entire estate and we’ve had enormous problems with the quality of the work,” she said. She explained how residents had to work tirelessly to prove that the construction work was inadequate, drawing up lists and calling numerous meetings with councillors.

“When a resident complains about mould, they get the classic response that: ‘oh, you’re doing too much washing’ or ‘you’re using your appliances wrong’, when actually it’s the house itself that’s causing the problems,” Berry said.

She talked specifically about the Chalcots Estate in Camden which had to be evacuated last year when it was deemed a fire hazard and unsafe for living.

“It wasn’t just the cladding at Chalcots that meant it needed to be evacuated, it was also really shoddy internal work,” she explained.

Another hot topic at the meeting was landlords’ reluctance to take even basic steps towards improving relations with tenants, even after the atrocities at Grenfell. In some instances, they have refused to foot the bill for replacement cladding or do retroactive reconstruction work on buildings.

An architect-in-training from Concrete Action, said that “council estates have been under-maintained for years and years”. One of the reasons she gave for this is that “specifications for building materials can be changed at the last minute because wording is so vague and people can navigate around the wording and cut corners to save money.”

The meeting was attended by a wide range of people with personal experience of poor housing, or expensive and dysfunctional district heating systems. The panelists’ speeches were followed by an extremely spirited and enthusiastic discussion in which many were vocal in their agreement that the government needs to improve its oversight and regulation of construction companies.

All of the speakers stressed the need for increased involvement from residents in decision-making. “The whole system is set up so that residents don’t really have any say,” said the architect from concrete action. “The reality is that people are experts in the areas they live in because they know what they need and what’s important.”