First council set to use cladding enforcement powers

First council set to use cladding enforcement powers

TOWER HAMLETS ‘looks set’ to be the first UK council to use enforcement powers against building owners who are refusing to remove combustible cladding systems from high rise blocks.

In November 2018, Housing Secretary James Brokenshire banned combustible materials from new high rise buildings, as well as giving ‘extra power’ to local authorities to ‘force through’ cladding replacement. In a release, the government confirmed the ban that it had announced in the summer on combustible material use in new high rise buildings, with regulations laid out in parliament that will ‘give legal effect’ to the ban.

Mr Brokenshire announced that he was ‘taking action to speed up’ replacement of aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, and stated that local authorities ‘will get the government’s full backing’, including financial support ‘if necessary’, to enable them to carry out emergency work on affected private residential buildings.

The government will recover the costs from building owners, and in turn allow buildings ‘to be made permanently safe without delay’, as it is already fully funding ACM replacement on social housing high rises 18m or higher. Inside Housing has now reported that Tower Hamlets ‘looks set to be the first council in the country’ to use the new powers, specifically via serving an improvement notice on the Victoria Wharf complex in Bethnal Green ‘in the coming weeks’.

The 87 apartment building would be the first private block clad with ACM ‘to undergo the process’, with Tower Hamlets telling residents that the building is the ‘highest-risk’ in the borough due to the ‘high levels of cladding across’ the structure, alongside the ‘lack’ of a remediation plan from the building’s property managers and offshore owners.

The news outlet noted that the government’s plans for powers saw it bring in an addendum to the housing health and safety rating system ‘to ensure that cladding was covered by the guidance’, with this mechanism usually used to force building owners ‘to take action over smaller hazards’ including damp and electrics. Westminster Council is also understood by Inside Housing to be preparing to take similar action, studying potential buildings ‘which many need an intervention’.

Victoria Wharf residents have ‘become frustrated’ by the lack of a removal plan, with freeholder Vuillard Holdings ‘a company registered outside the UK’, and residents told the news outlet that ‘they are yet to receive any direct correspondence’ from Vuillard over cladding concerns. Instead, they have had to communicate through building property manager Sterling Estates Management, with the council having receive legal guidance on its next steps.

This allowed it to ‘get it to a stage where it is confident to take enforcement action’, with the improvement notice potentially sent out ‘in the coming weeks’. Tower Hamlets would need to serve it ‘not only against the freeholder but also against all other interested parties’, including mortgage companies, with the freeholder then given a period of time to make changes. Should these not be made, the council ‘could then step in and act’.

However, as this is ‘untested’ there are concerns that enforcement action ‘could be challenged by the freeholder’ and taken to a property tribunal, while there are no guarantees residents would be protected from the cost of works. Sterling Estates Management told residents that ‘it remained the responsibility of the leaseholders to pay for the replacement’, and if they did not ‘it would be forced to take recovery action’.

Graham Fieldhouse, a fire safety expert working for Sterling Estates Management as an advisor, stated that the company had asked Tower Hamlets for a meeting to ‘discuss the best way forward’, adding that a waking watch was in place, and blaming a ‘lack of clarity in the industry’ over what materials could replace ACM as ‘part of the reason for the hold up’.

He added: ‘We are not saying we are not changing it, we are trying to find the right product at the right cost for leaseholders, we are all looking to find the right answer. Sterling Estates is happy to put this right but we have a duty of care to the leaseholders to do the right thing and get the right product on, and not simply say we will change that to this.’