John Healey: The Government’s response to the Grenfell tragedy has not been good enough

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Today, we remember the 72 people who lost their lives as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire one year ago. We also remember our duty to do right by them and those who survive them. That means doing whatever is needed for justice to be done and those responsible to be held to account. And it means taking all steps necessary so that a fire like Grenfell Tower can never happen again.

Directly after this national disaster, the Prime Minister made the first statement to Parliament herself, and she had the whole country with her when she pledged that Grenfell residents would have all the help and new homes they needed and that every necessary step would be taken to stop this kind of disaster ever happening again.

Grenfell Tower (left) in west London is illuminated in green along with its surrounding towers to mark a year since the moment the devastating fire took hold, claiming 72 lives. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Grenfell Tower (left) in west London is illuminated in green along with its surrounding towers to mark a year since the moment the devastating fire took hold, claiming 72 lives. Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

But one year on, more than half of Grenfell survivors are still stuck in hotel rooms or temporary accommodation; more than 300 other tower blocks around the country have the same Grenfell-style cladding, yet only 10 have had it removed and replaced; there are more tower blocks in private hands that have still not been tested; and, astonishingly, the Government still does not even know how many high rise tower blocks there are in the country.

The truth is Ministers have been off the pace and too slow to act at every stage for 12 months since the fire. The Government’s response has not been good enough, and it is still not good enough. The time for warm words is long past. More action, not more apologies, is needed now.

On rehousing survivors, Grenfell Tower residents feel that they were failed before the fire, and many feel failed since. They were promised permanent new homes within a year, but only 82 of the 209 households are in permanent new homes.

On the wider Grenfell estate, only 39 of 127 are in permanent new homes. No-one wants to bring up their children in a hotel room, and survivors report defects in many of the new homes that have been offered, which include damp, delayed repairs and tenancy terms different from those for the homes people lost in the tower.

A year on, these problems must now be sorted, and a new deadline set for finding new homes for those who lost everything in the fire. Without Government fixing this new time limit, more words of regret from Ministers about what has gone wrong in the last 12 months will ring hollow to the still homeless former residents of Grenfell Tower.

Away from west London, for many people in Yorkshire it is the safety of high rise tower blocks in their areas that is of pressing concern. We know there are high rise blocks with dangerous cladding in Bradford, Calderdale,
Kirklees and Sheffield, though the Government are keeping secret the precise blocks that are at risk, and their safety testing status.

Nationally, it remains the case that 12 months since the fire, only 10 of more than 300 tower blocks with the same Grenfell-type cladding have had it replaced. This is despite a cast-iron promise from the Prime Minister after the fire that her Government would “do whatever it takes to… keep our people safe.”​

Under Labour pressure, the Government has at least now promised to fund the costs of this work for social housing tower blocks and, again under pressure, signalled their intention eventually to ban combustible material on the outside of high rise blocks.

However, this must be only the start of a comprehensive overhaul of safety rules and standards that have been found to be so fundamentally flawed in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

So Ministers must now accept that sprinklers must be retrofitted in high rise social housing blocks, funded by Government, as Labour and fire chiefs have argued. They must make it clear to private tower block owners that it is they, not residents, who have the legal duty to pay for replacing dangerous cladding, and strengthen councils’ enforcement powers and sanctions so that they can act when private block owners will not make their buildings
safe.

It is by taking these steps that we honour those who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, respect the promises made to survivors, and how we ensure that, when we say “never again”, we mean it.

John Healey is MP for Wentworth & Dearne and Shadow Secretary of State for Housing.