Following the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, the Government instructed all local authorities to test the cladding on all high-rise buildings to verify their safety.
Of the 24 residential tower blocks owned by Sheffield City Council, the Hanover Tower block (in my ward of Broomhill and Sharrow Vale) was the only one found to be fitted with a type of cladding that failed building regulations; the same type of cladding that was fitted on Grenfell Tower.
Hanover Tower was fitted with cladding under the ‘Decent Homes’ scheme in 2012. Following the tests carried out in the summer of 2017, Sheffield City Council promised an investigation and residents were told in a meeting: “The panels are different to the sample the Tenants and Residents Association hold. That’s what we need to investigate. We need to look at every stage of the sign off process for the works. Once we have the information we will take action against the contractor or SCC staff.”
Since being elected in May 2019, I (and, for two years before me, my colleagues in the Green Group) have relentlessly directed questions about the progress of the investigation to the relevant cabinet member, both privately and publicly. The answers to my questions have been at best superficial and at worst misleading, in line with the MO of the Labour-led administration that currently holds power in Sheffield: trying to evade scrutiny is what they do as a matter of course.
The investigation report was finally made public in September this year after several broken promises to residents that the publication was imminent. The Labour administration has form in not fulfilling its promises and not meeting expectations: our role as opposition is paramount in keeping it accountable to the people it purports to represent. The Green Group worked closely with residents and pressed this matter for a number of years and I forced the cabinet member into making a public commitment to publishing the report; otherwise, I fear we would still be waiting for it.
In the course of consultations in 2009, residents were given samples of the proposed aluminium cladding. At one of the June 2017 residents’ meetings, a housing manager accepted that the cladding that was fitted was different to what residents had been consulted about. The solid aluminium shown as samples to residents in 2009 would not have posed a fire risk, but the Tower was instead fitted with Alucobond, a cheaper composite material consisting of two sheets of aluminium with plastic sandwiched between. Emails between Council Officers and the Contractor dating from February 2010 clearly mention Alucobond, however the material was never mentioned during the planning process or the consultation with residents and Councillors: public scrutiny finished at the end of January 2010. The investigation report published by SCC fails to establish who authorised the switch of materials: records have been lost and emails were deleted when people left their job at the Council.
The Tower sits proudly on the Hanover estate in Broomhall, an area made of two halves (not dissimilar to Kensington and Chelsea) with a large social housing estate next to wealthy villas and mansions, but the fact of the matter is that this unsafe cladding was fitted on a council-owned building – not on a block of executive luxury flats.
So, how did that happen? And why as a country are we failing to safeguard those whom we are tasked to protect? Council Housing should be the best: in choice of materials, level of safety, energy efficiency, innovation. So, why are we settling for below-par standards, let alone those that put people’s lives at risk?
The Hanover Tower cladding report can be found on the Sheffield Green Party website.
Angela Argenzio is a Green Party Councillor for Broomhill and Sharrow Vale in Sheffield