London’s High Court has ruled that remedial safety work on buildings is legal liability. This landmark ruling should resolve one of the most difficult questions that arose from the Grenfell Tower fire five years ago.
In a ruling on Thursday, Mulalley & Co, an Essex-based contractor, was ordered to pay damages towards the cost of removing cladding it had fitted to four residential tower blocks in Gosport on the south coast of England deemed to be unsafe after the blaze in the London block of flats.
It’s the first time that a court has ruled in favor of remediation work for unsafe cladding. This could have far-reaching consequences for contractors, landlords, and property owners in England.
Andy Hulme, chief executive of housing association Hyde Group which brought the claim via its subsidiary Martlet Homes against Mulalley, said the case had “massive implications for the market”. He added that it should help unblock disputes between leaseholders living in blocks fitted with flammable cladding and the buildings’ owners over who should pay to have it removed.
“It’s the first time a contractor has been held accountable for the quality of work and the materials they have used . . . Based on this case we now know where the lines of accountability lie,” he said.
The court has yet to decide what the extent of the damages will be, with Hyde looking to recoup as much as much as possible of the £8mn it spent fixing the blocks.
A widespread safety crisis has been triggered by the 2017 Grenfell fire that claimed 72 lives. An extensive investigation into the fire has revealed sharp practice and abuses in the regulation and construction of tower blocks in England.
The inquiry’s core task, which is still ongoing, was to establish accountability for the fire as well as the wider failures in building safety.
The investigation will likely lead to criminal proceedings. But ahead of the inquiry laying out its conclusions, the High Court’s ruling provides a legal precedent and a new pathway for leaseholders and property owners to recoup the costs of fixing blocks found to be unsafe in the aftermath of Grenfell.
The total cost of fixing unsafe buildings across England is expected to exceed £10bn and at present is being largely met by taxpayers and developers via a levy.
Mary-Anne Bowring, a fire safety expert and group managing director at property consultant Ringley Group, described the ruling as “a landmark that gives hope to millions of residents living in unsafe buildings by opening the potential for legal action against other construction contractors who installed unsafe cladding”.
She added: “However, it is not enough to simply expect developers and housing associations to launch further legal action off the back of today’s judgment in order to recover the money spent on fixing unsafe buildings.”
She argued that instead, the government should pay upfront for defective buildings to be fixed and then recoup construction company costs later.
Contractors, who often have small cash reserves, could be affected by the judgment. Hulme said Hyde had spent a total of £80mn across its property portfolio on fire safety and remediation, and was pursuing “a number of other cases with other contractors” to recoup some of that.
He discussed the decision with other housing associations, and expects them all to do the same in seeking contractors. “This should be a shot across [contractors’] bows . . . we want people to be held accountable,” Hulme said.
Mulalley didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.