More Than A Year After Grenfell: No New Fire Safety Laws Protect Citizens

London City Skyline
London City Skyline

Tragically the BBC reported that seventy-two people died after a fire blazed out of control at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, West London when “Just before 01:00 on 14 June, (2017) fire broke out in the kitchen of a fourth floor flat at the 23 storey tower block.” (1)

The whole country was shocked and saddened and Prime Minister Theresa May instructed a major investigation. “A public inquiry is under way…1,144 witnesses have given statements and 383 companies are part of the investigation.” (1)

Manufacturer Arconic removed the flammable panelling from the market after it became clear that the cladding on the high rise block caused the fire to spread rapidly. During an initial inquiry to report to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Dame Judith Hackett said the (high rise fire regulations) system was not fit for purpose. (2)

Grenfell Tower was refurbished in 2016 and due to cost cutting measures cheaper but more flammable cladding was installed. This saved Kensington and Chelsea council “£293000 on a £9.2 million refurbishment.” (2)

The cladding system fitted to Grenfell Tower was never subjected to fire safety testing,

It was also found on 299 other blocks…the aluminium composite material Raynobond ACM was apparently not put through large scale laboratory examinations to test the combustibility before being fitted.” (2)

Following Grenfell private housing owners and local councils are under pressure to modernise and fix the problems fire safety experts have identified. Both private and public sector housing providers have have major funding issues as the financial costs involved in upgrading cladding and at the same time ensuring the correct fire prevention building elements are installed, are so great. At the New Capitol Quay estate in Greenwich costs involve a “£20-40 million pound bill to make it safe plus a £1.25 million bill for round the clock fire patrols residents are concerned are not the solution.” (3)

This month Theresa May’s government announced they have now found a budget to pay for the works required but this could take years to implement and in the meantime lives could be at risk. May states: “I can today confirm that the government will fully fund the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding by councils and housing associations, estimated at £400m, and the housing secretary will set out further details later this week.” (6)

It is estimated that “The country faces a £1bn bill for re-cladding at least 311 residential towers, including 159 social housing blocks, with combustible plastic-filled aluminium panels similar to those used on Grenfell.” (4)

The Hackitt enquiry has proposed a wholesale change of the building regulations. “..which prioritises safety, as in the aviation or nuclear industries, with heavy fines and jail for those in charge of buildings if they transgress.” (4) So far nothing has been passed through parliament.

New Capitol Quay in Greenwich, London is home to about 2000 people. This relatively new housing development of high rises opened in 2013. However “deficiency notices were issued on 25th Jan 2018 by London Fire & Emergency Planning authority (LFEPA) on 11 blocks.” The notices have highlighted serious fire safety failings. Residents fear their lives are at risk while the cladding remains. (3)

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors guidance on existing high rise buildings fire advises that “RICS recommends a holistic approach to be taken to a whole building and not just cladding in isolation” when assessing a fire risk. The RICS also recommends building assessments “should include an assessment of fire spread” (5)

It has been identified during the initial enquiry that the classification of construction materials and the fire regulations are too unclear and allow for loopholes that can inadvertently lead to catastrophic consequences. Despite this “Currently there are no changes to the Building Regulations or the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety order 2005. (known as FSO)” (5)

Matt Wrack is general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and writes of the bravery of the fire fighters who risked their lives despite running out of equipment. There is no doubt that everyone involved that night followed their training and did everything in their power to fight the fire and help the residents. However Wrack describes how “The fire lifts did not work. The fire doors were not of the correct standard. The smoke extraction did not work. The windows failed. The water supply was inadequate…the building was wrapped in flammable cladding.” (7)

Wrack calls for a complete and total ban of flammable cladding. “It is shocking that more than a year after the Grenfell fire, this cladding material is still in use. We want to see an end to the privatisation of the fire safety inspection regime that has driven down standards.” (7)

As with many major accidents the causes of the terrible loss of life at Grenfell are multiple and complex. In this case the design and construction of the post war high rise block, the materials and equipment, the fire response procedures and the fire safety assessments all contributed to a disaster that was waiting to happen.

Theresa May and her government need to review, update the regulatory system and change the law immediately to include a complete ban of all use of dangerous cladding. Many people are affected with hundreds of buildings throughout the country that require bringing up to a safe standard, such as offices and student accommodation and residents who live in flats with several storeys. Otherwise we cannot confidentially reassure any high rise building users that their homes and workplaces, that should be a place of safety in their lives, are not potentially life threatening danger areas.

(1) BBC News 18 June 2018 ‘Grenfell Tower: What happened’

(2) Pasha-Robinson L. ‘Cladding Fitted To Grenville Tower ‘was never fire safety tested.’ The Independent 8 February 2018

(3) Booth R and O’Carroll L. ‘Multiple fire safety risks found at flats with Grenfell-style cladding.’ The Guardian 15 February 2018

(4) Booth R and Bowcott O ‘Where do we stand a year after Grenfell fire?’ The Guardian 14 June 2018

(5) Strong G. ‘RICS guidance on existing high-rise buildings fire safety’ Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Organisation15 Mar 2018

(6) Barratt L. ‘Government to fully fund replacement of dangerous cladding’ Inside Housing 16 May 2018

(7) Wrack M ‘The real Grenfell scandal: over a year on, nothing has changed’ The Guardian 18 July 2018