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Four ministers warned over fire risk in tower blocks - report

Agnes Chambre

3 min read

Four ministers were warned about the risk of a fire in tower blocks like Grenfell Tower, according to a number of newly-released letters.

The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group contacted Conservative ministers James Wharton, Gavin Barwell and Eric Pickles during their time at the Department for Communities and Local Government, as well as then-Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams during the Coalition years.

Authorities estimate that 79 people may have died after the West London high rise building went up in flames last Wednesday.

According to the BBC, the APPG urged the Government not to “wait for another tragedy” after the fatal fire in Lakanal House in south London in 2009, and called for stronger regulations on tower blocks.

The coroner presiding over the Lakanal House case made a series of recommendations to the Government after six people died in the blaze.

The APPG wrote in 2014 calling on the department to act upon those proposals: “Surely… when you already have credible evidence to justify updating… the guidance… which will lead to saving of lives, you don't need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?”

"As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?"

Mr Williams replied: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward."

No 10 aide Mr Barwell was contacted by the APPG in September last year; in November he promised to make a statement and in April he wrote to say that he did “acknowledge that producing a statement on building regulations has taken longer than I had envisaged".

None of the four ministers is still an MP, though Mr Barwell was appointed Theresa May’s chief of staff after losing his seat in the Commons in the election this month.

The Government has announced a £5m support package for survivors, but the response has been criticised as too slow, with criticism levelled at Theresa May’s approach in particular.

A statement from the DCLG said it will take “some time before it is fully understood how the fire started or why it took hold in the way it did”.

"The Government has acted to improve fire regulation and safety, including the recommendations made by the Coroner following the Lakanal House Fire,” the department said.

"The final recommendation concerned simplification of fire safety guidance, and this work was under way, with a consultation due to be published this summer.

"Fire safety requirements are complex issues and our priority has been that we have high standards. A great deal of work has been completed, including commissioning and undertaking research to support the planned consultation. Clearly, in light of this tragic event, we need to reflect on whether this consultation is the correct next step to take. We will confirm our approach shortly."

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