Government’s behaviour is negligent in the extreme, they must now implement a complete ban on flammable cladding
With, on average, one fire a month still linked to this kind of cladding, it’s only a matter of time before one of them isn’t put out and we’re facing the avoidable horror of another Grenfell, says Steve Reed MP.
On 14 June 2017 a fire started in the kitchen of a flat on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower. It rapidly spread up the outside of the building through the material that had been used to clad the building during a recent refurbishment. Despite the attempts of fire fighters, the fire quickly engulfed the building.
Seventy-two people lost their lives in the fire and many of the families who survived lost everything they owned and face a battle to rebuild their lives.
Politicians, Grenfell survivors and the building industry all agreed that a tragedy like this must never happen again. And yet almost nothing’s been done since to prevent it.
Despite the promises made while the ruins of Grenfell Tower were still smouldering, 18 months later there are thousands of terrified families across the country living in homes with the same flammable cladding that went up in flames at Grenfell. One of those blocks is in the constituency I represent.
The Government was warned about the dangers of flammable cladding long before Grenfell. Six people died in a fire at Lakanal House, Camberwell, in 2009. The inquest that followed recommended in 2013 that part B of the Building Regulations, which govern fire safety in UK buildings, should be reviewed to prevent further fires. Government ministers ignored the recommendation, flammable cladding was put up on Grenfell Tower, and a year later 72 people died there.
Questions abound about why the Government ignored this advice. There are concerns about the web of conflicts of interest that saw a trustee of the Building Research Establishment – the privatised organisation which helps write Britain’s fire safety standards – acting as the Government’s chief fire safety adviser. The BRE’s Chief Executive sits on the Government’s Independent Expert Advisory Panel established after Grenfell.
The BRE make money by allowing manufacturers to test the flammability of their products in rigs that are set on fire to measure combustibility. The tests can be altered and re-run multiple times until the required result is achieved, with the BRE being paid for each test. The detail of those fire safety tests, and the number of times a particular form of cladding fails, is considered commercially confidential and never published. The BRE has a financial interest in permitting the use of combustible cladding, and senior figures from the BRE advise Government ministers who appear to accept that advice without question.
Soon after Grenfell, constituents of mine living in the Citiscape building in Croydon contacted me besides themselves with worry because their block was covered in the same material as Grenfell Tower. They wanted the cladding taken down as quickly as possible.
Works to replace the cladding would cost over £2m, and the managing agent issued estimates of up to £30,000 to individual households. They were told the work would not begin unless they all paid, but of course many residents were fully stretched with huge mortgages and simply didn’t have that kind of money available. They couldn’t even borrow against their homes as the cladding had made them worthless. The residents felt, with justification, that the cost shouldn’t fall on them anyway. They were innocent victims of flawed fire safety regulations that the Government had refused to amend.
Approaches to the freeholder proved fruitless as they were not legally liable for the cost. Only a last-minute offer by Barratts, who had built the block, to replace the cladding meant the work could go ahead. But Barratts made clear they were under no legal obligation to step in, and residents in hundreds of other blocks have not been so lucky. They’re still living in homes covered in Grenfell-style cladding. These are people who bought homes they trusted were safe, but because the Government chose to ignore a coroner’s demand to clarify the fire safety guidance they are now living in fear, unable to sell and unable to afford the cost of making their homes safe.
Data released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government identifies 437 residential and publicly owned buildings over 18 metres tall with Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding systems which the Government now says are unlikely to meet regulations. The social sector is making swift progress with all but two buildings identified having plans in place to remove combustible cladding.
In the private sector it is a different story; 56 buildings currently have no plan in place to remove the cladding and residents like those in Northpoint Tower, Bromley, are each facing £70,000 bills before work starts.
Late last year, and after dithering for well over a year since Grenfell, the Government announced a partial ban on combustible cladding on some new buildings over 18 metres tall, although it excluded hotels and office buildings.
The ban failed to take any action on existing buildings with combustible cladding and the Government doesn’t propose banning combustible cladding on new schools, hospitals or residential blocks under 18 metres, and nor is there any funding to remove flammable cladding from any of these buildings where it already exists.
The Government’s behaviour is negligent in the extreme. Their inaction after Lakanal House led directly to the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Ministers must belatedly act on what they were told by the Lakanal House coroner in 2013 and clarify the regulations by implementing a complete ban on flammable cladding. It should not be permitted on any new buildings, and desperate residents need an action plan to replace it where it already exists. With, on average, one fire a month still linked to this kind of cladding, it’s only a matter of time before one of them isn’t put out and we’re facing the avoidable horror of another Grenfell.
Steve Reed is Labour MP for Croydon North
PoliticsHome Member, the British Safety Council has responded to Steve Reed MP, saying "The British Safety Council welcomed the partial ban on flammable cladding but consider that the government has not gone far enough. It is essential that flammable cladding is removed from all mid and high rise buildings. Occupants (residents and/or workers) health and safety must be protected at all times to ensure we avoid the horror that ensued at Grenfell last year."