Government Endangered Tower Block Residents
Emergency services are still tackling the tragic Grenfell fire and fatalities are now confirmed.
A dark background of fire risk and poor health and safety standards was set out by the Grenfell Action Group in their blog over many months.
In an ominous entry entitled "Playing With Fire", posted in November 2016, the group wrote "it is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders."
"Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation...It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!" the group added.
It has now emerged that concerns extend well beyond one residents group and that the government are responsible for delays in a national review of fire regulations.
In March 2017, the Fire Risk Management Journal published an article under the title "GOVERNMENT ENDANGERING TOWER BLOCKS BY DELAYING FIRE SAFETY REGULATIONS REVIEW," reporting that experts had warned government delays in reviewing building regulations could be endangering tower block residents across the country.
"Following a catastrophic tower block fire at Lakanal House in South London in 2009, which claimed six lives," the journal reported, "fire safety failings were uncovered in the resulting investigation. These failings included inadequate fire risk assessments and panels on the exterior walls not providing the required fire resistance. Southwark Council were recently fined £570,000 after pleading guilty to four criminal charges relating to lapses in fire safety."
The experts state Housing Minister Gavin Barwell said last year the government would "review part B of the Building Regulations 2010, which relate to fire safety, in the aftermath of the fire at Lakanal House."
Following up on the statement, the journal reports that "Honorary administrative secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Ronnie King, said the building regulations 'haven't taken account of the Lakanal House fire inquest, or updated recent accredited research'."
There were, according the report, still 4,000 tower blocks in the UK which had the same regulations applied to them.
Sam Webb, a fire safety expert, told the journal a "really serious questions should be asked in parliament about fire safety," and stated that there is "a 'conflict' between fire safety and the materials that are used to construct more energy efficient buildings."
"The materials are not fire-resistant and in some cases they're flammable," he added.
The Grenfell block had been refurbished and fitted with external cladding in the period leading to the tragic fire.
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government declined to give a date for the building regulations review, at the time, adding that it would take place "in due course."
Parliament was dissolved for an unnecessary period due to Prime Minister Theresa May calling the snap election and all policy work was suspended.
One former block manager from the North of England contacted me earlier today, to raise his own serious concerns about the impact of the government's failure to act.
Azeem told me that a fire had occurred on one of his sites in the summer of 2016, which was swiftly investigated by the fire services. "They had some recommendations," he told me. "Some were straight forward, others seemed straight forward. e.g. fire doors to flats."
"But flat doors are leaseholders responsibilities, for me to enforce [that] I need to take those leaseholders to court. Fire services then had to read the leases to establish that I was right," he added.
As a result of the complexities of ownership and service of notices, Azeem said "so then what happened? For over 6 months, nothing to improve fire safety. Lots of soft contact but nothing to address the problem."
Azeem stated leaseholders weren't interested in the improvements to fire safety where it had cost implications for them and called the only people with enforcement powers, Environmental Health, "toothless."
Downing Street has responded to questions on the policy by initially saying "we can't comment on the causes of the fire" and have not yet provided any statement on delays in the Government's review.
The £2.6 million pound Grenfell exterior refurbishment was carried out by Harley Facades, who overclad the building with ACM Cassette Rainscreen. I contacted their offices but was directed to a PR company, Chelgate, who the firm have engaged earlier today to deal with all Grenfell inquiries.
Chelgate had no comment to make on the fatalities and a prepared statement was incomplete at the time of the call. A spokesperson did, however, tell me the cladding was "Fire Class Zero Rated, and complies with BS476 Part 7 (surface spread) and Part 8 (fire propagation) standards."
In their eventual statement, Chelgate wrote on behalf of Harley Facades, that "Harley Facades Limited completed the refurbishment work to Grenfell Tower. This included the installation of exterior cladding. The Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) panels are a commonly used product in the refurbishment industry. Harley Facades Limited do not manufacture these panels."
Commenting on the fire, Ray Bailey, Managing Director at Harley Facades Limited said: “This is an incredibly tragic incident. Our thoughts are with the residents and their families who have suffered such a personal loss. We will fully support and cooperate with the investigations into this fire. There will be many questions about this whole incident and so you will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for us to comment or for others to speculate on any aspect of fire or it causes in advance of these inquiries. At this time, we are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.”
According to several sources, Studio E - the architects who specified the material - took their web pages related to the project down while the incident was ongoing. These are still available on the web archive.
Additionally, Witt UK Group, the contractor who fitted the smoke ventilation system during the refurbishment, deleted their web pages but I was able to locate copies in the web archive and passed the records to the Metropolitan Police Service.