Tuesday 5 June 2018
Grenfell Fire Reports - Catalogue of Errors allowed Cost Cutting on Safety
The release to the public enquiry yesterday, of the reports into the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire last summer, point to a combination of errors and safety standards that were not fit for purpose. As the Guardian reports:
‘Serious fire safety breaches at Grenfell Tower included over 100 non-compliant fire doors, a fire fighting lift that didn’t work and a “stay put” policy that totally failed, the inquiry into the disaster has been told.
There was “a culture of non-compliance” at the tower which contained more combustible material than previously thought, fire safety experts revealed. This included flammable parts to the window frames that spread the fire to the external cladding within 15 minutes of the first 999 call.’
The risers meant to take water to upper floors did not work properly and smoke extractors in the lobbies of the building also failed to work and were in breach of building regulations. Cheaper flammable plastic framed windows, incorrectly fitted in many cases by the main contractor Rydon, also contributed to the spread of the fire. It was clearly done on the cheap.
The London Fire Brigade also came in for criticism for advising residents to stay put in their flats rather than flee the building which led to more deaths than would have been the case if the building was evacuated sooner. This would have been sensible advice had the tower not been clad with flammable material, but it is not clear that either the fire brigade knew of this in advance or whether routine advice for tall buildings clad with this material had not been updated?
It appears that the type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower (and used in many high rise buildings in the UK), was not properly tested for its resistance to fire, and there appears to be a gap in the regulations which allow its usage. Legally speaking, it seems that there was nothing to stop building firms using these materials, although common sense would suggest that wrapping a tall building in plastic, which has been likened to pouring 32,000 litres of petrol onto the fire, is a dangerous thing to do.
This type of cladding is banned from use in the US for buildings above 15 meters in height. There have been several fires in the US and elsewhere where this type of cladding has made fires worse.
A posting on a blog run by the Grenfell Action Group after the fire said warnings over safety failings at the tower and other properties managed by the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) had “fallen on deaf ears.” In posts dating back four years, the group detailed concerns raised with councillors and officials at Kensington & Chelsea, and senior staff at the KCTMO.
In 2015, the group reported that London Fire Brigade issued an enforcement notice following a fire at the Adair Tower in North Kensington. The unverified enforcement notice was said to have ordered the KCTMO to improve safety in fire escapes and install self-closing devices to all front doors.
In October 2016 Gavin Barwell, then minister for housing, who lost his Parliamentary seat in Croydon Central at last year’s general election, and who has since been appointed as Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, announced a review into Part B of the Building Regulations 2010 that cover fire safety in tall and wooden buildings.
However, the review has yet to be launched. In March 2017, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the review would be undertaken “in due course.”
The Part B review was due to look at how fire safety measures could be improved following a major fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, in 2009, in which six people lost their lives. In 2017 Labour Southwark Borough Council was fined £270,000 and ordered to pay £300,000 legal costs after admitting safety failings at Lakanal House.
Tory Kensington and Chelsea Council decided to approve the use of this cladding at Grenfell on cost grounds, as non combustible cladding would have cost about an extra £2 per square metre, or around £50,000 extra for the whole building. The council held around £800 million in reserves.
Minutes from a 6 January 2016 meeting of Kensington & Chelsea housing and property scrutiny committee about the refurbishment of the building, also noted that the flammable cladding, “improved the look of the building,” according to the Local Government Chronicle (subscription). They didn’t want to spoil the view for wealthier residents of the area!
The council’s response to the aftermath of the fire was woeful too. So poor was their response to the situation that central government took away control of operations from them and handed them to neighbouring Westminster City Council.
I think this whole disaster demonstrates the contempt that social housing tenants are held in by local and central government, and must never be allowed to happen again.