By: Christian Halberg
13 July 2017
The Grenfell Tower fire was Britain’s worst national disaster since Hillsborough in 1989.
As the inferno at Grenfell Towers unfolded live on television for the world to see, questions were being asked as to how this could happen and, more pertinently, where do we go from here?
As the thick blanket of uncertainty gradually receded, the picture became clearer. The fire is believed to have started by a faulty fridge on the 4th floor north east corner flat, and the fire spread with “unexpected” speed.While that provided the initial spark, two factors appear to have exacerbated the situation: cladding and cavity space.
Despite having more than £300 million in reserves, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea demanded that the recent major refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, completed only last year, be done on a wafer thin budget. This in part lead to the fateful decision to authorise cheaper, less-fire retardant aluminium cladding in lieu of the zinc version, saving themselves £300,000 in the process. The manufacturer of the cladding, Arconic, had stipulated that this variant of cladding should not be used on buildings higher than 10m. Grenfell Tower is around 70m. This cladding acted as kindling as the fire started to spread.
Coupled with that, installation of cladding can create cavities which can cause a chimney effect, drawing the heat up into the cavity if there are no fire barriers in place, and in effect causing the the cladding to combust and the tower to become a pyre. The cladding and cavity in effect acted as fuel and oxygen to engulf the Tower.
The immediate aftermath
The government has launched a public inquiry into Grenfell to fully understand the causes of the fire and allocate responsibility. The decision to appoint Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the inquiry is not without controversy given his track record in previous cases.
More immediately, a separate independent expert advisory panel has been set up, providing advice and addressing safety concerns by recommending immediate action points. This panel will be led by buildings and fire safety experts and will be chaired by Sir Ken Knight, former London Fire Commissioner.
In total, there are 530 high-rise towers which have external cladding thought to present fire risk, and of the nearly 200 samples from these towers that have been tested to date, every one has failed safety checks. It is thought that all the tests so far have been on local authority-owned blocks, rather than on private residences, although three NHS trust buildings have also failed.
Haven’t we been here before
What makes the inferno at Grenfell even more tragic is that it may well have been avoided.
Prior to Grenfell, the UK’s worst tower block fire was in 2009 where six people died in a blaze in Lakanal House, a local authority high-rise tower in Camberwell in south-east London.
This incident was caused by a faulty television set, residents were instructed to stay in their homes and the fire spread much faster than expected. The similarities are there.
Southwark council, where the building was located, pleaded guilty to four charges of negligence and received a £270,000 fine and a further £300,000 in costs. Amazingly, the ruling was concluded only four months before Grenfell. Building regulations have still not been fundamentally reviewed for a decade, despite warnings from experts that they have not kept pace with ever-changing construction techniques.
The London Fire Brigade issued a statement at the time of the ruling saying it hoped “lessons had been learned” from Lakanal. Clearly, if lessons were learned, they were not heeded.
Two practical concerns remain: understanding the true scale of the problem, and how to rehouse those affected.
One concern that some councils are starting to wake up to in the aftermath is the issue of permitted development (PD). Croydon council, a borough in south London, has seen over a thousand homes converted to residential use under PD – the most anywhere in the UK – and conversions under this process face less safety scrutiny than purpose built residential buildings, meaning they may be less safe than Grenfell was supposed to be.
Since PD rights were introduced in May 2013, nearly 14,500 dwellings have been converted to residential use in the UK. Potentially, that is equivalent to an additional 120 Grenfell Towers, to add to the 200 or so that have failed fire safety tests to date. And that is before including the 300 or so towers that have yet to be checked.
As the scale of the issue becomes apparent, the second degree question is how many towers can be fixed, who pays for the work, and how do we rehouse people in towers that cannot be fixed. For a nation that already suffers from chronic undersupply in housing stock, will the government see fit to approve development of new, and safer, tower blocks? What will this mean to future building regulations, and will this impact feasibility of some future developments?
This is a hugely important and difficult issue for the government to resolve. Complex issues will need to be answered, responsibilities and costs shared. It will require cooperation, coordination and much cross party political will, not to mention costly expense, to tackle.
We can only hope lessons have been learned this time.