The onus is on all of us to ensure a tragedy like the deadly blaze at Grenfell Tower never happens again
The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower last week, in which at least 79 people lost their lives, has left a community, and a nation, in shock. Shock over the unimaginable personal loss for the families involved. And shock, too, that such a disaster could happen today, in 21st-century Britain.
The official investigation into the blaze that tore through the 24-storey building last Tuesday night will be a slow process – as we report on page 9, it could take two years. But uncovering the truth of what went so wrong at the building is imperative, for those involved, for other councils with high-rise residential blocks, for the people that live in them, and for the construction industry that creates them.
A central focus of the investigation will clearly be on whether the building, which was refurbished in 2016, met the requirements of Part B of the building regulations, which deals with fire safety. And in particular, following the rapid spread of flames up the outside of the building, it will look at the cladding installed in that refurbishment.
But even if the cladding is shown to have met these standards – and as we report, experts have so far seen nothing to suggest it did not – the regulations have not been updated to reflect the latest evidence relating to the external spread of fire. That fact alone is shameful.
When Part B was last updated in 2010, it did not incorporate advice from a parliamentary committee investigation in 2000 into a fatal fire in Ayrshire, the year before, where fire spread externally via the cladding. The committee, as our technical editor Thomas Lane writes on building.co.uk, said external cladding systems should be required either to be entirely non-combustible, or to be proven through full-scale testing not to pose unacceptable risk of fire spread.
The year before that update was issued, in 2009, another fire, in Lakanal House in Southwark, killed six people. In 2013, the coroner’s report found that there had been problems with the building’s fire resistance. There were fresh calls for the regulations to be reviewed. Nothing happened. Now, we are in a scenario the committee of MPs studying the Ayrshire fire warned about, when they said that it should not take a fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken to minimise risk.
As housing associations and councils around the country review their own high-rise buildings in the wake of the fire, the cost pressures the sector is under cannot be ignored
The committee’s warning was sadly echoed by community group Grenfell Tower Action group, months before last week’s fateful blaze. On its blog, the group warned only “an incident that results in serious loss of life” would lead to external scrutiny of the way the building was run and managed.
The residents’ anger was targeted at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which manages Grenfell Tower on behalf of the council. The complaints, including about blocked routes that could prevent fire engines reaching the building, suggest unacceptable service; even if the focus the investigation is likely to centre on the refurbishment, rather than access.
The media has also abounded with theories about how national political decisions may have contributed to the tragedy. The suggestion that the cladding was installed to improve the building’s aesthetics for the benefit of residents in neighbouring, wealthier, districts, is one; but this ignores the fact that the refurbishment of the tower was necessary to improve thermal performance. That’s not to say that the choice of how to do it was right – simply that tenants should not face living in the cold, or with unmanageable heating bills.
One political trend that urgently needs to be held up to scrutiny, however, is the succession of cuts faced by those who deliver social housing. A report published days before the fire by insurer Zurich, based on interviews with housing association bosses, found that pressure on registered providers of social housing to save money was seeing some build to “the lowest specifications allowed by building regulations”.
This pressure is partly the result of cuts to the rent housing associations are allowed to charge – a change introduced by the Cameron government to reduce the cost of housing benefits. Meanwhile, the introduction of Universal Credit means housing associations have lost the guaranteed income stream that they had when payments were made directly to them.
Whether these cuts contributed to decisions made in the Grenfell refurbishment will no doubt be pored over in the weeks to come. But as housing associations and councils around the country review their own high-rise buildings in the wake of the fire, the cost pressures the sector is under cannot be ignored.
Both the failure to update the fire regulations, and moves that drive down the cost of providing social housing, are examples of myopic thinking over policy. Despite the warnings, the catastrophe has happened. The onus is now on us all to restore a sense of responsibility for looking at the bigger picture when we make decisions, and so prevent any such tragedy from happening again.
Sarah Richardson, editor