The Westminster government is facing accusations tantamount to murder after the Grenfell Tower fire in West London, where hundreds of people are suspected to have died due to decisions on fire safety regulations.
Leading MPs in the Labour opposition, including home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow chancellor John McDonnell have labelled as “murder” political oversights that led to both the dangerous cladding being installed and poor safety precautions in this and hundreds of other blocks throughout England.
Local authorities all over England are now impatient for the results of tests on cladding materials from suspect tower blocks in their administrative areas to see if they contain the same dangerous aluminium composite material (ACM) panels.
At the time of writing just 60 of over 540 blocks had received fire safety checks results – and all of them failed. The panels spontaneously ignite at 700°C, and the temperature reached during the fire – caused initially by a fault in a fridge-freezer – was 1000°C.
The materials are being tested at a special facility at the Building Research Establishment, where engineers are working around the clock. This fire safety testing station has the largest burn hall in Europe, plus other very extensive fire and security test facilities.
The government has said it will foot the bill for testing and replacement of materials, no matter how high it is. So far this has been estimated at £600 million (AU$1 billion) but the final cost is likely to be much higher.
In an illustration of the state of national panic existing around this issue, in London, Camden Council conducted a rapid emergency evacuation last Friday night of four of five tower blocks in Chalcots Estate, Swiss Cottage, after firefighters said they could not guarantee the safety of the buildings due to concerns over fire doors, gas pipes and insulation, combined with external cladding. Up to 3000 residents were evacuated but about 200 refused to leave, saying they did not want to face weeks in emergency accommodation.
At Tower Hamlets, the London Fire Brigade is conducting a 24/7 fire patrol to inspect communal areas of Denning Point tower block after the council said cladding “did not fully comply with the requirements” of the safety tests. The building is covered by the fire retardant version of the panels but still regarded as suspect. Other councils are mounting similar patrols.
Wandsworth and Islington are among several councils that plan to remove cladding from blocks tested and found to have ACM. Wandsworth is to install sprinkler systems on more than 100 high-rise housing blocks that don’t have them. Many more councils around the country are expected to follow suit.
Outside of London, the Department for Communities and Local Government said Manchester, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Doncaster, Norwich, Stockton-on-Tees and Sunderland all contain buildings that have failed tests.
A building in Manchester, an extra care housing scheme, was only completed in spring this year.
Chief executive Nigel Wilson said: “After Grenfell, we immediately commissioned an extensive review of all our 10 tower blocks, which has flagged up a small area of failed panels on one scheme. We have taken immediate action and are in the process of having these panels removed, and are working closely with the local authority and Greater Manchester Fire Brigade.”
The issue at stake is not whether the cladding meets building regulations – because they can do so and remain unsafe.
Responsibility for fire safety and building regulations are devolved in the UK, so the regulations in question only apply to England. The Scottish and Welsh governments, and the Northern Ireland executive, have all indicated that, following a survey, the aluminium composite cladding has not been used in compliance with their rules on any buildings. In Wales seven tower blocks have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems to comply with the regulations, said cabinet secretary for communities and children Carl Sargeant.
In England, a review of the fire safety regulations was recommended to the government in 2013 after an inquest into a similar but less serious disaster in 2009. The government said it would conduct this and change the regulations so by 2016/17. It did not, and claims the work is ongoing.
The coroner conducting this inquest recommended that the government should:
- publish “consolidated national guidance in relation to the ‘stay put; principle and its interaction with the ‘get out and stay out’ policy, including how such guidance is disseminated to residents”
- review the guidance on risk assessment for fighting fires in high rises
- provide clear guidance on the inspection of flats in high rise buildings
- encourage housing providers to retro-fit sprinkler systems in high rise buildings
- review Part B (fire safety) of the Building Regulations to ensure that it is easily understandable, and give guidance to those who are responsible for maintaining tower blocks as well as building them
Former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who lost his seat in the general election this month, failed to give the go-ahead to a safety review, despite it having been delayed for years. Many have pointed the finger of blame at him for the Grenfell disaster. Three days after losing his seat, Prime Minister Theresa May made him her Downing Street chief of staff, where he remains.
Leaked letters from the all-party group on fire safety rescue to the government show that it warned four different English housing ministers that action needed to be taken. One of these says:
“Surely however when you already have credible evidence in 2012 to justify updating a small but important part of the guidance in the approved document, which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?”
In February this year, the government admitted that it had reviewed whether Document B of the Building Regulations presented information on fire safety clearly so that builders, building owners, construction specifiers, architects and so on could understand it.
The review concluded that the document “deals with complex information and does not present it in a way that is clear to all”. It recommended the provision of more prescriptive guidance to avoid confusion. This has not yet happened.
This means it is very unclear what building managers should do to make tower blocks fire safe.
Even more shockingly, there have been no minimum property standards for rented housing in England since 2006, replacing the old Housing Fitness Standard.
A House of Commons briefing paper makes clear that attempts to introduce these standards have been rebuffed by the Tory-led government.
It details how during discussions about the Housing and Planning Bill 2015-16, Labour shadow housing minister Teresa Pearce tried to get fitness for human habitation proposals included but then housing minister Brandon Lewis argued that the bill’s proposals could improve standards without imposing “unnecessary regulation” on landlords.
Concern has spread about safety from tower blocks to schools. Over the weekend there was another government U-turn as it abandoned a decision to relax fire safety standards for new school buildings as a cost-cutting measure. Such a dramatic change of approach across government, from a previous preoccupation with deregulation and cost-saving, is effectively an admission that the previous ideology-driven approach was wrong.
This further supports accusations that Tory ideology to reduce “red tape” for business has made tenants vulnerable and is the basis for Labour’s feeling that government decisions have amounted to murder.
While the language is strong, the implication is valid if you believe that it is a duty of government to use building and fire regulations to protect its citizens.
Ask any residents of tower blocks and you can bet they will echo that sentiment.
Cutting building regulations
According to leaked documents given to Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, before the Grenfell disaster the Tory government was scheming to cut European building regulations relating to energy efficiency and fire safety standards after Brexit. This provides a clue as to why the Part B regulations were not upgraded.
A policy briefing produced by lobbying firm Hanbury Strategy for the Red Tape Initiative, a cross-party project chaired by conservative MP Oliver Letwin, and backed by newly appointed environment secretary Michael Gove, a known climate sceptic, refers to five EU building regulations that could be amended or repealed after Brexit.
These include the EU’s Construction Products Regulation, which sets standards for construction materials traded across the EU, such as fire-fighting equipment, fire retardants and cladding. It also puts fire safety at the heart of its “basic requirements for construction works”.
The Energy Efficiency Directive, the latest version of which the UK is lobbying to weaken at an EU level, and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive also feature in the document as potentially “burdensome” laws.
Hanbury Strategy is a political PR and research firm founded last year by Vote Leave’s head of communication Paul Stephenson and David Cameron’s ex-aide Ameet Gill; it recently recruited Theresa May’s former press secretary Lizzie Loudon.
The organisation’s funders are not public and are referred to simply as “business donors”.
When he introduced the Red Tape Initiative, Sir Oliver Letwin said house building would be one of three priority areas to be targeted in the deregulatory drive. He said they were planning to launch around 10 inquiries to seek views on what EU regulations could be jettisoned.
He also said business secretary Greg Clark wrote to the initiative, offering the cooperation of his department. The leaked document provides what it calls a “brief critique of EU housing and construction red tape” in which it says building and housing regulations have “been identified as a cause for concern” and cost councils and housing developers millions.
Commenting on the findings, Greenpeace UK policy director Dr Doug Parr said: “It’s obvious that there are powerful political and corporate interests out there ready to use Brexit as an excuse to get rid of vital laws that they see as a hindrance to businesses. But what industry lobbyists call ‘red tape’ are often rules that save lives and protect our health and our environment. This reckless rhetoric that puts corporate profits before laws protecting people and the environment has to stop.”
David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy efficiency, building refurbishment and renewable energy. See his website here.