Two years on from Grenfell but still ‘only a matter of time’Posted: June 10, 2019
Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on June 10.
Almost two years on from Grenfell, Sunday’s huge fire at a block of flats in Barking is a horrifying reminder of how much there is still to do to keep residents safe.
Thankfully, everyone seems to have got out but the parallels are all too clear in the terrifying speed at which the fire spread and previous safety concerns raised by residents of the mixed-tenure block that appear to have been brushed aside.
Attention will inevitably focus on the safety of timber balconies and the apparent failure of fire retardant treatment of the materials used as well as the actions of those responsible for the block.
More broadly it underlines a whole series of questions about regulation and the construction industry and relationships between developers, freeholders and leaseholders that have still not had adequate answers.
With only a few days left until the Grenfell anniversary, the fire is a dramatic illustration of how much remains to be done to meet Theresa May’s pledge to do ‘whatever it takes…to keep our people safe’.
And we are also only three weeks away from the 10th anniversary of the fire at Lakanal House that led to coroner’s recommendations that were sidelined before Grenfell and have still not been fully implemented.
In a Commons debate last Thursday, MP after MP criticised the government on the speed of its response to both fires.
Most immediately, Kensington’s Labour MP Emma Dent Coad raised the plight of the 19 families from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk and 109 families in the walkways attached to the tower who are still homeless, the impact of the fire on the mental and physical health of residents, and the slow progress of the public inquiry and police investigation.
But much of the focus was on broader issues of fire safety, on the plight of thousands of residents of blocks that still have Grenfell-style ACM cladding and of potentially thousands more who live in blocks with other types of cladding that could be just as dangerous and on fire hazards in non-residential buildings.
Just before the debate started, the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government published its proposals on a new building safety regime that implements recommendations made by Dame Judith Hackitt but also goes further.
Meanwhile the Home Office launched a call for evidence on whether the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 – seen as one of the deregulatory steps on the road to Grenfell – is fit for purpose.
These will have addressed some of the concerns raised by MPs but what became abundantly clear during the debate is that the steps taken by the government so far do not go remotely far enough to satisfy them.
The mood was summed up by Conservative MP Paul Scully:
‘Some lessons have already been learned, but there are plenty more. Whether it is about the response of the fire services, the cladding or the building regulations, we need to learn these lessons to ensure that this can never happen again. Whether it is Lakanal House or other fires, how many times have we said in this place, “This must never happen again” and then similar things have happened again?’
Tory MP David Amess summed up the frustration of members of the all-party fire safety rescue group:
‘Over the past six years, the all-party group has met resistance when seeking improvements to fire safety, despite compelling evidence that such measures should be introduced. In the 13 years since regulations were last reviewed, nothing has happened.’
He credited housing secretary James Brokenshire for acting on combustible materials on new high-rises and desktop studies and for extending cladding removal funding to the private sector.
But he went on:
‘The building regulations must be reviewed. We have to stop messing about. We want a proper audit, so there is retrospective fitting of sprinklers in all high-rise buildings.’
Labour’s Clive Betts, chair of the Housing Communities and Local Government committee, said the government response since Grenfell had at least recognised that potentially dangerous material needs to be removed.
But it had taken until a year after Grenfell for the government to come up with cladding funding for social landlords and then virtually another year to come up with a fund for private blocks.
And he raised a series of questions about the scope of the fund and the responsibility for signing off the work, about the laxity of the testing regime for cladding materials and about the situation with up to 1,600 blocks with non-ACM cladding that could be just as dangerous.
‘How can we possibly say that it is too risky to put materials that are not of limited combustibility on new buildings, if we are happy for such materials to remain on existing buildings?’ he asked.
Labour’s Karen Buck said that Grenfell was ‘a defining moment of British politics’ and ‘should have been the event that changed everything’ and generated ‘a new era for social housing’ but ‘we have not seen action from the government’.
She said the retrofitting of sprinklers had stalled ‘because the Government are yet to get to grips with the reality of mixed tenure in high-rise properties and the fact that it is impossible, under the current law, for local authorities to require the owners of private flats in local authority blocks to give them access and comply with the requirement to fit sprinklers’.
Shadow housing minister John Healey accused ministers of being ‘like rabbits in the headlights’ with action that was ‘too slow and too weak on every front’.
Eight out of ten private blocks identified with ACM cladding still had it in place while tests on hundreds of blocks with other types of potentially dangerous cladding had still not been done.
‘A few weeks after that terrible fire in June 2017, a leading housing chief executive said to me, “Grenfell changes everything.” It should have done, but it has not.’
Housing minister Kit Malthouse defended the efforts to rehouse Grenfell residents, arguing that 300 homes had been acquired ‘in and around the borough’ for 201 households.
He argued that the government had ‘acted decisively’ on the speed of cladding remediation with the £200m fund for the private sector.
Testing of other types of cladding was underway and ‘we hope that that will be completed before the summer and that we can publish the results thereafter’, he said, while the technical review of the building regulations could include the requirement for sprinklers.
As for the social housing green paper, he reiterated the government’s rejection of ‘the idea that people in social housing can expect only a second-class system’ but his pledge to publish the government’s response and action plan ‘in due course’ left MPs unimpressed.
Labour’s Steve Reed had put things in perspective earlier in the debate as he predicted:
‘There is still an average of one fire a month in buildings with flammable cladding, and it is only a matter of time before one of those fires is not put out.’
The dramatic pictures from Barking on Sunday made the urgent need for decisive action only too clear.
A quick update
Developments since I first wrote this blog on Monday morning have only underlined the points made above.
Thankfully all the residents of Samuel Garside House seem to be ok but 20 flats were destroyed along with all their possessions. As Barking MP Margaret Hodge told the Commons on Monday night that ‘had that fire taken place at night, I think people would have died’.
The situation that faced residents during the fire is shown only too clearly in Steven Quinn’s reply to a conversation I was having on Twitter.
I couldn’t leave via the stairs – it was too late. Having to climb down the outside of the balcony from the 3rd floor isn’t ‘working’ to me
— Steven Quinn (@StevenQuinnArt) June 11, 2019
Thankfully they are both ok.
Since Monday’s post too, more details have emerged about the management, design and construction of the block.
Management arrangements are complicated. Developer Bellway sold the headlease to Adriatic Land and management of the building seems to be by its agent Homeground, which appointed RMG. Some 32 of the 80 homes are thought to be affordable housing owned by Southern Housing Group.
Margaret Hodge told the Commons:
‘When we walk on to an estate like that, there is a freeholder, a developer, a builder and subcontractors, while the developer sells on to other people and there are then leaseholders and people in buy-to-let. There are myriad people who have a role to play there, and nobody is accountable. Everybody I talked to today on that side of the fence wanted to pass the buck and pass on responsibility.’
A representative from Bellway told a public meeting on Monday that the building was brick and block with a steel balcony structure and the timber was a decorative feature that was not fire retardant.
‘Every building needs to be built and constructed in accordance with building regulations. In terms of non-combustible materials, the requirements comes in above 18 m and the building itself is 13.75. There is no legal requirement to build out of non-combustible materials.’
That comment, while it seems to be correct, underlines all of the points made by MPs in Thursday’s debate about the government’s action since Grenfell not going far enough.
Bellway has since said that it is ‘highly likely’ to replace the balconies and cladding.
As for other measures to keep residents safe, Margaret Hodge told the Commons on Monday:
‘It absolutely shocked me that the fire alarms that should have been in place and operating were not working and that there were no sprinklers in this block of flats, because they were not considered necessary. This is a block of flats that was built only seven years ago.’
Beyond the obvious questions about building management, that chimes with what MPs were saying about sprinklers on Thursday.
In England, they are still only required in new residential buildings over 30m (but not in existing ones like Grenfell). Scotland has a lower threshold of 18m but Wales has required sprinklers in all new houses and flats since 2016.
Inside Housing reports this morning that at a meeting in May 2013 Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which managed Grenfell, considered recommendations made by the Lakanal House coroner a few weeks earlier. One of these was that sprinklers should be retrofitted in existing tower blocks.
However, the meeting was told that the then Department of Communities and Local Government had indicated that the recommendations were ‘unlikely to be taken up’ and ‘will not become mandatory’.
Beyond housing, the MPs raised question after question on Thursday about other types of building like schools, hospitals, hotels and care homes.
New schools, for example, can still be built with combustible cladding (because most are below 18m) and with no sprinklers (after the coalition government reversed guidance to local authorities that they should be fitted).
In the two years since Grenfell, ministers have taken stances on fire safety only to be forced to abandon them under pressure from events.
If last week’s debate shows that it will face continuing intense parliamentary pressure and scrutiny, the Barking fire shows that its current position is untenable.