Grenfell Tower, London — A Preventable Tragedy
“ It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!”- Grenfell Action Group
This is a quote from a 2016 post by The Grenfell Action Group, a blog run by residents of Grenfell Tower, West London. The post is one of many on the site, dating as far back as 2010, which raises specific and grave concerns about fire safety within the tower, particularly with regards to renovation work to the exterior of the building which was completed last year.
Other posts highlight the lack of a sprinkler system, poor wiring which posed a fire risk, poor emergency services access to the building in the event of a fire and the fact there was only one escape route, with gas pipes fitted near it. Authors of the blog, now feared dead, were threatened with legal action as a result of these warnings.
In the early hours of June 14th a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower. Unconfirmed reports suggest it was started by a faulty refrigerator exploding, possibly as a result of a power surge, in an apartment on the 4th floor. The fire spread at an unprecedented rate and within a few hours had torn through the entire building.
At time of writing, 79 people have been confirmed dead, though authorities have been keen to stress that that number is expected to rise considerably. Witnesses on the ground report the heartbreaking spectacle of people jumping and even throwing children from windows.
Grenfell Tower is a 24-story block which provides social housing for poorer members of one of London’s — even the world’s — wealthiest communities; the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Grenfell Tower is at the heart of the Lancaster West estate which was built in the 1970’s as part of a major redevelopment scheme for the area. It contains approximately 120 apartments, housing several hundred inhabitants, mostly low-income families, migrants, the disabled and the elderly.
Kensington and Chelsea borough is home to some of the richest and poorest people in London. The way the city has evolved means that a dilapidated social housing block like Grenfell sits only a street or two away from some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. As in major cities all over the world, poorer residents have felt increasingly pushed out in recent years as gentrification has crept from borough to borough leaving less and less affordable housing and services.
Like hundreds of other high-rise, social housing tower blocks in the UK, Grenfell was built in the post-war boom period to cheaply and efficiently house a growing population and replace the slum housing which had been damaged during the second world war. In recent years towers of this type have come to be considered an eyesore, many local councils have added cladding to their exteriors which serves to make the buildings look better from the outside as well as improve insulation for residents.
Grenfell’s Recent Renovation
Last year, renovations to Grenfell Tower which cost £10 million were completed after almost two and a half years work. The renovation works included the remodeling of the lower part of the building to create more apartments, fitting cladding to the building’s exterior, and replacing window and curtain wall facades though notably, did not address concerns raised by residents about a sprinkler system.
The contractor, Rydon, was awarded the contract after another company’s quote was deemed to be too expensive, as often is the case with government projects. Rydon subsequently sub-contracted out some parts of the works. Harley Curtain Wall, one of the sub-contracting firms, owned by Richard Bailey, went bust months after delivering the cladding component of the renovation but was then bought out, by another of Bailey’s companies, Harley Facades.
A fire at a tower block in Liverpool in 1991, followed a few years later by another tower block blaze in Ayrshire, Scotland, both thought to have been significantly worsened by cladding, prompted a government select committee to discuss the topic and call evidence from experts. Fire Brigades Union official Glyn Evans told MPs in 1999:
“The problem with cladding is that it will, if it is able, spread fire and it will spread it vertically. If you get multi-storey buildings you will get fire spread up the outside if the cladding will permit it” adding also “We do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.”
The committee resolved in 2000 without a review into regulations taking place.
The panels used in the renovation works at Grenfell Tower were made of powder-coated aluminum and filled with plastic composite insulation, which can be flammable. Panels of this type are illegal in the US for taller buildings, due to concerns about fire safety. The company who manufacture the panels also produce a non-flammable panel, which costs approximately £2 more per sq. meter, meaning that for roughly £5000 (or 0.05% of the total cost of refurbishment) more, Grenfell Tower could have been encased in non-flammable cladding panels.
Sprinklers and “Stay Put” Protocols
Many have been surprised as details have emerged from Grenfell, that no sprinkler system was installed. Whilst regulations introduced in 2006 did make sprinklers mandatory for all tower blocks over 11-stories, it only applied to blocks built after this point and did not force the retrospective installation of sprinklers into tower blocks built before that time, as most were.
Since then several reports and inquiries have recommended retrofitting sprinkler systems into older blocks like Grenfell Tower, citing several incidents across the UK and abroad where sprinklers are thought to have prevented loss of life. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association released a statement in the wake of the incident, suggesting that a sprinkler system could have been retrofitted at Grenfell Tower for approximately £200,000, just 2% of the cost of the recent refurbishment.
When pushed on the need to install sprinkler systems in old tower blocks back in February 2014, Conservative Housing Minister Brandon Lewis responded by saying that “it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”
An obligation to retrofit sprinklers in tower blocks was made mandatory in the US in the late 80’s after a string of high-rise fires.
Official fire-defense policy for residents of Grenfell Tower in the event of fire in another part of the building was to “stay put” inside their own property and await rescue. Many residents followed this advice and, despite the best efforts of firefighters, may well have perished as a result.
It should be noted that tower block apartments of this type are designed to cope with fire by compartmentalization. Every apartment should, if the materials used in construction adhere to regulations, be able to contain or repel a fire for long enough to allow emergency services to bring the fire under control and/or rescue people from their homes.
As long as fire cannot spread externally around the building and emergency services can get to those inside within 60–90 minutes, the stay put advice is correct. However, in the case of Grenfell, it would seem at least one, if not all of these conditions were not met.
In 2009 a fire in Lakanal House tower block in Camberwell, London, resulted in the deaths of 6 people, including 3 children. The building had composite-based external cladding which allowed the fire to spread laterally and vertically, very quickly. Residents were told to “stay-put” and await rescue, in accordance with standard protocol, and died as a result. Lakanal House had only one staircase and was not fitted with a sprinkler system.
An inquest into the fire at Lakanal House found that the deaths were preventable and recommended a complete review of fire safety regulations in tower blocks. A coroner recommended that sprinkler systems be retro-fitted into all social housing tower blocks and that advice on whether residents should stay inside apartments or not during a fire should be reviewed.
A Culture of Conservative Deregulation
When parliament voted last year on an amendment to the Housing & Planning Bill which would require private landlords to ensure that rental properties be “fit for human habitation” it was voted down, 312 votes to 219. Those against — almost all Conservatives — reasoned that the costs imposed on landlords would be too great and force rents to rise. 71 of the Conservative MPs who voted against the motion are (or were) landlords.
Though this amendment would not have directly affected regulations relating to Grenfell Tower, the vote against it is emblematic of the Conservative Government’s stance on state intervention, even in the state housing market.
Many were taken aback by Donald Trump’s executive order, signed in January, which forces federal agencies to scrap two regulations for every one they pass. Not the Brits, though. The Conservative government have had this rule for quite some time, though admittedly they have jazzed-up its name slightly. David Cameron named it ‘The Red Tape Challenge.’
Encouraged by a right-wing press who for years have maligned EU regulations of all description and supposedly excessive health and safety laws which have somehow come to be considered as part of “PC culture”, the Conservative Government has often boasted of ‘Bonfires of Regulation.’ (A term which should immediately be retired)
The Conservative ideology is one that seeks primarily to facilitate the needs of business and profit, and trusts the market to regulate itself and in turn society, with a minimum of state intervention.
Informed by this belief, the Conservatives have a natural distaste for regulation because, they would argue, it too often impedes business unnecessarily. Whether that be laws which force companies to source ethically produced — and therefore more expensive — materials or whether it be health & safety regulations which might force companies to use more expensive, less flammable materials in construction, for instance.
It could take years — for inquiries and criminal investigations to be concluded — before official and exact explanations of what caused the Grenfell Tower fire and who, if anyone, is to be held accountable, become available. Though even now, a few days after the accident, it’s clear that this was a preventable tragedy.
The cladding which seemingly exacerbated the fire could easily have been fire-retardant. The countless warnings from residents could have been heeded and acted upon. The recommendations of coroners and fire safety experts could have been carried out. The litany of cut-corners, missed/ignored warnings and outright failures to act on expert advice must be recognized by the government and, more importantly must never be allowed to be repeated.
But more than that, this tragedy should serve to remind any politician, whichever side of the Atlantic, that while the cost of regulation is often paid from the profits of business, the price of de-regulation is often paid with the lives of the innocent.
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