In June 2017, Grenfell Tower in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea caught fire killing 72 people and making hundreds homeless. Grenfell Tower was owned by the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and was managed by a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO).
The block was 24 storeys tall and contained 120 flats. The block had only one staircase and no sprinklers. Vitally, the block breached the Buidling Regulations: the flats were meant to be able to contain a fire for one hour so that the fire fighters could get to the blaze and put it out before it spread. This is why the Regulations and Codes of Practice include a ‘stay put’ policy for tenants and residents. It is not intended that people will need to escape their homes, down the only staircase, while the fire-fighters struggle up with their hoses, if the firefighter’s lift is out of order. This was the case in the similar Lakanal House fire in 2009.
However, refurbishments to the block in 2016 meant that the one hour compartmentalisation had been breached. The block had been clad in highly flammable materials (ACM) which along with the chimney space created between cladding and the insulation fixed to the original concrete wall allowed the fire to shoot up the building in seconds. The block was engulfed in 15 minutes. This cladding and insulation, a by-product of the petroleum industry, had the equivalent fire load of 32,000 litres of petrol.
As a comparison, the two planes which crashed into the WTC twin towers on 9/11 were each loaded 8,300 Imperial gallons of aviation fuel. The cladding on the outside of the very much smaller Grenfell Tower contained the equivalent of 7,000 Imperial gallons of petrol in solid form.
This terrible fire led to a range of responses including a public judicial inquiry into the circumstances of the fire; a Green Paper on social housing, and an independent review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt. Local authorities across the country were required to submit samples of their cladding for inspection by the Building ResearchEstablishment (BRE) and the vast majority failed these flammability tests. Local authorities, alongside the fire brigade, have carried out Fire Risk Assessments of their blocks and some have made the results public, while some have not. Local authorities have been asked by the DCLG to also inspect private blocks to carry out basic fire risk assessments, this is ongoing.
Government money has not been allocated to dealing with the fire risks, as yet.
Experts, landlords, tenants and residents are considering the options – to remove the cladding, to install sprinklers, to build external fire escapes, to demolish. There can be no option to do nothing.
Why did 72 people have to die when the warnings were clear? Various tenants groups including our own National Tower Blocks Network (NTBN) had raised concerns about the fire safety in tower blocks. As early as 1992 the warnings were there, NTBN, with the architect Sam Webb, inspected blocks for fire safety and found serious cause for concern. Then in 2009 six people died in a fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell. This was effectively a smaller version of the Grenfell Tower fire. Here too, the block breached building regulations and the fire spread rapidly up the cladding and through internal gaps, trapping residents.
The government did not act after this fire. They did not take the action necessary to change the building regulations. Yet again they ignored the life saving recommendations of one more Rule 43 Letter from a coroner.