On the 13th May 2019, Tower Blocks UK sent the following letter to RT Hon. James Brokenshire MP
To: The Right Honorable James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA
We welcome the government’s announcement to allocate £200 million to the removal of ACM cladding on private residential blocks. However, we feel that this does not go nearly far enough.
ACM is just one of several cladding materials known to conduct the spread of flame. If the government are serious about avoiding another preventable tragedy like Grenfell, then it must immediately fund the removal of all forms of dangerous cladding.
Ten years ago, the Lakanal House fire caused the death of 6 people and highlighted the dangers of exterior surface spread of flame on multi-storey blocks. The panels used at Lakanal House were ‘Trespa’ High Pressure Laminate (HPL) and burned through in just 4 1⁄2 minutes.
Tower Blocks UK have learned that there is a programme in place to carry out tests on HPL panels in the next stage of investigations following on from the Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Fire and the Hackitt Report.
Exhaustive tests have already been carried out into HPL Trespa panels.
Ten years ago, in 2009 and immediately after the Lakanal House Fire in which six people died, the Metropolitan Police instructed the Building Research Establishment to remove undamaged window sets from a number of flats in Lakanal House, and conduct a full-size fire test. This test replicated the two affected flats: flat 65 on the 9th floor where the fire started in a TV in a bedroom two floors beneath flat 79 on the 11th floor where Catherine Hickman lived.
The BRE were then instructed to carry out a full scale fire test. This established what had been observed on the day of the fire. It took 4 1⁄2 mins for a panel to fail and burn through and 9 mins for the fire to burn through one panel in flat 65, travel up 2 floors and burn through another panel and enter flat 79. This had fatal consequences for the 6 people in the adjacent flats 79 and 81.
Details of this evidence of the MET/BRE test will be found in the Lakanal House evidence presented at the Inquest in January 2013. It will be found in the evidence of the first Incident Commander/Watch Manager from Peckham Fire Station in his MET Witness Statement. It will be in further evidence, from other fire fighters who were there on the day, the Fire Investigation Report by Peter Manzi for the London Fire Brigade and the Report by Dr Crowder of the BRE.
Once a fire breaks out of a flat to the outside facade, by whatever means, then the heat and flames will hug the façade in what is known as the Coanda effect. The critical part of the external façade is the spandrel between the top of one window and the cill of the one above.
Flammable cladding is just one of several serious issues affecting tower blocks in the UK.
Investigations on Large Panel System (LPS) tower blocks (of the Ronan Point ‘house of cards’ design) have revealed that many fail to meet the building regulations for structural resistance to progressive collapse. Additionally, many suffer from an inherent design flaw which allows for the internal spread of fire due to significant breaches in compartmentation. This is an issue that we brought to the attention of government, starting with the Ledbury Estate blocks in Southwark. Since then, as you will be aware, further LPS blocks across the country have been found to be in the same unsafe condition.
A number of LPS blocks, the Ledbury Estate is a notable example, which were formerly considered safe for piped mains gas, by both the BRE in 1985 and the London Borough of Southwark and Arup in 2017 were found, after we pointed this out to them, to fail to meet not only the requirements of Government Circular 62/68 but they failed to meet even the reduced standards of Circular 71/68. What this means, is these blocks are not only structurally unsafe for a piped mains gas supply, they are not even safe to be occupied. These are “Dangerous Structures” within the meaning of the Building Regulations.
The collapse of major buildings and structures is relatively rare. However, it does happen. In June 1973 the roof of the Camden School for Girls in North London failed catastrophically, a few hours after a parent and teacher’s evening. On 14 August 2018, during a storm, part of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, carrying the main motorway link between Italy and France, failed. Forty-three people died and over 600 were made homeless. No one in authority listened to prior warnings about the bridge structure. People assumed because it was standing up it must be safe.
Some local authorities have not undertaken tests on their LPS blocks as recommended by MHCLG in 2017. We’ve found evidence to suggest that some local authorities do not even realize that the blocks that they own are of LPS form of construction. Many of these blocks have a piped mains gas supply despite government recommendation against the use of gas in LPS blocks since 1968. More concerningly still, we’ve found evidence that there are occupied LPS blocks with cladding installed over active gas pipes.
If the government do not act now, there will inevitably be further preventable loss of life in UK residential tower blocks. It’s simply a matter of time.
That is why we are calling on the government to carry out an urgent and thorough independent national inspection of all UK tower blocks. To date, there has not been a sufficient national response from government to both the cladding, and the LPS issues.
All blocks should undergo rigorous fire safety and structural robustness tests, particularly those of Large Panel form of construction. The retrofitting of sprinkler systems must be adopted, in line with the expert advice that government have repeatedly received from the fire safety profession.
The Grenfell Fire showed that many residents who had physical disabilities, mental health issues, or were partially sighted or blind were living on the upper floors. They could not get out of the building in time. They died.
No-one deserves to live in fear. Yet there are residents of tower blocks in this country today, who are facing serious risks. What has been proposed is not enough.