Government respond to open letter on Tower Blocks safety concerns
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
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.
The government must act, and act immediately.
Tower Blocks UK
On 3rd July 2019, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government responded to our letter with the following:
Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government Fry Building, 2 Marsham Street, Westminster, London SW1P 4DF
Date:3 July 2019
Dear Danielle Gregory,
Thank you for your letter of 13 May to the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP. I am responding as an official/director in the Government’s Building Safety Programme.
I want to firstly thank you for your continued engagement with the Government on this important issue, and for your support and advocacy for those residents affected by this issue. I want to assure you that the Government is deeply committed to improving building safety. We are clear that everyone has the right to be safe in their home and we determined to ensure that all residents are and feel safe.
I am pleased that you have welcomed the creation of the private sector remediation fund. The provision of the fund removes the biggest blocker to progress in remediating building with Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding, it will create pace and momentum where none existed previously and accelerate progress elsewhere. Our priority is to ensure swift implementation of this fund so that these buildings can be fully remediated as quickly as possible, and months of uncertainty for leaseholders can be brought to an end.
The large-scale testing the government carried out after the Grenfell Tower tragedy demonstrated that unsafe ACM cladding poses a particularly high risk. That is why we prioritised our response to the problem of unsafe ACM cladding. The Government is clear that the type of ACM cladding believed to be on Grenfell Tower, and present on hundreds of other high-rise buildings, is not safe, did not comply with Building Regulations and should not have been put up. This type of ACM is exceptional due to the high risk it poses as an accelerant of fire.
However, I want to assure you that we have taken the issue of non-ACM safety issues very seriously ever since Grenfell. We are been clear that building owners are responsible for the safety of their buildings, and Government intervention does not remove responsibility for overall building safety from the building owner and if other fire safety risks are uncovered they must remedy them. The Government has published guidance to reiterate the importance of building owners assessing their buildings and ensuring that non-ACM cladding systems are safe. Advice note 14 offers advice for building owners whose external wall systems do not incorporate ACM and can be found at the link below.
The guidance reiterates that the clearest way to ensure safety is to remove unsafe materials.
Acting on advice from the Expert Panel, the Government has commissioned research to support further understanding of the fire performance of non-ACM external wall systems. These tests began in April and we expect final results to be available by the summer, although we will of course monitor the work as it progresses to decide whether we need to take any immediate action.
While I understand your concerns a full picture of the outcomes of the tests can only be provided following a detailed analysis of all the test data together and the outcomes will need to be considered carefully before conclusions can be drawn. We expect this analysis to be completed in the summer and we will publish the conclusions of the programme thereafter. Public safety is paramount and the Government will monitor the outcomes of the individual tests closely as they proceed. If any tests suggest an immediate public safety concern, the Government will consult the Independent Expert Advice Panel (IEAP) urgently and consider appropriate action.
You also raise some serious concerns about Large Panel Systems (LPS) buildings and I want to assure you that this is an issue we take very seriously. As you know we wrote to building owners in 2017 to remind them of their responsibilities. In particular, to check whether buildings with LPS in their areas have piped gas and, if so, to check whether they can carry piped gas safely.
In October 2018, we held the first LPS best practice forum, brining together building owners and experts to discuss the issues. As a result, building owners have been assessing the condition of their LPS buildings, and whether remedial works are necessary. If these checks show that work is needed, we expect building owners to organise the works and, if needed, ensure people are rehoused.
We have been very clear that building owners are responsible for the safety of their buildings and should act to address any safety issues they identify. If the building owner refuses to deal with an issue or is taking an unreasonably long time to do so, residents should contact the environmental health department at their local authority. The local authority has the power to inspect the property and, if they discover any hazards, they can take enforcement action to ensure the building owner makes any necessary repairs or improvements.
Finally, turning to sprinklers it is important to note that while they can be an effective fire safety measure, but they are only one of many such measures that can be adopted to provide an overall fire strategy for a building. It is for building owners to seek professional advice and decide whether to fit sprinklers, on the basis of their assessment of the particular risks faced in their buildings.
Thank you again for your letter.
Building Safety Programme
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government