Ministers have been warned they risk further deaths in tower block fires because of “unacceptable” delays in learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower disaster. On the one-year anniversary of the blaze, which left 72 people dead, experts told The Independent continued hold-ups in tightening safety regulations could prove to be fatal.
They voiced fears that ministers’ refusal to extend government fire safety tests beyond one particular type of cladding, because it means two-thirds of building materials submitted for testing have not been checked. Fire chiefs, town hall leaders, charities and industry bodies also urged the government to commit to a ban on flammable building materials, and put a stop to a controversial shortcut that allows manufacturers and construction firms to avoid full fire safety tests.
Ministers have recently caved to pressure to consult on banning both, but experts said they were taking too long to act – leaving thousands of people at risk. The government has funded fire safety tests on the specific type of building cladding, known as Aluminium Composite Material (ACM), that was used on Grenfell and has been shown to be highly flammable. However, it has refused to extend the testing to other materials that could be just as dangerous.
Because of this, only 657 of the 1947 samples submitted for fire tests have actually been tested. The remaining 1293 – two-thirds of the total – have not, leaving building owners in the dark about whether their buildings are safe. Samples were taken from residential housing blocks and also from schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Among the untested samples are likely to be materials such as high pressure laminate (HCL) – a paper and resin combination that has been shown to be highly flammable.
Some types of HCL have the same fire safety rating as the ACM panels use on Grenfell. HCL was blamed for enabling the spread of the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009, in which six people died. Despite calls for testing to be extended to other building materials, ministers have so far refused to budge.
Asked earlier this month whether the government would extend the testing, James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, said: “The screening tests sponsored by the government are designed specifically to identify the type of core material that has been used in an aluminium composite material panel. “As such these tests would not be suitable for assessing other products.” Ronnie King, who served as a firefighter and chief fire officer for 41 years and now acts as an adviser and honorary secretary to the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, said the failure to take action was putting lives at risk. He said: “The delays are just unacceptable. We have got the evidence and they should take the action immediately. We expected that action on completion of the Hackitt Report. These things need happen now. “A year on from Grenfell, people will have expected action by now rather than the government still consulting on it.”
He added: “People shouldn’t be dying like this when we’ve had warnings and professionals are talking about [what should be done]. “I’ve seen children’s lifeless bodies coming out of buildings and it doesn’t please me that there are steps that can be taken and should be taken but, five years later and even a year after Grenfell, we’ve still got uncertainty. “I feel desperately about what needs to be done. Action should be taken now and not five years after we first told them.” Asked if the delays were putting lives at risk, he said: “For as long as there is no decision, yes they are.”
Of the 300 tower blocks found to have cladding similar to that used on Grenfell, only ten have had the dangerous material removed. And the failure to test other materials means private building owners could be removing ACM cladding only to replace it with something equally flammable. In addition, experts said there had been a series of delays in Whitehall in taking steps to reduce the risk of building fires. These include introducing a ban on flammable building materials and outlawing controversial ‘desktop studies’, which allow manufacturers and construction firms to bypass full fire safety tests.
Fire chiefs, local councils and architect trade bodies have called for both to be banned. The government has launched consultations on both issues, but, a year after the Grenfell disaster, has yet to go further than say it is “minded” to consider introducing a ban. Ministers also commissioned a review of building regulations, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, but while this proposed a series of wider changes, it failed to recommend a single specific change to regulations.
Mr King also said the government must commit to funding the fitting of sprinklers in tower blocks. He said: “Automatic fire sprinklers will either extinguish or control the fire on 99 per cent of occasions. “People don’t die in buildings with sprinklers. Where we see sprinklers, we don’t see outcomes like what happened at Grenfell. “What else does the government need to do it? I don’t really know what other evidence the government needs.”
Mr King said he feared concerns about the cost of installing sprinklers was “a driving factor” behind ministers’ appearing to drag their heels. However, Roy Wilsher, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council and a member of the government’s expert panel on building safety, said he believed ministers were willing to make changes but were having to follow due process.
He said: “I think we’ve done all we can. The machinery of legislation and standards does move incredibly slowly at times. “There’s a whole work stream underneath the expert panel that is looking at other cladding systems. A broader shift is happening ... I’ve personally made sure that government hasn’t forgotten that this is about all cladding systems, even if ACM appears to be the most dangerous. “My impression is ministers certainly want to make these systems safer.”
Local government leaders and charities expressed concerns about ongoing delays. Lord Porter, chair of the Local Government Association, said it was “disappointing” that combustible materials and the use of desktop studies had still not been banned.
He said: “We don’t pretend to be experts, but it is abundantly clear that this is a no-brainer. We can no longer have a system in place which enables an argument about how flammable material can be before it is allowed to be put up on the outside of buildings where people live. “It was good to see the new secretary of state James Brokenshire has listened to our concerns and recognised the urgent need to act by announcing a consultation on a ban. We continue to urge the Government to introduce this ban as quickly as possible.”
Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, said: “As we look at the lessons that must be learnt from this terrible tragedy, it is quite clear the government needs to act now and with urgency to remove Grenfell style cladding, and ban combustible materials. “Grenfell has brought into sharp focus the desperate need for a bold new plan for social housing that empowers tenants, and delivers enough safe, decent and genuinely affordable homes.” Labour called on the government to ban combustible materials and commit to funding the introduction of sprinklers.
John Healey, the party’s shadow housing secretary, said: “Ministers have been off the pace at every stage in their response to the Grenfell Tower fire. “Only 10 of more than 300 blocks with Grenfell-style cladding have had it removed and replaced, and ministers still can’t even be sure that they’ve identified all dangerous blocks. He added: “Ministers’ shameful refusal to test some types of suspect cladding means that two-thirds of building samples sent to the government’s testing centre haven’t been checked. “One year on from the Grenfell Tower fire, Ministers must immediately ban combustible cladding on high-rise blocks, fund the retrofitting of sprinklers in social housing blocks, and put in place tough new sanctions for private block owners who fail to make their buildings safe.”
A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “Nothing is more important than ensuring people are safe in their homes. “As the housing secretary said to parliament on Monday, having listened carefully to concerns, the government intends to ban the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise residential buildings, subject to consultation. “Our consultation on banning or restricting the use of desktop studies closed on 25 May. We are currently considering responses to this.”