The absolute tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire

Monday, June 26th, 2017 - By Richard Tacagni, Managing Director, London Property Licensing

By Richard Tacagni, MD, London Property Licensing

The Grenfell Tower fire should never have happened – pure and simple. The fact that it did and with such disastrous consequences represents a fundamental and systemic failure in the management, refurbishment and regulation of our housing stock.

At least 79 people are dead or missing presumed dead according to latest figures released by the Metropolitan Police. But despite the best efforts of investigators, we may never know the true death toll.

The fact that so many people of all ages, faiths and backgrounds perished in such dreadful and unimaginable circumstances is truly shocking. This has cut across all housing tenures – Grenfell Tower would have been home to social housing tenants, long leaseholders and private tenants all living side by side. The Grenfell Tower disaster has placed a black cloud over the country and left so many people in shock and mourning.

Of course, the death toll could have been far higher if it wasn’t for the valiant efforts of London Fire Brigade firefighters who risked their own lives to enter the building and lead people to safety. For that we must be eternally grateful.

But how could a tower block be engulfed in flames in such a short period of time, something we never thought was possible – surely our building regulation regime was designed to prevent this?

While investigations are still at an early stage, a significant factor appears to have been the external cladding system – a fairly commonplace ‘solution’ that has been implemented over the last couple of decades to upgrade the thermal efficiency of our concrete tower blocks.

The need to avoid surface spread of fire when adding external cladding systems was well understood. Following the Lakanal House fire in 2009 in which six people died, the Local Government Association (LGA) produced guidance on fire safety in purpose build blocks of flats (read here). The section on external cladding is clear and concise – the risks were known.

LGA Fire Safety Guidance, 2012

Source: Guidance on fire safety in purpose-built blocks of flats, LGA, May 2012

Why and how these warnings were not heeded is a key issue for the forthcoming public enquiry and the criminal investigation being led by the Metropolitan Police. These investigations will need to encompass the whole supply chain from product manufacturers, the architects and surveying firms that developed the specification, the contractors and sub-contractors that undertook the installation work through to the methodology for assessing compliance with building regulations and the fire risk assessment.

The Construction Design and Management Regulations also set down clear responsibilities on the client, designers and contractors to ensure a safe system of work to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved.

Of even greater concern is the emerging picture of similar deficiencies in other residential tower blocks up and down the country. The government has identified 600 tower blocks that could be at increased fire risk and testing of cladding systems is currently underway. At the time of writing, out of 75 blocks that have been tested, there has been a 100% failure rate – they have all failed fire safety combustion testing. It is beyond comprehension as to how this could have happened. These unsafe tower blocks house many thousands of households and tens of thousands of people.

We have already seen Camden Council taking prompt action to evacuate tower blocks on the Chalcots Estate on the advice of London Fire Brigade (read here). It is likely we will see thousands more households displaced whilst emergency work is carried out to remove dangerous cladding. Local and central government needs to step up to the mark, provide leadership and effectively implement their emergency plans to ensure this is handled competently.

Whilst the current focus is on social housing tower blocks, attention also needs to be paid to private housing developments, hospitals and other high rise buildings that may also be implicated in this scandal. Where appropriate, fire authorities, local housing authorities and the health and safety executive may need to utilise their enforcement powers to ensure all relevant materials are sampled and our buildings are safe.

Fundamental questions remain about how we have found ourselves in this situation. How is it that the multitude of checks and balances all failed to identify and address the inherent dangers of encasing our tower blocks in combustible material?

Other questions revolve around the internal protected fire escape route which should have provided residents with a safe means of escape from the developing inferno. Why was it so quickly smoke-logged and was there a failure in the structure fire separation which reduced the window of opportunity for people to escape? Is retro-fitting of sprinkler systems in our older tower blocks part of the solution and do we need to reconsider the importance of integrated fire warning systems in the common parts of our high rise blocks? These are all questions that will need to be answered.

Clearly, immediate steps are required to ensure cladding on all at risk buildings is tested as a matter of urgency in line with government advice. We also need effective contingency planning at a local and national level to facilitate the evacuation of residents where it is deemed necessary until fire safety improvements have been completed.

Longer term, we need to take a long hard look at our building safety regime and whether it is fit for purpose. Whilst there is often a call to cut red tape and reduce regulation, perhaps things have gone a step too far.

Will the long overdue review of Building Regulations Part B now take place?

Has the outsourcing of building regulation assessment and certification to private approved inspectors had any part to play?

Is the current statutory regime for fire risk assessments appropriate or should we consider reinstating fire safety certificates for our high rise blocks?

Should there be a clear benchmark for assessing the competency of fire risk assessors and a recognition of the specific skill-set needed when assessing complex and high rise buildings? After all, risk assessing a 24 storey tower block is a very different undertaking from a two storey house let out on individual room tenancies.

Have the cuts in local government finance and the increasing reliance on a multitude of external consultants contributed to this breakdown in building fire safety?

In writing this blog during such a fast moving investigation, I accept these observations may soon be overtaken by events. We are sure to learn much more in the days, weeks and months ahead. One thing is certain – every conceivable measure must be taken to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again. Grenfell cannot and will not get forgotten.

In the meantime, all our thoughts are with the people caught up in this disaster – those still searching for news of missing loved ones, those traumatised by what they witnessed that night and to our emergency services who continue with their painstaking and gruelling search of the building.

Whilst the local and central government response has at times been left wanting, the same cannot be said for the community response and the influx of volunteers from far and wide to offer support to those most in need. In these most difficult and upsetting of times, this has shown the very best of London and long must we provide Grenfell victims and their families all the support that they need.

There is so much more that could be written but the issue is knowing where to start. The repercussions from this disaster will no doubt reach far and wide in the years ahead as we strive to make our housing stock safe and secure for everyone.

Please note that the views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of London Property Licensing. These blogs are designed to stimulate discussion and debate within the property industry.

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