Grenfell tower update

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Cladding samples are being taken away for testing across the UK

Given recent events I think an update was needed on the Grenfell fire situation as events have moved rather quickly. As I wrote my last piece there were reports in the media which suggested that the contractors at Grenfell may have used cladding products that weren’t suitably fireproof (and illegal on a building this tall). I was inclined to ignore these rumours until such time as they was confirmed by official sources, ideally the ongoing investigation into the fire. The UK media is well known for jumping to the wrong conclusions and I didn’t think it as credible that such a huge error could have been made given how well regulated the building trade is in the UK.

Well it would appear I was wrong. Tests on panels from the buildings and on other structures across the UK have failed fire tests. At the time of writing samples from 34 blocks have failed fire tests. This has led to a number of hasty decisions been taken by councils across the UK. Several blocks in Camden have now been evacuated as the buildings have been deemed unsafe. Not only is the cladding of concern, but many other factors too, such as integrity of fire doors, fire breaks, risers and evacuation routes. This has left hundreds out of their homes in London, a city with enough of an housing problem as it is. And in Birmingham over 200 tower blocks are now slated to get sprinklers fitted at a cost of tens of millions per block.

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Keep in mind all of this is happening before the official investigation into the Grenfell fire has even concluded. The normal process for dealing with an event like this is, take on board some interim measures to keep everyone safe e.g. a complete smoking ban (which is one of the leading causes of fires), ban certain dangerous appliances from being operated (such as the fridge model that started this fire), perhaps bring in fire wardens to patrol the buildings and institute a complete evacuation policy in the event of any fire, regardless of how small. Let the investigation continue and then once all the facts are in place, make an informed decision about what to do next.

Keep in mind, this is not the first time we’ve had safety concerns about flats. In 1968, a small gas explosion in the Ronan point tower block led to the collapse of a whole corner section of the building due to a mechanism known as excessive progressive collapse. And, much as I outlined above, temporary measures were put in place to prevent a repeat performance, followed by a schedule of repairs to fix the issue, once the investigations had concluded.

So I do worry if a weak lame duck government, which knows this crisis is of its own making due to its corner cutting austerity and its failure to adequately regulate the industry, is now running scared and basically setting policy by reacting hastily to scary tabloid headlines rather than informed opinion. This risks making a bad situation worse rather than better.

For starters, are we sure the fire spread up the building via the cladding? Yes the evidence says it might have done so, but I don’t think its proven yet. And sprinklers won’t do much to stop a fire on the cladding. They would help keep evacuation routes clear of fire, but if you’ve got issues with poor fire doors and barriers to stop smoke and flames from spreading, then eventually the evacuation routes will just fill up with smoke and the sprinklers will cease to be effective. I’m not saying sprinklers are a bad idea, I’m just pointing out the risks of making a hasty ill-informed decision.

And there is a more fundamental point here. Many of the UK’s tower blocks are 40 to 50 years old. They were cheap and nasty when they were built and one has to question whether the time has come to start pulling them down. Up here in Scotland a number of the housing associations are essentially doing just that, refurbishing some blocks to get a bit more life out of them, demolishing others as soon as possible. There’s little point in wasting billions on expensive repairs to blocks which you are going to pull down in a decade or two anyway. Indeed, this is what the whole Grenfell saga highlights, the chronic underfunding of social housing that has been going on for decades. Now the chickens are coming home too roost.

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Social Housing has been chronically under funded since the Thatcher era, indeed the country essentially stopped building council houses in the 1980’s

And there’s also the matter of regulation. I mean WTF! What are these guys playing at! Did they really think that it was acceptable to put non-fire proof cladding on a building like this. If the media is to be believed apparently the non-fire proof version was just £2 cheaper per panel. So for the sake of enough cash to buy a few bottles of cheap bubbly for the share holders meeting, they were willing to put at risk hundreds of lives. And why weren’t the regulators on the case and kicking their ass? And if there are other issues here beyond the cladding, e.g. poor quality of fire doors (or perhaps even no fire doors) and inadequate risers, then why in blue blazes wasn’t something done about this along time ago! This could not and should not have just come out of the blue.

Perhaps this is the problem, I’ve been assuming that the construction industry over here is as well regulated as it is back in Ireland (if not better), while its becoming obvious that it is actually very poorly regulated. Indeed, now that you mention it, it was pointed out to me recently that in the estate where I live there’s still one or two outstanding issues which the building contractors never sorted out (and the building is at least ten year old!). Nothing serious, but we’ve had engineers around from time to time to inspect and advise. And one has to assume the Tory policy of austerity, which has squeezed council budgets as well as government departments, has played a role in all of this lack of regulation.

Of course in Ireland regulations have tightened up thanks to the EU. This, brexiters, is why we have an EU. Because we don’t want people living in unsafe buildings. And because when one of them burns down due to unsafe practices, guess what, suddenly nobody else what’s to live in a similar building anymore, nor can they sell their flats. And suddenly the government’s got a massive mess that needs sorting out.

So I suspect the fall out from Grenfell is merely a example of what we can expect post-brexit. The Tories will use it to gut regulations their fat cat allies have long disliked. Then when people start dying or scare stories about food safety or dangerously unsafe toys start to circulate, there will be this massive backlash and public anger which the government are forced to fire fight at great expense.

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