What next for local authority fire safety?

As of 3 July, a total of 181 buildings across 51 UK local authorities were reported to have failed fire safety tests on their cladding. In light of the Grenfell Tower fire last month, Government Business looks at the work being done to ensure local authorities are housing residents in the fire safe buildings

On 14 June, the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington caught fire, burning for approximately 60 hours before finally being extinguished. With emergency services receiving the first report of the fire at 00:54, and more than 200 firefighters and 45 fire engines attending the scene, the fire is believed to have caused the deaths of least 80 residents, although that number could still rise as investigations continue.

Reports which emerged after the incident suggested that the residents' organisation, Grenfell Action Group, had raised concerns about the buildings fire safety, while questions have also been asked of current building and safety regulations in the UK, which, if they had been updated, may have prevented such an incident from taking place. For example, Grenfell Tower only contains one single central staircase, as UK regulations do not require a second to be created. The Telegraph reported on 16 June that, residents had repeatedly claimed that in the event of a fire, their escape path was limited to a single staircase, but such worries were dismissed. Additionally, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) issued guidance to tower residents in 2014, advising them to remain within the flat incase of a fire, repeating the service in May 2016. The Grenfell Tower regeneration newsletter of that month read that ‘if there is a fire which is not inside your own home, you are generally safest to stay put in your home to begin with’.

The aforementioned safety concerns, raised by the Grenfell Action Group, were voiced following a major renovation project on the high rise, which reached completion in 2016. Following a change of contractor by the KCTMO, the project saw new windows and new aluminium composite rainscreen cladding added to the building. According to a report, also printed in the Telegraph, alternative cladding with better fire resistance was refused due to cost. The Guardian also reported in the week following the fire that the material used in the new cladding was a cheaper, more flammable version of the two available options. The newspaper reported that Omnis Exteriors manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the cladding, with the manufacturer telling the paper that they had been asked to supply Reynobond PE cladding, which is £2 cheaper per square metre than the alternative fire resistant Reynobond FR cladding.

Local authority instructions
Following the fire, Melanie Dawes, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), issued local authorities with a list of instructions that must be taken if insulation within cladding ‘is unlikely to be compliant with the requirements’ of current building regulations. The measures included checking that the fire risk assessment had been carried out within the previous 12 months and that the recommendations within the action plan of the assessment have been completed, and to confirm that there had been no material changes (to the building, the fire safety measures or the occupancy) that could, potentially, undermine the validity of the fire risk assessment.

Following this instruction, it emerged that Camden Council began removing cladding from five of its blocks after discovering that the outer cladding panels on five blocks in the borough were made up of aluminium panels with a polyethylene core, similar to that which helped the fire at Grenfell Tower to spread across the building. The council fitted the cladding in 2006 as part of a £150 million PFI deal with the same contractors that were used on Grenfell Tower - Rydon and Harley Facades.

The London council has since agreed to conduct an independent review, due to begin in August, into the circumstances which required the evacuation of residents from the region’s Chalcots Estate, and has also announced plans to appoint a new director responsible for resident safety and establish a borough-wide Camden Fire Safety Advisory Panel led by tenants and leaseholders.

Georgia Gould, Camden Council leader, said: “The panels that were fitted were not to the standard that we had commissioned. In light of this, we will be informing the contractor that we will be taking urgent legal advice. Camden council has decided it will immediately begin preparing to remove these external cladding panels from the five tower blocks on the Chalcots estate. Camden council will do whatever it takes to ensure our residents are reassured about the safety of their homes.”

Councillor Alison Butler, the deputy leader, also announced at the council’s cabinet meeting that council blocks with 10, 11 or 12 storeys would be receiving fire sprinklers.

Butler said: “This council is committed to installing fire sprinklers in 25 council blocks with 10 storeys or taller because last week’s tragedy showed we all need to bolster fire safety measures for our residents. I will also be writing to the Government challenging them to give us more support in our plans to make our borough safer. In the meantime, we will continue to work with London Fire Brigade to ensure our housing continues to meet fire safety standards, and we will respond to any recommendations that emerge from the Grenfell Tower investigation.”

Sheffield City Council and Southampton City Council are also looking to put sprinklers in their high-rise tower blocks in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Sheffield confirmed it will be putting sprinklers in all its 24 blocks, claiming that it had ‘always intended’ to review the sprinklers policy later this year but will bring the review forward to ‘provide extra reassurance’.

Public sector buildings
Three hospitals have since failed fire safety checks after conducting assessments on their buildings. Buildings at London's King's College Hospital, Sheffield's children's hospital and the North Middlesex Trust have been found to have combustible cladding, with all three hospitals undertaking steps to improve safety. The trusts, along with another 35 across the country, have been instructed to introduce 24-hour fire warden patrols to improve safety.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Teachers, the Fire Brigades Union and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have called for urgent checks of fire safety measures in England's schools, including for the analysis of cladding on school buildings. Reports indicated that fire safety rules for schools were to be ‘toned down’, although the Department for Education has maintained that there were no plans to bring in any changes which would make fire safety laws less strict.

Fire safety guidance for schools, known as Building Bulletin 100, requires all new schools to be fitted with sprinklers - except for a few low-risk schools. However, figures, stated by the above associations and shared by the BBC, indicate that only 35 per cent of new schools built since 2010 had been fitted with sprinklers, compared to 70 per cent of schools built between 2007 and 2010. This has caused many to question the Coalition government’s ‘efficient’ school building programme, Priority Buildings for Schools, leading to the unions to argue that ‘current guidance is being ignored in the rush to build new schools as cheaply as possible’.

On 15 June, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that the Bellwin scheme would be activated to support the immediate response operation in North Kensington. The emergency scheme provides financial assistance to local authorities to help with immediate costs following a disaster or emergency in their area that involves danger to life or property.

He said: “Emergency services and the local community have been tremendous in their response. As the Prime Minister has been clear, the government stands ready to help in anyway possible. We’re determined to stand squarely behind the affected communities. Funding through the Bellwin scheme will help councils support the community to get back on their feet.”

On top of the emergency funding, and the full enquiry that Prime Minister Theresa May issued, a number of utility companies announced a package of support for victims of the fire, with businesses in the energy and water sectors and power companies supplying energy to Grenfell Tower residents agreeing to write off any outstanding debts for energy bills for residents and put on hold any direct debit payments for residents.

Kensington and Chelsea Council has faced perhaps the most criticism for the way in which it health with the incident and the immediate aftermath, leading to Nicholas Holgate, the authority’s chief executive to resign. Holgate was heavily criticised for the speed in which the local authority responded to the fire, with residents condemning the initial relief effort as ‘absolute chaos’, with reports suggesting that Javid requesting that Holgate leave his post.

The incoming leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, has since admitted to never having been inside a flat in any of the borough’s high-rise buildings, but did concede that ‘words and apologies’ would not be enough and that it would take a generation for the authority to regain the trust of local people.

Javid has also announced that an independent recovery taskforce has been established to help the borough cope, with the body reportedly expected to manage the council’s housing, regeneration, community engagement and governance services.

Making the announcement, Javid said: “The scale of the recovery effort needed on the Lancaster West estate in the months to come cannot be underestimated. Support to survivors, the families and friends of those who lost their lives and residents in the wider community must and will be ongoing. The challenge of providing that support is and will continue to be significant. I want to help the council meet that challenge.

“The immediate response to the disaster is being coordinated by the Grenfell Response Team, headed up by John Barradell. He is ably supported by a number of colleagues drawn from London councils, the wider local government sector including the RBKC, the voluntary sector, police, health and fire services as well as central government. Their expertise and hard work is making a huge difference. As well as providing that immediate support, we must have an eye to the future. This intervention is putting in place the foundations that will support the longer term recovery.”

The use of sprinklers
Timing can very cruel. The Business Sprinkler Alliance released a warning to the government on the 7 June, urging the incoming government to build the case for fire resilience and commit to actions designed to reduce the impact of fire on the country, most noticeably by promoting a greater use of fire sprinkler systems.

Certainly, the underuse of sprinkler systems is in question following the Grenfell tower block fire. Looking back at the inquest into the 2009 Lakanal House fire, Judge Frances Kirkham said the evidence ‘indicated that retrofitting of sprinkler systems in high-rise residential buildings might now be possible at lower cost than had previously been thought to be the case, and with modest disruption to residents’.

The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) claim that around 100 blocks of the estimated 4,000 throughout the UK have been retrofitted with sprinkler systems as a result of the free-to-attend seminars that the group has invited local authorities and housing associations to since 2012.

A pilot project resulted in the successful installation of sprinklers in Callow Mount, a 1960s tower block in Sheffield, and showed that improvements in building safety can be achieved with minimal disruption by retrofitting an automatic fire suppression system. The group’s report, Safer High Rise Living… the Callow Mount Sprinkler Retrofit Project, looks into the use of sprinklers in residential and domestic premises and demonstrates that it is possible to retrofit sprinklers into occupied, high-rise, social housing without evacuating residents and that these installations can be fast-tracked. The project conceded with costs of £1,148.63 per one bedroomed flat, which included the provision of sprinklers in utility rooms, common areas, bin stores and an office.

Future policy
Independent disaster investigator Professor Arnold Dix, who conducted the post-assessment of the Lakanal House fire, has warned that he current system to assess fire safety of high-rise buildings in the UK is ‘pointless’. Of the 21 tower blocks managed by Kensington and Chelsea Council, which includes Grenfell Tower, all were rated as having a medium FRA rating, leaving Dix to suggest that current fire risk assessments (FRAs) were simply a ‘box-ticking exercise’ in a system that doesn’t work.

FRAs do not look inside individual properties and do not analyse how the building was originally designed to evacuate people - meaning it is, in Dix’s words, like ‘having a full health check and only checking the tonsils’. He also commented that FRAs do not consider how many people live in the building, the possibility of high fire-risk appliances, the possibility of highly flammable extra beds and the ability of people to leave their homes quickly. His comments have sparked a number of discussions on what future fire assessment policy should look like.

Speaking as part of an expert panel at FIREX International the week after the Grenfell Tower fire, Dennis Davis of the Fire Sector Federation (FSF) said the industry was now ‘creating the legacy for the next 50 years’. Discussing the way in which building regulations have failed to keep pace with rate of change in the built environment, the last regulations having been reviewed in 2006, the panel agreed that ‘lessons must be learnt’, unlike the Lakanal House fire of 2009. In contrast, the Australian government conducts regular reviews of legislation once a year.

Davis said: “Time and time and time again, we are desperately worried about our building regulations, in particularly the approved documents falling behind what is going on within the built environment. We must get over this. 2006 is the last review. Ten years is too long a gap, far too long a gap if you consider how much constriction and building has changed. The determination has to be as a sector that we ask very, very deep, searching questions – how could this happen in our country, at this time?”

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