Public Sector Focus

30.04.18

The legacy of Grenfell

Source: PSE April/May 2018

PSE’s Seamus McDonnell looks at the reactions of councils and the government to the Grenfell Tower fire, from the immediate aftermath to the most recent developments.

In March this year, the Metropolitan Police announced that one of Grenfell Tower’s fire doors – meant to hold out flames for at least 30 minutes – had failed testing and would have been incapable of providing the fire protection it was meant to deliver.

While the door itself was not the cause of last May’s terrible fire, the discovery was just another reminder of how many small, seemingly simple precautions are needed to make such a large structure safe, and speaks to the rise in vigilance that has developed from that awful tragedy.

The combination of problems which led to the Grenfell fire took nearly everyone by surprise, exposing systemic failures in national building regulations and leading to an immediate surge in councils investigating their own tower blocks for flaws.

Now, with nearly a year gone by since the disaster took the lives of 71 people, have local government leaders been able to bring their own housing stock to the expected standards?

Immediate reaction

The initial response to the tragedy saw the government call on local authorities and social housing providers to check all of their buildings for the aluminium composite material (ACM) blamed for the lack of protection it provided during the fire.

This review found that around 10% of the 166 councils that own housing stock also had high-rise properties with ACM, which in turn created further fears about the cost and timescale of removing so much cladding from so many buildings.

The result was varied, with a handful of councils choosing to install sprinkler systems in accordance with advice given out by the coroner and Dave Curry, chief officer of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, who called for “decisive action” in response to the tragedy.

Sheffield City Council, Croydon Council and Southampton City Council were among those authorities who announced intentions to fit sprinkler systems, with the aim of both providing safety and reassuring those residents who lived in the many other tower blocks across the country.

The ‘significant cost’ of safety

One of the major issues that has hit councils over the past year is the massive cost of securing the safety of tower blocks, especially when the work is done after these buildings have been constructed.

In July, the LGA warned the government that the cost of major remedial work to remove cladding from these blocks could be excessive and difficult for councils to cover without extra Whitehall funding.

Croydon Council said the cost of fitting its own sprinkler programmes across 26 of the borough’s towers could leave the authority £10m out of pocket and place “significant strain” on other projects that had already been promised the funding.

While the government has said that it would be willing to foot the bill for any “essential fire safety measures,” both the LGA and individual councils have registered a number of major concerns about the ability to fund emergency fire safety measures while their budgets are continually shrinking.

Continuing fire safety work

So, what about the faulty fire door which has most recently caused concern? The government responded to the issues with immediate action, calling in experts from the National Fire Chiefs Council and conducting additional testing on the rest of the batch.

Sir Ken Knight, chair of the Independent Expert Panel, which has been consulting on fire safety since the incident at Grenfell, welcomed the government’s reaction to this discovery, but reassured people that the risk to the public highlighted by this was relatively low.

“The government has taken the responsible step of consulting with experts, including the Expert Panel,” he said. “We will clearly monitor developments and advise the government of whether further advice is required.”

Future developments now hang on the conclusions of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review, expected to be complete in the spring and set to provide a range of recommendations on changes to national building regulations and fire safety laws.

Image © David Mirzoeff, PA Wire

 

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