Kate Webb
Kate Webb

By Kate Webb

The need for answers in response to the Grenfell Tower

The devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in west London was a tragedy, and the fear is, an avoidable tragedy at that. Hundreds of people lived in the social housing block, which was managed by the council’s arms-length Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. Residents have been left with nothing and hundreds are now homeless.

At present, we do not even know how many people have died, nor how the fire started and crucially why it spread so rapidly.

The prime minister has confirmed that there will be a public enquiry. The residents and all others living in tower blocks need the firmest assurances that a thorough investigation will be completed and recommendations acted on. In the meantime, Shelter is working with local advice agencies to help those made homeless by the fire.

The cladding used to retrofit the building – to improve insulation for residents and not, as erroneously reported to improve the views for “posh neighbours” – appears to have burnt horrifically quickly. This is not the first fire linked to such cladding and the appropriateness of the technique will surely form a central focus of any review.

We know as well that residents did raise concerns about fire safety in the building. Residents were concerned about the risks created during the refurbishment, including exposed gas pipes. There were reports of power surges and rubbish creating a fire risk. The building had not been inspected for 18 months, despite a significant refurb being completed. We do not know if that refurb was completed in line with existing fire safety regulations, or if existing provision is in fact inadequate.

Advice to tenants to remain in their flats in the event of a fire had been posted, but was catastrophically misplaced given the failure of compartmentalisation to contain the fire in its original flat.

We also know that the building was not fitted with sprinklers, despite warnings from the coroner after a similar fire in Southwark in 2009. Buildings built today over 30 metres high must be fitted with sprinklers, which do save lives. DCLG had encouraged councils to retrofit existing towers, but they were not required to do so.

The government promised to review fire regulations in tower blocks last October but the review was not forthcoming. Perhaps this reflects standard civil service timescales. Perhaps it was simply not a priority. Or perhaps it was delayed because of an ongoing aversion to new regulations. DCLG will rightly be under scrutiny as to why it did not act sooner.

The enquiry must establish how the fire could spread so quickly, why residents’ concerns were not listened to and how such tragedies can be prevented. This must include considering whether current regulations are fit for purpose.

In the absence of clear answers and recommendations it is important to focus on helping the victims and rush for facts, not jump to conclusions. There have been claims made that the fitness for human habitation amendment to the housing and planning act could have prevented the fire. This is sadly not the case. Shelter supported the amendment and believes it could have acted as an important tool to drive up standards and tackle damp and disrepair in private rented homes. The remit of the legislation would not have covered fire safety concerns in communal areas of social housing blocks such as this one.

Where we know what could have saved lives, it is vital that the government moves quickly to require change. It is simply unacceptable to expect residents, often those unable to move anywhere else, to put their children to bed each night without knowing if it is safe to do so. There will likely be other tools that a review will identify to prevent such catastrophic loss of live in future. It is vital that they too are implemented as soon as possible.

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