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Last edited 29 Oct 2021
Grenfell Tower fire
On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a block of social housing flats in North Kensington, London occupied by between 400 and 600 people. The fire was reported shortly after midnight and rapidly engulfed the building.
The Metropolitan Police reported that 350 people were living in the Tower at the time. It was thought that 255 escaped and 14 were not in the tower that night. This left 80 people unaccounted for. However, in November 2017, the Met confirmed that the number of people who had been formally identified to the satisfaction of the Coroner as having died as a result of the fire was 70. In addition, a stillborn baby was recorded as a victim of the fire, and another resident died some months later in hospital, bringing the total to 72.
The source of the fire is thought to have been a fridge freezer, and the unexpected speed of the fire’s spread is believed to have been contributed to by the recently-installed exterior cladding, a kind that has been cited as contributing to similar fires in high-rise buildings around the world in recent years.
The 24-storey Brutalist concrete tower block was designed in 1967 and completed in 1974. It measures 67.3 m (220 ft) high and contained 120 flats. In 2015-16, an £8.7 million refurbishment was undertaken by Rydon Ltd. Works included new new windows, aluminium composite material rainscreen cladding (ACM cladding) and heating systems and remodelling of the bottom four floors.
Rainscreen cladding systems are formed of relatively thin, pre-fabricated panels intended primarily to prevent significant amounts of water from penetrating into the main wall construction. The majority of the thermal insulation, airtightness and structural stability required by the building envelope is provided by the second, inner part of the wall construction - in this case the existing wall of the Tower.
According to Rydon, the cladding system was intended to improve the building’s thermal performance and to give it a ‘fresher, modern’ look. Installation of the cladding was undertaken by Harley Facades, but at least 8 other contractors and subcontractors were involved in aspects of the refurbishment.
The Reynobond cladding used consisted of a polyethylene core sandwiched between, and fusion bonded to, two aluminium sheets. This is a commonly-used form of ACM cladding, however, cladding panels with a mineral rather than 'plastic' core are considered to offer better fire performance.
Fire safety experts have speculated that the cladding could have created a chimney-effect in the void between itself and the original façade, which may have contributed to the speed at which the fire spread.
Several other major high-rise fires have been attributed to similar cladding systems in recent years, including; the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell (2009) [see image below], the Wooshin Golden Suites fire in Busan (2010), the Lacrosse Tower fire in Melbourne (2014), and the Marina Torch and the Address Downtown fires in Dubai (both 2015).
Grenfell Tower is managed by a tenant management organisation – Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) – on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council. Criticism was levelled at KCTMO in the aftermath of the fire, and attention was drawn to the residents’ organisation, the Grenfell Action Group, which has repeatedly expressed fire safety concerns.
Controversy surfaced over the lack of common fire alarms, and confusion regarding the 'stay put' fire advice given to residents, which recommended that in the event of fire, they should wait in their flats for rescue, rather than attempting to escape. This is a common strategy in such buildings, as the subdivision of the overall building into fire compartments should prevent fire from spreading. In this case however, the compartmentation may have been compromised by the newly-installed cladding, which allowed fire to spread up the outside of the building.
There was also concern about the absence of a sprinkler system. Part B of the building regulations requires the installation of sprinklers in new residential blocks of more than 30m in height, but it does not require that they are retrofitted in existing blocks.
After the Lakanal House fire in 2009, a report was published which recommended the installation of sprinklers in 4,000 tower blocks across the UK. However, the government declined to bring in rules requiring the retrofitting of sprinklers, saying; "...we consider a regulatory requirement is unnecessary and disproportionate".
The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association said it would have cost just £138,000 to instal sprinklers to Grenfell Tower, at an average cost of £1,150 per flat. However, such work would have been disruptive, and local council leader Nick Paget-Brown suggested there was not a collective view among residents in favour of sprinklers, telling BBC's Newsnight “We are now talking retrospectively after the most enormous tragedy, but many residents felt that we needed to get on with the installation of new hot water systems, new boilers and that trying to retrofit more would delay the building and that sprinklers aren’t the answer.”
A further fire at Shepherd's Court in west London on 19 August 2016 also spread up the outside of the building, this time attributed to cladding panels made from metal, polystyrene and plywood. The fire brigade subsequently wrote to local authorities asking them to carefully consider arrangements for replacement and improvement of building facades, and to make suitable information available to fire risk assessors. (Ref. File:Shepherds court fire letter from london fire brigade.pdf)
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which came into force in 2006, requires that owners of premises other than private dwellings appoint a responsible person who takes reasonable steps to reduce the risk from fire and makes sure people can safely escape if there is a fire. Fire authorities no longer issue fire certificates, but are the main agency responsible for enforcement, carrying out inspections, assessing complaints and undertaking investigations.
However, a review of the Order published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) in 2013, found there was considerable discretion as to how each fire authority approached its duties, and that many small businesses were not aware of their responsibilities.
Successive housing ministers have been criticised for delaying a review of fire safety regulations and Approved Document B of the building regulations for four years, following the recommendations made after the Lakanal House fire.
On 16 June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a public inquiry would be held, while urgent safety reviews were conducted into thousands of similar tower blocks, particularly those renovated with the same cladding system. On 29 June, it was announced that the Inquiry would be led by retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick. For more information see: Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
On 18 June 2017, the government required social housing owners to compile lists of buildings with aluminium composite cladding panels and buildings more than 18m high by the end of 20 June 2017. Owners then had to send samples of any ACM cladding for fire tests. A letter from Melanie Dawes (File:Acm cladding checks.pdf), Permanent Secretary for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to all local authority and housing association chief executives stated:
On 21 June 2017, Melanie Dawes wrote a similar letter to owners, landlords and managers of private residential blocks offering testing of ACM cladding, paid for by DCLG. (Ref. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/safety-checks-on-private-residential-blocks)
On 23 June 2017, the Police confirmed the fire started in a Hotpoint fridge freezer. They also announced that small-scale fire tests had been carried out on the Reynobond ACM cladding and Celotex insulation and both had failed. Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack said; "The insulation was more flammable than the cladding. Tests show the insulation samples combusted soon after the test started."
On 24 June 2017, the government issued a statement from Sajid Javid MP, the secretary of state for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) regarding the cladding testing failure rate. (Ref. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/statement-from-the-secretary-of-state-regarding-the-cladding-testing-failure-rate)
It confirmed that all the cladding samples tested at that point, that is, samples from 34 high-rise buildings in 17 local authority areas, had failed a combustibility test carried out by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Fire and rescue services were asked to conduct fire safety inspections of those buildings to decide what remedial works might be required.
However, the statement made clear that:
|...a failure in testing of the cladding does not necessarily mean that a building will have to be evacuated; the decision by Camden Council to evacuate 4 of the 5 towers on the Chalcots Estate was because the failed testing of the external cladding was compounded by multiple other fire safety failures which the fire inspection team found within the buildings.|
On 26 June 2017, in a statement to the House of Commons, Sajid Javid announced the creation of an independent expert advisory panel:
|It is clear that this failure must be understood; it must be rectified without delay, and the government is determined to ensure that happens. As an initial step I can inform the House today that I am establishing an independent expert advisory panel who will advise the government on any steps that should immediately be taken on fire safety. Further details of the panel including its members will be released shortly.|
On 30 June 2017, the CEO’s of the Construction Industry Council, Build UK and the Construction Products Association, met with the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, together with officials from the Cabinet Office, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Homes and Communities Agency (now Homes England) and the Local Government Association, to agree the establishment of a joint industry task force to enable the sector to respond to the demand for products and services to replace cladding and other fire safety equipment in the aftermath of the tragedy.
On 14 July 2017, the BBC reported that a full review of the building regulations would be undertaken, although it is not clear when this will be officially announced, and it is likely to be complicated by the ongoing police investigation and public inquiry. (Ref. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40602991)
On 19 July 2017, the Local Goverment Association (LGA) called for an “urgent and immediate” review of the building regulations. Lord Porter, LGA Chairman, said; "We cannot wait for the result of the public inquiry or coroner’s report before this review is started. We have to act based on what we know now". (Ref. https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/lga-calls-urgent-and-immediate-building-regulation-review)
"...no more than 208 local authority and housing association residential blocks over 18 m tall have been fitted with aluminium composite material cladding. 189 of these have had cladding samples tested by the Building Research Establishment, they’ve been tested by proxy or they have already had taken their cladding down. None of them have passed the limited combustibility test." (Ref. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-on-grenfell-tower-20-july-2017.)
DCMS also published an explanatory note on the large-scale testing. File:20170720 Explanatory note on large scale testing FINAL.pdf.
On 26 July 2017, site manager Michael Lockwood announced that the tower would be covered in a protective wrap to assist with ongoing forensic investigations and the eventual demolition, which he expected would begin towards the end of 2018.
On 27 July 2017, in a letter circulated to survivors of the fire, the Metropolitan Police confirmed they considered there were reasonable grounds to suspect that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the tenant management organisation may have committed corporate manslaughter and that they will be questioned under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.
On 28 July 2017, Communities Secretary The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP announced an independent review of the building regulations and fire safety. See: Independent review of the building regulations and fire safety for more information.
Tests carried out by BRE on a combination of cladding and insulation systems in July and August confirmed that the systems did not comply with the Building Regulations. See ACM cladding testing by BRE for more information.
Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said "I am determined those who lost their lives, their families and friends, the survivors and the community will not be forgotten and are supported in getting the help they need and deserve. Above all, I am determined that the lessons of the Grenfell fire are learnt and never forgotten so that a tragedy like this can never, ever happen again."
The government has, however, come under criticism for the slow progress made in rehousing those who lived in the tower. According to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's latest figures, of the 210 households, 45 are in new permanent homes, 54 are in temporary homes, and 66 remain in emergency accommodation having not yet accepted offers.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “It is a disgrace that the majority of Grenfell residents have still not been given homes and that tower blocks across our country have still not been made safe. We need answers from the government and we need action."
On 18 December 2017, Building a Safer Future: Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Interim Report, was published, which called for a 'universal shift in culture'. See Independent review.
In March 2018, it was announced that the site of Grenfell Tower is likely to be turned into a memorial for the 72 victims who lost their lives. According to a government document 'Principles Governing Consultations on the Future of the Grenfell Tower Site', the 'voice of the bereaved' will lead the decision-making process.
The document is signed by the leader of the local Kensington and Chelsea Council, as well as the communities and local government secretary and an organisation representing the victims of the fire called Grenfell United.
However, there have been criticisms levelled at these plans from those who believe the most fitting tribute to the victims would be to replace the tower with genuinely affordable housing or another high-rise; particularly in the midst of a housing crisis where London's soaring land values have led to many social housing developments (such as the Heygate Estate) being demolished, with residents being forced to relocate further outside the capital.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said the information had been given to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, "so that they are able to take any action required".
In April 2018, the London Evening Standard reported a leaked copy of a draft report being prepared by BRE Global that provides details of the refurbishment of the tower which failed to meet fire safety standards.
The report claims the fire would not have spread if the building's original facade had not been over-clad. In addition to the combustibility of the cladding system fitted, it was reported that materials plugged into 15 cm gaps between window frames and concrete columns allowed the fire to spread to the facade up the exterior. Cavity barriers which were installed between the concrete building fabric and external cladding were too small or defective, according to investigators.
Fire door investigation
On 16 May 2018, Housing Secretary James Brokenshire MP today updated Parliament on the fire door investigation undertaken by the Grenfell Tower independent expert advisory panel following the Metropolitan Police discovery that a fire door installed at Grenfell Tower designed to resist fire for up to 30 minutes failed after just 15.
On 16 May 2018, the government announced it would fully fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding by councils and housing associations at an estimated cost of £400 million. Further details will be announced shortly explaining how to apply for this funding, including conditions attached to the grant. Building owners in the private sector must make their own arrangements to ensure they are made safe.
On 4 June 2018, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry published 4 expert reports. These revealed that there had been failures in fire doors, lifts, water supplies for fire fighters, the cladding system, cavity barriers, and ventilation systems. They also suggested that the ‘stay put’ advice remained in place for too long. However, there was insufficient evidence to determine the cause of the fire, although it had originated around a fridge-freezer in Flat 16. For more information see: Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Expert reports.
In June 2018, Housing Secretary James Brokenshire launched a consultation on banning the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high-rise residential buildings.
In August 2018, the government committed to taking over responsibility for the Grenfell Tower site from autumn 2018. The announcement came as the Metropolitan Police prepared to release the site as a crime scene.
While Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council remain the legal owners, they have had no role in the management of, or decision-making about the site since July 2017 when it was placed under the remit of an independent site management team who will continue to make operational decisions until the government assumes responsibility. As yet there has been no formal decision about the future of the site, although the government re-confirmed their commitment to fully engaging with the local community.
In July 2019, the Expert Panel of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) reported that HPL panels of Class C or D are very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire. In addition, systems using any type of HPL panels (Class B, C or D) with combustible insulation are very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report was published on 30 October 2019. It found that the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB’s) preparation and planning for such a fire was “gravely inadequate”, and in particular, incident commanders had received no training in how to recognise the need for an evacuation or how to organise one.
On 20 January 2020 Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced new measures to improve building safety standards, described as: ‘the biggest change in building safety for a generation’. The changes, include the immediate creation of a new Building Safety Regulator and a consultation on extending the ban on combustible materials. For more information see: Reform of building safety standards.
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