Five years after Grenfell: Are London’s towers safer?

FFive years ago this week, 72 people died in a catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in west London – one of the UK’s worst modern disasters.

In the wake of the 2017 tragedy, it turned out that the type of cladding that fueled the spread of the fire had been used in other towers across the UK.

Today an estimated half a million people across the UK still live in unsafe apartments. The collapse of thousands of home sales has had a major impact on the housing market.

In addition to the safety of existing buildings, debate continues to rage over whether new safety legislation after Grenfell goes far enough to ensure that no new buildings are constructed with similar problems.

In a statement marking the anniversary, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the response from the government, developers and owners of the buildings had been “totally inadequate”.

He added: “Major reforms to fix a broken system are long overdue, and it is shameful that the government has so far failed to complete a single recommendation addressed to them from the first stage of the Grenfell Tower inquiry – leaving too many Londoners at risk in high-rise buildings.”

Find out how many buildings are still stuck in a cladding crisis, and what new laws have been put in place to improve fire safety in the UK.

The kiswa crisis is not over yet

In the wake of Grenfell, it soon became apparent that the cladding was just the tip of the iceberg, with building inspections across the country revealing a host of safety flaws including faulty insulation, flammable porches, and missing fire breaks.

Fierce disagreements arose between the government, developers and tenants over who should pay for building repairs. Repair costs were initially passed on to the tenants, but a range of different funds have now been set up to try to address the problem.

The government originally set a goal in June 2020 to strip the Grenfell-style ACM of high-rise blocks (above 18 metres). But recent statistics show that repair work has not yet been completed on 111 buildings, despite the cladding being removed from 53 buildings. In London, work is yet to be completed on 89 ACM high-rise buildings in areas such as Wandsworth, Tor Hamlets, Westminster and Brent.

London skyscrapers with Grenfell-style ACM cladding

Total tall buildings identified with ACM (April government data)

272

It has been fully cured

159

Work started

89

works so far

24

However, these stats only cover buildings over 18 m in height with ACM cladding, and a much larger number of buildings are affected when the mesh is cast on a larger scale to include lower blocks and various unsafe materials. Across England, 3,374 applications were made to the Building Safety Trust, which was set up in May 2020 to fund non-ACM cladding removal, with 1,864 of those in London. Statistics show that work has so far been completed on only 30 buildings nationwide.

The Building Safety Trust only covers buildings over 18 metres, while those living in lower buildings between 11 and 18 metres have promised a new £4 billion scheme paid for by the home building industry. The London Fire Brigade has listed more than 1,000 apartment buildings above 11 meters with serious fire safety failures nearly five years after Grenfell.

Last month, LFB President Andy Rowe said: “It is deeply concerning that the number of buildings experiencing serious fire safety failures has reached more than 1,000 for nearly a year. We still need to see a cultural change in the industry when it comes to fire safety in residential buildings.

There is no ‘Plan B’ to evacuate

In addition to the unsafe cladding, another area of ​​concern is the lack of any changes to the controversial “permanent residence” policy, where residents are supposed to stay indoors while firefighters tackle the fire.

The government faced significant backlash last month after it said it would not implement the 2019 Grenfell Inquir’s recommendation to legally require building owners to create a ‘Plan B’ to evacuate in the event of a serious fire, as well as personal evacuation plans for disabled residents. This was despite previous promises to fully implement the investigation’s recommendations.

Grenfell United, a group of people affected by the 2017 tragedy, called the response “a disgrace” for putting people with disabilities at risk.

As for the bases covering new buildings, there has also been criticism that no requirement has been made for developers to add additional escape stairs in high-rise buildings. Despite calls from the National Council of Fire Chiefs, the Mayor of London and fire safety campaigners, skyscrapers are still only approved with one escape stair.

Cladding removal from a high-rise building (Peter Byrne/PA)

/ Palestinian Authority Archive

New building safety laws

After a fierce campaign, there have been some changes in building regulations in recent years; These include mandatory sprinklers in new buildings over 11 meters high, new road construction, and a 2018 ban on combustible cladding in buildings over 18 meters high, which was recently expanded to include new hotels, hostels and boarding houses.

The specific type of cladding used at Grenfell, an unmodified polyethylene core composite metal sheet known as MCM PE, was also banned this month in all new buildings of any height in England, rather than just those over 11 metres. .

In May, the government introduced the new Building Safety Act, which ministers described as the “biggest improvement to building safety in a generation”. It includes a new regulator that has to approve high-risk residential projects of more than 18 square metres, at various “gateway” points.

Under the changes, it would be illegal for freeholders to pass on the cost of repair work on historic buildings or removal of cladding to their tenants if they are associated or associated with the building’s developer, or if they can bear the costs in full.

Meanwhile, the new Social Housing Regulatory Bill would mean “Ofsted-style” inspections of social landlords and give inspectors powers to issue unlimited fines, enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice, and make emergency repairs where there is significant risk to tenants.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “The Grenfell Tower tragedy must never be allowed to happen again and our thoughts are with the bereaved families, survivors and residents.

“To date, 45 of the UK’s largest homebuilders have signed our Developer Pledge and will contribute £5 billion to repair their unsafe buildings. We expect them to act quickly so people feel safe in their homes, and we will carefully monitor their progress.

“The Building Safety Act delivers the biggest improvements in building safety for a generation, giving residents more rights and protections than ever before.”

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