Marking eleven months since the tragic Grenfell Tower fire disaster, which claimed the lives of so many men, women and children, the community turned out again on Monday for yet another silent march demanding justice and truth for the survivors and their families. A demonstration was earlier held outside Parliament where the Grenfell Inquiry petition had been scheduled for debate the same day.
Since the fire the truth has gradually started to emerge. Recently evidence came to light which shows that Chelsea and Kensington council opted for a cheaper refurbishment than they had originally budgetted for. The cladding specified in the planning application was replaced with a cheaper flammable alternative, the insulation specified was also replaced with a cheaper alternative that emitted deadly cyanide gas when burned, and misfitting windows were installed, apparently without any firestopping of the gaps they created.
The firefighters union, the FBU, states that the same poisonous foam insulation had been banned from use in furniture after years of campaigning. On 8th May 1979, toxic fumes from plastic foam-filled furniture killed 10 people and left 47 injured in a fire at the Woolworths store in Manchester city centre.
Woolworths fire veteran Kevin Brown doubts if firefighters would be able to respond so speedily to a fire on the same site today. “There were 10 appliances at the scene within 10 minutes when Woolworths caught fire,” he says. “Now, since the cuts, four of those appliances have disappeared.”
After the Woolworths fire vigorous campaigning by the FBU and other fire safety experts, including enlightened chief fire officers, paved the way for vital safety changes as the death toll from toxic plastic fumes continued to mount in the 1980s. But it took another nine years and the deaths of 17 more children, killed by toxic fumes in their own homes, for the government to act. The Furniture and Furnishing (Fire Safety) Regulations 1988 banned the use of polyurethane foam and other flammable insulation in household furniture. This made people safer in their homes and saved countless lives.
Mike Fordham, who retired from the FBU 12 years ago after a lifetime campaigning for improved fire safety, watched the live TV footage of flames shooting up the sides of Grenfell Tower. He later shared his thoughts which had turned immediately to earlier fire tragedies;
‘They’ve put the stuff we got banned from the inside of buildings on the outside of tower blocks … we got foam furniture banned for giving off horrendous toxic fumes and they went and lined the outside of tower blocks with similar stuff’.
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Rydon, the construction company that refurbished Grenfell Tower prior to the fire last June that cost so many innocent lives, enjoyed a 50% increase in profits last year to £19 million and increased the salary of its highest-paid director by 8% to £459,000.
Its accounts show directors decided not to set aside any funds to cover potential losses or expenses related to the fire, after considering the company’s position. Accounting rules require companies to include a note highlighting the potential for any significant charges they may face in future, such as fines or payouts related to litigation.
Rydon’s sales rose 3% to £280 million for the year to the end of September, including a three-month period following the fire on 14 June. The salary of the company’s highest-paid director, who was not named in the accounts, went up from £424,000 to £459,000. The company said it had been helped by low interest rates and several government initiatives aimed at increasing housebuilding.
A government-backed inquiry in December said the cladding system appeared to have accelerated the spread of the fire but Rydon did not make any financial provision for costs relating to Grenfell, despite lawyers for the victims’ families saying they are considering legal action against the local government body that owned Grenfell Tower and the companies involved in procuring and fitting the external insulation system.
Ministers have said the polyethylene cladding used in the refurbishment did not comply with regulations, although Labour said that the government’s chief fire safety adviser has approved similar material as safe for tower blocks.
In its accounts, Rydon said;
“Given the limited nature of the work commissioned, the approvals received in relation to it and the inter-relationship with work undertaken by other parties, no provision has been made in the accounts for any matters arising from these tragic events”.
In December, lawyers said social housing landlords that have been forced to remove dangerous cladding from housing blocks could sue the companies responsible if they can prove the work did not comply with regulations.
We gratefully acknowledge Rob Davies of The Guardian, from whose article of Thursday 8 March this blog is derived.
Survivor groups have reacted with anger after a leaked draft of a report into the Grenfell Tower fire revealed the blaze would have had little opportunity to spread beyond the flat it started in, had the building not been renovated with combustible material.
The 210-page draft report, which was prepared as part of the Metropolitan Police investigation, concludes that the fire would not have spread beyond the fourth floor flat where it originated if the original facade of the building had not been re-clad.
The draft document, leaked to the Evening Standard, was authored by fire investigation experts BRE Global Ltd (aka the Building Research Establishment – formerly a UK government national laboratory privatised in 1997). Following privatisation BRE has continued to provide research, advice, training, testing, certification and standards for both public and private sector organisations in the UK and abroad.
The leaked report revealed that, in addition to the cladding, the installation of the windows and cavity barriers were also deficient.
Experts also found that if the original building had been built to less stringent modern safety standards of fire resistance it is likely the that it would have collapsed, either fully or partially.
Grenfell United, one of the several groups representing survivors and bereaved families of the fire, said that the report was “shocking but not surprising to those of us that lived in the tower”.
According to the Standard, the report reveals that the original concrete building was transformed from a safe structure into a tinderbox by the refurbishment between 2014 and 2016.
In the immediate aftermath of the blaze residents blamed the new cladding system for the rapid speed at which the fire spread. Although survivors and relatives of those who died in the blaze have repeatedly expressed concerns about the refurbishment, the leaked report shows for the first time how far short the works fell of building regulations, strongly suggesting that the works were negligent, incompetent and badly botched at every level.
The leaked report, dated 31 January 2018, states in paragraaphs 219 and 219.2:
“Grenfell Tower, as originally built, appears to have been designed on the premise of providing very high levels of passive fire protection.
The original facade of Grenfell Tower, comprising exposed concrete and, given its age, likely timber or metal frame windows, would not have provided a medium for fire spread up the external surface. In BRE’s opinion… there would have been little opportunity for a fire in a flat of Grenfell Tower to spread to any neighbouring flats.”
The police investigation into the blaze is running concurrently with the public inquiry. BRE Global would not comment on the report when contacted by the Huffington Post and diverted any media queries to the Metropolitan Police. However, the online version of the Standard published a thirteen page extract from the leaked document containing the main findings of the BRE investigation. This can be downloaded via the following link;
The Metropolitan Police said:
“Our aim is to carry out an investigation that has integrity and if it uncovers evidence that any individual or organisation is criminally culpable we want that evidence to be tested through the judicial system.
As such we are disappointed that an interim draft report appears to have been leaked and published. To protect the integrity of the investigation the MPS will not confirm specifics of the ongoing investigation.
The heart of our investigation is and will continue to be the families of those who lost their lives; those for whom Grenfell Tower was home and the local community so impacted by events that night”.
In a statement, Grenfell United said:
“It was clear to us that the refurbishment was shoddy and second rate. We raised concerns time and time again. We were not just ignored but bullied to keep quiet. This is an industry that is broken. It’s also an industry that has been allowed to get away with this kind of behaviour for far too long.
Six people died in a fire at Lakanal House in 2009 and the Government failed to act and make changes to regulations that would have stopped a fire like that happening again. Tonight we know people are going to sleep in homes with dangerous cladding on them.
It is vital that the police investigation and the Public Inquiry uncover everything that led to the fire and that the Government finally acts so that this can never happen again.”
APPENDIX BY THE GRENFELL ACTION GROUP:
We gratefully acknowledge the Huffington Post (16/04/2018) from which we borrowed most of the above text. We also acknowledge the Evening Standard article of the same date on which the Huffington Post blog was based. We made some textual changes to correct some minor inaccuracies we identified in both sources. We also offer the following correction and elaboration of what we consider to be a more fundamental error which appeared in both sources. However, in their defence, it would appear that both the Standard and the Huffington Post were quoting directly from the draft BRE report and were merely echoing statements from the report that were either erroneous or ambiguous.
According to the published abstact from the draft BRE report the cavity barriers in the cladding system were of “insufficient size specification” to fulfil their role of expanding and sealing the gap between the concrete surface of the building and the cladding and insulation. This puzzled us at first because we had previously only seen evidence of a cavity gap of 50mm between the insulation layer and the cladding panels in order to allow any build up of moisture to evaporate. We had encountered no mention of a gap between the original concrete facade and the cladding system (ie between the concrete facade and the flammable insulation fixed to it) We also knew (and the BRE report confirms) that the fire stopping measures used on the cavity gaps, that should have expanded to seal them when exposed to the heat generated by the fire, had been installed to an inadequate specification and had consequently failed with catastrophic consequences.
We had read elsewhere that because of the danger inherent in such cavity gaps fire safety experts had recommended that they should never be wider than 25mm. Based on the BRE report it appears, therefore, that the problem in the Grenfell case may have been twofold – that gaps were permitted that were twice the recommended width and that the fire stopping measures employed had failed to seal these cavity gaps. We would stress here that the interpretation we suggest is speculative and we have no evidence or actual knowledge of why or how such a disastrous error had occurred. There is, however, no doubt, if the BRE report is to be believed, that a fatal error did occur rendering the fire stopping between the cladding panels and the underlying insulation virtually useless.
As stated above, we had not hitherto encountered in our research any reference to a cavity gap between the insulation layer and the concrete facade of the building and were therefore surprised and puzzled to find such a reference in the draft BRE report. This reference apppears clearly in paragraph 222.3 which states that “gaps between insulation and the surface of the building and gaps between insulation and cavity barriers provided a route for fire spread.” So, either there was a cavity gap between the concrete facade and the layer of insulation fixed to it during the refurbishment, or the BRE report is mistaken in this assertion. We believe a possible explanation for such an error may have been a failure to identify correctly in the report the lack of cavity barriers in the angle of the protruding verticle rotated pillars described in an earlier study from July 2017 published by Architects for Social Housing (ASH);
“In addition to the 50mm gap between the rain-screen panelling and the insulation, there is a considerably larger void between that and the ten concrete rotated pillars that run up the building, not only creating a series of full-height vertical voids for smoke and flames, but completely bypassing the horizontal fire stops at each floor, thereby rendering them useless. This is confirmed by the plan detail in Studio E’s drawings for the cladding.”
The effects of this oversight are also confirmed in the numerous video clips recorded, many on mobile phones, by witnesses to the disaster who had gathered in horror round the base of the tower but were completely unable to help those trapped on the upper floors, most of whom were completely beyond their reach.
Based on all the above it is our opinion that the leaked BRE draft is problematic in some important respects. We note, for example, a tendency to understate what the report has already described as multiple deficiencies in the cladding system on the exterior of the building which, in combination, were almost certainly the main causes of the rapidity with which the fire spread, such that the entire structure became a raging inferno in less than two hours. We note also the statement in paragraph 187 of the draft BRE report which claims that “fire stopping has generally been found to be of a good standard” This makes little sense and is, in any case, directly contradicted by paragraph 222 which states that;
“The cladding system is of particular concern given the manner in which fire spread up and across it and involved flats as it did so. The multiple potential deficiencies concerning the cladding system reflect its significance with regards to actual fire spread during the fire…We note that the significance of these is far greater when they are considered in combination as opposed to when they occur in isolation.”
In trying to reconcile these mutually contradictory statements in the BRE draft report and the apparent absence of one crucially important detail (ie the absence of any fire stopping measures in the angles of the protruding rotated vertical columns), one might be forgiven for speculating that the longstanding relationship between BRE and the Westminster Government, which has much to fear from a thorough and uncompromising report on this disaster, has historically been so close as to suggest a possible conflict of interest which may prove problematic for BRE, or the Government, or both. We will have to wait to see whether the final approved version of the BRE report remains true to the draft version which, despite its flaws, presents an abundance of compelling evidence of incompetence and criminal negligence on a staggering scale at many levels of the hierarchy responsible for the planning and implementation of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment.
It is known that inspectors from the Council’s Building Control department visited the site on multiple occasions to inspect the works as they proceeded. Whether they failed to notice the multiple deficiencies described in the draft BRE report or simply turned a blind eye in the interests of avoiding the possibility of overspends incurred in correcting the many glaring errors, remains to be seen.
However, we find it difficult to understand how they could have failed to notice that the new windows were the wrong size, that many of the internal doors were not up to standard or lacked self closing mechanisms, that the cladding and insulation products specified in the planning approval had been replaced by cheaper and highly flammable alternatives, that the cavity gaps in the cladding system were inordinately wide and were not properly firestopped, or that the gaps in the corners of the vertical rotated columns were completely lacking in any fire stopping measures.
Taken together all these failings form a compelling indictment of what appears to be gross criminal negligence by the RBKC Building Control inspectors, and of course by the contractors who had so badly botched the works in the first place. Such failures to fully and conscientously monitor and inspect the works to ensure that they met the highest standards of safety and workmanship constitute a very real abdication of their duty of care to the residents of Grenfell Tower, all of whom lost their homes and posessions, and many of whom lost their lives, in the inferno that followed in June last year.
Finally, paragraph 186 of the draft BRE Report States the following;
“The physical evidence in relation to the structure confirms that there are parts of the structure which are very close to their point of failure”
As far as we are aware residents of Grenfell, Barandon, Testerton and Hurstway Walks and other areas close to Grenfell Tower were evacuated for their safety during or after the night of the fire. Some of these residents, who have chosen to remain ever since in alternative accommodation at the Council’s expense (mostly in hotels) have suffered verbal and media abuse and have been accused of freeloading and of milking the system. Over the intervening months some, but not all, have returned to their homes, having received assurances from the Council that the air quality in the vicinity is not hazardous and that there is no risk that the remains of Grenfell Tower is unstable and might collapse. The statement above clearly contradicts that advice and we would therefore caution all affected residents to take careful note of it.
The atrocity of Grenfell has exposed a series of disaster areas that are set to cause yet more destruction and loss of life, all around the country. In every area people are fighting for safety and security in our housing.
On the front line, we know, are Grenfell survivors and members of their community, many still crammed into hotel rooms and fighting for permanent homes, the right to stay in Britain, or support to recover from heartbreak and loss. Right behind them are the residents of other tower blocks. People who’ve been told they must go to bed each night in a flammable building unless and until they themselves can find the money to replace cladding. And people who have had the cladding and insulation stripped off their buildings, for safety, but who now find their homes exposed to freezing winds, and damp, for months, or even years. The last, freezing winter was torture for many; with climate change the next is likely to be just as bad. To see how estates in northwest London experienced the winter see our video and petition;
Fuel Poverty Action has started a campaign, called SCIN — Safe Cladding and Insulation Now, for central government funding to replace all flammable cladding and insulation immediately, starting with high rise blocks. Largely responsible for the run-down of regulations and inspection regimes that led to the disaster in the first place, the government promised after the fire to “keep our people safe”;
— but have not offered a penny. They are the ones who have the necessary resources to get the job done quickly, for all. Local authorities have been stripped of their funds, with support for councils halved since 2010, and vital services and repairs already cut to the bone;
We are also demanding that until the works are complete, no resident should have to pay for fire wardens, or the astronomical heating bills in de-clad buildings, and every possible measure should be taken to maintain safety, warmth, and health. See our list of demands;
We are writing to the new Housing Minister with these demands. Many organisations and prominent individuals have already signed on to this open letter and are considering affiliating to SCIN:
The letter will be delivered to the Minister on 11 June – save the date and let us know if you would like to be there!
But what needs to change now goes far beyond this.
Behind the facade of a caring, democratic political system, Grenfell has exposed:
● Social housing where residents – the experts on their buildings and communities – cannot make themselves heard.
● A construction industry driven by perverse incentives and conflicts of interest, without effective monitoring, inspection, or clear lines of accountability.
● Regulations compromised by commercial interests including the plastics industry (searching for markets for a tide of petrochemicals fracked in the USA).
● Privatised and ineffective inspection of building processes and materials.
● Local government removed from the control of local people.
● Central government which has clawed back the money on which safety depends.
● Ill equipped, ill funded fire services and a shortage of fire experts.
● Run-down skills and capacity in construction, manufacturing, and research.
● Housing standards, duties of care, and laws on wilful neglect that can be breached with impunity, in a crisis like the present one, and even on a routine basis, day to day.
● Regeneration that breaks up the communities on which rest people’s health and happiness
● Leasehold contracts that leave residents without effective protection from their landlords
● A system of financial auditing – the critical safety net against corruption and corner-cutting — where the auditors are financially linked to the businesses they are inspecting.
● Hundreds of thousands of flats sitting empty, many bought up as investments for the portfolios of billionaires, while people sleep on the streets outside, and Grenfell families, like others made homeless, are crammed into a hotel room;
Small wonder that as cladding comes down from new or refurbished buildings, local authorities are finding that the glossy exterior has been concealing missing fire-breaks and insulation, faulty structural fixings, holes in walls and floors, and inferior materials – the basics are not there.
Critically, they have found insulation missing – a scandal FPA are very familiar with, as residents on new build housing estates contact us, unable to heat their homes. Their homes have high EPC ratings – deemed good on “energy performance”, but thermal imaging shows where contractors have simply saved money by leaving insulation out. UK homes – for this reason and because little is being done to tackle draughty, damp, and hard to heat older housing – are among the coldest in Europe. Landlords’ legal obligations, such as they are, are not enforced, and central government funding, which paid for health and safety officers, has been taken back by Whitehall. Official standards for insulation, won over decades of pressure by energy and fuel poverty lobbyists, are still there, on paper, but are missing on the walls.
As the changing climate removes the blanket of Jet Stream protection which has until now kept the UK climate temperate, the first people to pay will be those on low incomes living in poorly insulated housing. Many will pay with their lives. Every winter thousands of people die in this rich country, because they cannot heat their homes. Like fire, cold kills.
The Grenfell Inquiry, the Hackitt Review, all the meetings, all the demonstrations, cannot be allowed to lead to business as usual. The present lifting of the cover on “the way things are done” gives us all a moment of power.
At our meeting “Dying from Fire, Dying from Cold”, Ishmael Francis-Murray who made the great film ‘Failed by the State’ said, “If we don’t get change through this, we never will. Right now we have a chance.”
Change must begin with justice and security for Grenfell survivors – and with warm, safe homes for all whose buildings have been immediately affected by this disaster. It must then reach further.