Fire spread risks expressed pre Grenfell

Fire spread risks expressed pre Grenfell

A REPORT from the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in 2015 had warned the government that ‘not enough was being done’ to tackle fire spread through concealed cavities.

The Guardian reported on the BRE reports commissioned by the then Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), and published in March 2015, warning of ‘potential fatalities’ unless the danger of fire spreading through ‘concealed cavities’ was addressed, but the news outlet stated that ‘officials kept the advice confidential’.

BRE was said to have been ‘blunt’ in stating that the fire barriers installed in some buildings’ wall cavities were ‘not performing effectively’, and that builders needed ‘education’ on the dangers of ‘getting things wrong’. Officials in the building regulations division at the DCLG were provided with the studies, which said that barriers intended to stop fire spread were ‘often found to be missing or incomplete or incorrectly positioned’.

Another study warned that there had been deaths due to fire or smoke spread in concealed spaces, with ‘potential risks’ and ‘potential losses remain[ing] high’. With the Grenfell inquiry finding that cavities and vertical channels in the tower’s cladding system were ‘probable contributors to the rapid vertical fire spread’, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) published the reports on its website last week.

It stated that these were released to ‘inform a review of fire regulations of buildings’, with the studies said to have ‘reflected industry-wide concern’ in 2015 that construction methods were ‘posing new fire risks’. Details were also shared of 20 fires between 2003 and 2013 that involved ‘inadequate’, missing or ‘badly fitted’ cavity barriers.

BRE also urged the government to ‘consider’ new building regulations guidance and ‘new ways’ for inspectors to check works were safe, but ‘neither move was undertaken’. Both reports were treated as ‘commercial in confidence’ and as a result were not made public - they were supposed to form part of a plan to update building regulations, which officials conceded ‘took longer than planned’.

One report noted that ‘poor workmanship with inappropriate materials are the main reason for the inadequate protection of concealed spaces’, adding that ‘whilst these concerns have not been disputed by manufacturers there are no drivers to encourage more effective solutions to be developed’, and warning that ‘inadequacies cannot be seen by the building users and will not be apparent during everyday use’, and ‘will only become apparent during a fire’.

An MHCLG spokesman stated: ‘Our technical review will address the issues raised in the reports and our overall plan for stronger, tougher rules on building safety will create a more rigorous system that delivers meaningful and lasting change.’

Grenfell United, representing survivors and bereaved families, stated that the reports showed ‘people and organisations that were meant to keep us safe knew the dangers and didn’t care enough about our lives and the lives of our loved ones to act. The scale of complacency is numbing. It is deeply concerning that the government has held back information like this for over 18 months since the fire.

‘This is vital safety information that needed to be in the public domain but seemingly was ignored or suppressed for convenience. We fully expect to see BRE and government officials explaining why dangers were known but action wasn’t taken, despite years of warning.’

BRE said it had communicated the reports’ findings to the industry ‘before and after’ Grenfell, a spokesperson adding that ‘life safety is our key priority’. 24 Housing also pointed out that former housing ministers will have been ‘drawn deeper into’ the investigation into Grenfell due to the reports being released, with the House of Commons hearing that former ministers could ‘potentially be in the dock for corporate manslaughter’.

These include Gavin Barwell – now chief of staff to Prime Minister Theresa May – as well as Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis and former Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles. None have been called to give evidence to the Grenfell inquiry, having been accused of ‘not acting’ on the lessons learned from the Lakanal House fire in 2009. Mr Barwell in particular has faced calls to account for ‘sitting on’ the findings of that review.

Mr Lewis has been called to account for passing responsibility to the industry when told toughening regulation ‘would hit housebuilding rates’, while Sir Eric was asked to account for rejecting the retrofitting of sprinklers and for landlords to provide more information to firefighters. Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, said in parliament that a ‘string of housing ministers’ had failed to act on advice over Lakanal, and accused the government of being ‘culpable’ for Grenfell as a result.

He stated: ‘The government failed to clarify regulations and guidance after Lakanal. It is no individual minister, it is a whole string of them…that have failed to take appropriate action in line with guidance they were given. I’m afraid to say the government is collectively culpable of what has happened, and failure to act when told action was necessary if they were going to prevent a repeat of Lakanal House. Of course, it was repeated horrifically in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.’