‘Slow progress’ risks future major fires

‘Slow progress’ risks future major fires

SALFORD CITY mayor Paul Dennett said that the government is ‘risking another Grenfell-style blaze’ due to its ‘slow progress in improving fire safety’, with council leaders ‘increasingly frustrated’.

Financial Times reported on Mr Dennett’s views on the ‘slow progress’ towards improving UK fire safety, adding that council leaders nationwide were ‘increasingly frustrated with the failure to tackle regulations around building cladding’, with last year’s student accommodation fire in Bolton showing that despite Grenfell ‘there were still flaws in building safety regulations’.

He added that ‘two and a half years on from Grenfell […] very little has happened’, and that ‘the whole regulatory system is not fit for purpose […] there is real frustration’. The news outlet pointed out that Mr Dennett’s warning ‘added to a chorus of calls for more rapid action’, including from Grenfell inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who called for the government’s building safety programme to be ‘pursued as vigorously as possible’.

While the combustible aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding used on Grenfell has been banned on new high rises, the Bolton block was clad in high pressure laminate (HPL) material that ‘academic tests have found is at least as flammable’. Despite this, the government has only published its own test results ‘on only one type of HPL cladding’, with campaigners arguing that this is ‘not the type used on most buildings’.

In turn, the Bolton block was not ‘even covered by the toughest fire regulations because of its height’ being under 18m, with fire safety experts criticising this threshold that was set ‘because it is the maximum height that equipment such as wheeled escape ladders could reach – even though this type of equipment is no longer used’.

Mr Dennett argued that ‘fire safety should not be determined by the height of a building’, and called for a new public regulator to inspect all buildings, because currently developers can choose ‘between a range of private fire inspection providers’, before councils sign off new and refurbished buildings’. However, until the mid 1980s ‘only council-employed officers could perform this task’, Mr Dennett arguing that the existing system has led to ‘widespread problems’.

He added: ‘There is an issue with the material, there is an issue with how things have been installed and there is an issue with the regulatory system. It is not just about the cladding. It is how it interacts with the building. Is there a gap that acts as a wind tunnel drawing the fire up? Has the compartmentation been breached [by alterations]? Every building should have a manual that looks at what has happened to that building over time.’

With Dame Judith Hackitt advising the government on a new regulator with tougher enforcement powers, Salford City Council has suggested this body ‘include representatives’ from the Health and Safety Executive, local fire and rescue services and councils, but Financial Times warned that ‘in the meantime, thousands of private homeowners are unable to sell their homes because of uncertainty over the safety of their cladding’.

It also said that the government scheme to fund cladding replacement in privately owned buildings ‘has been slow to start work’, with Mr Dennett claiming that ‘there are at least 80’ unsafe buildings in Greater Manchester. Owners and residents have ‘resorted’ to measures including 24 hour fire wardens ‘until the cladding issue can be resolved’, while Salford City Council ‘has been unable to make even its own council homes safe’.

This is because the private finance initiative (PFI) consortium that runs the properties was ‘deemed ineligible’ both for government social housing cladding replacement funding or for privately owned high rise funding. The government also ‘barred’ the council from lending £25m to the PFI company to replace the cladding, with the operators having now raised funds but the council having spent over £3m on fire wardens.

Mr Dennett concluded by noting that ‘there are real human consequences’, while the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government responded: ‘Residents’ safety is the government’s priority and we have given advice to building owners on how to check the type of cladding on their building — if it is not safe, it must be removed.

‘We have given councils funding to identify the cladding used on their buildings and have tested a number of materials, including high pressure laminates — and we will take further action if necessary.’