After every major tower block fire in recent history, guidance has been issued. Following the fire in 14-storey Lakanal House in Camberwell in July 2009, in which six people died and more than 20 were injured, the expert coroner suggested a string of changes to the regulations covering residential towers that included installing sprinkler systems.
She criticised the continued use of flammable materials and the advice that, in the event of fire tower block residents should “stay put” in their flats until they could be rescued by firefighters. But almost nothing happened. If the coroner’s advice had been followed, if regulations had been changed, would the fire in Grenfell Tower have been so devastating?
The 24-storey North Kensington tower could have housed as many as 500 residents. It was built in 1974. The regulations that cover old and new buildings differ and there is no defined time period in the UK for updating them. Grenfell was both old and newly refurbished.
A report by the London Assembly housing and planning committee in 2010 stated that 527,000 Londoners live in tall buildings, many of which are included in refurbishment programmes. Ironically, it argued that major building refurbishment can often increase the risk of fires spreading in completed buildings.
In the Seventies there were a number of fires in towers similar to Grenfell Tower but they were generally contained within the flat where they started because the concrete structure contained the fire and the exteriors were not combustible.
The cosmetic improvement of many London towers in recent years has new and unforeseen dangers. There is still no requirement for the core of the panels that are used to reclad buildings be fire-resistant.
According to forensic architect Christopher Miers at Probyn Miers, who specialises in assessing the causes of fires, specific fire-safety regulations do not have to be followed to the letter “as long as you meet the overall requirement”.
The use of sprinklers is a source of debate. Authorities are concerned about sprinklers in public spaces, such as corridors, because they are a target for vandalism, but they could be effective in a flat which is the source of a fire. Today there are new technologies such as water mist suppression systems that can stop fires at their source, and which do much less damage to homes than a conventional sprinkler.
Maintenance is a real issue in local authority buildings, particularly in the face of cuts to budgets.
Experts and residents regularly complain of flats without fire doors that will protect from fire for between 30 and 60 minutes, long enough for the rescue services to arrive; they complain that fire doors are often left wedged open, that smoke seals have rotted around the doorways, or that piles of rubbish are left on fire escape stairs.
Looking at the way the Grenfell Tower fire spread through the interior of the building, the investigators will need to look long and hard at how well these key elements of protection were working, and consider how often such buildings are inspected.
Did they have signs in many languages with clear instructions of what to do in event of a fire?
When you look at the speed with which the fire spread, it is clear the current fire regulations are no longer fit for purpose.
There has been talk of a review for some years; it’s over a decade since the last update, in spite of the Lakanal findings.
This may be partly down to the fact that fire safety was not seen as a major issue because fatalities in England dropped by a third between 2002 and 2012. Buildings are safer, appliances more reliable, we have fewer open fires, and furniture foam is non-combustible. The idea of anything on the scale of Grenfell Tower was unthinkable.
The lack of action may also be due to the fact that we have had no fewer than 15 housing ministers in the last 20 years. As soon as they understand something about their job they get moved on.
The government inquiry into the tragedy of Grenfell Tower must not only ascertain the causes of the fire and propose remedies, it must also ensure mechanisms are in place to remind us that we can never take fire safety for granted.
Like Ronan Point, Fairfield House, Summerland and King’s Cross, Grenfell Tower will be etched in the annals of building regulation, as it is in the hearts of Londoners. It must herald a major change in the way we build, procure and manage buildings. We owe it to the victims of Grenfell.
We are a city of towers. We owe it to Londoners to offer regulations that protect them. A tragedy such as this should never happen again.
By Peter Murray, Chairman, NLA