Councils urged to step up tower block inspections

Concerns that government and councils are unaware as to how many blocks nationwide could have fire risk cladding.

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Councils are being urged to step up the pace of tower block safety inspections amid concern over the extent of actions so far, with it increasingly apparent the government  is unaware of  how many high-rises have cladding.

Over the weekend it emerged that of councils with significant numbers of towers that were contacted, only three could confirm they had conducted any on-site inspections since Wednesday.

Authorities in Aberdeen, Sheffield and Haringey, north London have inspected their tower blocks to some degree, with more planned this week.

But in Bristol, officials said they were currently assessing what inspections needed to be carried out.

In Harlow, Essex, council officers are to hand-deliver letters to all tower block tenants, while in Barnet, London, cladding systems in blocks would be subject to “further urgent review”.

Councils in Coventry, Sandwell, and the London boroughs of Newham and Brent were unable to say if they had carried out any inspections or even how many tower blocks they had.

Government, local councils and housing associations have been under growing pressure from residents to confirm that their tower blocks are not at risk.

In Bristol, a resident has already applied for a court order to stop a £66m refurbishment programme which involves re-facing 45 blocks of flats.

In London, tenants of  the Chalcot estate in Swiss Cottage and Adair Tower in Kensington have outlined their concerns that cladding attached to their buildings might also help a fire spread.

“There are a lot of nervous people around,” said David Sibert, the Fire Brigades Union’s fire safety adviser. “I’m sure people have moved out of their flats to stay with friends because this has happened. We need to be able to reassure people that they are safe.”

He said standard fire safety inspections should be carried out, to ensure each flat could contain a fire. “Things like holes in walls, doors hanging off their hinges, PVC front doors that burn through very quickly – these are all important.”

“We can’t wait months for an inquiry. We’ve got to put measures in place as soon as possible. If we find a building clad in exactly the same stuff, we should lock the doors, find somewhere for the residents to live for a while, and rip off all the cladding,” he said.

Overall, the FBU said that the government’s approach of auditing council information was a sensible step.

“We need to create a database,” Sibert said. “We don’t know what happened, we do know that the unique factor was the cladding. But we don’t what it was about the cladding yet. So we need a database of blocks of flats around the country so that when we do find out what the problem was at Grenfell Tower, we know if other blocks are at risk.

“It may well be that we need to develop a new test, an ad hoc test that simulates fires in real environments.”

At present, substances are fire tested either through a surface flame test or a small-scale combustion test.

The National Housing Federation (NHF) has helped co-ordinate efforts between housing associations and Kensington & Chelsea council and is working closely with the DCLG and the housing minister.

David Orr, Chief Executive at the National Housing Federation, said London-based associations had been quick to offer emergency accommodation, supplies and voluntary help from experienced staff.

“Housing associations across the country have been working tirelessly over the past few days to reassure tenants. Many are reviewing their current safety arrangements to ensure they meet the highest possible standards.”

On Friday, the DCLG began what it called an emergency fire safety review – an audit of information held by councils and housing associations.

Councils and associations were asked to identify how many of their tower blocks had more than six storeys, give details of on any external cladding or refurbishments that had taken place in the past 15 years.

The results were due to be shared with ministers on Saturday afternoon.

Chancellor Philip Hammond said the cladding used to insulate Grenfell Tower, widely blamed for spreading the devastating blaze, is banned in Britain.

The Chancellor confirmed a criminal investigation would examine whether building regulations had been violated when the block underwent an extensive renovation that was concluded last year.

Mr Hammond insisted the Government had acted on safety recommendations after an earlier fire in London in 2009, but it would wait for the public inquiry’s findings before making any changes in regulation.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, the Chancellor said: “My understanding is the cladding in question, this flammable cladding which is banned in Europe and the US, is also banned here.”

“So there are two separate questions. One, are our regulations correct, do they permit the right kind of materials and ban the wrong kind of materials? The second question is, were they correctly complied with?

“That will be a subject that the inquiry will look at. It will also be a subject that the criminal investigation will be looking at.”

The Chancellor also said the Government wants to see technical advice on whether tower blocks should be retrofitted with sprinklers before taking any action.

Although a planning application for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower approved the use of Reynobond/Reynolux cladding, it did not appear to specify the use of the fire resistant version of the panels.

A firm involved in the renovation of the tower has denied that the cladding was banned and said building regulations allowed it for use in low-rise and high-rise developments.

But John Cowley, managing director of CEP Architectural Facades, which produced rainscreen panels and windows for Grenfell Tower’s cladding sub-contractor Harley Facades Ltd, said: “Reynobond PE is not banned in the UK.

“Current building regulations allow its use in both low-rise and high-rise structures,” he said.

A key question for investigators  is whether the overall design of the building’s complete exterior was properly tested and subsequently signed off by the relevant authorities including the fire officer, building compliance officer and architect before the refurbishment began.

Tower checks – sample responses

Bristol city council (59 blocks): “We are currently assessing what inspections, if any, we need to carry out. All our blocks have up-to-date fire risk assessments.” The assessments are checked annually, Bristol said.

Barnet Homes (24 blocks run for Barnet Council – 10 of which have cladding): “Will be undertaking a further urgent review of any cladding system installed on its housing blocks”. “A comprehensive set of fire risk assessments are in place, and we will be reviewing these in line with London Fire Brigade recommendations.”

Harlow has 14 tower blocks, but only one has cladding said to be made from “solid, ‘non-combustible’ materials”.

To provide “extra reassurance” council housing officers will be hand-delivering letters to all tower block residents this week.

Aberdeen city council, which has 11 cladded buildings and seven more being over-clad, said it had carried out inspections, including “checks on the installation and maintenance of all fire alarms”.

Homes for Haringey, which has 54 blocks of which 12 have cladding, said staff  had visited every high-rise block and inspected the communal areas and access routes to ensure they are clear.

Over the week, fire risk assessors are to visit every high-rise block to review the fire risk assessments and speak to residents.

Sheffield has 24 tower blocks, 21 of which have metal cladding.

Sheffield City Council said checks by South Yorkshire fire and rescue officers – which already assesses the blocks on a regular basis – would be underway all week – in addition to the daily checks by housing staff.”

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