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Grenfell fire: Five years on, are London blocks safer and how many still have flammable cladding?

·6-min read
The Grenfell Memorial Wall in the grounds of Kensington Aldridge Academy (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)
The Grenfell Memorial Wall in the grounds of Kensington Aldridge Academy (Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

Five years ago this week, 72 people died in a catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in west London — one of the UK’s worst modern disasters.

In the wake of the 2017 tragedy, it emerged that the type of cladding which fuelled the fire’s spread had been used on other tower blocks across the UK.

Today an estimated half a million people across the UK are still living in unsafe flats. The collapse of thousands of home sales has also had significant impact on the housing market.

In addition to the safety of existing buildings, debate is still raging over whether the new post-Grenfell safety legislation goes far enough to ensure new buildings are not constructed with similar problems.

In a statement to mark the anniversary, London mayor Sadiq Khan said the response from the Government, building developers and owners has been “woefully inadequate”.

He added: “Major reforms to fix a broken system are long overdue and it is disgraceful that the Government has so far failed to complete a single recommendation directed at them from the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry – leaving too many Londoners at risk in high-rise buildings.”

Find out how many buildings are still caught up in the cladding crisis, and what new laws have been brought in to improve the UK’s fire safety.

Cladding crisis not yet over

In the aftermath of Grenfell, it quickly became clear that cladding was just the tip of the iceberg, as checks of buildings up and down the country revealing a litany of safety defects including defective insulation, flammable balconies and missing fire breaks.

Fierce rows ensued between the government, developers and leaseholders over who should pay for the buildings to be fixed. Remediation costs were initially passed onto leaseholders, but an array of different funds have now been set up to try and address the problem.

The government originally set a target of June 2020 for stripping Grenfell-style ACM from high-rise blocks (above 18 metres). But the latest statistics show remediation work has still yet to complete on 111 buildings, though 53 of these have had cladding removed. In London, work is yet to complete on 89 ACM-clad high-rises in areas like Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets, Westminster and Brent.

London high-rises with Grenfell-style ACM cladding

Total high-rises identified with ACM (government data April)

272

Fully remediated

159

Works started

89

Works yet to start

24

However these statistics only cover buildings above 18 metres with ACM cladding, and far more buildings are affected when the net is cast wider to include lower blocks and different unsafe materials. Across England, 3,374 applications have been made to the Building Safety Fund, set up in May 2020 to fund removal of non-ACM cladding, with 1864 of those in London. Statistics show work has so far completed on just 30 buildings nationally.

The Building Safety Fund only covers buildings above 18 metres, while those living in lower buildings between 11-18 metres have been promised access to a new £4 billion scheme paid for by the housebuilding industry. The London Fire Brigade has listed more than 1,000 residential buildings above 11 metres with serious fire safety failings almost five years after Grenfell.

Last month LFB Chief Andy Roe said: “It is extremely concerning that the number of buildings with serious fire safety failings has been at more than 1,000 for almost a year. We still need to see a culture change in the industry when it comes to fire safety in residential buildings.”

No ‘plan B’ for evacuation

In addition to unsafe cladding, another major area of concern is a lack of any changes to the controversial ‘stay put’ policy, whereby residents are supposed to stay put in their homes while firefighters tackle a blaze.

The government faced a huge backlash last month after it said it would not implement the Grenfell Inquiry’s 2019 recommendation to make building owners legally obliged to draw up a ‘plan B’ for evacuation in caase of a serious fire, as well as personal evacuation plans for disabled residents . This was despite previously promising to implement the Inquiry’s recommendations in full.

Grenfell United, a group of people affected by the 2017 tragedy, described the response as “a disgrace” for putting disabled people at risk.

As for rules covering new buildings, there has also been criticism that no requirement has been brought in for developers to add additional escape stairs in tall buildings. Despite calls from the National Fire Chiefs Council, the London Mayor and fire safety campaigners, skyscrapers are still being approved with just one escape stair.

Cladding being removed from a high-rise block (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Archive)
Cladding being removed from a high-rise block (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Archive)

New building safety laws

After fierce campaigning there have been some changes to building regulations in recent years; these include mandatory sprinklers in new buildings above 11 metres, new wayfinding and the 2018 ban on combustible cladding in buildings over 18 metres, which recently was widened to include new hotels, hostels and boarding houses.

The specific type of cladding used on Grenfell, a metal composite material panels with unmodified polyethylene core known as MCM PE, was also banned this month on all new buildings of any height in England, instead of just on buildings above 11 metres.

In May, the government brought in the new Building Safety Act, described by ministers as the “biggest improvements to building safety in a generation”. It includes a new regulator that will have to approve higher risk residential projects over 18 metres at various “gateway” points.

Under the changes, it will be illegal for freeholders to pass on the cost of historical building repair works or the removal of cladding to their leaseholders if they are or are linked to the building’s developer, or if they can afford to meet the costs in full.

Meanwhile, the new Social Housing Regulation Bill will mean ‘Ofsted-style’ inspections for social landlords and give inspectors powers to issue unlimited fines, enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice and make emergency repairs where there is a serious risk to tenants.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “The Grenfell Tower tragedy must never be allowed to happen again and our thoughts are with the bereaved families, survivors and residents.

“So far 45 of the UK’s biggest housebuilders have signed our developer pledge and will contribute £5 billion to fix their unsafe buildings. We expect them to work swiftly so people feel safe in their homes, and we will be carefully scrutinising their progress.

“The Building Safety Act brings forward the biggest improvements in building safety for a generation, giving more rights and protections for residents than ever before.”

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