The fire in Grenfell tower last week, was heart wrenching, and the death toll keeps on moving up. It takes a very cold person not to feel any level of sympathy over this.
A lot has been said regarding to additional cost for cladding that had a better fire protection level. that a mere 5K would have had the more fire retardant version. However we are speculating at this point, at whether it was the cladding itself, or the chimney effect from the gab left behind them.
While focusing on these is critical, it is also worth remembering the Lakanal fire in 2009. A number of reports came out from this, as well as advice from the coroners verdict. However these were systematically mocked, buried and/or ignored.
In 2013 Frances Kirkham, CBE, assistant deputy coroner wrote to the then Local Government Minister outlining a 43 point recommendation to avoid the tragedy happening again. The key points were
- The need for consolidated national guidance for those in high-rise blocks as there was evidently a clash of messages between the “stay put” principle and the “get out, stay out” campaign
- Reviewing the fire brigade’s generic risk assessment on high-rise fire fighting and the information to be collected during familiarization visits
- Consideration of how information about occupancy of high-rise premises could be provided so that it was accessible to fire and rescue services
- Revised or new guidance for the fire risk assessment of high-rise residential buildings
- Retrofitting of sprinklers, thought to have become cost-effective with new technological developments
- The need to improve Approved Document B, “a most difficult document to use”, to use words and a format, “which are intelligible to the wide range of people and bodies engaged in the construction, maintenance and refurbishment of buildings”
Eric Pickles sent this response to the coroner (here) which is a faily blasé and non committal response, stating that they will take on board recommendation, while also stating that the believe the current regulations are adequate, and that a simple letter to local authorities satisfies this. It uses language similar to current minister Sajid Javid did in his speech (here) stating ‘at measure necessary’.
However all the measures had been outlined, and dismissed by Eric Pickles. if anyone has blood on their hands it is Pickles.
Back to the issues with the cladding. If the 43 point plan had been followed through we may have saved lives regardless of the cladding issue. This is the fundamental point. Places like the UAE are using our building regulations, and the advice from Lakanal when building similar towers.
There have been some dramatic fires in iconic building such as the Torch and Sulafa tower in Dubai and the One tower in Ajman. In all 3 of these instances the fire spread externally, after initially starting internally. In each of these example, there was not a single casualty. This is why focusing on the cladding is a red herring. Proper design, and maintenance of fire doors and reflation is paramount, as was the use of sprinklers. This means that the main internal fires were contained relatively easily, and the external fire over the cladding, while dramatic was largely cosmetic.
This leads us onto another issue with the fire itself. It has been called ‘unpredicted’ and ‘completely unexpected’ that the fire could travel up the external side of the building, however here is 3 examples post Lakanal which shows very similar fires, not just that there have been other fires in towers in Indonesia and Uzbekistan where lives were lost. These didn’t have internal sprinklers, nor were they build to the same level of specification, so cannot be directly compared to, but still shows that fire can and will travel externally on the towers, with cladding.
The Government led public enquiry, is a way to draw out the process, deflect blame and when it finally goes quite, probably shelve the report, or provide a statement similar to Eric Pickles. All the while years would have passed and more people placed at risk.