16:17, June 22 297 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-22 16:17:03
Tower block cladding posing danger to thousands of residents

Thousands of tower block residents around the UK have been warned that their homes are clad with the same flammable aluminium panels believed to have fuelled the deadly blaze at Grenfell Tower in London.

A day of frantic testing by local authorities began to determine how many people were living in potentially dangerous high rises, after the prime minister, Theresa May, warned that some of the first tests had revealed combustible cladding on buildings.

Some councils said that cladding would be stripped from buildings and that round-the-clock fire patrols would start immediately in suspect blocks.

High-rise residents voiced fears that they could be living in similar death traps, as contractors abseiled from buildings to remove panels for government testing.

The prime minister said it was unacceptable for people to live in such properties and that landlords had “a legal obligation to provide safe buildings”. Hinting that people might have to be moved if their housing were not made safe, she added: “We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.”

Downing Street subsequently said it had already identified 11 tower blocks across eight local authority areas with similar aluminium composite cladding, the type blamed for the spread of the fire at the north Kensington tower, which has claimed at least 79 lives.

Inquiries by the Guardian suggested that at least 25 towers, including 13 in London, nine in Salford and three in Plymouth, had cladding of the aluminium composite type, and 12 of these were believed by local authorities to have a combustible polyethylene core. Cladding at the other 13 high rises was still being tested.

Luke Murphy, 33, a resident of a 22-storey block clad with the same panels, and sited in Tottenham, London, said it was “scary to think it could be the same”. Bob O’Toole, head of the residents association at the Chalcots estate in the London borough of Camden, where the cladding on five towers, up to 22 storeys, is to be torn down, said: “A lot of people are worried because they all thought it was safe.”

Birmingham city council announced it would fit sprinklers in all of its 213 council blocks at a cost of about £30m. The government said “cost consideration should not and cannot get in the way” of making buildings safe. Salford council said it was testing the cladding at nine tower blocks to check if the materials were combustible.

About 600 towers across the UK have been clad, and some of these are likely have flammable systems, the Department for Communities and Local Government has estimated. Councils have been asked to conduct safety checks, sending buildings materials to Whitehall to be tested.

In a statement to parliament on Thursday, May also warned that the death toll from the Grenfell Tower fire could rise further and that entire families were known to have been killed in the disaster last week. She said the government would fund tests on up to 100 towers a day.

Police were carrying out a criminal investigation into the blaze. Under pressure from the Labour MPs Hillary Benn and Yvette Cooper to say whether the cladding used was legal or not, May said the police and the fire service would make a statement in the next 48 hours.

The government has already said: “Cladding using a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core would be non-compliant with current building regulations. This material should not be used as a cladding on buildings over 18 metres [high].”

Camden council, in London, said it would strip the cladding from five tower blocks of 18 to 22 storeys, in Swiss Cottage (north London) within weeks. Tests this week had revealed that the buildings had been re-clad under a private finance initiative project in 2006, with the same Reynobond aluminium sandwich panels filled with flammable polyethylene that were used on Grenfell Tower.

The 700 tenants of Camden council will not be evacuated but the council is immediately launching 24-hour fire prevention patrols to ensure the buildings remain safe.

The company Rydon, and the subcontractor Harley Facades, the firms which refurbished Grenfell Tower had also been responsible for the Camden block works. Camden council has warned Rydon that there could be potential legal action.

“The panels that were fitted were not to the standard that we had commissioned,” said Georgia Gould, leader of Camden council who said people were now feeling scared. “We will be informing the contractor that we will be taking legal advice.”

HTA Architects, which designed the Camden refurbishment, said in a statement that Camden had “certified that the over-cladding was designed and constructed in accordance with the building regulations”.

One resident, Reece Okezie, 25, who lives on the 10th floor of one of the blocks, said: “My family have been very nervous. The lifts don’t work and they have been worried about their safety. The fire is a big wake-up call for everyone.”

Residents in three 16-storey blocks in Plymouth were also told their homes had cladding that was aluminium coated with a polyethylene core; it was rated category three on the fire rating scale with 0 the highest safety score and three the lowest. The towers will now be monitored round the clock by security teams.

Three blocks with such panels have been identified in Newham, in east London, three in Barnet, north-east London, and one in Havering, east London.

Barnet’s council leader, Richard Cornelius, said: “To ensure such a tragedy is not repeated in Barnet we have a responsibility to our community to make sure that safety systems are of the highest standard, including investigating whether sprinklers would be appropriate in our high-rise tower blocks.”

In common with several other councils Barnet told residents that while the cladding panels were similar to those used on Grenfell Tower, the insulation beneath was mineral wool which was not combustible. The insulation used on Grenfell Tower was Celotex, a chemical compound which experts have said has low flammability.

The London boroughs of Brent, Enfield and Wandsworth are also carrying out tests on a further nine buildings, although they believe the cladding is not flammable.

The Royal Institute of British Architects last night said it had repeatedly raised warnings about delays to the government’s review of fire regulations and the “highly complicated” regulatory framework for British standards.

In a statement it complained of “the introduction of a regime of fire risk self-assessment and the repeal of fire certificate legislation with oversight by the local fire authority”, and said that too often architects were no longer responsible for the specification of materials, such decisions being left to contractors and sub-contractors.

The RIBA also highlighted “the virtual disappearance of the role of the clerk of works or site architect and the loss of independent oversight of construction and workmanship on behalf of the client”.