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16 November 2019

The Bolton Cube fire is no surprise at all

The government needs to reliably ensure that British buildings are firesafe before pontificating about their beauty.

By Stephen Bush

Residents at the Bolton Cube – a purpose-built student block – have been evacuated following a tower fire, in which flames once again spread through the building, spread by the cladding outside.

The fact of a fire is not surprising: there are around 30,000 house fires requiring the attention of the fire service every year in the United Kingdom, with more than two-thirds of them following a kitchen fire or a malfunctioning appliance, the latter of which was the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire. Around 10,000 of those take place in tower blocks, but they pass by without incident because compartmentation – designed to contain fire within a single apartment – usually works perfectly.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, the majority of local authorities acted fairly quickly to remove cladding from blocks they own and/or run. (Remember that most tower blocks in the United Kingdom, like Grenfell, have a mixture of owner-occupiers, social tenants and people in the private rented sector, regardless of whether they are run by a local authority or by a private organisation.) The majority of blocks run by local authorities and housing associations now have either completed or are in the process of completing the removal of their cladding.

But the private sector is another story. Most private sector tower blocks fall into two categories: purpose-built student blocks like the Bolton Cube, which are particularly ill-served because their tenants are transient and therefore poorly-placed to lobby their local MPs to tackle the problem, and blocks built for owner-occupiers and the private rented sector. In the latter, where there has been progress, it has been paid for by excessive, in some case ruinous, service charges levied on the building’s residents, and in the majority of cases, homeowners have been trapped in flats that have lost their value, are deep in negative equity and may well be a fire trap.

The Conservative politician Bob Neil, whose Bromley and Chislehurst has a number of blocks in private hands where residents are still living with potentially unsafe cladding, has been consistently and vocally advocating on behalf of his constituents. But the government has been sluggish in heeding his concerns. It should by now be obvious that unless the owners of blocks are compelled by government action or subsidised by government funds – probably a combination of both will be required – they are not going to equal, let alone surpass, the efforts of local authorities.

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It’s not like the Conservative government is beneath interfering in the work of private developers and building companies: they have an entire commission devoted to the questions about whether or not these buildings meet Whitehall’s definition of “beauty”. A commitment to not only greater quantity but also greater quality of accommodation and the streets below them, should be a part of the government’s housing strategy. But bluntly the question of “beauty” should be the preserve of architects and the people who wish to enlist their services, be they housebuilders or homeowners. The government should spend less – read “none” – of its time pontificating about whether or not my block of flats is beautiful enough until they can reliably guarantee it is fire-safe.

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