Two years after Grenfell, dangerous cladding still covers hundreds of buildings

Despite repeated promises, the government has made glacial progress on fire safety testing. 

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Two years after Grenfell and this building is still covered in dangerous cladding.

This was the message projected onto a tower block in Salford by survivors’ group Grenfell United to mark the second anniversary of the deadly Grenfell Tower fire. To its credit, the group has spent an impressive amount of time and effort since the fire focusing on fire safety problems at other tower blocks around the country.

This is more than can be said for the government.

Although Theresa May dropped Grenfell’s name in her resignation speech, the facts on fire safety today do her legacy little good.

In the aftermath of the blaze, which killed 72 people after flames leapt from floor to floor across cladding made from highly flammable aluminium composite material (ACM), it emerged that 433 other high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings had the same kind of cladding.

According to the government’s most recent figures, 105 of those have now had that cladding removed, leaving 328 with dangerous ACM cladding still attached.

The government has provided some money to deal with this, of course. Initially, this came in the form of a £400m fund for social landlords to replace ACM cladding. But tower blocks in the social housing sector actually made up a minority of the problem, and without government backing, progress on removing ACM from privately owned tower blocks stalled.

Analysis by Inside Housing showed that although the government persuaded building owners to put plans in place, this rarely translated into action. It wasn’t until last month, after tremendous pressure from various campaign groups, that the government eventually agreed to pay £200m to replace ACM cladding on private blocks as well.

But the job is far from done.

Although building owners have sent cladding samples to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government since almost immediately after the fire, the government still has yet to test the flammability of any materials that aren’t ACM. One of the most common non-ACM materials is called “high-pressure laminate” (HPL) and is found on tower blocks all around the country. It is also highly combustible, with research in January by the Journal of Hazardous Materials finding that it burns 115 times hotter than non-combustible products. In a recent interview, the professor who carried out the study said he believed the next Grenfell-style disaster would happen in a block clad in HPL.

Research by the insulation manufacturer Rockwool, meanwhile, suggests that there are at least 1,678 high-rise or high-risk buildings with combustible non-ACM materials on their facades.

The government has repeatedly promised to carry out tests, but these have been delayed again and again, most recently – and most ridiculously – because the testing rig was damaged “during a calibration test”.

Earlier this week, a block in Barking provided worrying proof that the government has not got a grip on the cladding crisis, as flames tore through wooden balconies, destroying 20 flats. Thankfully, no one was injured, but as long as no action is taken on non-ACM materials, the government is rolling the dice on 1,678 buildings.

And that’s just the cladding.

On the night of the Grenfell Tower fire, the doors to people’s flats didn’t do their jobs either, providing only 15 of the 30 minutes resistance to flame they were supposed to. Last year, a major fire door manufacturer contacted over a hundred landlords to inform them that their doors were below standards and needed to be recalled.

Despite fears that these problems are widespread, the government has refused to provide any funding to building owners who need to replace their fire doors, meaning the work is unlikely to be done quickly. It won’t fund the installation of sprinklers in high rises either, despite London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton saying this is “something that must happen”.

For survivors, the search for justice has progressed slowly. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, initially told survivors: “I hope to be able to provide you with an initial report dealing with the cause of the fire and the means by which it spread to the whole building by Easter next year.”

He got nowhere close. By his self-imposed deadline, witnesses had not even begun giving evidence. Eventually, Sir Martin said his first report would be released in spring 2019. That has since been pushed back to October.

Presumably fed up with the glacial progress, the families of 69 victims and 177 survivors of the fire have headed across the Atlantic to launch legal action in the US against the manufacturers of the cladding and insulation used on the tower.

Back here in the UK, where dangerous cladding still covers hundreds of buildings and a myriad other fire safety issues haven’t been fixed, many tower block residents will be hoping we’re not still sitting here another year from now asking the same questions.

Luke Barratt is a reporter covering social housing at Inside Housing and a columnist for Vice. He tweets @lukewbarratt

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