The spectre of the next Grenfell

The fire at New Providence Wharf, a high rise in east London wrapped in Grenfell-style cladding, is a warning to ministers and landlords. 

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The New Providence Wharf development in Poplar, east London, is one of the UK’s remaining high rises yet to have its Grenfell-style cladding removed. On the morning of 7 May, fire engines and ambulances were called to a fire rising through the 19-storey block D of the development, which comprises 559 homes across five blocks.

They found parts of the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the building alight. It took over three hours for over 120 firefighters to put out the blaze, the BBC reported.

Two men were taken to hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, while 38 adults and four children were treated at the scene, according to Inside Housing.

Around 20 per cent of the affected part of the building’s facade had the same type of cladding identified as key to the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017: aluminium composite material polyethylene panels (ACM PE).

Ballymore, the building’s developer and owner, says the ACM cladding on the building “did not combust and played no part in causing or facilitating the fire”*. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

A spokesperson comments:

“Due to the fire brigade response and to the performance of the fire safety systems on the building, the fire damage was contained to one apartment and to two balconies of apartments above…

“We understand how difficult and distressing today has been for our residents and we are grateful for the patience they have demonstrated. Our response team on the ground will continue to support them in any way we can.”

Of course, making buildings fire safe is not just about cladding itself. As revealed by the Grenfell Inquiry, insulation materials, cavity barriers, and other aspects of the refurbishment were also factors in the blaze nearly four years ago. 

In February 2019, Ballymore was asking leaseholders to foot most of the bill for remedial work on the building, with loan repayments that would have added up to between £2,000 and £13,000 for each flat, as revealed at the time by Inside Housing, which has covered the cladding scandal in great detail.

Three months later, the government announced that it would make a £200m fund available for privately-owned high rises to remove unsafe cladding. This fund has proved difficult to access, however.

By the time of the fire this week, residents had been waiting nearly four years for their building to be made fire safe. Repair works were due to begin next Monday, three days after the day of the fire, according to the Guardian. “Enabling works” (the most preliminary part of a construction project) had only begun two weeks before the fire.

The latest government target was for dangerous cladding to be removed from all the blocks it had identified by June 2020. Yet over 1,000 residents of New Providence Wharf, along with so many others across the country, continue to live in buildings deemed dangerous.

The latest available figures show that in the year ending September 2020, 742 fires broke out in high rises in England. None of those were the next Grenfell, and neither, thankfully, was the fire at New Providence Wharf. But unless ministers and landlords wake up now, the next one, wherever and whenever it happens, could be.

[See also: The post-Grenfell cladding crisis affecting millions is about to hit the government too]

UPDATE 2/6/21: Contradicting Ballymore's statement, the London Fire Brigade’s preliminary report, published 1 June 2021, into the fire finds external ACM cladding on the 8th and 9th floors was “involved” in the fire, and includes a photo of fire damage to the cladding between the 8th and 9th floor windows. Yet it finds ACM cladding “did not significantly contribute to the external spread of the fire”.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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