Dear Prime Minister’s Office,
Please find a time line below which highlights the key dates when action could have been taken to prevent the Grenfell Tower Disaster. I believe you were in government over the full period outlined, I believe that you should understand this background to help me with my request.
2009 and 2013
The last major tower block blaze in London, was in July 2009, when a fire raged through Lakanal House, a 14-storey block built in 1958 in Camberwell, south-east London. Six people were killed, among them two children and a baby, when a fire caused by a faulty television in a ninth-floor home gutted the building.
An inquest into the deaths found the fire spread unexpectedly fast, both laterally and vertically, trapping people in their homes, with the exterior cladding panels burning through in just four and a half minutes. As with Grenfell Tower, the official advice was for people to remain in their homes in the event of a blaze. The inquest concluded that years of botched renovations had removed fire-stopping material between flats and communal corridors, allowing a blaze to spread, and that the problem was not picked up in safety inspections carried out by Southwark council. The council was investigated over possible corporate manslaughter charges, but eventually fined £570,000 under fire safety laws.
There has been criticism that warnings were ignored from a coroner's report in March 2013 following a deadly 2009 fire in south London - at Lakanal House in Southwark.
Fire safety in UK buildings is governed by part B of the Building Regulations, a document that has not been subject to an in-depth review despite the fatal fire at Lakanal house Tower in 2009 and numerous warnings from around the world. A 2015 survey by the Fire Sector Federation, a forum for fire and rescue organisations, found that 92% of its members believed the regulations were “long overdue an overhaul”, claiming that they do not reflect today’s design and construction methods and that research underpinning the guidance is out of date. The coroner in the Lakanal House case also called for a review of part B, as the evidence pointed to a risk of further deaths in the future unless changes were made.
The All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group also repeatedly called for a reviewRonnie King, the honorary administrative secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety Rescue Group, has said “I wouldn’t say it’s [the government] done nothing but it’s certainly not reviewed the fire aspects of the building regulations, which is critical.”
A fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands on 25 November 2014 is strikingly similar to London’s Grenfell Tower fire.
The rapid spread of the Melbourne fire, which was sparked by a cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony and raced up 13 floors to the roof of the 21-storey building in 11 minutes, was blamed on flammable aluminium composite cladding that lined the exterior concrete walls. The findings were reported around the world and would have been available to any government at the time if they bothered to look.
The same type of cladding was installed on the Grenfell Tower in 2016, as part of a £10m renovation.
Again in 2014
The All-Party Group also reportedly called for a review of the fire safety elements of the building regulations.
The BBC reports that leaked letters from the All-Party Group to the government show that it repeatedly warned four different housing ministers that action needed to be taken on fire safety regulations.
One of the letters to the government says:
“Surely however when you already have credible evidence in 2012 to justify updating a small but important part of the guidance in the Approved Document, which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?
Obtained by the BBC’s Panorama programme, they reveal growing dismay after the Government promised a review of fire regulations in 2013 – but then failed to act.
In March 2014, the group called for “automatic sprinkler protection” in the UK’s 4,000 older tower blocks, arguing ministers had enough “credible evidence” to change guidance.
But then-government minister Stephen Williams, a Liberal Democrat, replied: “I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent.”
The group replied: “We're at a loss to understand, how you had concluded that credible and independent evidence which had life safety implications, was NOT considered to be urgent.”
And it added: “Should a major fire tragedy, with loss of life, occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose built block of flats, where the matters which had been raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others' attention.”
Three Conservative ministers then also received letters about fire regulations, according to the BBC, including former Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles, in February 2014.
In February 2015, an inferno engulfed the Torch building in Dubai after a fire was started in one of its apartments flammable cladding was blamed. Reported around the world but again not acted upon by the UK government at the time.
In December 2015, the all-party group wrote to James Wharton, warning about the risk of fires spreading on the outside of buildings with cladding.
“Today's buildings have a much higher content of readily-available combustible material. Examples are timber and polystyrene mixes in structure, cladding and insulation,” it wrote.
“This fire hazard results in many fires because adequate recommendations to developers simply do not exist. There is little or no requirement to mitigate external fire spread.”
Gavin Barwell, who was recently appointed Theresa May's chief of staff, received further calls for action in September last year.
In November 2016, Mr Barwell replied to say his department had been looking at the regulations, and would make a statement “in due course”.
In April 2017, Mr Barwell wrote to say he did “acknowledge that producing a statement on building regulations has taken longer than I had envisaged”.
Ronnie King, a former chief fire officer who acts as the group’s secretary, said the Government had ignored repeated warnings about tower block safety.
“We have spent four years saying 'Listen, we have got the evidence, we've provided you with the evidence, there is clear public opinion towards this, you ought to move on this',” he said.
THE FIRE AT GRENFELL TOWER HAPPENED
So in view of the above it would not be surprising if the government tried to deflect matters away from the above facts. I believe that this is currently being done by ordering a different type of test on the cladding than what was originally required when the cladding was placed on the buildings. Please confirm whether the tests currently being carried out are on small samples and not the whole panel. Almost all small samples of materials will burn if subjected to enough heat which would explain why every single block is now failing, is no one questioning this new testing? Please also confirm whether tests on the flammability of the whole panel was the measure previously used and accepted in fire tests (this would better represent and measure the spread of a fire across a panel). Please also confirm whether the government continued to allow desk top studies on the fire resistance of panels to be submitted and deemed acceptable information right up until the Grenfell Disaster.
CABINET OFFICE REFERENCE: FOI324852
Dear JAMES MCLEAN
Thank you for your request for information. Your request was received
on 29/6/2017 and we are considering if it is appropriate to deal with
under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
This email is just a short acknowledgement of your request.
If you have any queries about this email, please contact the FOI team.
Please remember to quote the reference number above in any future
Knowledge and Information Management Unit
E: [Number 10 request email]
1. mailto:[email address]