Putting Tenants at the Heart of Fire Safety

Will Atkinson argues that lessons must be learnt quickly, and thoroughly, from the disaster at Grenfell Tower

There are no words to describe the horror that will have faced the residents of Grenfell Tower during the early hours of 14th June. At least eighty people lost their lives in the fire, which started in a fourth floor flat and quickly engulfed the entire twenty-four storey block. Lessons must be learned quickly from this disaster, but they must also be learned thoroughly.

The housing sector must not wait for the outcome of the inquiry into the cause of the Grenfell Tower fire to react to this disaster. However, it is vital that a holistic approach is taken by landlords. UK Government’s and, consequently, the media’s attention has been focused on the cladding used on high rise buildings. It is right that the safety of cladding materials is investigated but it is equally important to consider that the cladding is only the skin of a system of insulation. A skin that may be as thin as three millimetres in a system that can be over half a metre thick. The material used to provide the insulation behind the cladding and the manner in which the whole system is attached to the building are crucial to the fire safety of the system.

This is why CHC has backed calls for whole system testing of cladding and insulation, and has welcomed the announcement from DCLG that six representative whole system tests are to be undertaken on a range of cladding and insulation combinations. A number of similar safety tests have already been undertaken, and found to have passed, on particular cladding and insulation arrangements. These tests were carried out to British Standard by the same test facility that undertook the previous DCLG commissioned testing on cladding only. However, we should not wait for the outcomes of these further tests to take action. Housing associations in Wales are working closely with fire & rescue services to assess the fire risk of their high-rise buildings, particularly those that are clad, and putting additional fire safety measures in place.

Housing associations in Wales have throughout their history regularly gone above and beyond to protect and support the physical and emotional wellbeing of their tenants. In terms of tangible actions, this includes the use of fire safety measures that surpass those that are called for in current building regulations, such as retrofitted sprinkler systems and fire retardant mineral wool cladding. The safety of tenants is, and always has been, the top priority for Welsh housing associations.

There are thirty-eight high-rise blocks in Wales in the social rented sector. Of these, seven have failed the DCLG cladding-only testing. However, whole system testing on cladding and insulation arrangements similar to those on these blocks have passed safety tests. Regardless, the landlords who own these blocks, Swansea Council and Newport City Homes, are moving to retrofit sprinklers.

It is vital that Wales learns from the recommendations that will result from inquiries into the causes of the Grenfell Fire. Welsh Government has convened the Fire Safety Advisory Group to not only ensure that these recommendations are interpreted but also to ensure that Wales is currently in a position to both prevent tower block fires and react to them in the unlikely event that a fire of the extent seen at Grenfell Tower ever happens in Wales. CHC is represented on this group, as is TPAS Cymru, ensuring that the tenant voice is front and centre during this process. Additionally, CHC fully supports the inquiry into fire safety in tower blocks to be held by the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee on 13th July and will be providing evidence.

During 2015/16, nineteen people in Wales lost their lives in fires, including those in houses, road vehicles and workplaces. This is nineteen lives too many. However, at the turn of the millennium, this figure stood at thirty-four. It is therefore absolutely harrowing that one single fire at Grenfell Tower resulted in over four times the annual fire death toll in Wales. A fire of anywhere near this scale must never be allowed to happen again.

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Will Atkinson is Policy Officer, Community Housing Cymru

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