Gavin Barwell, a week after losing one job, is already under pressure in his new post, as more difficult questions are being asked why he did not fulfil a promise he made, when housing minister, to act over a fire safety review.
By 11am today, the death toll in the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington had risen to 17, with further fatalities expected. There is gathering anger that at least some of these deaths might have been avoidable had better safety regulations been in place, based on lessons learned from a previous tower block fire in London.
The review of fire safety regulations had been called for following the tragic loss of life in Lakanal House in Southwark, where six people died. That was eight years ago, and last October, Barwell – then the MP for Croydon Central – announced to the House of Commons that he, as housing minister, would be looking into the coroner’s recommendation for such a review.
But nothing was done.
Barwell is not alone in his inertia on this matter, but just the latest in a succession of Tory housing ministers to have done nothing since the Lakanal House recommendations were made public in 2013. One of Barwell’s ministerial predecessors, Brandon Lewis, even claimed that there was no need for the fitting of sprinklers on older tower blocks – a decision which was doubtless welcomed by avaricious landlords keen to save on the expense, but one which may be found to have cost dozens of lives in Grenfell Tower.
There had been more warnings from fire safety experts, as recently as this March.
Inside Housing reported three months ago: “Tower blocks across the UK could be at risk of fire safety failures because of a government delay in reviewing building regulations, experts have warned.”
The online housing magazine continued, “Fire safety failings were uncovered following a devastating tower block fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009, which killed six people. These failings included a lack of fire risk assessments, and panels on the outside walls not providing the necessary fire resistance. The council recently pleaded guilty to four criminal charges relating to fire safety lapses and paid a £570,000 fine.”
“Housing minister Gavin Barwell said in the Commons last October that the government will review Part B of Building Regulations 2010, which relate to fire safety, ‘following the Lakanal House fire’.”
It is similar “panels on outside walls”, the aluminium-based cladding, which some are suggesting was a key factor in the quick spread of the fire at Grenfell Tower. Residential tower blocks in New Addington, South Norwood and Waddon have also had a form of cladding fitted to them in recent times, though it is not known what materials have been used. Croydon Council, in an email circulated to councillors, said today that it is conducting an “urgent review” of its properties.
There are still 4,000 tower blocks in this country that are under the same old building regulations as those in Lakanal House.
Fire safety experts, concerned at the government’s lack of action over the fire safety review, have suggested that some materials being used in buildings are “not fire-resistant and in some cases they’re flammable”.
At the inquest into the Lakanal House fire, the coroner said the government’s fire safety regulations were virtually impossible to understand. And she was a judge specialising in building disputes.
The coroner found panels on the exterior of Lakanal House had not provided the required fire resistance and insufficient fire risk assessments had been made. Government ministers then said that they would review the regulations.
Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who was a firefighter for more than 20 years, said: “Four years later, we’re still trying to get the government to undertake that review.”
He said the delay had been worsened by responsibility for building regulations being split between three ministers. “You’d have to ask them why they’ve sat on it for four years.”
Architects for Social Housing is a group which has campaigned around the maintenance and management of council estates in Southwark and Lambeth, and which is becoming increasingly concerned about some of Croydon’s approach to public housing.
ASH’s Simon Elmer said today, “Architects for Social Housing is doubtful that properties for low-income residents will be built to adequate regulatory standards. Government cuts to council budgets have left some local authorities in straitened financial circumstances and unable to spend much on social housing.
“In an emailed statement to Newsweek, ASH wrote that across London ‘housing policy is to treat council estates as assets to be managed for profit, not as housing to be used as homes.’
“’The Grenfell fire is not a tragedy but a man-made disaster that could and should have been avoided… It remains to be seen whether those whose arrogance and greed caused it will be held to account’.”
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