Residents of Balaam House, the 60-flat tower block in Sutton, have good cause to be confused and worried this morning as, three weeks since the dreadful events at Grenfell Tower in Kensington, they still await some degree of certainty from their landlords and the council over the kind of cladding that has been used around their homes.
The type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower is widely suspected of having caused that fire to burn more quickly and fiercely, resulting in the deaths of possibly more than 100 people dead as a consequence.
Cladding applied to other towers around the country, including another Sutton tower, Chaucer House, have failed government fire safety tests ordered following the Grenfell tragedy.
But there’s confusion over the status of the cladding used at Balaam House. Sutton Housing Partnership, the body which manages social housing in the borough for the council, says that Balaam is clad with Kingspan Optimo Architectural Wall Panels.
Yet according to a press release from Sutton Council which quotes senior councillor Jayne McCoy, Balaam House is in fact clad in “galvanised steel” (not a substance usually noted for its insulation qualities).
Such contradictory information at a time of heightened concerns about fire safety has done nothing to help reassure the residents of Balaam’s 60 homes.
Yet meanwhile, Niall Bolger, the Sutton Council CEO, is continuing to enjoy his three-week holiday away from south London, with the LibDem council’s leader, Ruth Dombey, apparently unconcerned that the borough’s most senior official should be taking such a prolonged leave of absence at such a time.
In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which was much criticised for the way that borough handled its response to the Grenfell disaster, it was the council CEO who was first to resign, soon followed by his political masters.
In Sutton, seeking some clarity on the Balaam House cladding situation, independent councillor Nick Mattey has written to the absent Bolger and McCoy, pointing out the contradiction in the council’s public statement with information obtained from manufacturers Kingspan’s website.
Perhaps stung by the criticism of her inaccurate press release, McCoy got SHP’s Martin Thomas to reply on her behalf.
“You have suggested that it was untrue to suggest that the Balaam House cladding system utilises steel panels,” states Thomas’s email to Mattey, seen by Inside Croydon.
“I am writing to confirm the position, namely that the system installed does utilise steel, rather than ACM panels.” ACM is aluminium composite material, the sort which was used at Grenfell.
Thomas’s note continued: “While the original specification for the works proposed the use of Benchmark Evolution panels, the panels installed at Balaam are from the Kingspan Optimo range. Kingspan manufacture both of these panels and advise that the Benchmark range are ‘identical’ to the Optimo product.”
The reason for Mattey’s concern over the contradictory statements made by Sutton Council and SHP is that Balaam House residents could have been misled into thinking that McCoy’s “galvanised steel” may have been in some way more safe in a fire.
But the cladding used at Balaam is not just galvanised steel. It is in effect a metal sandwich with a rigid foam core. It is this material which is currently undergoing exhaustive tests at the Building Research Establishment.
Residents might reasonably want to know why such tests were not conducted to establish the cladding’s safety before it was fitted to their building.
The BBC has alleged that the company undertaking fire resistance tests on behalf of Kingspan used “desktop studies” on the materials, rather than the more traditional methods trying to set light to the panels.
New tests at the BRE will soon reveal if composite panels with steel outer skins offer the necessary protection and security from the risk of fire to Balaam House residents, few of whom, if any, have been able to enjoy a worry-free three-week holiday away from Sutton, as the council’s CEO is doing.
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