Grenfell and other British fire disasters


This 31 October 2018 video says about itself:

The Fires that Foretold Grenfell – Documentary

This 60-minute documentary is the dramatic, haunting story of five fires that foretold the Grenfell disaster, told through the eyes of those directly involved. This vivid and moving film for BBC Two collates the memories of survivors, the bereaved, fire-fighters, safety experts and the politicians linked to five intensely fierce fire disasters that preceded Grenfell.

This telling collection of interviews and archive footage shows the clear warnings that existed and could have predicted a Grenfell-type inferno happening in Britain.

The programme focuses on three factors: the application of flammable material and cladding to buildings, the ‘stay put’ advice given by fire services, the absence of sprinklers – and how they contributed to each of the previous five blazes, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Made over the course of 12 months, the film tells the story of the legislative history of building regulations from 1973 to the present day through five fires. It explores the causes, subsequent investigations and the recommendations that were sent to successive UK governments, ultimately posing the question: if lessons had been learned as a result of tragic repetition of errors over the decades, could Grenfell have been avoided?

The five fires revisited include the Summerland disaster, Douglas, Isle of Man (1973), Knowsley Heights fire, Liverpool (1991), Garnock Court fire, Irvine, N Ayrshire (1999), Harrow Court fire, Stevenage, Herts (2005), and Lakanal House, London (2009).

By Margo Miller in Britain:

The Fires that Foretold Grenfell—Documentary reveals how UK governments ignored lessons of previous fire tragedies

9 November 2018

Documentary directed by filmmaker Jamie Roberts and first shown on BBC Two, now available on BBC iPlayer.

The Fires that Foretold Grenfell, a well-researched, powerful documentary, is essential viewing for anyone seeking to understand the causes of and background to the June 2017 Grenfell fire tragedy. It includes harrowing interviews with survivors of five fires across the UK over a span of 45 years, their families and firefighters.

It demonstrates that the inferno which claimed 72 lives was not an accident, but a social crime. It was the result of the pro-big business policies of successive governments which ignored the lessons of five tragic fires, resulting in many avoidable deaths.

The voiceover explains that “previous disasters show that Grenfell was inevitable” given years of criminal neglect—including the tearing up building safety regulations and the authorities ignoring toothless inquiries—in pursuit of creating a business-friendly environment at the expense of people’s lives.

After each of the documented fires, instead of learning the lessons—don’t wrap buildings in flammable materials, install sprinklers in all high-rise buildings, scrap the stay-put policy in the event of a fire—Labour and Conservative governments callously shelved the recommendations.

Following the Summerland fire in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, which took place on the night of August 2, 1973, eyewitness Tina Brennan tells the camera “nothing like it should have ever happened again in the UK.” Fifty lives were lost in the fire, including 11 children, and 80 people were seriously injured in the blaze that, in intensity and ferocity, was likened to the Blitz.

The Summerland Holiday Park opened in May 1971, promising to be the Isle of Man’s answer to Benidorm. The park was able to cater for 10,000 tourists, with facilities spread over five floors, including a dance area, restaurants, public bars and spaces for holiday games. Despite the size of the building there was only one small entrance. The front of the building and roof were made of a transparent acrylic sheeting, Oroglass, designed to permit a sun tan even if was raining outside.

The fire began when three boys smoking cigarettes accidentally set fire to a disused crazy golf kiosk. The kiosk collapsed against the building’s exterior—made from Galbestos that had limited fire resistance properties. The fire travelled unseen up the wall’s interior, igniting the flammable Oroglass on the roof. A catalogue of mistakes compounded the disaster. Some 3,000 people inside the building were told not to panic and stay put. The fire service was not alerted for 20 minutes, and the first call came from a taxi driver who saw the fire from outside the building. When the fire suddenly ignited in a huge explosion, and molten acrylic sheeting fell on the holiday makers below, pandemonium broke out. Fire doors were locked so people were trampled trying to escape through the front entrance.

Dancer Sally Naden, who worked at Summerland, says she saw a “waterfall of flames… I saw somebody throwing their child over the balcony, hoping somebody would catch it.”

A public inquiry into the fire ran from September 1973 to February 1974. Though there was criticism of the delay in evacuation and use of flammable materials, no one was held to account and the inquiry found the deaths were due to misadventure.

The inquiry, however, found the following:

1. The rapid-fire spread and high fatalities were due to the building being wrapped in highly flammable Oroglass.

2. The advice to stay put hindered the evacuation.

3. Corners were cut when the building was erected, such as omitting sprinklers, which had they been in place, would have meant a much smaller fire.

Firefighter Godfrey Cain, who was at the scene, said, “My view is, in a fire, get out.” In relation to Grenfell, he says, “[T]he mechanism of the fire was very similar to the Summerland fire 40-odd years ago.”

The final report recommended sprinklers in all large buildings and improved safety regulations. In 1975 the House of Commons passed the Summerland amendment stipulating that the external walls of all large buildings must be fire resistant. Had this been acted upon there would have been no Grenfell fire.

The programme deals with four major fires in tower blocks following the Summerland disaster and a pattern emerges. Recommendations on safety are ignored by builders and local and central government, or ditched. After each fire, an inquiry is held to appease public anger, but no one is charged, even though—as is shown in the programme—culpability is evident.

In the 1980s, Knowsley Heights in Huyton, Merseyside was the first tower block to be wrapped in combustible cladding. It was also the first block to go up in flames, in 1991. Fortunately, no one died. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had gutted building regulations, reducing 300 pages to 16. It introduced guidance, known as Approved Document B, that determined what materials could be used in construction, but which did not require cladding to be inflammable.

Firefighter Les Skarrats, who fought the Knowsley Heights blaze, declares, “I despair of a country that wraps residential tower blocks in flammable materials.” That fire also revealed that the cladding used acted as a rainscreen, so water sprayed from the fire brigade’s hoses, “was just hitting the external cladding and bouncing away”

In 1999, a similar fate awaited Garnock Court in Irvine, North Ayrshire. One year before, Garnock Court had been given a facelift—and wrapped with deadly cladding. This time there was one fatality. A firefighter who attended the incident, Ian Murray, tells viewers, “That cladding should have never been on Grenfell Tower, on any building, especially on high rises.” The local Herald screamed out its headlines, “The cladding was to blame.”

A parliamentary select committee inquiry into the blaze made ten recommendations, including a ban on the use of combustible cladding on high rise buildings. John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister in Tony Blair’s 1997-2007 Labour government, received the final report, but it was “kicked into the long grass.” The official verdict from Blair’s government was that Thatcher’s Approved Document B was sufficiently robust.

In 2005, another fire at Harrow Court in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, led to three fatalities, including two firefighters and a woman they were attempting to rescue. There would have been more casualties had the residents not ignored the stay-put policy. The Fire Brigades Union called for a review of this policy, which depended on individual flats being hermetically sealed and protected from the spread of fire for up to an hour while residents awaited rescue. The refurbishment carried out during the cladding compromised compartmentalisation, permitting rapid fire spread, rendering the stay-put policy void.

The Blair Labour government rejected recommendations from the investigation following the fire to install sprinklers and end the stay-put policy.

In 2009, Lakanal House in Camberwell, London, was the scene of the next fire in a tower block encased in combustible cladding. Six people were killed, including dressmaker Catherine Hickman, aged 31. The programme uses actors to re-enact Catherine’s final desperate 40 minutes as a 999 operator reassures her rescue is on the way. She died metres away from firefighters who were beaten back by the flames.

The coroner ruled Lakanal House abided by the building regulations in Approved Document B. The inquest did, however, recommend the retro-fitting of sprinklers in high rise blocks. The report went to Community Secretary Eric Pickles in David Cameron’s Conservative government, who wrote to local authorities merely requesting, but not making compulsory, the retro-fitting of sprinklers. Cash-strapped local authorities ignored the request.

Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, Harriet Harman, was a key figure in Blair’s government. She was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and its chairman from June 2007 to September 2015—during the Lakanal fire and its aftermath—under leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.

We watch Harman condemn the stay-put policy, declaring, “None of us did enough.” This is duplicitous. Governments, including ones in which Harman was a central figure, took decisions that led to the avoidable deaths at Lakanal and later at Grenfell. Three years before the Lakanal fire, the Blair government updated Approved Document B. The guidance on cladding was changed, so that cladding tested for flammability would be subject to data testing only, which merely simulates the effects of fire on materials.

The Fires that Foretold Grenfell underscores the Socialist Equality Party’s indictment of the powers-that-be for social murder. The fires were the product of the unrestrained operation of the capitalist market, promoted by all the political parties in Westminster.

The Grenfell Fire Forum invites readers to its next meeting to discuss these vital issues on Saturday November 10, at 4 p.m. at the Maxilla Social Club, 2 Maxilla Walk, London W10 6SW (nearest tube Latimer Road).

For further details visit the Grenfell Fire Forum Facebook page.

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Unsafe tower blocks in Britain


This 24 June 2017 video from Britain says about itself:

UK: More tower blocks fail safety tests after Grenfell fire

Britain’s housing safety scandal intensified on Saturday as officials confirmed that 27 tower blocks in 15 council areas of England had failed fire safety tests. The news follows chaotic scenes on Friday night as thousands of North London residents were forced to leave their high-rise homes amid safety concerns following the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy. Work to secure their flats on the Chalcots estate could take up to four weeks and urgent accommodation was being sought by Camden Council.

By Barry Mason in Britain:

100,000 people living in unsafe UK tower blocks

2 November 2018

At least 575 tower blocks across Britain, 41,000 individual flats, have structural faults endangering the safety and lives of around 100,000 people.

These blocks were built during the 1960s and 1970s using the Large Panel System (LPS) method involving prefabricated concrete panels held together by bolted joints. Flats built using LPS have been found to have widening cracks in walls.

LPS was authorised by central government as it provided a quick and cheap method of delivering social housing. It provided lucrative profits for building firms.

The LPS system’s faults have long been known, but the June 2017 Grenfell fire disaster has heightened public concerns. Tower Blocks UK, which coordinates information about tower block safety, not only warns that the structural design of LPS blocks “is weak, they could collapse in an explosion, high wind or serious fire”, but also that gaps between floor and wall panels “prevent the flats from containing a fire for one hour and lead to the risk of serious fire spread. The highest risk blocks are those with gas in them.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the collapse of Ronan Point in East London, built using the LPS technique. A gas explosion in a corner flat on the 18th floor of the 22-storey block blew out load-bearing walls and led to a progressive collapse of the south-east corner of the building. Four residents died and 17 were injured. The collapse took place in May 1968, only two months after the tower was officially opened.

Inside Housing published an article in May, “The tower blocks that time forgot.”

It asked, “Fifty years ago councils were told to assess high-rise buildings that were similar to Ronan Point and strengthen them where necessary. So why are problems with some of the blocks still emerging?”

Following the Ronan Point disaster, landlords of large panel blocks were told by the government to assess their buildings and strengthen them if necessary. “These blocks are still standing across the country, but it is by no means certain, 50 years on, that they have been modified in line with the government’s requirement.”

The Building Research Establishment (BRE)—the privatised former government national building research laboratory—published its LPS guide in 2012, stating that block owners have an ongoing responsibility to regularly inspect and assess LPS buildings. When Inside Housing sent a Freedom of Information request to councils asking when they had last carried out such a survey, many had not done so.

The Tower Blocks UK information sheet on LPS notes: “Originally it was expected that these blocks would have a life of 40 years, we are beyond that now…the bowing of the panels is likely to become greater with age. … All large panel system tower blocks should be inspected as a matter of urgency. This needs to be led by experts who are familiar with these structures, it needs to be led by the government and the Building Research Establishment.”

An article in the October 22 Independent cites building surveyor expert Arnold Tarling, who has examined LPS blocks across London. He described the LPS system as “a house of cards…stacked up and held together by a bit of simple bracing work. It’s not just the risk of gas explosion like Ronan Point. A serious enough fire in an LPS building could result in collapse. The floor slabs would expand and push out the external wall panels and things would break up quite quickly.”

Tarling insisted, “The government needs to…start facing up to the problem. You can’t leave residents in potential danger.”

The Ministry of Housing and the Local Government Association have established a forum to discuss the issue, but an LGA spokesman told the Independent, “The issues…with LPS buildings are complex and technical ones. They require expert advice on what to do and the LGA is not placed to do that. We have…been pushing for the government to provide that advice.”

The Independent notes structural defects have been found at LPS high-rise blocks in Rugby, Leicester, and Portsmouth and in two London boroughs—the Ledbury estate in Southwark and on Haringey’s Broadwater Farm estate. Southwark Council has four LPS blocks on the Ledbury estate in south London deemed at risk of collapse. One resident, Danielle Gregory, had cracks in the walls of her 12th-floor flat big enough to put her hand through.

The blocks are being emptied and the council has yet to decide whether to demolish them. But in a consultation exercise, most residents expressed the wish that the blocks should be strengthened and refurbished. This reflects a growing awareness that London’s working-class estates are being socially cleansed and replaced with private, unaffordable luxury developments with a minimal number of supposedly “affordable units” that are much more expensive than existing housing stock. Gregory, who has been rehoused nearby, told the Independent, “My worst fear is all these [LPS] estates will eventually be demolished and replaced with mainly private apartments.”

Two blocks at the Broadwater Farm estate in north-east London—6-storey Tangmere House and 18-storey Northolt—have failed structural safety checks. The risk at Tangmere House is compounded by the fact it has a gas supply. The council wants to demolish them, but Jacob Secker, the secretary of the residents’ association, wants residents to be given the option of deciding if the blocks should be strengthened and refurbished. He told the Independent, “If there was a scenario where you had all these wonderful new council homes … I would be less opposed to demolition… local authorities never seem to have the funding to rebuild their estates with new council housing.”

In Portsmouth, the council is to move out 800 residents from its 18-storey Leamington House and Horatia House following structural surveys. An Architects Journal article of June 7 noted that the construction system used in Portsmouth is the “same used at two high-rises in Rugby where residents were moved out in April following safety fears.” Leicester City Council took the decision to demolish its 23-storey Goscote House, which contains 134 apartments, over fears about its structural integrity. It will cost around £3 million to demolish compared to around £6 million to refurbish it.

The Grenfell Fire Forum, initiated by the Socialist Equality Party, demands immediate government intervention to make all the LPS-constructed tower blocks safe, along with hundreds of other public and private sector building that threaten residents’ lives due to being covered in combustible material similar to hat caused the Grenfell Fire inferno. Quality public housing is a social right. We demand an emergency multibillion-pound programme of public works to build schools, hospitals, public housing and all the infrastructure required in the 21st century.

The Grenfell Fire Forum is holding its next meeting on November 10 at the Maxilla Social Club in North Kensington, London. All are welcome to attend.

Grenfell Fire Forum meeting

Saturday, November 10, 4 p.m.
Maxilla Social Club, 2 Maxilla Walk
London, W10 6SW (nearest tube: Latimer Road)
For more information, visit: facebook.com/Grenfellforum

The author also recommends:

Emergency evacuation of four south London tower blocks
[12 August 2018]

London: Ledbury estate residents speak about evacuation from their homes
[12 August 2018]

More Grenfell disasters in Britain?


This video from England says about itself:

50 years on from Ronan Point tower’s partially collapse – BBC London News

18 May 2018

50 years ago a gas explosion caused the partial collapse of a tower block in east London which killed 4 people and injured others. Half a century on, some question whether similar blocks might still be unsafe. Gareth Furby has the story.

From daily News Line in Britain:

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Hundreds of towers at risk of collapse

HUNDREDS of tower blocks across the UK are be at risk of collapse, threatening multiple disasters on the scale of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower where 72 men, women and children lost their lives.

575 tower blocks, home to at least 100,000 people, were built using ‘large panel system’ construction. This method of construction was used on Ronan Point, which partly collapsed in 1968 after a gas explosion. Each floor collapsed on to the next like a pack of cards.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, a number of large panel blocks without the necessary strengthening work have been discovered, including in Tottenham, Southwark and Rugby. The flawed construction method has left cracks in some flats wide enough to allow residents to slide their hands in between the walls.

Last August, tests commissioned by Southwark Council showed four blocks at the Ledbury Estate in south London at risk of collapse. Residents there had complained and filmed the cracks between the walls of their flats.

Danielle Gregory, 32, was one of those able to place her entire hand through the widening cracks in the walls of her 12th floor home. ‘It was frightening to realise other people had these same gaps between walls’, said Gregory. ‘After Grenfell I realised these flats weren’t secure any more and couldn’t stop a fire from spreading.’

Frances Clarke of Tower Blocks UK said: ‘We have the face up to this because residents can’t be left at risk living in potentially unsafe buildings.’ Labour MP John Healey, the shadow housing minister, said: ‘After Grenfell, the safety of these high-rise blocks is a national crisis so it must be the job of national government to get the work needed done.’

Remove ‘Grenfell’ flammable cladding in Britain now


GRAHAM LANGTON (left) with tenants from Salford’s Malus Court

From daily News Line in Britain:

Friday, 19 October 2018

REMOVE FLAMMABLE CLADDING IMMEDIATELY – demand Fuel Poverty Action campaigners

At a demonstration outside the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government on Wednesday, Fuel Poverty Action handed in a letter to the Secretary of State, the wording of which was signed by over 100 different organisations, MPs and councillors.

Earlier this month the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) joined Fuel Poverty Action’s Safe Cladding and Insulation Now campaign! Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary, signed the open letter outlining that people are still not safe in their homes one year after Grenfell, joining the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union BFAWU, the National Education Union NEU and the Public and Commercial Services Union PCS unions, along numerous Unite and Unison branches from round the country.

At Wednesday’s demonstration of over 50 before the handing in of the letter to the ministry, Graham Langton from Malus Court Tenants and Residents Association in Salford, told News Line: ‘There are a large number of tower blocks in Salford and we are demanding that the cladding is removed. ‘They’ve started to remove some, but only on a number of floors and it’s now a matter of extreme urgency.’

Addressing the demonstration, Beverley Logue, from the Green Quarter in Salford, said: ‘We are here today because of 72 lives that were needlessly lost in the tragedy at Grenfell. ‘In Salford’s Green Quarter over 300 properties will need to be re-clad.

‘The builders, Lendlease, a company with a three-quarter billion profit, has put out to tender the re-cladding and leaseholders are facing a bill of between ten and thirty thousand pounds each. ‘Lendlease has been placed on a shortlist of two for the £330 million contract to refurbish Manchester Town hall, a reward for their terrible behaviour, but they’ve turned their back on us.’

To Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2 Marsham Street, London SW1P 4DF.

‘Dear Secretary of State,

We were very glad to hear of the government’s intention to fully fund replacement of flammable cladding on social housing tower blocks. The announcement (16 May) brought hope to many homes. However, the commitments made so far are not nearly enough. The government’s history on this issue is disgraceful.

Eleven months after the Grenfell fire, when this announcement was made, only 7 out of over 300 tower blocks had been re-clad. On a third of the 158 social housing blocks deemed to be in danger, work had not even started. People who were initially told they could move out of dangerous buildings have been denied the opportunity to do so. On private blocks, leaseholders have been told to fund the works themselves – which they cannot afford – or continue to live in a fire-trap.

Leaseholders in these blocks often have trouble meeting even their normal heating bills, and many go cold each winter. Nothing had been done, or offered, for people in danger in flammable office blocks, hotels, or other workplaces, or in schools or hospitals. Then, after months of refusing urgent requests from local authorities, the government promised to fully fund re-cladding costs for social housing, estimated at £400 million, to be taken from housing budgets.

Yet BBC research in December 2017 found that the cost of planned post-Grenfell fire safety measures for councils and housing associations alone had already reached at least £600m, a figure said to be likely to be a considerable underestimate. Safety from fire requires both non-combustible exteriors and safe windows, doors, compartmentalisation, and sprinklers. Shelter cites one social landlord that originally estimated £2 million to replace cladding but found it cost £18 million in the end.

Meanwhile MHCLG handed back £817 million to the Treasury in unspent cash, money also originally earmarked for housing. The government must now fulfill its promise of June 2017: ‘We cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.’ Costs must be met in full, and without delay. Moreover, the health and safety of residents must not be sacrificed during the process that the government now promises to fund.

Cold, like fire, kills. Even in a normal year, thousands die each year when they cannot heat their homes. Residents in many blocks already going through re-cladding know that when cladding is off in the winter, uninsulated flats are places of constant cold, condensation, damp and mould, and astronomical bills.

Works can go on for months, with families constantly ill. Some are scheduled for nearly two years. It is difficult for residents to legally enforce their human rights to decent housing. Nevertheless, landlords have a duty of care to the residents of their properties. The government must ensure that this duty is fulfilled, and for social housing must provide the necessary funds.

On 16 May the Prime Minister accepted that paying for re-cladding works ‘must not undermine’ housing providers’ ‘ability to do important maintenance and repair work’. Similarly, paying for residents to keep safe and warm until the works are completed must not undermine local budgets – either housing budgets, or already devastated budgets for health and social care.

In the light of the appalling history of residents not being listened to, of promises being broken, and work necessary for health and/or safety being delayed, done badly, or not done at all, we believe it is essential to establish some principles for how the new funding will be implemented in practice.

1. For social housing, the government must ‘fully fund’ replacement of all flammable cladding and insulation, and other necessary fire safety measures, regardless of the £400 million estimated total. No housing provider must be turned away. Both cladding and insulation components must be non-combustible.

2. For private housing, central government must cover the initial costs, and then seek to recover costs from landlords, developers and contractors. Student residences must also be covered.

3. All residents should be guaranteed that they will not pay more for using extra energy over the winter. Payments for extra costs should be paid direct to residents, and should be made in time to cover the bills or prepayment meter costs when needed.

4. Where cladding/insulation has been removed landlords are still responsible for protecting residents from cold, damp and mould, and other hazards.

5. Residents forced to live temporarily in blocks which still have flammable cladding should be protected, without cost to themselves, by fire wardens, alarms, and sprinklers. Where it is unsafe for people to remain in their homes, alternative local housing should be offered.

6. Until cladding and insulation are completely restored, residents should be offered a package of special measures. These measures should include, as required: approved damp and mould treatment; dehumidifiers; safe space heaters; draught-proofing; immediate repairs to faulty or inadequate boilers, heating controls, windows, and vents; enhanced out-of-hours services; hot meals for those who need them; warm and comfortable places to go in the daytime; and facilities to exercise (e.g. free gym/pool use). Again, where homes cannot be made fit for habitation, alternative local housing should be offered.

7. Consultation must ensure that residents are fully informed about options and cladding is replaced in accordance with their wishes. Residents must be kept informed about progress and timetables. Residents Associations must be supported and must have the opportunity to interrogate any delays or shortfalls and receive answers.

8. All new developments, and refurbishments, must be effectively monitored and inspected by authorities that are independent, and legally accountable. New and refurbished homes should be safe and well-insulated in practice, not just in theory.

9. Immediate safe, good, permanent housing must be offered in the area of their choice for Grenfell survivors; no deportations of affected individuals; criminal charges against those responsible for the fire.

10. To prevent such disasters in the future there must be a clear, quick and effective route for residents’ voices to be heard and listened to, and responsibility and accountability must rest with clearly identifiable senior individuals. These principles (recommended in the Hackitt Review), must apply to insulation from cold as well as fire safety. The standards and practices that led to the Grenfell fire must not go on to cost more lives.’

Freezing UK tower block was cash cow for foreign investors. Agents at Liverpool flats faced 13 prosecutions last year as housing benefit flowed abroad: here.

Bird crime in Britain, video


This 26 September 2018 video from Britain says about itself:

Birdcrime 2017: the problem of raptor persecution

This short animated film explains the impact of illegal raptor persecution on the UK’s birds of prey. Created by Carla Slack, Emma Williams and Liam Shevill at Leeds Arts University for the RSPB.