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Negligence, Deregulation At Heart Of Tragic UK Fire?

By Trevon Muhammad, Contributing Writer | Last updated: Jun 28, 2017 - 4:08:10 PM

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LONDON—In the days following one of Britain’s worst peacetime disasters in decades, anger has only risen as charges of corporate profiteering and governmental negligence have increased.

Smoke billows after a fire engulfed the 24-story Grenfell Tower, in west London June 14. Fire swept through a high-rise apartment building in west London early Wednesday, killing an unknown number of people with around 50 people being taken to hospital. Photo: AP/ Wide World photos
The tragic fire, which reduced Grenfell tower in West London from a 120-apartment high rise building and home to over 600 mainly Black, Brown and Muslim residents to a charcoaled tomb, has seen increasing pressure placed on Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) which has long been responsible for managing the tower.

Over the past four years, residents and local representatives had waged a major campaign warning of the major safety risks, particularly fire safety, which went, unheeded they say. Through a blog the Grenfell Action Group documented an ultimately fruitless four-year struggle to prevent a catastrophe from taking place.

They warned that the loss of the carpark at the bottom of the tower, replaced during renovations completed last summer, would hinder access for emergency service vehicles in the event of a fire—which has since been confirmed by firemen battling the recent blaze.

They voiced concerns about the lack of sprinklers, a building wide alarm system and fire safety drills but were seemingly ignored. In fact, one of the bloggers was threatened by the Royal Borough of Kensignton and Chelsea with legal action on grounds that criticism of the KCTMO amounted to “defamation and harassment.”

Councillor Judith Blackwell says she was treated “like a nuisance” after voicing concerns about exposed gas pipes in the building’s stairwells.

“I raised 19 complaints on behalf of individual residents. Every single time we were told that the board had satisfied itself that the fire safety was fine,” she said.

Much attention has centered on the use of possible flammable cladding—aluminium panels with a plastic filling—that was placed on the exterior of the building and is believed to have played a significant role in the unprecedented spread of the fire throughout the building. While the panels were intended to improve energy efficiency, published planning documents reveal they were also used to improve the view of the building from nearly luxury apartments and conservation areas.

Building firm Leadbitter was initially expected to complete renovation on Grenfell tower but was unable to complete the job for less than £11.27, £1.6 million above the council budget, according to a report by the Telegraph newspaper. The contract was then handed to Rydon, which agreed to carry out the same works for £8.7m, 22% cheaper.

Ultimately the decision was made to opt against the fire-resistant cladding, available for a mere £2 extra per panel and instead a saving of roughly £5,000 was made by having the plastic core version fitted to the entire building despite manufacturer guidance which recommends this variant be used on buildings under 10 metres tall (32.9 feet).  The Grenfell tower is 67 metres tall (220 feet).

The flammable cladding present on Glenfell tower and a reported 30,000 other UK buildings is banned in America for buildings over 40 feet tall as well as Germany where it is placed in the same material category as unprotected wood with a thickness of 1.2cm (.5 inches).

The absence of sprinklers has also become a key talking point. According to members of the Fire Protection Association it would have “undoubtedly” saved lives, while numerous MP’s have claimed that their calls for sprinklers to be fitted on the outside of tall buildings were ignored.

Back in 2014, the then-government housing minister refused to force building developers to fit sprinklers claiming, “The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building—something we want to encourage.”

While much anger has understandly been directed towards KCTMO and the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the burden of negligence stretches back to historic de-regulation of building laws and governmental failure to act on a series of warnings at the state and local level.

Back in 1986, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher replaced the London Building Acts, which ensured that external walls must have at least one hour of fire resistance to prevent flames from spreading between flats.

Her National Building Regulations scrapped the time stipulation and only required that the materials used on the outside of buildings did not add to the heat or intensity of a fire.

Following the 2009 Lakanal House fire in south London, which claimed the lives of six people, the All Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group called for a significant review of building regulations.

They warned that 4,000 tower apartment buildings across the capital were at risk because of a lack of fire risk assessments and fire-resistant exteriors. While the Conservative government promised a review, four years later it has yet to be completed despite assurances from the former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who has recently been promoted to Theresa May’s chief of staff.

Further early last year, MP’s voted against a proposed amendment to housing laws by the Labour Party which required all homes to be made “fit for human habitation.”

The amendment would have prevented privately rented homes with “category 1” hazards such as faulty wiring or dangerous boilers from being approved. Nonetheless, it was rejected by 312 votes to 219 with 72 of the MP’s who voted against it declaring themselves to be landlords.

In recent days, heated protests have been held outside of Kensington and Chelsea town hall as families, friends and supporters of the victims demand answers and accountability. While the official number of victims is 78, unofficial estimates from firemen and police officers have led many to believe the number is far greater with some accusing the government of “micro-managing” the public’s grief.

A police officer led investigation is currently underway while a public inquiry or an inquest is expected to be announced soon.