Successive housing ministers failed to act on a 2013 report warning of the dangers of fire to high-rise blocks like Grenfell Tower – including Theresa May’s new chief of staff Gavin Barwell.
The revelations came as the Prime Minister ordered a public inquiry into the blaze.
Former housing minister Barwell – who was appointed by May within days of losing his seat in the general election – refused to state when a review of fire regulations would take place when he was asked just eight months ago.
The review was demanded after a coroner’s investigation into the 2009 Lakanal House blaze in South London, which killed six and injured 20, found the building’s exterior panels were not adequately fire resistant and that its fire assessments were insufficient.
The investigation, which concluded in 2013, called for all high-rise buildings to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems, a move which would have “undoubtedly” saved lives at Grenfell Tower, according to the director of the Fire Protection Association.
However Barwell’s predecessor, former housing minister Brandon Lewis, insisted in 2014 that forcing developers to fit sprinklers could discourage house building.
Lewis told MPs, “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”
Former Chief Fire Officer, Ronnie King, who is honorary administrative secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue, said yesterday (July 15) that the group had “strongly recommended” putting sprinkler systems into 4,000 other high-rises across the country.
He told LBC Radio, “We were strongly recommending this as the fire at Lakanal House spread within four minutes to the flat above and went on to kill six people regrettably.
“Our group recommended that due to the speed that the fire spread in Lakanal House, that building regulations should be reviewed. It’s nearly 11 years since it has been reviewed.
“Successive ministers since 2013 have said they are still looking at it.”
Recommendations ‘put to one side’
Shadow housing minister John Healey said the government had “put to one side” recommendations – including whether external cladding could make a building vulnerable to fire – from both the Lakanal House blaze and a report into a 2010 Southhampton tower block fire that killed two fire fighters.
“There are some very serious questions for ministers to answer now that residents are asking at Grenfell Tower, and very important reassurance to give to many, many people who live in similar tower blocks throughout the country,” he told the Guardian.
“Four years on from two coroners’ reports we are still waiting for even a plan to review building regulations that the government said they would.”
In response to the fire the Prime Minister has ordered a full public inquiry to ensure “this terrible tragedy is properly investigated.”
Unite Housing Workers branch chairman, Paul Kershaw, said as well as discovering the physical causes of the blaze the inquiry needs to investigate why the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which was responsible for the tower, seemingly ignored residents’ concerns over fire safety.
Last year, the Grenfell Action Group residents association warned, “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO.”
Kershaw, who lives in London and has 25 years’ experience in the social housing sector, called for the inquiry to be independent to ensure the truth emerges and nothing similar ever happens again.
“All the layers of the local council are implicated, as well as the government. Even if it wasn’t a complete whitewash there’s a danger they narrow it down in terms of what’s being investigated. There’s a real lack of accountability and the inquiry must address that,” he said.
“To ensure it’s truly independent and credible there should be proper representation of residents and trade union involvement – in the first place that has to be the Fire Brigades Union, but Unite has members who live in those blocks and housing managers.”
Picture by Mark Thomas