-By Thomas Graham, Senior Consultant, Property Services-
The Grenfell Tower fire was a devastating tragedy that touched hearts across the globe. Seventy-two people were killed, many injured, and hundreds left homeless after an inferno engulfed the tower block in London.
Initially, the block’s flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding was blamed for spreading the fire. However, further investigation revealed that Grenfell was a perfect storm of fire risks, compounded by the response capabilities of the Fire Brigade at the time.
People quickly realised that these risk factors couldn’t possibly be unique to the construction of Grenfell, and revealed many problems with high-rise building construction in the whole of the UK.
Grenfell is a highly controversial subject – this isn’t an opinion piece. I’m not here to attack, defend, or justify anything or anyone. With all respect to the victims directly affected and anyone else indirectly, I will only be focusing on the changes to the building industry that Grenfell brought about.
Before Grenfell, the height of standard firefighting equipment was 18m – if a building exceeded this height it needed specialist equipment backed up with a specific plan for that building.
Grenfell was 67.3m tall – more than triple the height of any standard firefighting equipment. It also had no predetermined fire plan, so it took the firefighters forty-five minutes to get a platform high enough to reach the upper floors.
The requirements have since changed, and firefighters will immediately attend tall building fire platforms that can reach at least 42m – the recent fire in the Docklands was proof of this.
The response to Grenfell by the Government came in stages as the investigation took place. The first item to fall under the spotlight was the ACM cladding on Grenfell. Indeed – a later investigation found these polyethylene-cored panels were the main cause for the flames spreading so fast. So, landlords had to report on their building’s cladding.
Secondly, as investigators found problems with window infill panels, landlords were required to report on them. Then, fault was found with spandrel panels used to separate floors. Finally, it was found that timber decking on balconies also played a role and landlords had to report on that too.
Three years after the disaster, the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) published a combined Advice Note to advise “on the measures building owners should take to review ACM and other cladding systems to assess and assure their fire safety.”
The MHCLG Advice Note gave clear advice on exactly what landlords were legally required to do and could begin conducting detailed surveys on their buildings. Most building owners found defects on a much larger scale than anticipated.
Now that housing organisations understood the scale of the problem, they could now start remediation programmes. However, due to the enormity of the repairs on many buildings, questions arise about who is going to pay for them. The four options available are:
- The developer should pay if the building weren’t built to the right standard at the time
- Pay via application to the Building Safety fund the government made available
- The leaseholders pay
- The organisation that owns the building pays
If the organisation that owns the building wants to pursue the developer there are four scenarios that usually happen:
- The developer is willing to work with the owners to rectify the issues.
- The developer has since gone bust or closed down their operation
- The developer doesn’t want to make changes and has to be threatened with legal action
- Legal action is used to enforce the developer making changes.
What Happens to the Residents of Buildings Deemed Unsafe?
The scale of the response depends on the level of the fire risk in the building. Some issues were so bad that residents that fire strategies had to be changed (for example, from stay put to evacuate). In other instances, walking watches had to be put into place – however, these are extremely expensive, with the average bill coming out at £11,361 per month.
In the most drastic outcomes, entire buildings had to be decanted, and the residents put into temporary accommodation.
While all this is being discussed between the organisation and the developer the residents are left in a state of limbo until their building has been inspected and had all the changes necessary made, and a certificate of occupation assigned to it. If their building happens to have cladding they are not able to deem the building safe until a qualified person has completed an in depth survey and signed an EWS1 form (Acquiring one of these forms is itself no easy task, but that would require a whole separate article). This means, at best, their flats are temporarily unsellable and, at worst may not be safe.
In May 2020, the Government allocated £3.5 billion to help rid buildings of flammable cladding and a £30 million Waking Watch fund. Unfortunately, if for some reason the leaseholders are unable to access this fund, they have to foot the bill. This has cost some flat owners in excess of £200,000.
The hidden impact of this is while they are unable to move, banks also won’t provide a fixed-rate mortgage. This means many tenants are being forced onto a variable rate mortgage increasing their repayments by hundreds or even thousands of pounds per month.
While it was clear that the fire safety legislation changes were much needed to prevent another Grenfell, there have still been many unforeseen consequences.
This was a huge undertaking – anything concerning people’s safety and homes needs to be approached delicately. Hopefully, the changes can be brought about with minimal disruption to the lives of the residents and will avoid any more tragedies like Grenfell.
Tommy started Oyster in September 2016 after graduating from University. Originally specialising in M&E, he has since become a senior member of the Property Services team covering Planned & Reactive Maintenance, Compliance, and middle to senior management.
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