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Revealed: Nearly Half of All Tower Blocks Have Failed Fire Safety Tests

New data obtained by VICE shows fire safety failings across England and Wales.

by Mark Wilding
24 May 2018, 9:10am

Grenfell Tower. Photo: Brian Anthony / Alamy Stock Photo

Nearly half of all high-rise tower blocks inspected since the Grenfell Tower fire have failed to meet fire safety standards, according to data obtained by VICE.

Fire services across the country have been carrying out checks on residential tower blocks since the tower block fire in west London left 71 people dead and hundreds more homeless. VICE used Freedom of Information laws to obtain the results of nearly 3,000 safety checks, carried out by 37 fire services in England and Wales, which reveal that fire safety issues were discovered at 46 percent of properties inspected.

At least 75 enforcement notices have been issued since the Grenfell Tower fire, creating a legal requirement for property owners to take action to address serious fire risks. In addition, landlords were notified of fire safety deficiencies on more than 800 other occasions. Action plans to tackle fire safety matters were agreed in more than 350 further cases.

Labour's shadow housing secretary, John Healey, said VICE's findings on fire safety inspections illustrated the need for radical action. "These figures show the importance of overhauling our flawed system of building safety checks and controls to keep people safe," he said, reiterating calls made by Labour for the government to commit £1 billion to fire safety measures in high-rise social housing.

The findings come less than a week after publication of the Hackitt Review of Fire Safety and Building Regulations, commissioned by the government in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Dame Judith Hackitt, who oversaw the review, called for "a radical rethink of the whole system", but stopped short of making recommendations such as an all-out ban on the use of combustible materials on tower blocks or the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rise buildings. John Healey described the report as "a missed opportunity to set new safety standards that ensure a disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire can never happen again".

Ronnie King, honorary administrative secretary at the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, said these new figures would add to the worries of tenants of high-rise buildings. "They are naturally and justifiably concerned at the moment," he said.

King expressed disappointment that lessons from previous tragedies had still not been learned. In July of 2009, a blaze at Lakanal House in south London killed six people. An inquest into the fire in 2013 led to calls for a series of improvements to fire safety and building regulations. King said VICE's figures showed not enough has been done. "It's indicative of the state of affairs that's been raised for the last five years," he said.

The inspections carried out in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire appear to have uncovered fire safety failings that had previously gone undetected. In the capital, the London Fire Brigade carried out inspections on 710 buildings. The inspections resulted in 33 enforcement notices and landlords were advised of fire safety deficiencies in 312 further cases.

Nick Coombe, fire safety regulation strategic technical advisor at the London Fire Brigade, said: "We were opening risers, looking in lift spaces and actually, in some cases, testing things like fire fighting lifts and smoke control systems. Previously, if [the building owners] gave you documentation that shows they have maintained that fire fighting lift or smoke control system, we’d accept that at face value. This time we were going there and making sure it worked, and, in some cases, it didn't do what it was meant to do."

Some fire services, including the West Midlands and Scotland, were unable to provide VICE with the results of inspections and said they had no means of reviewing inspection outcomes without accessing individual building records.

The West Midlands Fire Service declined VICE's FoI request, saying: "To obtain the outcome of inspections 349 records will need to accessed," and estimated that to provide details of outcomes would take more than 18 hours – the time limit given for FoI requests to be fulfilled. The Scottish Fire Service gave a similar rejection.

Phil Murphy – a former firefighter, fire safety campaigner and a tower block tenant – said it was unacceptable that high-rise residents are unable to access details of fire safety inspections at their properties. "That's why, 11 months after Grenfell, tenants are still feeling worried," he said. "There's no clarity, there's no transparency, and it feels to tenants like a cooperative concealment is going on."

The lack of a standardised system for categorising outcomes of safety inspections also makes it difficult to assess the seriousness of the fire safety issues that have been discovered. Each fire service categorises outcomes of inspections differently, and detailed assessments for specific buildings are rarely made available.

In cases where fire risks are discovered, the most frequent course of action is to informally notify the building owner of any issues – a process most commonly known as "notification of deficiencies". Murphy said notifications of deficiencies can cover a wide range of fire safety issues and give little reassurance to tenants. "The same people that have got their flats constructed wrong, with exceptional fire safety risks, are going to be in the same category as those that are found to have a deficient fire door."

The Hackitt report highlighted the Ledbury Estate in Southwark as an example of "deep flaws in the current system". Residents of the estate received letters in June last year informing them that structural issues had been identified at their buildings and that fire marshals had subsequently been employed. A few days later, residents were advised of "doubts" in relation to fire compartmentation and told that the buildings would be evacuated in the event of a fire, contrary to the London Fire Brigade's "stay put" policy. Further investigations prompted concerns that the buildings could collapse in the event of a gas explosion.

In August, the London Fire Brigade issued notification of deficiencies letters in relation to two buildings at the estate, advising the council that "emergency routes or exits were inadequate" and "combustible materials were being stored on the means of escape". Assessments carried out by Southwark Council at the end of 2017 gave buildings at the estate a "high moderate" fire risk rating. The estate has not been subject to an enforcement notice.

Stephanie Cryan, cabinet member for housing at Southwark Council, said: "Since June 2017, Southwark Council has been in regular contact with Ledbury estate residents regarding fire safety concerns and the action we are taking. As soon as we were alerted to the issues we acted swiftly to put in place a number of safety measures, including around the clock fire wardens in the four tower blocks, and carried out a structural survey of the estate. We have also worked with residents to ensure that escape routes are clear and accessible. The safety of residents remains and will continue to remain our top priority."

On the 21st of May, a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire began with two weeks of tributes for those who died in the blaze.

@mark_wilding

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