Grenfell Tower: May orders full public inquiry
Image: Metropolitan Police
The prime minister has ordered a full judge-led public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.
“We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this,” Theresa May said. “We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones, friends, and the homes in which they lived.”
Her announcement comes in the wake of policing and fire minister Nick Hurd ordering an urgent review of the fire safety of tower blocks of similar construction to Grenfell Tower in Kensington, which was engulfed by fire on Wednesday evening.
So far at least 17 people have been confirmed to have died in the fire and 17 are in critical care with scores more in hospital. The death toll is expected to rise as scores of people are reported missing.
The fire at the recently refurbished Grenfell Tower in north Kensington has been described by firefighters as the worst incident they had been involved with as flames spread up the outside of the building.
London fire commissioner Dany Cotton has said that the cause of the fire has not been determined as yet. She said: “This is an unprecedented incident. In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never ever seen anything of this scale.”
The edict from Hurd said: “We have discussed with the department of communities and local government local authorities and the fire service a process whereby we seek to identify towers that might have a similar process of refurbishment and run a system of checks so we can as quickly as possibly give reassurance to people.”
The edict comes as huge questions hang over what went wrong at the 24-storey block where flames engulfed the building within 15 minutes. The spotlight is now on the system used to overclad the building as part of its £8.7m refurbishment in 2016, as well as the whether all the fire stops were in place outside and inside and the general safety management of the blocks.
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There is also scrutiny on what happened to a promised review of the fire regulations and approved document B in the wake of recommendations made after the Lakanal House fire in 2009.
The tower’s refurbishment, including new windows and cladding, a new efficient communal heating system and bespoke smoke extract and ventilation system, was completed last year.
The works, carried out by Rydon, also included extensive remodelling of the bottom four floors, which created nine additional new homes and improved spaces for two local businesses.
The refurbishment included overcladding in aluminium composite panels – the contractor that carried out the work subsequently went into administration.
Radon’s CEO Robert Bond said last night that the work “met all required building regulations and was signed off by the council’s building control department.
Bond said: “We were shocked to hear of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower and our immediate thoughts are with those that have been affected by the incident, their families, relatives and friends.”
The building is managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) on behalf of the council – which has come under scrutiny for its management and ignoring warnings about the safety of the block from its tenants.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said questions needed to be answered about the fire advice given to residents.
Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday about advice to residents to stay inside their flats in the event of a fire, Khan said: “Thankfully residents didn’t stay in their flats and fled to safety.
“One of the concerns that we have is it’s a 24-storey building but for obvious reasons, with the scale of the fire, our experts weren’t able to reach all the way to the top, so of course these are questions that need to be answered as soon as possible.”
He added: “It’s very distressing, not just for those of us watching as lay people, but also very distressing for the emergency services.
“We declared a major incident very early, which meant not just the fire service but also the London ambulance service, the police and the others were involved at the scene.”
The fire will reawaken a debate in the sector about safety in tower blocks. Already sector commentators are asking questions. The fire also raises questions for the government. Ministers earlier this year delayed a review into the fire regulations and approved document B.
In February Southwark council was fined £570,000 over safety failings at a 14-storey block of flats where six people died in a fire.
Three women and three children were trapped by flames that spread out of control at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, in 2009, as a result of safety deficiencies in the block.
At Southwark crown court Judge Jeffrey Pegden told Southwark council, the landlord of Lakanal House, that it must pay a £270,000 fine, plus £300,000 costs.
Before passing sentence, Pegden said: “In this case there was a major fire at Lakanal House on 3 July 2009, involving the tragic loss of six lives – including three children. But the sentence of this court of course can never reflect such a terrible tragedy.”
Cladding under the spotlight
While the fire at Grenfell Tower is still being fought and the number of dead continues to rise, questions are already being raised about the causes with many people pointing the combustibility of the cladding as a factor in the devastating spread of the fire.
Rainscreen cladding was used to cover the building as part of the £8.7m refurbishment. This was made from of aluminium composite panels that have a polyethylene or plastic core sandwiched between two thin aluminium sheets.
It has been used worldwide to clad other high-rise apartment buildings. The Guardian reported that planning documents showed the cladding was constructed from units called Reynobond rainscreen cassettes and was installed by Harley Curtain Wall which was paid £3m for the job. The company went into administration and was bought by an associated company with the same owner.
Similar cladding systems have been linked to a number of similar fires across the world.
A fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands on 25 November 2014 is strikingly similar to London’s Grenfell Tower.
The fire at the Lacrosse building was sparked by a cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony and raced up 13 floors to the roof of the 21-storey building in 11 minutes. Fortunately nobody was killed.
After an investigation it was blamed on flammable aluminium composite cladding that lined the exterior concrete walls.
Dubai has also seen a spate of high-rise cladding fires in recent years, most notably on New Year’s Eve in 2015 when the Address Downtown Dubai Hotel erupted in a ball of flames.