Grenfell: cutting corners
JUSTICE4GRENFELL, FIREFIGHTERS, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Labour opposition are all agreed that housing secretary James Brokenshire’s announcement of a ban on combustible materials on high-rise residential buildings falls far short of the total ban they are seeking from the Grenfell Inquiry.
The headline-grabbing announcement at the Conservative Party conference was deliberately misleading. The vague declaration of “a ban (on) the use of combustible materials on external walls of high-rise residential buildings” blurs the truth: it is only a partial ban which does not include all combustible cladding.
At a recent meeting between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the local community close to the Grenfell Tower, both Moyra Samuels, a co-ordinator for Justice4Grenfell, and FBU general secretary Matt Wrack, warned of protests at the inquiry if it failed to recommend a total ban on external flammable cladding.
The inquiry has become a battleground between the May government and the powerful cladding and building lobbies on one side – who it seems are still trying to protect business interests by stealth – and the community and firefighters on the other.
According to Matt Wrack, Brokenshire’s plan was “designed for political convenience, not for thoroughgoing change.” He said it was “not the outright ban on combustible cladding that firefighters have been calling for, and will continue to allow cladding with limited combustibility on future building work”. The highly respected Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) backs this up, saying the ban “lacks clear guidance and effective enforcement, leaving room for cutting corners.”
Brokenshire told Parliament: “This ban… will limit materials available to products achieving a European classification of Class A1 or A2”. The problem is that many A2 materials have “limited combustibility”, and even worse carry known risks of toxic smoke and droplets, extremely hazardous for residents and firefighters.
The FBU and RIBA both want a total ban on all A2 cladding, with only A1 products allowed on buildings. The FBU also points out that Brokenshire’s ban does not cover 468 existing buildings in England with combustible cladding, and, along with RIBA, says the ban should apply to buildings of all types, not just residential.
Meanwhile a new concern for survivors, firefighters and local residents has been raised by Dr Fiona Wilcox, the lead coroner for those who died in the Grenfell fire. She has warned NHS chief executive Simon Stevens of serious health concerns for survivors, especially children, resulting from toxic contamination after the fire.
A study by Professor Anna Stec, a fire toxicology expert and expert witness to the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry, has found “huge concentrations” of potential carcinogens in dust, soil and burned debris up to almost a mile away, including high levels of asbestos and hydrogen cyanide.
She said the so-called “Grenfell cough” reported by survivors after the fire “seems indicative of elevated levels of atmospheric contaminants”, and recommended that health authorities take samples of blood and saliva from those affected to monitor possible damage to DNA.
It has been reported that Public Health England has decided not to follow this advice until Stec’s report is published, probably early next year, causing widespread concern among health experts.
However, on 10th October NHS England said it would provide “up to £50m” for the long-term screening and treatment for the effects of smoke inhalation and asbestos exposure on those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.