First the good news. On Thursday, nearly 18 months since the Grenfell tower fire killed 72 people in west London, the government laid down regulations in parliament to ban the use of combustible materials on new buildings over 18 metres high. This is the first piece of legislation since the fire. The government also announced powers for local authorities to remove dangerous aluminium composite (ACM) cladding from private high rises. The government say the cost of this will ultimately be reclaimed from building owners.
For the bereaved families who have been campaigning for changes to make homes safe, the ban on combustibles is no doubt an important step on the long road to justice. In a statement released on Twitter, Grenfell United – representing bereaved and survivors – said: “The government must show they will learn the lessons of Grenfell.”
Many, like Jane Duncan, the chair of the RIBA expert advisory group on fire safety, want to see other high-risk buildings included in the ban – hotels and hostels, for example, are exempted. The government also needs to look at RIBA’s recommendations on sprinklers, alarm systems and alternative means of escape in all residential high-rise buildings.
The 18-metre limit on buildings is the traditional height at which firefighters can tackle a fire externally. At Grenfell, the first call to the fire brigade was made at 00.54am. At 1.32am, when the fire brigade’s aerial platform arrived, fire had already completely covered the entire east face of the tower, all 24 floors engulfed in flaming combustion. The speed at which the fire spread highlights the importance of banning these materials comprehensively, ensuring that exemptions are limited and the system can’t be gamed by developers or contractors. Low rise or high rise: there is no reason, other than cost, for leaving these materials on buildings where people live, work, sleep or go to school.
The Labour MP Steve Reed has warned that freeholders are likely to challenge new costs for removing cladding in the courts because previous building guidance was unclear. The government has known this since the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2013. “This looks worryingly like an attempt by the government to pass the buck for their own failures onto cash-strapped councils knowing they won’t be in a position to act,” he said.
Eighteen months. That’s how long families bereaved by the tragedy at Grenfell have had to campaign for a meaningful response that translates their grief into long-lasting, legislative change. And that’s how long leaseholders in private blocks have had to live with dangerously unsafe materials on their homes, not knowing whether they will have to pay many thousands of pounds to remove the cladding.
This can only be the first step towards meaningful change for residents in social and private housing whose homes have been covered in plastics sold to developers by a powerful industry that still advises those in power. The government has taken a step in the right direction. It should not farm this out to local authorities when it was the architect of the regime that enabled Grenfell. It should put it right.
As Grenfell United said: “They must change the culture of profit before people in the construction industry and reform social housing so that people are treated with dignity and respect.”
• Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and academic researcher and a former neighbourhood officer at Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation