Six years ago this week, the nation awoke to the horrific news that a fire had broken out in the night at Grenfell Tower, a residential block in west London. The tragedy ultimately cost 72 lives, with many residents trapped in their homes unable to escape the smoke and flames.
The disaster shattered the long-held illusion that UK buildings were among the safest in the world. Within days, it became apparent the aluminium composite cladding (ACM) used on Grenfell Tower had contributed significantly to the fire’s rapid spread and ultimately the death toll.
Six years on, the burnt shell of Grenfell Tower still stands in west London, providing a salutary reminder of the horrors of what happened on that day and the abject failure of the UK’s building safety standards. An inquiry into the circumstances behind the tragedy is still to produce its final report but, thankfully, changes to buildings considered potentially dangerous are already under way.
According to the latest government statistics, more than 90% of the buildings found to have the dangerous ACM cladding have now completed remediation work.
In addition, the Building Safety Fund (BSF) has approved £1.87bn for repairs to other buildings that don’t use ACM cladding but are deemed unsafe. To date, remediation work has started on 400 of these buildings, of which 139 are completed, including 37 that have also received building control sign-off. But the figures show that work has only been completed on a paltry 13% of private sector buildings that qualified for this strand of BSF funding.
Last year, the government’s long-awaited Building Safety Act became law, in theory ushering in a new era of enhanced safety checks and requiring building owners to name individuals responsible for ensuring standards are met.
But as Peter Caplehorn, chief executive of the Construction Products Association, points out, too many companies are simply burying their heads in the sand when it comes to addressing safety defects and a lot of the measures contained in the act “aren’t fully understood yet” on the ground (p16). Regrettably, he fears, there are some in the construction sector who hope that if they “keep their heads down” the issue will go away.
But the matter of building safety won’t go away. In fact, as this week’s cover story shows, the opposite is likely to happen and a growing number of buildings are expected to come under increased scrutiny. In this case, the government is growing increasingly alarmed about the long-term structural integrity of the schools, hospitals and other public buildings constructed using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), a lighter form of concrete widely used in buildings between the 1960s and 1990s. At least two schools have been forced to close after experiencing structural problems in the past five years and experts fear this is just the tip of the iceberg given the expected 30-year lifespan of RAAC.
The costs of rectifying safety defects will inevitably be high for landlords, developers and the public sector but the alternative of leaving buildings in an unfit state is unthinkable.
If we have learned one lesson from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it’s that lives must come first. Part of the legacy of the 72 people who died must be safer buildings for all.