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Questions Without Answers: The Grenfell Tower Disaster

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About The Author

Jack Slone (Administrative Law Editor)

Jack is a third-year law student at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University. He has a keen passion for legal issues which affect the day-to-day lives of people in society, such as criminal law, medical law, and the law of negligence. Outside of law, Jack enjoys a number of sports including cycling, squash and snooker or indulging in his guilty pleasure of American TV programs and box-sets.

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The burnt carcass of Grenfell Tower speaks for itself and has revealed the true face of Kensington.

Emma Dent Coad MP

Two weeks ago today, the United Kingdom woke up to the horrendous events which had unfolded in the early hours of the morning at the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, West London. The worst fire in London since the Second World War, and with its the death toll at 79 at the time of publication, there is understandably a growing anger at how the Grenfell Tower fire could ever have been allowed to occur.

This article seeks to address some of the legal points to the questions that remain unanswered two weeks after the disaster that wreaked the destruction of 151 homes in England’s capital.

What are the building, fire & safety regulations in towers like Grenfell?

Tower blocks like Grenfell were designed with the aim of containing fires within the flat or floor in which they started. As such, a ‘stay put’ policy could be implemented, whereby residents were expected to stay in their flats upon the intention that fire doors would prevent it from spreading. In this respect, when the intended containment of the fire failed, this policy became fatally flawed.

The question as to why the fire was not contained as intended is thus a significant question, both in terms of seeking to prevent future such events from occurring, as well as identifying who should be considered legally accountable for the disaster.

It has been largely speculated that the main reason for the failure of containment was the use of less fire-resistant polyethylene core cladding installed onto the outside of the building in renovations completed last year; questions surrounding the legality of these types of materials used on such high-rise buildings have inevitably followed. Furthermore, questions surround the fact that fire alarms were not heard by many in the Grenfell tower, and why – even after recent renovation – there were no sprinkler systems in the building.

Sprinklers

The block, which was constructed in 1974, did not have a sprinkler system. Under current law there is a requirement that all blocks over 30 metres high must have sprinkler systems fitted, but there is no legal requirement for councils to retroactively fit them in buildings built before that statute was enacted. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA), the trade body for the fire sprinkler industry, said retrofitting the building with sprinklers would have cost approximately £200,000. The failure to invest in sprinklers has sparked criticism, enhanced by the fact that an £8.6 million refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that was completed in May last year did not involve any plans to retrofit sprinklers in the building.

In explanation of why this was not the case, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council leader Nick Paget-Brown said Grenfell Tower was not fitted with sprinklers during the refurbishment because they were told that fires in high-rises should be contained within the flat of origin. He also stated on BBC Newsnight that there was also not a "collective view" by residents to retrofit sprinklers in all flats because doing so would have caused further disruption to the upgrade. However, although there was no legal requirement, there was arguably a moral requirement to retrofit a sprinkler system into the building, since these types of systems have been proven to save lives, a regeneration of the tower was already being carried out anyway, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council had stockpiled reserves of over £270 million at the time of the refurbishment.

Approved Document B

Approved Document B of the Building Regulations 2000 (as amended), in conjunction with other requirements in the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and the Fire Precautions Act 1971, contains the fire safety measures that must be adhered to by law in high-rise buildings like the Grenfell Tower. The first part of the document deals with the following Requirement from Part B of Schedule 1 to the Building Regulations 2000:

The building shall be designed and constructed so that there are appropriate provisions for the warning of fire, and appropriate means of escape in case of fire from the building to a place of safety outside the building capable of being safely and effectively used at all material times.

The Approved Document for Fire Safety goes on to state that the requirement of B1 will be met if: (a), there are routes of sufficient number and capacity, which are suitably located to enable persons to escape to a place of safety in the event of fire; (b) the routes are sufficiently protected from the effects of fire by enclosure where necessary; (c) the routes are adequately lit; (d) the exits are suitably signed; and (e) there are appropriate facilities to either limit the ingress of smoke to the escape route(s) or to restrict the fire and remove smoke; all to an extent that is dependent on the use of the building, its size and height; and (f) there is sufficient means for giving early warning of fire for persons in the building.

It appears that several of these provisions were not met at the time of the fire in Grenfell Tower. Indeed, in an interview of Newsnight, Housing Campaigner Pilgrim Tucker cited a number of alleged structural and maintenance issues which were brought to her attention whilst working with the local campaign organisation Grenfell Action Group. She claimed that boilers were placed in front of fire doors, pipe work was found to be sticking outside of the walls, there were several power surges in the building that were never investigated, and when the lights in the building died due to the fire, emergency lighting failed to come on. As such, these claims would assert that the requirement for escape routes to be lit adequately was breached, and several other parts of the document were also breached.

The document has also been written on the basis of certain assumptions. At B1(i), the document states that it has been written on the basis that, in an emergency, the occupants of any part of the building should be able to escape safely without any external assistance. Tucker’s claims would also suggest that this was not feasible in the Grenfell Tower, since she claims that emergency lighting failed during the fire. However, in a statement issued shortly after the events at Grenfell, the construction group which carried out the regeneration of Grenfell Tower issued a statement stating that the work "met all required building control, fire regulation and health & safety standards". It then subsequently issued a new statement, omitting the previous mention of the building meeting fire regulation standards, instead stating that the project met "all required building regulations".

There is also the assumption that whoever manages the building will manage the building properly, and as such failure to take proper management responsibility may result in the prosecution of a building owner or occupier under legislation such as the Fire Precautions Act. The document goes on to state some means of escape design criteria, some of which were also arguably not adhered to in the Grenfell Tower, and other tower blocks like it. B1. Xi states:

…there should be alternative means of escape from most situations, and that where direct escape to a place of safety is not possible, it should be possible to reach a place of relative safety, such as a protected stairway, which is on route to an exit, within a reasonable travel distance. In such cases the means of escape will consist of two parts, the first being unprotected in accommodation and circulation areas, and the second in protected stairways.

The problem with provisions like this one is that there is the reasonable assumption that the fire will not spread rapidly up the exterior of the building, or indeed through the levels of the building as it did in the 24 storeys of the Grenfell Tower. As such, even if there were alternative means of escape in place, and failing that, places of relative safety including protected stairways (there was only one central staircase running through the building in the Grenfell Tower), they would not have been able to provide the safety intended to residents due to the ferocity in which the fire spread up the exterior of the building. Consequently, in a fire of such unprecedented scale, it is possible that certain provisions were met during the fire, but did not make means of escape any easier simply because of the way in which the fire spread up the exterior of the building in air cavities between the combustible cladding and the insulation in a chimney effect.

Referring specifically to external fire spread, Part B4 states the following

The external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the walls and from one building to another, having regard to the height, use and position of the building.

The roof of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire over the roof and from one building to another, having regard to the use and position of the building

It quickly became evident within minutes of the fire at Grenfell taking hold of the exterior of the building that the external walls were not adequately resisting the spread of fire. In fact, quite the opposite; the cladding used in the recent refurbishment was actively accelerating the spread of the fire, acting like a chimney going vertically up the storeys of the building, causing extensive damage to almost every level of the tower block. One of the main questions for the public inquiry to answer will be how such an acceleration could have ever occurred due to a dangerous building material in a block where so many people lived.

Lastly, Part B5 covers the level of access that should be given for firefighters to use their appliances in order to be able to fight the fire and save life. Gaining access to Grenfell has been alleged to be problematic. Indeed, the Grenfell Action Group had previously warned that site access to the building for emergency vehicles was “severely restricted” in their blog several months before, but no action was taken.

It is submitted that a lot of the provisions made according to the Approved Document for Fire Safety were rendered useless at the time of the fire due to the way the fire was exacerbated by the less fire-resistant, combustible polyethylene core cladding. Not even the experts could have predicted a fire to behave in the same way as Grenfell due to the materials used on the outside of the building. For instance, a fire and building inspector told the BBC that the Grenfell Tower block "didn't perform in the way you'd expect a building to perform" once it caught fire as "you'd expect it to be contained to an individual apartment". Such is the fear over safety concerns that the Government has announced to conduct tests on 600 similar buildings around the country, with four out of five blocks on the Chalcots Estate in Camden being evacuated while work takes place to remove identical cladding and make the buildings safer.

More critically, however, as The Guardian states, the Approved Document B has not been subject to an in depth review since 2006, even though other parts of regulations are reviewed every two years. In a survey carried out in 2015 by the Fire Sector Federation, the forum found that 92% of its members believed that the regulations were ‘long overdue an overhaul’ since they do not reflect current design and construction methods, and that the research which underpinned the regulations is long outdated.

How large a part did the cladding play in the Grenfell disaster?

There are two overriding questions which must be addressed in relation to the cladding; the first being what do the regulations say about cladding and are they correct about the materials that are allowed and those that are prohibited? The second question relates to compliance with these regulations; was the particular type of cladding used on the Grenfell Tower, and many other tower blocks like it, fitted legally?

The Times reported that the particular type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower is banned in the US on buildings taller than 40ft (12m) for fire safety reasons, and is rated as ‘flammable’ in Germany. The paper stated that the manufacturer makes two fire-resistant alternatives, but they are more expensive. Reynobond’s fire-resistant panel sells for £24 per square metre - £2 more expensive than the standard version used on the Grenfell Tower. Thus, the paper calculated the difference in cost at Grenfell for the fire-resistant type of cladding would have amounted to less than £5,000 for the entire building.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said that if the cladding used was a composite aluminium panel with a polyethylene core, it would be non-compliant with Approved Document B. The department also said that this material should not be used as cladding on buildings over 18m high. Grenfell Tower is 67m high. Engineering and manufacturing company Arconic later said one of its products, Reynobond Polyethylene - an aluminium composite material - was "used as one component in the overall cladding system" of Grenfell Tower. The BBC established that Reynobond PE was issued a certificate in the UK in 1997, allowing it to be used on high-rise buildings, but given the height of Grenfell, it should not have been used in the regeneration of the tower last year.

Sam Webb, an architect and fire expert, described hundreds of tower blocks across the UK as highly flammable. After surveying hundreds of residential tower blocks in the early 1990s and presenting a damning report to the Home Office, he stated that more than half of the buildings did not meet basic fire safety standards. He further criticised:

We are still wrapping post-war high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.

As such, one burning question that understandably many people have about the disaster at Grenfell is that, if we have known about these risks since at least the 1990s, why has the Government not acted sooner?

Why did the State fail to heed repeated warnings?

Sam Webb claimed that the Grenfell fire was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’. Webb advised the legal team for the families in the case of the last major tower block fire in London, in July 2009, where a fire started in Lakanal House due to a faulty TV, which devastated the 14-story block built in 1958 in Camberwell, South-East London. Six people perished, including two young children and a three-week-old baby.

An inquest found that the fire spread rapidly, with the exterior cladding panels burning through in just 4.5 minutes. The inquest concluded that years of botched renovations had removed non-combustible material between flats and communal corridors, which made the risk of fire far more perilous, and that safety inspections carried out by Southwark council failed to rectify such breaches of the building regulations. The council was investigated over possible corporate manslaughter charges, but a fine was eventually given of £570,000 instead under fire safety laws. Further, the coroner in the Lakanal House case called for a review of the Approved Document B, since evidence showed that there was a risk of further death unless substantial changes were made, and that thousands of tower blocks in the UK remained subject to outdated guidance on fire safety.

More recently still, the Government had the opportunity to take note from the changes made to building regulations in 2005 in Scotland, in which devolved legislation tightened the rules on building regulation, making it mandatory for builders to ensure that any external cladding ‘inhibited’ fire spreading. After a fire in 1999 where one person died, regulations were revisited, which brought about the Building (Scotland) Act 2003 introducing the Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004, which came into force on 1st May 2005, meaning all cladding to be used in high-rise dwellings had to be non-combustible. Mr Donohoe, who propagated the changes in Scotland, stated that a series of UK governments had been ‘remiss in their responsibilities and their duties’ to people who live in high-rise tower blocks in England. He went on to give a damning criticism of the UK government, emphasising that:

[The problem] was identified but nothing was being done. It’s really a disaster that has been created as a consequence of inaction of all government and I blame that as being the main reason why we had that fire at Grenfell.

Accountability – Who is to blame, and to what extent?

This will be the question which will be under most consideration at the public inquiry, but as a petition on change.org has highlighted, both an inquiry and an inquest may be needed to reveal the whole truth regarding which parties are to blame, and to what extent in this multi-faceted case of neglect. It is inevitable that a judge will eventually find certain parties who committed certain neglectful acts at fault, but the true causes of the Grenfell disaster go far wider; they lie in the catalogue of failures in the way in which Britain finds itself being run. Whilst accountability of the events leading up to the fire itself is paramount, so too are the decisions that have been made over the years on social housing generally.

As with Southwark Council after Lakanal House, corporate and gross negligence manslaughter will be considered for various organisations which are held responsible for Grenfell Tower, including its construction and regeneration process. Other offences including fire safety offences will also be considered under a criminal investigation into the disaster, and a mass of civil litigation relating to the disaster may follow too. But it also may not. Further, the criminal investigations may amount to very little once the Grenfell story fades; a slap on the wrist in the form of a fine that a council which has stockpiled over £270 million of usable reserves by chronically underspending would comfortably afford. Aditya Chakrabortty highlights the issue cogently when he states:

To look after its properties, the council created the largest management organisation of its type in England – unfeasibly large, it turned out, and unaccountable to its own tenants. This was the £11m-a-year body that handed the £10m refurbishment contract to the builder Rydon. The best that can be said of such outsourcing – whether in managing flats or running council departments – is that the public ends up paying more for a service that’s worse.

Regrettably, it may well be wishful thinking that the various organisations at fault will receive fair and just criminal sanctions and that Britain will learn from Grenfell by overhauling the way in which social housing is looked upon in our extensively class-orientated society.

Conclusion

The inexcusable truth about Grenfell is that a catalogue of positive choices were made that allowed this disaster to occur, yet those paid to make those choices have described it as a tragedy, as if it were an act of God.

These were choices which decided that the lives of the poor mattered less than the profits of the rich, like saving a grand £2 per square metre of cladding so that it was a less successful fire retardant but still aesthetically pleased more affluent neighbours, or the cuts to housing legal aid so residents could not pursue legal advice over their safety concerns, or the firefighters who had to work tirelessly through the night to gain control of the inferno while watching their stations having their budgets slashed. Combined, they make this a deplorable enlightenment of the way in which Britain is being run.

Yet, the real tragedy here is that, as always, long-awaited changes to regulations will only happen after a significant loss of life has occurred, since decisions were made to paper over the poverty in this country, instead of sensible ones being made so that those lives ought to never have been lost in the first place.

When successive governments were warned that a fire of such magnitude was a virtual certainty due to serious breaches of fire safety around the country, then once such a blaze occurred it was not unfortunate. A high-rise crematorium was inevitable. Relentless cuts, the ideology of austerity, and deregulation collectively contributed towards this human-made disaster, and that is something which the successive governments over the years ought to never forget nor forgive itself for. A courtesy which surely ought to be afforded to the victims of the Grenfell disaster is for those in the establishment to admit that, sadly, austerity is at the heart of the Grenfell story. Thus, Britain must re-evaluate the way in which it has turned into a national machine to make money for the rich at the expense of the poor, and as we have seen in this disaster, even at the cost of their lives.

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Tagged: Housing Law, Justice

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