Fire in the hold

No creature in the Jungle will call fire by its proper name. Every beast lives in deadly fear of it, and invents a hundred ways of describing it

Almost exactly two years to the day after the devastating fire that befell the Grenfell Tower in Kensington, the flames tore through another building, this time in East London. Another fire. Another scene of destruction. Another set of recriminations about whose fault it was and why, two years on, little has been learned or changed from the lessons of Grenfell.

20 flats were destroyed on Sunday afternoon and 10 more severely damaged at a Bellway Homes’ six-storey block of flats, Samuel Garside House, in Barking. Once again the main culprit, initially, seems to be cladding. This time the wooden cladding which is use on much of the development. Luckily, unlike two years ago, we aren’t talking about huge loss of life; had the fire happened at night it might have been a very different story.

The cladding, according to a report by Inside Housing, had a Class D rating. This is much more easily combustible than Class B, which Government regulations require for buildings above 18m. At six storeys, the Barking building is likely to be under that. Even so, I wouldn’t want to have to get out of a burning bungalow, let alone down from the sixth floor of property where the outside balconies were ablaze.

Again, according to the Inside Housing report, the government was warned in in a report from the Building Research Establishment in 2016 that fire spreading across balconies up the external face of the building could pose a significant fire risk as the building regulations made “no statutory requirements in respect of external fire spread for the incorporation of balconies to a structure”.

There are also reports that fire alarms were not working either.

So whose fault is it? The developers for using the wrong products? The specifiers for deciding which products to use? The Building Regulations for not being stringent enough? The manufacturer for not making the products more fully fire-retardant? The person who decided to light a barbeque on a wooden balcony? All of them? None of them? A combination of all these and other factors? Probably. Incidentally, a study that was released with impeccable timing today by Zeroignition, the fire retardant technology firm, reports that 25% of architects blame building end-users as “the root cause of fire protection failure”.

Of course, it’s all more complicated than simply deciding whose fault it all was. There are a lot of buildings out there clad in a range of materials some more combustible than others. Some are social housing, some are privately owned, some are commercial. The process, which started post-Grenfell Inquiry of checking and replacing where necessary is a lengthy and costly one. The question in the end may very well be who’s going to pay for it?

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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