Written by Mark Kirby
Fire rampaged through student residential accommodation in Bolton. A Video made by Ryan Pardon shows flames engulfing the building which is home to 211 students. Ryan, who filmed the blaze from a neighbouring flat, started recording when the fire had taken hold on the fourth and fifth floors of six-storey Cube in Bolton. But within 90 seconds it had spread to the top level – and a mere 40 seconds later they were through the roof. (Sunday People, 17/11/19)
The cladding on this building is different from the material put onto Grenfell Tower but the effect was clearly the same. Grenfell was clad in Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) but the building in Bolton was clad with High Pressure Laminate Panels (HPL). Therefore the extent of the buildings made unsafe by cladding which is inflammable needs to be revisited.
A firefighter comments: it is clear from the pictures and video taken at the scene that this fire shared terrifying similarities with the fire at Grenfell Tower. No modern building should have fire spreading rapidly across the exterior. Every firefighter will tell you that fighting fires in buildings that have been clad is quickly becoming a firefighters worst nightmare. It is impossible to say at what speed the fire will develop or predict where the fire might spread. This means that if firefighters are confronted with an incident like the fire in Bolton, it becomes nearly impossible to plan and prepare for – putting firefighters and the public in extreme danger.
What we do know is that the cladding of the type on the building in Bolton was recommended for immediate removal back in July 2019 when it was mentioned in Advice Note number 22 issues by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The advice note was clear:
This Advice Note provides advice on the use of High Pressure Laminate Panels in external wall systems. This Advice Note is written for building owners of residential buildings of 18m or more, although the principles may also apply to other building types. Systems using HPL panels of a European classification of Class C or D are very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire. Also, systems using any type of HPL panels (Class B, C or D) with combustible insulation are very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire. Building owners with these systems should immediately take action in line with Advice Note 14.
The view of the Expert Panel is that the level of risk from unsafe HPL systems is not as high a risk as unsafe systems using ACM Category 3 panels. Therefore, the Expert Panel remains clear that the immediate removal of unsafe systems using ACM Category 3 panels should be an absolute priority of focus for building owners and the sector, followed by immediate action to remediate unsafe HPL systems. For the avoidance of doubt both the removal of unsafe ACM Category 3 panels and action to remediate unsafe HPL systems should be carried out as soon as possible.
This is extremely unlikely to happen since it is clear the government has singularly failed to deal with buildings clad in ACM cladding in the 2 years since Grenfell Tower. The recent report on Grenfell made clear that these were central to the fire and that this reflected a breach of Building regulations, stating clearly there was: “compelling evidence that the external walls of the building failed to comply with Requirement B4(1) of Schedule 1 to the Building +Regulations 2010, in that they did not adequately resist the spread of fire having regard to the height, use and position of the building. On the contrary, they actively promoted it.” (Section 2.16, p.5) and “It is clear that the use of combustible materials in the external wall of Grenfell Tower, principally in the form of the ACM rainscreen cladding, but also in the form of combustible insulation, was the reason why the fire spread so quickly to the whole of the building. […] It is unnecessary for me to recommend that panels with polyethylene cores on the exterior of high-rise buildings be removed as soon as possible and replaced with materials of limited combustibility because it is accepted that that must be done. It is essential that it be done as quickly as possible and concern has been voiced publicly, most recently by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee, about the apparently slow rate of progress in carrying out the work” (Section 33.6, p.12)
Despite it being patently obvious (as the report makes clear) that the cladding needs to be removed, in fact it is clear it not being removed. As the Financial Times (16/11/19) made clear there are 456 buildings with ACM cladding and replacement has been completed in 118 buildings. However this comprises in part 83 of the 98 social housing buildings (85%) but in sharp contrast, in private owned buildings, only 15 out of 184 have been replaced (8%). What this shows yet again is the complete inability of the private sector to provide a service. This means something like 13000-17000 households in privately owned homes are yet to be made safe. They must worry every night whether they will end up in a blazing building. Occupants of one block in Bromley have had to fork out £350,000 on fire patrols and £120,000 for a new fire alarm system. The 57 leaseholders are unable to sell or remortgage their homes either, as well as living with constant worry about fire.
At the current rate of progress private buildings with ACM cladding may get sorted in 13 years’ time. Presumably then they will be able to move onto look at removal of HPL cladding once they have established how many buildings have that type of cladding. John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said the government would have “serious questions to answer” if the cladding had contributed to the fire. “As figures released this week show, two and a half years after the Grenfell Tower fire, thousands of tower block residents are still living in homes with deadly cladding,” he said. “This should shame the Conservatives and they must now act to make all buildings safe.”
It is however clear that the company who own the block in Bolton have been warned on several occasions about their fire safety. The building is owned by private student accommodation provider Urban Student Life (USL). It has been revealed that In 2016, they were suspended from The National Code scheme for a year over problems with a development in Leeds – including failures to provide fire safety information. As a result of its ruling, Leeds City Council sent the Fire Authority to inspect the building, and decided it was still not fit for use. West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service ordered that the building close with immediate effect, and that remedial works are required before it can be re-opened. USL’s troubled history was revealed by Shelly Asquith, who worked as the NUS Vice President for welfare at the time. On Twitter she said: ‘The Company which runs this student halls in Bolton was suspended from the national codes in 2016, after our tribunal found they had failed on fire safety. ‘Suspension is very rare, and serious questions now need asking as to how [USL] can continue to operate’.
So we now know that not only have local authorities put lives at risk by cladding buildings in ACM but also that many more buildings are also at risk of fast-moving fire because they are covered in HPL cladding even though fire safety warnings about this have been made since 2016.
When it is possible to have a system that sees over 70 working-class people burned in their homes because a few bob was saved in making their block tidy for middle-class residents to look at and we now also know that there are companies still operating student accommodation who have been serious criticised since 2016, we must conclude this is not accidental or an exception but part of the system. Engels talking about the factory and living conditions of workers in 19th century Manchester, made the point that:
“when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live — forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence — knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.”
This society has seen over 70 people socially murdered in this way and many thousands more having to live with continual worry over fire. Following the events in Bolton many thousands more will worry. Undoubtedly, we will again see a parade of meaningless guff from politicians claiming we must never allow this again while knowing that unless we have a radical transformation of society, it is just a matter of time.