Thought to be one of the worst fire-related disasters in recent UK history, the Grenfell Tower fire started on June 14, 2017. Built in 1974, the tower itself was 24 stories tall and included 129 public housing flats (RBKC, 2012). The fire that raged for almost 60 hours caused 71 deaths and is believed to have been caused by a faulty fridge on the fourth floor (Met Police, 2017b).
One of the main contributions to the fire was the flammable quality of the exterior cladding that was installed in 2016 during a renovation designated to replace the substandard heating system and increase thermal efficiency. The winner of the construction bid, Rydon Ltd, managed to secure the contract by using the less fire resistant cladding in their refurbishment, putting forward a bid that was £2.5 million lower than its competitor (Hills, 2017).
The Grenfell Action Group reports that in the months leading up to the fire, many residents expressed concern about the safety of the building. For example, the highrise only had one fire escape and was not fitted with a sprinkler system (GAG, 2017). In addition to this, recent communications distributed to residents emphasised that the building had a ‘stay put’ policy, reassuring people that in the event of a fire, special fire doors would keep residents safe in their flats for up to 30 minutes (RBKC, 2014). As Kobes et al. (2009) state, these failures can be critical in fire response performance, and indeed it was so.
Since the fire, both government officials and the public have become aware that certain forms of cladding are unsafe for use on this style of high rise. As a result of media pressure, 173 buildings which use the same cladding technique have been fire tested, 165 of which have failed the test (Walker, 2017). Communication and policy conducted in this reactive way is common among regulators, although this can destroy trust (Lofstedt, 2011).
Cutting corners in public housing construction and safety is not a new thing: the 1968 collapse of the London Ronan Point tower block in East London caused 4 deaths and many more injuries. According to Dr John Knapton, emeritus professor of structural engineering at Newcastle University, the collapse led to a change in building regulations in the 1970s (Telegraph, 2017). Overall, some of the most important issues in this case, such as the existence of sprinkler systems, are already mandatory in other nations such as Australia and the US. Further policy changes are likely to be precipitated by this event, likely to be raised in the inquiry coming out by Easter 2018. However the question arises: in terms of protecting the poorest in our society, should policy be proactive rather than reactive?
We look forward to discussing further with you on November 22nd.
– The Risk Society
Reference list and further reading:
BBC News (2017). Grenfell Tower Fire. Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c1xp19pvkkrt/grenfell-tower-fire
Grenfell Action Group (GAG) blog. (2017) Link:
Hills, J. (2017). Grenfell Tower: Original proposed contractor was dropped to reduce cost of refurbishment project. ITV News. Report dated 16 June 2017.
Javid, Sajid (30 August 2017). “Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: terms of reference”. GOV.UK.
Kobes, M., Helsloot, I., De Vries, B., & Post, J. G. (2009). Building safety and human behaviour in fire: A literature review. Fire Safety Journal, 45, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.firesaf.2009.08.005
Löfstedt, R. (2011). Risk versus Hazard – How to Regulate in the 21st Century. European Journal of Risk Regulation, 2(2011).
Met Police (2017a), LATEST: Grenfell Tower fire investigation. Link: http://news.met.police.uk/news/latest-grenfell-tower-fire-investigation-250453
Met Police (2017b) ‘Commander Stuart Cundy updates on Grenfell Tower policing operation’ Link: http://news.met.police.uk/news/update-number-of-victims-of-the-grenfell-tower-fire-formally-identified-is-70-276398
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) (2014) Grenfell Tower regeneration newsletter July 2014. Link: https://web.archive.org/web/20170614075826/https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/Grenfell%20Tower%20regeneration%20newsletter%20July%202014.pdf
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) (2012). Link: https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Other-952329.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=952329&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1
Telegraph (2017) Grenfell Tower would have collapsed if built four years earlier, says expert. LInk: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/14/grenfell-tower-would-have-collapsed-built-four-years-earlier/
Walker, P. (2017). Eight out of 173 social housing blocks pass fire safety tests on cladding.The Guardian. Article dated 5 September 2017.