Grenfell Tower: Fire chiefs warned councils over cladding dangers before disaster

The London Fire Brigade warned councils about the dangers of flames spreading on external cladding panels on tall buildings just weeks before the Grenfell Tower disaster, it emerged today.

It wrote to all boroughs and housing associations in April and May after an investigation into a tower block blaze in Shepherd’s Bush in August last year. 

In a letter titled “Tall Buildings — External Fire Spread”, Assistant Commissioner Dan Daly said the focus had been on how the fire, at Shepherd’s Court, had started in a tumble dryer. 

“However, I am also drawing this fire to your attention to highlight the external spread of the fire,” he wrote. He said “filler panels” for windows were believed to be a “contributory factor”, adding: “I would urge you to consider carefully your arrangements for specifying, monitoring and approving all aspects of future replacement approving all aspects of future replacement and improvement to building façades.”

A report obtained by Inside Housing highlighted that the window “cladding” panels initially resisted the 2016 fire but a polystyrene foam then reportedly started to melt, meaning a metal sheet could fall away and expose plywood.

Grenfell Tower aftermath – In pictures

Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy, whose friend Khadija Saye died in the Grenfell fire on June 14, said: “We need to rapidly get to the bottom of why there appears to have been a casual indifference to the huge fire risk posed to Londoners in our towers.”

Hammersmith Labour MP Andy Slaughter said: “We urgently need to know how councils responded to receiving that letter and what checks were made on cladding.” Hammersmith and Fulham council is having further tests carried out on the panels on Shepherd’s Court. A spokesman said: “The full report is due imminently, but we have already begun the process of removing the window panels.”

The number of high-rise blocks where cladding is found to have failed safety tests is understood to have today risen to 120 in 37 local authority areas. None of the samples tested by the Building Research Establishment have met safety standards. Theresa May has ordered a national investigation into tower block safety given the scale of the scandal.

Nine hospital trusts have also been flagged for reportedly using building material similar to that suspected of aiding the spread of the Grenfell fire. However, the Department of Health could give no details of the number of hospitals affected or their names.

Grenfell Tower death toll of about 80 came mainly from 23 flats

Some 600 social housing high-rise blocks are believed to have cladding similar to Grenfell. Just over one in six have been tested, two weeks after the fire in North Kensington in which at least 80 people are feared to have died.

So far, 159 temporary homes are believed to have been found for displaced families and £1.7 million has been allocated from an emergency fund. 

Kensington and Chelsea council said: “We do not think it is right to make comments relevant to the inquiry or subject to the investigation until this issue has been discussed with the police and the solicitors to the public inquiry once they have been appointed.”

Ministers have criticised councils for their slowness in sending in samples of cladding to be tested. Meanwhile, emergency arrangements for the Grenfell survivors have been branded a “mess”. Families are being shifted between hotels or placed in accommodation “not appropriate for their needs”, Andrea Newton of the Lancaster West Residents’ Association said, and people in the neighbourhood have been blighted by a lack of utilities such as hot water.

The Grenfell Response Team said the boiler servicing the area was destroyed. It said: “Work has commenced on fitting a new temporary boiler and we are working hard to get hot water running within the next week. We are offering hotel accommodation to any residents affected until we can fix this. We are continuing to work with residents and other hotels to secure accommodation for as long as necessary.”

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