In what is being called a "terrible national disaster", 60 high-rise buildings across England have now failed cladding fire tests – every sample so far tested – with the number expected to rise as hundreds more await examination.
The UK’s housing minister today urged local authorities around the country to do "whatever is necessary" to keep people safe, even to evacuate towers after the 14 June blaze at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, London (pictured), which is presumed now to have killed at least 79 people.
The warning came after the number of buildings failing the test rose from 34 on Saturday, 24 June to 60 yesterday, the government said.
Evacuations have begun. London’s Camden Council over the weekend evacuated 650 people from four tower blocks over concerns about cladding, gas pipe insulation, and fire doors.
Councils in many areas began emergency work over the weekend removing from towers aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, a form of which is suspected of having accelerated the Grenfell fire.
This must never, ever happen gain in our country– UK housing minister Alok Sharma
And the political heat was ramped up with the Labour Party’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell controversially saying the 79 victims at Grenfell were "murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades", at a panel discussion at Glastonbury music festival.
With all 60 tests so far having failed in 25 local authority areas, questions are now being asked about the slowness of testing after Prime Minister Theresa may claimed last week that 100 buildings a day could be tested at building research company BRE.
Housing minister Alok Sharma, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, suggested councils and housing associations were not sending samples quickly enough.
But he said that local authorities should be taking action now – even evacuating – whether their buildings are tested or not.
"People shouldn’t wait for the checks to come back from these cladding results," he said. "They should act now, get the fire service in, check the buildings that they think may be affected, and put in place mitigation measures if required or, as in the case of Camden, if they need to evacuate, that needs to happen."
He pointed out that the four buildings in Camden had fire safety issues beyond the cladding.
Asked if central government would help meet the cost of any emergency measures, Sharma said it would.
"Whatever is necessary to be done by local councils and local authorities and other landlords, that needs to happen right now, and where they need support, we will offer that support," he said.
Asked why a declaration of a national emergency has not been made, as with previous flooding situations, Sharma said the prime minister was chairing a task force that met "very regularly", and that chief executives of local authorities were supporting a central command.
"I’m pretty confident that right now we have the leadership in place to make sure that we help those who are affected but of course longer term also look at what caused [this] through the public enquiry," he said.
Lord Kerslake, the former head of the UK’s civil service and who now chairs the Peabody housing association in London, has also questioned the speed of testing.
"We are told they can do 100 a day. That should be the number they are meeting," he told The World This Weekend on BBC Radio 4. "This is clearly a terrible national disaster and demands a national response . . . As well as the public inquiry on the lessons learnt we need to establish where the areas of the highest risk are and take action immediately. That’s been a priority for me."
Building regulations questioned
The question of whether the UK’s building regulations need to be tougher on cladding continues to be in the spotlight.
Number of buildings failing cladding fire tests by local authority areas (UK Department for Communities and Local Government)
Contractor Rydon, the East Sussex-based company that oversaw the recent refurbishment and cladding of Grenfell Tower, insists the cladding met regulations.
As reported in The Times today, Rydon said it has worked on tens of thousands of projects over 40 years, and that all materials it supplied met safety regulations – and had been signed off by building control and the client.
"When a refurbishment takes place, a specification for the works and materials to be used is provided to Rydon," it said.
But housing minister Alok Sharma came under repeated questioning on the issue today.
On ITV’s Good Morning Britain this morning, he refused five times to say whether the cladding used at Grenfell Tower was "illegal", and repeated an earlier government statement that the cladding was "non-compliant" on buildings over 18 metres in height.
On Radio 4’s Today programme, asked whether it was not "obvious" now that regulations needed to be "tighter" by Today presenter Sarah Montague, Sharma said: "You are not a fire safety expert, I’m not a fire safety expert. There is an inquiry which is taking place, the police are undertaking a report and looking at this, as are the fire service. We have to be led by the experts."
He added: "But I want to be absolutely clear on this point … whatever lessons that need to be learned will be learned, if we need to make changes we will make the changes that are required, because this must never, ever happen gain in our country."
Image: Grenfell Tower, north Kensington, after the blaze that killed at least 79 people (ChiralJon/Wikimedia Commons)