Public distrust in high-rise residential buildings is exceptionally high following the Grenfell Tower fire, but it is a problem that has existed for decades and requires definitive action to bring it to an end once and for all.

Britain’s relationship with tower blocks began in 1951 when the first tower named ‘The Lawn’ was completed in Harlow, Essex. By the 1960s they were a popular form of social housing.

Towers built five storeys or higher accounted for just nine per cent of local authority building between 1953 and 1959 but increased in the early 1960s to a peak of 26 per cent in 1966. But it was not long before public distrust began to seep in. On May 16, 1968 in a chilling premonition of Grenfell, Ronan Point, a 22-storey tower block in Canning Town partly collapsed, just two months after opening.

 

“The anger and outcry over how this could have happened led to widespread acceptance that the fire safety equipment, systems and processes for these tower blocks and indeed all social housing needs overhauling”

 

A gas explosion, compounded by poor design and construction, caused the collapse of one entire corner of the building, killing four people and injuring 17. This marked the beginning of half a century of fear and deadly incidents affecting residents who have no choice but to live in these buildings.

On July 3, 2009 in Camberwell, London, the Lakanal House fire saw six people killed and at least 20 injured. A BBC London investigation in September 2009 then found at least 300 social housing high-rise towers had no valid fire check from their local authority, with one council having only carried out risk assessments on two of its 112 tower blocks. An expert who visited one block branded it a “disaster waiting to happen” when being interviewed by the BBC. Failings even included a 13-year gap in recorded fire hose services. A chartered surveyor specialising in fire risk who the BBC also spoke to said he had been warning about it for 20 years.

But the warnings went unheeded and local residents were ignored. On the night of the Grenfell fire, The Grenfell Action Group (GAG), a blog campaigning for the rights of the residents of Lancaster West Estate, published a post documenting multiple posts it had made from as far back as 2013, highlighting the fire dangers at the tower. One included the report of a power surge that destroyed electrical appliances in the building.

Before the fire, the blog attracted a weekly readership of around 200 people. On the day of the incident, the editors said it received nearly three million views during the first 24 hours.

The Post-Grenfell Legacy

The anger and outcry over how this could have happened led to widespread acceptance that the fire safety equipment, systems and processes for these tower blocks and indeed all social housing needs overhauling. Yet, more than two years on from Grenfell, residents of similar buildings still do not feel safe in their homes and safety concerns have not been properly addressed.

An investigation by the Labour Party in July 2019 revealed that the vast majority (95 per cent) of social housing tower blocks in England are still without sprinkler systems – ten years after the Lakanal House fire which initiated the calls for sprinklers in tall social housing blocks.

The issue is compounded by the social injustice of privately-owned tower blocks occupied by wealthy residents having the highest standards of safety equipment, while social housing remains dangerously underprepared for fire. In June 2017, it came to light that a fire-resistant version of the cladding used on the Grenfell Tower would have cost just £5,000 more, demonstrating how cost had been put before safety.

This is further juxtaposed by the recent unveiling of the refurbished Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets, now an exclusive development of 146 luxury flats fitted with the latest fire protection equipment. Originally designed by Ernö Goldfinger (who also designed Trellick tower) and built in 1967 as social housing, Balfron was sold off by the housing association that owned it due to the high cost of refurbishing the building for its existing social tenants.

 

“Residents will only begin to feel safe once they have better access to fire safety information”

 

The Right to Feel Safe

In July 2019, David Parr, director of policy and technical services at the British Safety Council, said: “Everyone has a fundamental right to be safe and feel safe within their home and it is absolutely correct that residents should be at the very heart of the process that provides this assurance. The issue of resident safety requires a culture change in order to ensure stakeholders have an effective and participative role in building safety management.”

The only way to achieve this cultural change is to establish complete openness between landlords and residents for all fire safety equipment and its upkeep.

Dame Judith Hackitt called for a ‘golden thread of information’ in her report commissioned by the government following the Grenfell fire, to ensure the transparency and compliance of fire safety equipment and maintenance in residential buildings.

Giving residents oversight of the equipment in their building and proof that it is being effectively maintained is the only way to help build trust within communities and ensure that residents feel safe in their homes.

Every time a fire breaks out, it undermines a landlord’s credibility and increases residents’ fear. If landlords get it right, however, they will be able to provide peace of mind for all involved by showing the correct equipment is installed, regularly serviced and within its expiry date.

To do this, landlords must have a holistic view of what equipment exists, what work needs to be done, what work has not been done, and what work is upcoming in a live and digestible way.

The current compliance processes are not fit for purpose. Many authorities and landlords have little oversight of the safety equipment in their properties or how effectively they are being maintained, compounding the situation.

Landlords are also completely beholden to the contractors who control their records (of which many vary in quality). Some contractors are still using paper-based systems, while others have digitalised their records – but offer no insight into the bigger picture.

Residents will only begin to feel safe once they have better access to fire safety information. And landlords will only manage to get a grip on fire safety when contractors are held fully accountable through a stricter compliance performance monitoring dashboard.

We cannot allow this tangled mess of injustice to continue any longer. Now is the time for transparency, before any more lives are lost.