London fire: Theresa May's government accused of ignoring warnings over fire safety in tower block

Former housing ministers Gavin Barwell and Brandon Lewis both face questions

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Thursday 15 June 2017 09:25
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Theresa May promises 'proper investigation' into Grenfell Tower fire

Theresa May’s government is under pressure to explain claims that it neglected to improve fire safety in buildings despite warnings about the potential for tragedies like that at Grenfell House tower block.

Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff, failed to give the go-ahead to a safety review during his tenure as housing minister, despite it already having been delayed for years.

His predecessor as housing minister Brandon Lewis declined to bring in regulation forcing developers to fit sprinklers because he said it was not the Government's responsibility.

Jeremy Corbyn ramped up pressure by calling for Mr Barwell and others who had failed to act on calls for a safety review to face questioning.

Theresa May ordered an urgent meeting of officials on Wednesday afternoon to ensure authorities were best placed to deal with the fire and its fallout, with the group concluding that checks should be carried out other blocks.

In 2013 the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group called for a review of safety regulation, after six people died and more than 20 were hurt in the 2009 blaze at Lakanal House in Camberwell .

But the group’s honorary administrative secretary, Ronnie King, said successive ministers had failed to carry out the review that the group’s report called for.

Speaking to LBC radio, he said the group had looked at fire suppression measures in all the tower blocks with similar designs as Grenfell and noted that there were around 4,000 buildings with no fire sprinklers fitted.

He added: “Our group recommended that due to the speed that the fire spread in Lakanal House, that building regulations should be reviewed.

“It's nearly 11 years since it has been reviewed.”

Former chief fire office Mr King confirmed that earlier this year, Mr Barwell told him he was still considering the proposals for a review.

He added: “Mr Barwell said he was still looking at it and was preparing to meet with the All-Party group. That's when the election was called and the meeting never happened.”

As the Grenfell death toll rose to 12, it also emerged that Mr Lewis, recently promoted to immigration minister, had declined in 2014 to force building developers to fit sprinklers.

The coroner's report into Lakanal House had recommended regulations be updated, and called for developers refurbishing high-rise blocks to be encouraged to install sprinkler systems.

But five years later, Mr Lewis told MPs: “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.”

He said the Tory government had committed to being the first to reduce regulations nationwide, pledging a one-in-two-out rule.

He added: “The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building – something we want to encourage – so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”

Grenfell fire update: 12 dead with death toll expected to rise

Mr Corbyn hit out at the Government’s record demanding that ministers be forced to answer questions on fire safety.

Suggesting spending cuts may also have a role to play, he said: “If you deny local authorities the funding they need, then there is a price that’s paid.”

He went on: “A review took place after the fire in Camberwell and the Government has that review.

“I believe we need to ask questions about what facilities and resources have been given to local authorities that have tower blocs in the area and, frankly, most do. We need to deal with this, we need people to be safe living in high rise buildings.”

Asked whether that involved any current serving frontbench politicians, he replied: “Obviously ministers that served and received those reports must be questioned. But today every focus and every concentration must be on saving and protecting life.”

A government spokesman said that following the Lakanal House fire, the coroner recommended the guidance relating to fire safety within the building regulations be simplified, work he said is on-going.

The coroner also asked government to write to councils encouraging them to consider retro-fitting sprinklers, he said, adding that it had happened.

The fire-damaged lower floors of the 24-storey residential Grenfell Tower block

The spokesman added: “Our thoughts are with the residents and families of everyone caught up in this dreadful event. We stand ready to help in anyway possible as the emergency services continue to stabilise the situation.

“The London Fire Brigade will be conducting their investigation and at this stage it would not be appropriate to comment on the cause of the fire.”

The cause of the fire is so far unknown, but residents had previously raised concerns that a 'catastrophic' event could happen, with an action group claiming that their warnings fell on “deaf ears”.

The group said there was one entry and exit to Grenfell Tower during improvement works at the block in Latimer Road and it had issues with evacuation procedures.

Following the fire, the group posted: “All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.”

Grenfell was fitted with zinc rainscreen cladding and glazed curtain walling after a £10m refurbishment and some have suggested this could have exacerbated the spread of the fire, though the firm that carried out the work said it all met safety regulations.

Announcing an urgent meeting of ministers and officials in the wake of the fire, the Prime Minister said she was “deeply saddened”.

After the session finished Policing and Fire Minister Nick Hurd said they wanted to provide reassurance to people living in other buildings as soon as possible.

He said: “We have discussed with the Department for Communities and Local Government, local authorities and the fire service a process whereby we seek to identify towers that might have a similar process of refurbishment, run a system of checks so that we can, as quickly as possible, give reassurance to people.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said there are “questions that have to be answered” after residents of the tower were told to stay in their flats in the event of a fire.

Mr Khan condemned the “bad advice” given to residents of the west London tower block that was engulfed in flames overnight, killing several inhabitants and leaving many trapped inside the burning building.

A newsletter to residents in 2014 said the “stay put” policy worked because the block had been designed according to “rigorous fire safety standards”.

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