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The ARCH annual report for 2015-16 is now available to view.

 

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Grenfell Tower fire 21/06/2017

The ARCH Tenants' Group held a minute's silence at their Annual General Meeting on 19 June to pay their respects to those that had lost their lives in the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower.

 

The group were understandably anxious about the safety of residents living in other tower blocks across the country and members reported on the actions that had already been taken by their own councils to reassure residents. The group also recognised that the Grenfell Tower police-led investigation is now underway and it will be some time before it is fully understood how the fire started and the reasons why it took hold and spread so quickly in the way it did.

 

The group committed to continue to promote fire safety in their own local authorities and agreed to agenda a more detailed discussion on fire safety at a future meetings.

 

The exact reasons for the speed of the spread of fire have yet to be determined. However, the government have concluded that there are additional tests that can be undertaken regarding the cladding that may have been applied to these blocks during refurbishment programmes. Although there are councils working with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to identify whether any panels used in new build or refurbishment projects are of a particular type of cladding made of Aluminium Composite Material (ACM). DCLG have stressed that ACM cladding is not of itself dangerous, but it is important that the right type is used. DCLG officials have also written to owners, landlords and managers of private residential blocks about safety checks following the Grenfell Tower fire.

 

More details on how to identify this cladding are being supplied in a technical note to councils and housing associations. The Homes and Communities Agency can also offer expert support in surveying properties if necessary.

 

In a statement issued on 19 June, Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, said:

 

"We have asked local authorities and all providers of social housing to identify whether any buildings in their area contain cladding made of aluminium composite material (ACM) by the end of today (Monday 19 June).

 

We are putting in place a rigorous, government funded testing process for any ACM cladding identified.

 

Housing Minister Alok Sharma this morning met representatives from across the housing sector including the Home Builders Federation, Local Government Association and the National Housing Federation. They all expressed their support for this work and gave a commitment that they would progress this with all possible haste.

 

It is clear that a considerable amount of work has already been undertaken. Councils are working closely with fire and rescue services to ensure that the appropriate safety and response measures are in place and talking to their tenants to hear their concerns.

 

Any landlord who is concerned can contact the department at housingchecks@communities.gsi.gov.uk for further advice about cladding materials - this is a dedicated contact point which has been set up to provide technical support and reassurance.

 

Our priority is to reassure people that they are safe in their homes - and that is exactly what we are doing."

 

The Prime Minister updated Parliament on 22 June and following the Prime Minister's statement, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government has subsequently written to MPs to provide an update on the situation in which he said that as at that date some 600 high rise buildings (owned by housing associations and councils) have been identified as having various forms of cladding and, as at that date, samples of cladding from 11 high rise buildings in 8 different local authority areas have failed the testing process. The landlords of those buildings and the local fire & rescue services have been alerted to the results and action is being taken to inform tenants and address the specific fire risks.

 

The names of the local authority or housing association where samples have failed the tests will be made known once the landlords have informed their tenants. As at 22 June the only areas named publicly were Camden, Manchester & Plymouth.

 

Following the Prime Minister's statement to Parliament, Hilary Benn MP asked a question of the Prime Minister:"Was the cladding of the type used in Grenfell Tower compliant with the fire safety and building regulations applicable when refurbishment was undertaken - yes or no?".In response the Prime Minister stated:"My understanding is that the fire service and BRE (Building Research Establishment), which was on the scene early to look at that issue, have been identifying the cause of the fire and contributory factors. They are testing the cladding on the building and expect to make the results public in , I think, the next 48 hours"   (Hansard 22/6/17 Volume 626 Column 181)

 

ARCH Chief Executive, John Bibby, had previously written to officials at DCLG to say that ARCH stands ready to assist in anyway in either disseminating information or advice from the Department on the management of fire risks in tower blocks and/or in gathering any relevant information.

 

To further assist ARCH members in their response to this tragedy and any ongoing actions arising from the fire, we will be setting up a forum in the ARCH members' area where information can be shared about local responses - details will be sent to member councils shortly.

 

Although attention is currently focused on the cladding used, the causes of the fire at Grenfell Tower and why it spread have not yet been established, so it is impossible to be sure what, if any, remedial action may be necessary in relation to other tower blocks. As the causes become clearer we will be keen to understand from member authorities the precise implications for stock retained councils, whether capital works, improved management or the need to rehouse vulnerable residents will be needed and the cost implications as we pursue a discussion with the new government on housing investment and the future of rents policy.  

 

We have also written, jointly with the National Federation of ALMOs, to the new Housing Minister, Alok Sharma, in the first instance offering our help with the response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but also are looking to initiate a wider dialogue on issues of concern to ARCH members.

 

The House of Commons Library has produced a useful overview of the legal framework under which fire risks in tower blocks are currently managed in England covering the Building Regulations, Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, and the Housing, Health & Safety Rating System.

 

Update 25 June 2017: DCLG confirm the number of high rise buildings which have failed a combustibility test is now 60 across 25 local authority areas details of which can be found in the Secretary of State's statement.

 

Update 27 June 2017: It is reported that the number of high rise buildings which have failed a combustibility test is now 95 across 32 local authority areas. The Prime Minister is also reported as saying that there could be a "major national investigation" into cladding issues as an add on to the Grenfell public enquiry.

 

In the meantime, the government has announced that a new Independent Expert Advisory Panel will be established to advise on measures to be put in place to make buildings safe following the Grenfell Tower fire.

 

Update 28 June 2017: The Prime Minister in the House of Commons advised MPs that the cladding from 120 tower blocks across the country, in 37 different local authority areas, has now been tested and has failed the combustibility test.

 

The Prime Minister went on to say: "Given the 100% failure rate, we are very clear with local authorities and housing associations that they should not wait for test results; they should get on with the job of the fire safety checks - indeed, they are doing that - and take any action necessary. The Government will support them in doing that. The Communities Secretary has set up an independent expert advisory panel to advise on the measures that need to be taken. The panel is meeting this week."

 

In response to a question from the Leader of the Opposition, who asked whether cladding with a combustible core, such as polyethylene, is legal for use on high rise buildings, and was the cladding on Grenfell Tower legal?, the Prime Minister said:

 

"Building regulations identified the cladding that is compatible with the building regulations and that which is non-compliant. My understanding is that this cladding was not compliant with the building regulations. This raises wider issues, as the House will recognise. It is important that we are careful in how we ‚Äčtalk about this. A criminal investigation is taking place, and it is important that we allow the police to conduct that criminal investigation and to take the decisions they need to take. There is a much wider issue here, as we have seen from the number of buildings where the cladding, from the samples already sent in by local authorities and housing associations, has failed the combustibility test. This is a much wider issue, with cladding having been put into buildings for decades. There are real questions as to how this has happened, why it has happened, and how we can ensure it does not happen in future. That is why I am clear that in addition to the inquiry that needs to identify the specific issues for Grenfell Tower-what happened in relation to Grenfell Tower and who was responsible-we will also need to look much more widely at why it is that over decades, under different Governments and under different councils, material has been put up on tower blocks that is non-compliant with the building regulations. There is a very wide issue here. We need to make sure we get to the bottom of it and that is what we are going to do." (Hansard column 587)

 

 

Watch out for further updates in the next ARCH e-bulletin.

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