22 Juin 2017
Tests are being carried out on 600 high-rise council buildings in England to see whether they have flammable exterior cladding similar to that used on Grenfell Tower, in west London.
The estimate, revealed by Downing Street, came as Theresa May told parliament that urgent tests were taking place around Britain to see how many tower blocks might be at risk following the devastating fire in north Kensington.
Making a statement to the Commons about the fire last week in which at least 79 people died, the prime minister said initial test results had shown other blocks had seemingly used flammable cladding.
Speaking after May’s statement, a No 10 spokeswoman said that after councils were told to provide the government with details of cladding, a “small number” of samples were tested, and three of these were found to be combustible.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) was coordinating the process and facilities to allow for 100 samples a day to be tested, the spokeswoman said.
“So far, three samples have been found to be combustible,” she said. “In terms of how many buildings and how many homes have this type of cladding, the estimate provided to us by councils is that there are approximately 600 high-rise buildings with similar cladding. We are in touch with all the local authorities to encourage them to urgently send us the samples and then we will carry out the checks that we need to see where we are with that.”
Later the DCLG clarified that the 600 figure referred to high buildings with any form of cladding, not necessarily the aluminium composite material (ACM) panels used on Grenfell Tower.
A spokesman said: “The situation is that 600 buildings have cladding – it is not similar, it is all types of cladding. Of these 600, we want landlords to check if they have ACM cladding. Of those 600, some of those would have ACM; we want to test them to see if they have ACM.”
In blocks where the cladding was found to be combustible further tests would be done to ensure buildings were safe and residents could be rehoused.
“Obviously nobody will be living in buildings that are unsafe. They will be rehoused if they need to be and landlords will be asked to provide alternative accommodation where that’s possible,” the spokeswoman said.
The Guardian has learned that the London borough of Camden will immediately remove cladding from five tower blocks because that cladding is similar to that which burned rapidly on Grenfell Tower.
Following independent testing of cladding on the Chalcots estate by the Building Research Establishment, the council leader, Georgia Gould, revealed the outer cladding panels on the blocks were made up of aluminium panels with a polyethylene core.
“The panels that were fitted were not to the standard that we had commissioned,” said Gould. “In light of this, we will be informing the contractor that we will be taking urgent legal advice. Camden council has decided it will immediately begin preparing to remove these external cladding panels from the five tower blocks on the Chalcots estate. Camden council will do whatever it takes to ensure our residents are reassured about the safety of their homes.”
Speaking in the Commons, May said some people might need to be moved. She said: “We cannot and will not allow people to live in unsafe homes.”
Answering questions from MPs after the statement, May said she could not yet say whether the cladding used on Grenfell Tower complied with relevant fire and building regulations, in part because of possible criminal charges.
May said the fire service and the Building Research Establishment were looking into the matter of the cladding’s compliance. “They have been looking at the cause of the fire and any contributory factors to the fire. They are testing the cladding on the building and they expect to make the results of this public, I think in the next 48 hours,” she said.
Pressed on whether she could say the Grenfell Tower cladding met fire regulations, she said: “This is part of the criminal investigation.”
One tower being tested as part of the nationwide checks is Clements Court, a 13-storey block of 78 flats in Hounslow, west London.
“We are still going through the testing,” a spokeswoman for Hounslow council said. “We haven’t been told how long it takes for the results. We are monitoring on a daily basis.” The tests were being carried out with the support of the DCLG, she said.
Describing the fire as “one of the most unimaginable tragedies our country has seen in many years”, May said it was correct that the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, had resigned, because the authority had not coped with the fire aftermath.
In his response, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, asked why the council’s political leaders were not “taking responsibility for this terrible event”.
Corbyn said the government must do more to assist “overstretched and understaffed” fire services, and asked whether cuts to councils meant many did not have the staff to carry out proper fire checks.
“From Hillsborough, to the child sex abuse scandal, to Grenfell Tower, the pattern is consistent: working-class people’s voices are ignored, their concerns dismissed by those in power,” he said. “The Grenfell Tower residents and north Kensington community deserve answers, and thousands and thousands of people living in tower blocks around the country need very urgent reassurance.”
Harriet Harman, in whose south London constituency six people died in 2009 in the fire at the Lakanal House tower block, said May should accept that ministers did not act on the recommendations of the inquest.
Harman said of the Grenfell Tower fire: “She said that it was an unimaginable tragedy and that those deaths should not have happened. They would not have happened if the government had acted on the Lakanal coroner’s inquest rulings.”
May concluded her statement with an impassioned pledge to pay more attention to the needs of poorer people in social housing.
She said: “As we move forwards, we must recognise that for too long in this country, under governments of both colours, we simply haven’t given enough attention to social housing. And this itself is a symptom of a more fundamental issue. It shouldn’t take a disaster of this kind for us to remember that there are people in Britain today living lives that are so far removed from those that many here in Westminster enjoy.
“In this tower, just a few miles from the Houses of Parliament in the heart of our great city, people live a fundamentally different life, do not feel the state works for them and are therefore mistrustful of it.
“So, long after the TV cameras have gone and the world has moved on, let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process.”
• This story was amended on 22 June 2017 after the DCLG clarified that the 600 figure referred to high buildings with any form of cladding, not necessarily the aluminium composite material (ACM) panels used on Grenfell Tower.