Lessons from Lakanal House were not heeded – then Grenfell happened

Warnings were loud and clear. Carl Court/PA Archive/PA Images

As a special correspondent for the BBC, I investigated the Lakanal House fire in 2009 that killed six people in a south London tower block and its consequences over the next few years. What seems patently obvious in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower inferno is that trust in the fire safety regime governing residential tower blocks is unravelling dangerously quickly. Fundamental lessons from the Lakanal fire were ignored – and the government and its advisers must accept the blame.

The unseemly scramble to decant tenants from their homes in the London Borough of Camden because of non-compliant cladding, begs the question of why was it installed in the first place? As the days pass – and more and more cladding samples fail fire tests – we will need to face the obvious explanation: the cladding probably complies with the building regulations. It is the regulations themselves that are ambivalent and flawed. Put another way, the building regulations are so flawed it has become all too easy, with impunity, to add combustible materials to safe buildings.

Sickening errors

At the end of the Lakanal inquest in 2013, Mbet Udoaka and Raphael Cervi, who lost their wives and children in the blaze, faced the press and said they hoped other families would never have to suffer their pain. On the day of the Grenfell fire, Mbet was heartbroken again.

Condolences in 2009. Carl Court/PA Archive/PA Images

It’s worth recalling what the coroner justice, Frances Kirkham, recommended to then local government minister, Eric Pickles, in her Rule 43 letter. It was this that gave these men hope that the deaths of their loved ones might prevent future tragedy. I am sickened reading it again:

It is recommended that your department review Approved Document B … to ensure that it provides clear guidance in relation to Regulation B4 of the Building Regulations, with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of the building and the circumstances in which attention should be paid to whether proposed work might reduce existing fire protection.

There it is in black and white. Either the government’s advisers failed to put into practice a very clear recommendation from the coroner or the construction industry has been breaching wholesale the building regulations. The truth is the government and its fire advisers appear to be pushing the blame away from Department for Communities and Local Government by now implying it is the builders who have not complied with the regulations instead of blaming the official dithering on revising the Part B document to make them clearer and getting the changes enforced.

An inquiry will need to establish whether the evidence of such tragic fires suggests rigorous enforcement was missing during either the refurbishment or the building’s Fire Risk Assessment process, which is a bit like an MOT for a car. Alternatively it might be established that both are inadequate to the task of ensuring high rises are safe in a fire.

The dire consequence of this building regulation mess is that the cornerstone of the new fire safety regulatory regime introduced in 2005, the Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) – which are a legal requirement for every dwelling in England – are no longer fit for purpose. I haven’t seen any FRAs for the buildings where the cladding has failed in all post-Grenfell fire safety checks, but I’d like to know if there is a single mention of combustible cladding in any of them.

So if landlords can’t now trust the FRAs – which they commission and pay for from fire assessors (the evacuated Camden blocks presumably had satisfactory FRAs) – why would tenants? How can the government now stop this self-regulatory method of fire risk assessments falling into disrepute? The 2005 law change that removed the fire brigades from regulating fire safety and pushed it on to landlords has failed. Two fatal infernos now make a review urgent.

Advice unravels

I recently returned to Lakanal House in Camberwell for the BBC and spoke to residents there. I asked them what they made of the “stay put” advice which had led to the deaths in Lakanal and that so many residents at Grenfell had ignored and as a consequence saved themselves. They said that the commonsense view on the ground for high-rise tenants is now to get out. This runs roughshod through firefighting and rescue policies in place for 60 years since the first high rises were built.

This could of course now hamper firefighters, particularly when there is only one staircase as at Grenfell. But the failure to impose strict compliance with the building regulations means that compartmentation – which confines fire to a single dwelling for up to 60 minutes – can no longer be guaranteed. The premise on which fire safety was ensured has literally gone up in smoke.

Cladding coming off a building in Manchester. Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

So will the advice from the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group to retrofit sprinklers be acted on or not? The disruption caused by this would need to be explained to hundreds of thousands of high-rise residents. But, given just about every other guarantee is wilting in the post-Grenfell political meltdown, this may become a pragmatic solution.

We also need to grasp the implications of a bigger question: how has this culture of apparent negligence been allowed in the social housing sector? Housing and shelter is a right enshrined in the principles of the welfare state. There is a very strong argument that – after years of “right-to-buy” policies supported by all political parties – social housing that used to be such priority for local councils has become progressively underfunded. The political desire to empower people with home ownership has chipped inexorably away at a public good that provided security of tenure and decent homes for the less well off. Pity the poor housing officers who are the new social workers: difficult to recruit, poorly rewarded and unloved.

The housing landscape that has evolved is full of fragmented responsibilities, where often leaseholders are lumbered with the costs of years of building neglect and social landlords struggle to meet the financial imperatives of maintaining ageing stock. It is well known in housing circles that fire safety has not, for example, been helped when tenants become owners and then set about modifying their flats without due regard to the fire safety aspects of the building as a whole. The Fire Risk Assessments, for example, only deal with the common parts of a residential block. Changing a front door for one that is not fire rated, unfilled holes in the wall for a new kitchen or bathroom, internal doors removed or other structural changes, all potentially compromise fire safety.

After Grenfell there are no easy answers. But – with so many lives so tragically lost – on the issue of fire safety, landlords (social or otherwise) are now being forced to address the key question: how do you stop fires spreading and protect lives? Rebuilding trust in fire safety regimes in tall buildings is urgent – and the people at the top of government giving the advice must be competent this time.