Originally published in Crisis Response Journal, 12:4, August 2017
In the light of the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London, Tony Moore looks back at recent high-rise building fires in Britain.
Two incidents within a month in 1999 should have alerted the authorities to the dangers of fires in high-rise residential blocks. On June 11, fire swept through Garnock Court, a 14-storey block of flats in Irvine, North Ayrshire, in Scotland, killing one person and injuring five others. The fire, which started in a corner apartment on the fifth floor, swept upwards on the outside of the building after a ribbon of cladding on the external walls caught alight. Within ten minutes the fire had reached the 12th floor. On July 3, 2009, a fire at Lakanal House, a 14-storey block in Southwark, London, killed six people. The blaze broke out as a result of an electrical fault in a TV in a ninth- floor flat, and spread through the block: “With a ferocity that baffled firefighters and terrifed residents.” Subsequently it was revealed that Lakanal House had been due for demolition in 1999 but, instead, in 2006-2007, landlord Southwark Council opted for refurbishment, including the fitting of cladding panels offering less fire resistance than those they replaced. In February 2017, Southwark Council pleaded guilty to four breaches of fire regulations, including failing to carry out an appropriate fire risk assessment.
Period of Consequences
London Fire Brigade’s Assistant Commissioner for Fire Safety said: “All landlords, including large housing providers, such as councils and housing associations, have a clear responsibility under the law, that their premises meet all fire safety requirements and are effectively maintained to provide protection in the event of a fire, and keep their residents safe.”
Since then, there have been other warning signs. On April 7, 2010, two firefighters died tackling a fire at the 15-storey Shirley Tower in Southampton. At the inquest, the Coroner called for the retrofitting of sprinklers to be considered in all high-rise blocks. On February 4, 2011, two women died in a fire that had been deliberately started on the 16th floor of Marine Tower, a 17-storey block in Deptford, South London. A woman was subsequently convicted of manslaughter. The owner – Lewisham Homes – was fined and ordered to pay prosecution costs, after admitting failing to maintain fire doors, which had allowed the fire to spread, and failing to review an existing fire risk assessment. After passing sentence, Judge Christopher Heir said it should be a “wake-up call” to all housing providers to ensure fire safety features in buildings are properly maintained.
There were three further warnings within a four-month period in 2016, although none involved fatalities. On June 11, fire spread upwards from a ground floor flat in a 16-storey premises at Canterbury Crescent in Brixton, South London. Approximately 50 people were evacuated; three people were hospitalised. On August 19, a faulty tumble-dryer caused a fire in a flat on the seventh floor of Shepherds Court, West London. the flames spread up to the 11th floor, via the outside of the building, before they were brought under control. On September 29, fire broke out in an unoccupied apartment on the 13th floor of Handsworth House, a 17-storey residential block in Portsmouth. The top five floors were quickly evacuated as firefighters fought the blaze. Three firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion and 30 residents suffered from smoke inhalation.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Ronnie King, honorary secretary of the All-Parliamentary Fire and Rescue Group, and a former chief fire officer, claimed that it seemed governments needed to: “Have a disaster to change regulations, rather than evidence and experience. It was the same with the King’s Cross fire and the Bradford City football stadium fire. They always seem to need a significant loss of life before things are changed.”
In November 1936, as the Second World War loomed, Winston Churchill said: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.” Successive governments have procrastinated and delayed legislation that would, at least, have prevented the Grenfell Tower fire from being so catastrophic. At the same time, owners and managing agents of high-rise blocks have procrastinated and delayed the implementation of lessons identified following the fires at Lakanal House, Shirley Tower and Marine Tower. Now they must all face the consequences.