Grenfell Tower – what lessons can we learn? Reflections from my home town of Manchester and the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) Conference

Jul 27, 2017 | News

By David Zussman of Community Housing Aotearoa

I arrived in Manchester early on Friday 17 June. It was great to be home and to be with my family. The fire at Grenfell Tower had only just been put out and was still smouldering. This awful tragedy played out during my visit and provided a powerful backdrop to day three of the CIH conference.

“The tragic fire is a symbol of all that is wrong in Britain today. Growing inequality and poverty have been thrown into sharp relief as some of the poorest in our society have died and suffered because of possible negligence and lack of investment following years of government cuts. I’m sure that the Public Enquiry will discuss many reasons for the disaster but there is no doubt that the long term neglect and demonising of social housing and its tenants is one of them.” Tom Murtha, UK social housing professional.

Photo: Getty images

The very last session of the conference addressed the UK community housing sectors response to this fire – which was a very avoidable event. From a panel of representatives, Sam Webb, an architect and one of the UK’s leading experts on post-war social housing, spoke with a level of power, empathy, distress and knowledge that stood out for me from just about everything else at the conference.

We are still wrapping post-war high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down,” Sam Webb commented.

It was made very clear to conference participants that sprinklers work and save lives– end of story. And it was pointed out that the cost of a retrofit for a Sheffield tower block of 43 units at a unit cost was £1,150 per unit. Not a great amount when it saves lives.

As an architect and fire safety expert providing advice at the Lacanal fire inquest in 2008 where six people died – Sam Webb could name all the people who died, knew exactly where and how they died. The recommendations of the subsequent inquest were not implemented – although they probably will be now. Webb surveyed hundreds of residential tower blocks across the country in the early 1990s and presented a damning report to the Home Office, which revealed that more than half of the buildings didn’t meet basic fire safety standards. He said: “We discovered a widespread breach of safety, but we were simply told nothing could be done because it would ‘make too many people homeless’.”

On the Grenfell Tower fire Sam commented: “I suspect it would be one of the biggest fire disasters in British history.This is a fire that need never have happened.”

The CEO of one of the biggest UK housing associations commented that it could have been any of them, and at an earlier session a presenter had commented that providing a home was a life changing event but that it was also a big responsibility.

What does this tragedy mean for the New Zealand community housing sector?

This made me think about how we should respond to ensure fire safety here in New Zealand – we may not own or manage tower blocks at this stage but none of us can afford to neglect our responsibility for tenant safety.

Though unlikely, it would be catastrophic if a similar event were to happen here and it is important that we consider the following points in our regular reviews of fire safety monitoring:

·Are inspections and fire drills up to date?

·Are we compromising on fire safety? Have we reviewed and considered any outstanding maintenance and safety recommendations and made them a priority?

·Do our tenants and staff feel safe? Do they have exit plans and are they aware of the safety systems that are in operation?

·Are daily inspections being undertaken in emergency or transitional housing facilities?

·Are smoke alarms, extinguishers, fire blankets and other fire safety requirements checked regularly?

·Does the building design and structure comply with building codes?

There is immense pressure on the UK community housing sector to build to scale and respond to the housing crisis that they are experiencing after years of undersupply – sound familiar? Safety, quality and volume were highlighted,in that order, as the guiding priorities but it appears that safety was not given the priority it was due. Let’s not make the same mistake.

This is also a good time for us to consider what we need to be cognisant of here in New Zealand and what we need to be doing.

Dr Geoff Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Structures and Fire Safety at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Architecture, says that a similar situation is unlikely to happen here. “With automatic sprinklers and without a “defend in place” evacuation strategy, a similar disaster to Grenfell Tower is unlikely to occur in New Zealand.”

He says it is more important to address the issues we do face in ensuring buildings are built and maintained to comply with building codes and older buildings are upgraded so they stay safe from fire.

MBIE is currently seeking feedback on the proposed design guide for Fire Safety: Residential Community Housing and the consultation period will run to 11 September this year. A categorisation method has been developed in the proposed design guide that takes into account the differing needs of occupants and each category has a gradual increase in the level of fire safety.

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