Subject: Cladding
Original: April 2020
Author: Mark Collins
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The tragedy of Grenfell Tower took many lives and the culprit has been reliably identified to be the cladding used to make the outside look more presentable. The Government in its wisdom has decide that this cladding is lethal, despite it having conformed to the building regulations at the time it was fitted, and now all buildings with this same cladding have to have it replaced.

Was the cladding really at fault here? The official enquiry will of course take many years to come to little or no meaningful conclusion and in any event is not going to come to any different outcome. The decision has been made, as is usually the case with these things, and the cladding will be proved to be the problem. The Government will no doubt find a suitable scapegoat to take the blame despite their having authorised its use in the past.

I am no expert on fire safety, but one thing I think is blindingly obvious in any fire is to evacuate everyone as soon as possible. For reasons I do not fully understand, the London Fire Service has advised the tenants of high-rise blocks such as Grenfell Tower, to stay in their flats while the fire is contained. Even if we have a high level of confidence of the ability of the fire to be contained, surely everyone should be evacuated, even if the process might incur some injuries, it is better than being burned to death.

As a consequence of all this, all over the country, any building more than a few stories high has to have this cladding removed and replaced with a more suitable substitute, regardless of any real and substantial threat imposed by the existing structure. All this is invariably at the cost of the tenants, and although the Government has pledged a relatively small sum to support such work, that is unlikely to go very far with so many buildings affected. Until the work is done, those living in these buildings are presumably at risk, in some cases buildings have had to employ full time fire watchers, and it has become impossible for anyone to be able to let or sell their properties.

A property in Cambridge, of which I am familiar is affected. It has a tower with penthouse flats clad in the offending material which has to be replaced at considerable cost to all tenants, even though some flats have no cladding on them at all. Under the terms of the lease, the landlord escapes all liability as does the original building contractor.

The tower is seven stories high and fire escape is very efficient. It would be very easy for the occupiers to be able to get out of their flats if there is a fire, even if it is spread via the cladding, which is generally unlikely as fires usually start within buildings, not on the outside. The fire escape is some way from the outside walls and well protected.

What is needed here is an intelligent approach (not something Government specialises in) to look at each building on a case by case basis and make a proper meaningful assessment of the risk. It does not require huge sums to be wasted in replacing cladding which poses little threat to life. We should also look extremely hard at the advice given to occupiers of such buildings by their local fire officers.

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