A former fire minister and firefighter has declared that “the finger is pointing at Government” over the Grenfell Tower blaze in west London.
Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick told HuffPost UK that ministers had been warned about the need to upgrade housing safety regulations but had spent the past four years saying “yeah, yeah, we’ll do it”.
Fitzpatrick, who chairs the Commons All-Party Group on Fire Safety and Rescue, said that Grenfell Tower and 4,000 similar blocks around the country lacked water sprinkler systems - despite the group’s strong recommendation to install them.
And he said that the company which refurbished the council flats with new external cladding – which caught fire from floor to floor – had questions to answer.
Fellow former firefighter Mike Penning also said that the cladding would have to be assessed as part of the investigation into the fire - but stressed he was just as worried about reported failures in emergency lighting and alarms.
Fire minister Nick Hurd has now ordered an urgent assessment of all refurbishments similar to that in Grenfell Tower.
Fitzpatrick’s words came as police revealed that the death toll from the devastating London blaze had risen to 12, with scores of people critically ill in hospital.
A firefighter in the service for more than 20 years, he said that Government ministers had to explain why they had dragged their feet.
A previous fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, that had claimed six lives in 2009, had been followed by a coroner’s request in 2013 for a thorough review of building safety regulations.
But when pressed in the Commons last October on the lack of progress, then housing minister Gavin Barwell – now Theresa May’s chief of staff – said the Government was still looking at the issue.
“We have not set out any formal plans to review the building regulations as a whole, but we have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing part B [of building regulations] following the Lakanal House fire.”
Fitzpatrick told HuffPost UK: “The coroner’s inquiry made a whole raft of recommendations from things like fire door protection, making sure venting shafts all blocked off, through to a review of the building regulations which is the Bible for architects, construction companies.
“That document, which is called Approved Document B, has not been reviewed for over 20 years. You’ve only got to look at the London skyline to see new buildings, new design, new materials being used. The building regulations have got to keep up with those developments.
“One of the recommendations from the Lakanal House fire from the coroner was that the Government should carry out a review of Approved Document B.
“For four years, the Government has been telling us, ‘yeah, yeah, we’ll do it’. They haven’t told us when it’s being started, they haven’t told us when it’s going to finish, they haven’t shown any recommendations from it.
“That’s going to be one of the fingers that will be pointing at Government as a result of this fire.”
Fitzpatrick added: “If this building was being constructed today, it would need far greater fire protection and because of its height and its residential risk it would need fire sprinkler systems fitted.
“Because it was built in 1974 that’s not a requirement. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve been asking for an urgent review of the fire safety regulations, because we need to keep up to speed with developments in construction, developments in risk and better ways of protecting people.”
Fitzpatrick said that the external cladding on the Grenfell Tower had to be examined closely.
“Obviously landlords, local authorities, fire brigades, as well as the companies which carried out the major refurbishment of the building, the heating system, the cladding, the inquiry will ask difficult questions of all of them.
“We want to try and prevent it from happening in the future. These types of fires shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century in London. We know how to build safe buildings, we know when fire breaks out – and it will happen because of people cooking, people smoking, candles –how we can extinguish fires very quickly when they do break out.
“The technology and mechanics are there. These sort of fires shouldn’t be happening. We shouldn’t be losing lives like this.”
Fitzpatrick, who served with London Fire Brigade, said that the firefighters who arrived at the scene would have been shocked by what they found.
“Their adrenalin would be pulsing but they demonstrated their professionalism and courage in getting into the building.
“I haven’t seen anything like it. In Battersea, where I used to be a firefighter, we had a number of tower blocks, I’ve fought tower block fires, usually on the upper floors.
“This one clearly started much lower down but it has spread rapidly up the building internally, externally. These questions need to be answered by the Fire Investigation Unit.”
He added that the lengthy investigation would take time. “There will be all manner of answers expected by the public quickly. I think they will be frustrated, I don’t think there will be quick answers. When Lakanal House happened, it was years before the coroners’ inquiry. “
Penning, a former Essex country firefighter and until last week the minister for the armed forces, told HuffPost UK that his bigger concern with Grenfell Tower was that its emergency alarms and lighting hadn’t appeared to work.
“In a perfect world, all these buildings should have a sprinkler system, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But we are not in a perfect world,” he said.
“I’m more concerned by the residents saying for instance the emergency lighting wasn’t working properly, the alarms clearly didn’t go off in parts of the building. That worries me even more because that’s part of the regulations already, before you even think about more regulations.”
Penning said that the cladding on the outside of the building would have to be investigated fully.
“I could see the cladding alight. The suspicion is it has also caused a chimney effect between the main structure and the cladding. If there weren’t proper breaks within the cladding, the top of the building may have caused a vortex and drawn the fire up the outside.
“They will throw everything at this because there are so many of these buildings they will want to make sure they’re safe.”
But the Tory MP said that it was too early to start a political row over spending cuts.
“I heard Corbyn saying this was all about money. I just think that was completely inappropriate. There clearly was a huge amount of money spent on this building, it’s not a shortage of money it’s an argument about how it was spent. The cladding would have cost millions.”
And like Fitzpatrick, he was full of praise for the emergency services.
“It is the most extraordinary fire and I’ve got nothing but admiration for them. They’ve gone beyond the call of duty. No matter how much training you do, you can never train to go into what they’ve seen. But as usual, we went one way and they went another way to look after us.”