AS A FRESH year of students start at their new universities, it has come to light that fifty-four student halls of residence tower blocks are wrapped in the same flammable cladding as the Grenfell Tower. Cladding has now been shown in the case of Grenfell Tower to be responsible for rapidly spreading the flames up the outside of the building.
On their first night in their new student digs, in a town, which for most students is far from home, students living in these tower blocks will fear going to sleep, wondering whether they will wake up in the morning or die during the night in a similar inferno.
Last Thursday the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government revealed that fifty-four privately owned student residential towers in England remain clad in aluminium composite material. This is the same material which spread the fire in Grenfell Tower on June 14th which claimed the lives of 72 men, women and children.
Only eight of the 62 student towers with cladding which have breached fire safety standards have been stripped and made safe. The National Union of Students has said the buildings should not be used until the cladding has been stripped and they have been made completely safe for students.
The government has refused to make public which towers have been wrapped in the cladding. There are 468 high-rise buildings in England which are covered in the same flammable cladding as the Grenfell Tower.
The government admitted there was ‘public interest in transparency with respect to buildings’ safety’ but said disclosing the information could endanger the mental and physical health of people living in the buildings and could compromise their safety. It would only say roughly how many affected buildings there were in each local authority area.
Eva Crossan Jory, the NUS vice-president for welfare said: ‘It’s absolutely appalling. It’s incredibly concerning to see private providers gambling with student lives.’
The Office for Students called for urgent checks of the halls of residence.
The higher education regulator’s chief executive, Nicola Dandridge said: ‘We would hope that the local fire authority and the Health and Safety Executive checks these blocks urgently to reassure students of their safety.’ In March, students living in an affected block in Nottingham said that they did not know the panels on the outside of their block were flammable.
The government has also revealed for the first time that 28 high-rise hotels were among 295 private sector buildings that would have to remove the cladding, but again it would not say where they were. None of the affected hotels has had the cladding removed. Of 205 blocks of private flats across England with combustible cladding, only two have been completely fixed.
Ministers have warned private building owners they could face government intervention if they do not act. So far, Barratt Homes, Legal and General, Taylor Wimpey and Mace have agreed they would pay to remove and replace cladding on affected buildings.
Other developers were insisting leaseholders pay tens of thousands of pounds each to remove the cladding and install a fire-resistant alternative. Of 159 social housing blocks that have cladding that failed fire tests in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, only 15% have had the cladding removed.
Meanwhile, a coroner made the shocking announcement that Grenfell survivors may be at risk of asbestos poisoning which can be deadly. The senior coroner examining the deaths caused by the fire has warned that hundreds of survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster could be at risk of asbestos poisoning and must be monitored by the NHS.
Dr Fiona Wilcox has written to Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, urging him to take action to prevent the death toll rising in a formal notice that cites the experience of firefighters and others affected with health problems years after the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Her Majesty’s senior coroner for inner west London told Stevens she was concerned that no structured health screening programme is in place for people including firefighters and other first responders who were exposed to risks of smoke and dust inhalation.
‘Without an appropriate system of health screening, there is a risk that illness may arise unnoticed or present later in survivors, first responders and site workers, and thus reduce their life expectancy,’ she warned. The tower was built in 1974. The now-banned fire retardant was present in textured ceilings and in airing cupboards.
If inhaled it can cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease that can take decades to develop.
Seventy-two people died as a result of the fire on 14th June 2017 and most of them are believed to have died from inhaling poisonous smoke, Dr Wilcox said. She told Stevens: ‘Real concern has been expressed to me by the bereaved in relation to the health of survivors, especially children, and I have been informed that no physical health screening programme has been put in place to monitor the health of survivors on an ongoing basis.’
• Ten days after the fire late one Friday night, thousands of estate residents were rushed from their homes into makeshift relief shelters. Safety checks by Camden council, issued in the aftermath of Grenfell, had found the Chalcots estate covered in similar flammable cladding. The sudden evacuation was widely criticised.
Residents’ confrontations with council leader Georgia Gould went viral.
One featured a woman countering Gould’s assertion that safety was the council’s priority, pointing out ‘for this long now you’ve allowed them to live in this property that’s been dangerous – how?’
Elsewhere, local authorities are discovering that decades of neglecting and underfunding council homes present safety concerns beyond fire. In Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm Estate, two blocks were revealed to be structurally unsound following ‘post-Grenfell’ safety checks. They said the blocks were ‘vulnerable to collapse if there were an explosion or vehicle impact’.
Haringey Council’s response, too, has been speedy evacuation – this time in order to demolish both blocks. 200 households are being told they must permanently leave their homes before October, when their supplier intends to switch off gas supply.
Questions from residents and campaigners have arisen about the council’s intentions, and whether they are using the unsafe buildings as an excuse to drive working class families out of the area. After evacuation, once they fix the towers, will they be allowed back?
Will any new towers be available for the same rent and the same tenancy? Will residents be moved out of the area or even out of the city? In previous demolitions of estates the land is usually sold to a private developer, which builds luxury apartments and the number of social housing units built in their place slashed.
Council tenants are often forced to leave their communities, enter the private rental sector or move into pricey, often inadequate and invariably insecure temporary accommodation as they await another council home that may never come. It is not a problem exclusive to Tottenham. Across the river in Peckham, the Ledbury Estate was condemned as unsafe last year. Southwark council’s response? To threaten demolition!