Observer column: 30 June 2017
The Grenfell Tower fire was a tragedy, but it was avoidable. There seems to be no doubt that flammable plastic cladding allowed the fire to spread up the outside of the building. The public enquiry will reveal more, but that will take months. So we must do what we can now to make sure everyone living in rented accommodation in Hastings is not exposed to the same risks that led to such tragic consequences in Kensington.
The government has written to all councils and all social housing providers asking for details of residential buildings above three floors that have been refurbished using external Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding, the type used at Grenfell Court. Although Hastings Council is not a housing provider, we will ask local social housing providers for those details, so we can co-ordinate the responses and identify problems.
It's the responsibility of the local authority to help accommodate anyone made homeless as a result of an incident, such as a fire - a response which has to kick in within minutes of the first reports. That involves working with the emergency services, providing emergency shelter to those affected, providing food and clothing, and rehousing if necessary, as well as helping others affected, such as relatives and friends. In recent years, Hastings Council has dealt with a couple of high-profile incidents: the pier fire, and Marlborough House fire. In the case of Marlborough House, the council had to help shelter, feed, support and re-house 32 very vulnerable people. Not on the scale of Grenfell Tower, but we need to be able to cope with similar emergencies of any size.
So here in Hastings we are reviewing our own emergency procedures to ensure that they could deal with a disaster on the scale of Grenfell, looking at our staffing arrangements for rest centres, additional training as necessary, and a mock disaster exercise.
Hastings has four tower blocks, the 'Four Courts' in Wishing Tree ward, which were refurbished a few years ago using external cladding. I asked for details of the cladding used there, and have been told that it isn't ACM cladding. It's made from a 'phenolic foam', with a mineral render over it. Phenolic foams are much more fire resistant than other plastic insulating materials, so do not appear to present a fire risk at the Four Courts. Nevertheless, I will be talking to officials from Optivo (formerly Amicus Horizon housing association) about fire safety arrangements in the Four Courts, to make sure everything possible is being done there to guarantee the safety of the residents.
But there are other social housing estates in Hastings above three floors that have had external cladding fitted, and we are asking social landlords for information about their properties. We are gathering details about what cladding has been used in refurbishments to those too, and whether it's flammable. And of course, if any problems are identified, we'll be putting pressure on social landlords to make changes as soon as possible. Maintaining that cladding meets building control regulations isn't enough - we need verifiable evidence that it's fully fire resistant. Meetings are taking place across the country between councils and fire services to identify potential issues in both the public and private sectors, and East Sussex Fire & Rescue service will supply a list of buildings in the private rented sector for us to use, in conjunction with our own records. The government has offered cladding tests to private sector buildings above 18 metres, and has issued instructions about what needs to be done if a building fails to meet standards..
More details will no doubt emerge from the Grenfell Tower public enquiry. But there seems to be little doubt that inappropriate materials were used because they were cheaper - materials that would not have been used in a more salubrious, private development. We cannot allow our citizens to be put at greater risk simply because they are poorer. This must change.
Council Leader's column