Government and councils were warned repeatedly about fire safety experts fears over tower blocks as far back as 1999
The residents of Grenfell Tower were alarmed to discover smoke pouring from their electrical appliances in May 2013. Laptops, televisions, washing machines and fridges were damaged by an unexplained series of power surges that prompted the frightened occupants of the 24-storey tower in west London to descend on their estate office, demanding action and answers.
In an email to Robert Black, CEO of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which manages the 1970s social housing property on behalf of the local authority, one resident explained we had numerous power surges in the space of a minute, and in that process my computer and monitor literally exploded, with smoke seeping out from the back.
According to the July minutes of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelseas housing and property scrutiny committee, KCTMO carried out some repairs and continue to monitor the situation. It is too early to say whether the problem has been fully resolved and here responsibility lies for the cause. It is possible that the fault that has been rectified is not the primary cause.
The cause of the surges, which are now likely to be reviewed following claims that last weeks blaze started when a residents fridge went up in flames, were just one of many concerns about fire safety that the residents have raised with KCTMO down the years. As far back as 2004 they flagged up issues with the buildings emergency lighting system, which was supposed to activate in the event of a fire.
KCTMO denied there was a problem. But an independent consultancy it hired to look into the matter disagreed and issued a series of urgent recommendations for how the system had to be improved. An assessment five years ago suggested monthly inspections of fire extinguishers were not being carried out. In some cases, the extinguishers had not been tested for years.
More recently the Grenfell Action Group (GAG), which represents the interests of the largely immigrant tenants who lived in the tower, warned about the fire threat posed by discarded rubbish, and complained that parked vehicles were blocking access for the emergency services. The councils much-vaunted 10m two-year transformation of the tower completed in 2016 was another source of concern.
In an email sent in 2014 to the chief fire officer at Kensington fire station, a member of GAG said that residents feared the improvement works had turned the building into a fire trap. He wrote: There is only one entry and exit to the tower block itself and, in the event of a fire, the London fire brigade could only gain access to the entrance to the building by climbing four flights of narrow stairs. On top of this, the fire escape exit on the walkway level has now been sealed. Residents of Grenfell Tower do not have any confidence that our building has been satisfactorily assessed to cope with the new improvement works.
Angry that their concerns appeared to be falling on deaf ears, in June 2016 the residents association attended the councils housing and property scrutiny committee and let rip. They presented a survey suggesting that 90% of them were unhappy with the improvement works and that 68% of them believed they had been lied to, threatened or pressured by KCTMO, which they accused of serial incompetence.
In a horribly prescient blog post, written last November, they said that they had reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.
Time, and a public inquiry, will help establish whether a lax fire safety culture was operating at Grenfell Tower. But it is clear that the failures that resulted in last weeks catastrophic loss of life are not confined to one organisation or one London borough. Tragically for the victims, they were manifold, the consequences of systemic tensions that spring from trying to provide that most basic of needs shelter at a time when budgets are stretched and politicians priorities lie elsewhere.
On New Years Eve 2016 a huge fire ripped through Dubais luxury Address Downtown Hotel, a 72-storey tower that stands opposite the Burj Khalifa, the worlds tallest building. The Downtown blaze followed fires at two other landmark Dubai buildings, the Marina Torch and the Tamweel Tower.
As with fires that devastated buildings in other parts of the Middle East, China, France, Turkey, and now Grenfell Tower, the buildings exterior cladding is believed to have been a factor in the spread of the flames. But concerns about the increasing use of cheaper, synthetic composites in place of conventional construction materials, such as steel and concrete, are not new.
In 1991, the flammability of cladding was a key factor in the fire that destroyed an apartment block in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool. In 1999, expert witnesses to the environment, transport and regional affairs committee, including the Fire Brigades Union and the Loss Prevention Council the technical advisers to the insurance industry suggested that the guidelines on cladding were inadequate.
The Building Research Establishment, which advises the government on safety and carries out tests on construction materials, agreed that the existing guidance was far from being totally adequate.
Alarmed at the implications, the committee wrote to councils asking to receive from you assurances that any cladding systems which may be used on any buildings, particularly multistorey tower blocks, in your area are not in any way susceptible to the risk of serious fire spread on the face of, or immediately behind the cladding.
But this latest alarm bell clearly ringing did not stop the trend for cladding the outside of Britains ageing tower blocks. Not only did cladding help insulate the towers, allowing governments to meet energy-saving targets, it transformed the concrete behemoths that mushroomed across urban Britain in the 60s and 70s and were viewed as unsightly compared with their glass-and-steel successors.
Grenfell Towers 10m makeover saw it encased in aluminium composite panels that have a synthetic core and are manufactured by a subsidiary of a US firm, Arconic. Some of the more expensive cores are more fire resistant but Grenfell was fitted with a cheaper version, banned in the US for taller buildings because of safety concerns. Some estimates suggest that the additional cost of fitting the fire-resistant product would have been as little as 5,000.
Rydon, the contractor that oversaw the renovations, having taken the contract from another firm, Leadbitter, whose original 11.6m quote for the job was considered too high, insisted that the work met all fire regulations. And Harley Facades, the company that fitted the panels, said in a statement shortly after the fire: We are not aware of any link between the fire and the exterior cladding to the tower.