Sunday 20 October 2019

Thousands could be evacuated as flammable cladding found in flats

Window cleaners work on a tower block on the Chalcots Estate in Camden which has aluminium cladding which the local council has decided to remove. Photo: Reuters
Window cleaners work on a tower block on the Chalcots Estate in Camden which has aluminium cladding which the local council has decided to remove. Photo: Reuters

Gordon Rayner

Dangerous tower blocks housing thousands of people could be evacuated over the weekend, the British government admitted last night, after tests showed at least 11 other buildings have combustible cladding similar to that blamed for the Grenfell Tower fire.

An estimated 600 high-rise blocks have been covered in cladding in England alone, all of which are now undergoing urgent tests to discover whether the panels contain the flammable material that made Grenfell a death trap.

Three of the buildings that failed the tests were refurbished by the same firm that fitted cladding to Grenfell, using the same highly flammable material.

Councils have been told in a letter from the Department for Communities and Local Government to "move all residents out of the block" if buildings are deemed by fire brigades to be unsafe.

It could lead to the first mass evacuation since the Second World War, with local authorities already scrambling to find hotel rooms and other temporary accommodation should it be needed.

Downing Street insisted that "nobody will stay in a building that is unsafe", but Prime Minister Theresa May faced criticism over the government's response to the fire after it emerged that councils were only told to send cladding samples for testing on Monday - five days after the Grenfell Tower fire.

The Grenfell tower blaze. Photo: GETTY
The Grenfell tower blaze. Photo: GETTY

Around 200,000 people are thought to live in the 600 blocks covered in cladding that has been sent for testing at the Building Research Establishment in London.

Although 11 cladding samples have failed combustibility tests, at least three other buildings in the same council areas are known to have identical cladding that has not yet been tested.

The 11 samples came from buildings in eight council areas, including the five-block Chalcots estate in Camden, north London, and the three-block Mount Wise estate in Plymouth. Tower blocks in Manchester also failed the tests.

Camden Council said the cladding panels at the Chalcots estate - which will now be removed - were of the same design as those at Grenfell: highly flammable polyethelene between layers of aluminium.

The council hired the construction firm Rydon to carry out the work, and has now discovered that "the panels that were fitted were not to the standard that we had commissioned". It is now considering legal action.

Mrs May said "no stone will be left unturned" in the inquiry she has ordered into the Grenfell inferno. She added: "For any guilty parties there will be nowhere to hide."

In Camden and in Plymouth - where the 16-storey Lynher, Tamar and Tavy buildings are affected - residents have been told they will not be evacuated because increased safety precautions, including round-the-clock fire patrols, have been put in place.

Other councils, however, may take a different view after it emerged that London Fire Brigade could not prevent the Grenfell Tower fire spreading to upper floors even though it was already on the scene, having tackled the fridge fire in a fourth-floor flat that started the blaze.

It is feared that the buildings that have failed the tests could also become a target for terrorists or arsonists.

Downing Street stressed that buildings clad in materials that prove to be flammable could still be declared safe because several factors were thought to have combined to cause the Grenfell fire on June 14, in which at least 79 people are thought to have died.

Mrs May told the Commons that "all possible steps" were being taken to ensure buildings are safe.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Obviously nobody will be living in buildings that are unsafe, they will be rehoused if they need to be and landlords will be asked to provide alternative accommodation where that's possible.

"It is landlords' responsibility to make sure that buildings people live in are safe. If they are proved to be unsafe they will be rehoused and re-accommodated." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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