On April 29, 2012, a 40-storey residential tower in Dubai burned like a Roman candle. Four similar fires have lit up the night sky in the Arab emirate in the past five years, the most spectacular being the 2015 New Year’s Eve blaze that saw the skin of a 63-storey hotel burn in a way familiar to those who witnessed the way the flames spread up Grenfell Tower. What is similar, in my opinion, between the Dubai fires and the re-clad 24-storey council block in West London is this: all were covered in the same type of skin, a yucky sandwich of sheet aluminium containing a flammable filler of rubber or plastic.
After the first two fires in Dubai these Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) were banned in the United Arab Emirates. The London fire makes it almost certain that sandwich panels like these will never again be used to provide a cheap overcoat for old council blocks. Why were they used in the first place? Because they keep the rain out, some heat in – and make the place look a bit more cheerful. They have of course been tested for fire safety, so nothing like the fire that has just happened was supposed to happen. As builder Rydon says: “the work met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards.”
I was in the building trade when Ronan Point collapsed in 1971. I was editor of Building magazine in the early eighties when fires in timber-framed homes were highlighted by World in Action. They panel system used to build Ronan Point met the standards of the time. Those early timber frame homes were also fully tested and approved by the now privatised Building Research Establishment. Why were these flammable panels approved? Because the fire tests that manufacturers need to pass involve putting up a few panels in a wooden crib and applying a match.
One of the approval bodies for external cladding is the British Board of Agreement. Another is the Loss Prevention Certification Board. Its motto is “making LPCB approval work for you.” But "you", here, means the product manufacturers, who pay for the tests to be done, not the residents.” Performance criteria is set by the end users,” paying customers are assured. Those that pass the self-designed tests get the modern equivalent of a BSI kite mark, allowing them to sell to builders. And the LPCB is not some shady outfit. Everyone from the Association of British Insurers via the Intumescent Fire Seals Association to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors are members
So why are 17 people dead? Get someone drunk and I expect this might the confession. “Look, Peter, nobody really wants to rock the boat. We are all professional people of good intent. We take our job seriously. But, you know, the whole testing system is controlled by those who pay – the manufacturers. “Even back in the day of Ronan Point they drove through dodgy products that made them money. You can’t have some dull guy from the Consumers' Association sitting in on the act and stirring up trouble. We’re not bad people, you know. I did say that didn’t I? We have the best of intentions.”
Peter Bill is a former surveyor and editor Building magazine and the Estates Gazette, and the author of Planet Property