Test results on building materials in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster have revealed that 60 high-rise blocks in 25 areas of England are unsafe, the UK government has confirmed.
Earlier over the weekend, cladding that had been used on 34 tower blocks in 17 council areas in England was reported to have failed government fire-safety tests.
The announcement came after Sajid Javid, the British communities secretary, revealed that all of the buildings that had so far submitted cladding samples have failed combustibility tests.
“We expect that authorities and landlords are very sensibly giving the highest priority to buildings with which they have most concern. But we should not be in the position where buildings have such cladding on them. How this occurred – and preventing this from happening again – is likely to be a key question for the public inquiry,” Javid said on Saturday.
“Outrageous” lack of clarity
The news came as the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, said that the "frankly outrageous" lack of clarity over the number of deaths from the Grenfell Tower disaster was "driving a wedge between authorities and those they are elected to serve", and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said the 79 declared victims had been "murdered by political decisions".
There are concerns over cladding used on buildings after reports that the materials used on Grenfell Tower, in north Kensington, London, caused the fire to get out of control. At least 79 people are believed to have died because of the inferno.
The towers declared unsafe so far are in Manchester, Portsmouth and Sunderland, as well as Norwich, Doncaster, Stockton-on-Tees and Plymouth. There are unsafe blocks also in seven London boroughs: Barnet, Brent, Camden, Hounslow, Islington, Lambeth and Wandsworth. A further 11 areas, accounting for 27 of the unsafe buildings, have yet to be named.
Camden, where the whole of the Chalcots estate, housing about 4,000 people, was being evacuated over the weekend, and Sunderland share the greatest number, with five towers each.
Downing Street sources said the prime minister, Theresa May, would chair a meeting of the Grenfell task force on Monday morning.
As part of the response, ministers announced that tests would be carried out on materials used on hundreds of social housing buildings amid fears their cladding could be similar to that used on Grenfell Tower.
The department for communities and local government has put in place a “combustibility testing programme” for aluminium composite material. Some of those composite panels have been classed as unsafe. The cladding features two sheets of aluminium sandwiching a core. In some cases, that material is not the fire-retardant type.
The department said on Saturday that the programme is able to test 100 samples a day, “and, if needed, yet further laboratory capacity could be provided”. But the government’s latest figures suggest that only the results of 60 tests had been received since its announcement that it would open its facilities up to councils on June 19th.
On Sunday, authorities in Liverpool said they would remove cladding from two high-rise blocks following the government tests. The social housing provider One Vision Housing said results showed “certain elements of the cladding” on Cygnet House and Wren House, in the Bootle area, met building regulations but not the test criteria laid down by the department.
Work to remove cladding from nine towers ahead of the results of government tests started in Salford on Sunday.
In a statement the Local Government Association emphasised that a failed cladding test would not necessarily mean evacuation of a block. “Where cladding fails the test, this will not necessarily mean moving residents from tower blocks. In Camden, the decision to evacuate was based on fire inspectors’ concerns about a combination of other fire hazards together with the cladding.”
The authorities have so far said they believe at least 79 people died in the disaster but the local community, and others, have suggested that that figure was low and questioned why the authorities had been unable to be more accurate.
Police adhere to Interpol’s disaster victim identification standards, which call for a lengthy process to identify those who have died. The protocols of the London Metropolitan Police Service also say there should be “no speculation on fatality figures, and police should only confirm the number of dead after they have a true and accurate picture”.
But Lammy, who lost a friend in the Grenfell Tower fire, said, in a lengthy statement posted on Twitter, that lack of solid information was “feeding suspicion of a cover-up”.
He wrote: “Almost two weeks on and having spent time with the survivors this week it is difficult to describe the pain people are going through. Holding out hope for loved ones that they know deep down lost their lives in Grenfell is eating people up inside and breaking them down.
“Trust is at rock bottom in the community. Failure to provide updates of the true number that died is feeding suspicion of a cover-up. Lack of information about number of victims and survivors is driving a wedge between authorities and those they are elected to serve.
“Residents saw dozens of people jumping out of windows to escape the fire. Bodies piled up in stairwells and corridors. Survivors cannot believe that the death toll has not risen. Speaking to people on the ground, there is huge suspicion of a cover-up, with information being withheld for political reasons in an attempt to avoid fuelling anger or unrest. But it is frankly outrageous.”
He said the authorities should be able to use information, such as that on mobile phones on the night, and data from government agencies, to work out roughly how many people were in the tower when the fire started. But he acknowledged that subletting and the reluctance of undocumented migrants to come forward would make an exact figure difficult to reach.
“The fact is that the longer this goes on, the bigger the disconnect between [the council] and the community. There is zero trust right now. If the true numbers are withheld, the authorities will never regain the trust of the people and the community. It’s that simple. So the authorities need to come forward now with whatever information they have to address the suspicion that a cover-up is underway.”