Bristol City Council had been warned of the fire risks related to Eccleston House’s cladding system four years before a blaze at the tower block last month, the council’s housing chief has admitted.
Tom Renhard, the local authority’s cabinet member for housing, said steps were taken to have the expanded polystyrene insulation (EPS) removed from the tower block in Barton Hill a year before the fire on 20 October.
Last week the council confirmed that the building’s EPS insulation contributed to the spread of the blaze, which injured six people and left residents trapped in their homes as their fire escapes were blocked.
The revelation followed an investigation by the Cable into warnings in 2019 over the poor condition of cladding’s rendering and the local authority’s poor communication about fire safety, which Renhard said he will “work to improve”.
The council has since committed to removing the material from all 37 – more than half – of its high-rise blocks fitted with EPS, and from one other that has a similar cladding system. This could take a decade, it estimates.
In the meantime, ‘waking watch’ fire marshals are being introduced as a precautionary measure at all of these council-owned blocks until the authority is able to install evacuation alarms at the buildings.
But given that the council was aware the cladding system at Eccleston House amounted to a heightened fire safety risk, why didn’t it act sooner – before the fire – to introduce these precautionary measures?
Why didn’t the council act sooner?
Eccleston residents were only alerted to the fire, which broke out shortly after 6am and spread easily through the building’s west stairwell, when their neighbours or firefighters went door-to-door ordering them to evacuate.
Tenants told the Cable how they were forced to jump from their windows onto the scaffolding that was fixed onto the building in order to escape the smoke that was quickly overwhelming their homes.
One of these residents, who was rushed to hospital suffering smoke inhalation, said he might not have been injured if an evacuation alarm or a fire marshal was present at the building to alert him sooner.
Waking watch fire marshals had been introduced in May, six months before the Eccleston House fire, at four neighbouring Barton Hill blocks – Longlands House, Ashmead House, Harwood House and Barton House.
Asked why precautionary fire safety measures such as waking watch fire marshals were not introduced at Eccleston House before the blaze, Renhard said the council didn’t have the necessary “level of evidence” to justify it.
“We had more information into those four blocks that gave us clear concerns, so we took the decision to put it in place,” Renhard added.
Additional measures at Longlands, Ashmead, Harwood and Barton were informed by investigations that followed city-wide fire risk assessments in 2019, Renhard said. These are the blocks the authority was most concerned about, he added, but did not say why.
He acknowledged, however, that the authority was aware of warnings about the cladding fixed to Eccleston House and “some” other blocks following an independent fire risk assessment carried out by building surveyors Easton Bevins in 2019.
“[The cladding] wasn’t in a good state of repair,” Renhard said, adding that work to remove the building’s cladding was ongoing before the fire. He said work to remove EPS from some buildings began in September 2021.
The Easton Bevins report, which was carried out after the Grenfell Tower fire two years earlier, was acquired by the Cable via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Bristol City Council.
The report stated that the surface finish of the render at Eccleston House was “in very poor condition… and unlikely to remain intact in the event of fire.”
It made clear there were cracks in the material. “The cracking to the render on the southern gable in particular, is significant enough to compromise the system’s performance,” the report said. “There is a strong argument for replacing the cladding rather than local repairs and additional fire break installation.”
The council awarded a contract for the refurbishment and replacement of Eccleston House’s external wall insulation in July last year. The contract states that work was due to be completed by July 2023.
Renhard confirmed that Avon Fire and Rescue informed him the day after the fire that Eccleston’s cladding contributed to the spread of the fire, and that the fire service recommended a waking watch measures be introduced.
Asked if – given the previous warnings about the building’s cladding – the fire service had previously told the council to introduce waking watch, Renhard said: “I don’t know if they recommended it before [the fire].”
The Cable asked Avon Fire and Rescue if it had recommended waking watch for Eccleston House before the fire, but a spokesperson for the service said it was not in a position to comment.
How much will it all cost?
Renhard told the Cable that rollout of waking watch at four Barton Hill blocks in May has cost £12,500 per month, per building. This means the full rollout across all 38 buildings would likely cost the authority about £6 million a year.
“We’re finalising the costs to roll it out across the rest of the blocks,” said Renhard. “It’s not cheap, but it’s the most immediate measure we can take… and it’s a measure that the fire service supports.”
The costs of the works and precautionary measures will be taken from the council’s Housing Revenue Account (HRA).
The costs of removing the cladding from all of the buildings will be huge, and comes at a time when the council is considering cuts to its budget as it faces a funding shortfall of up to £87.6 million over the next five years.
Councils and housing associations are also facing a government-imposed cap on rent rises this year, in the face of soaring inflation and energy costs, which has been estimated at wiping £1.3bn from their combined budgets.
The ongoing refurbishment and replacement of the cladding system at Eccleston House and neighbouring Phoenix House is set to cost the authority almost £8 million in total, according to the contract published last year.
Rehard would not say how much he anticipated the works would cost for all 38 blocks, but said the authority would release further information before January as the changes are incorporated in its Housing Investment Plan.
He said the council has written to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities asking for financial support for the waking watch measures and for works to remove the EPS cladding systems from its blocks.
Thangham Debbonaire, Labour MP for Bristol West and former shadow housing minister, has said she is also asking the government to release funds for both the waking watch and cladding removal programmes.
She told the Cable: “Following the investigation at Eccleston House, I was pleased to hear that as an immediate step the council will be implementing a waking watch scheme across 27 similar tower blocks.”
“I also welcome the council’s plans for a remediation and refurbishment programme to replace EPS cladding with an A-rated cladding system in all Bristol’s HRA [Housing Revenue Account] tower blocks.
“I will also continue to chase the government to release funds from the Building Safety Fund and the Waking Watch Relief Fund or Waking Watch Replacement Fund, on behalf of all buildings in Bristol West which qualify for this support.”
While the cladding system contributed to the spread of the fire at Eccleston House, the Cable’s investigation also showed that the layout of the building meant some residents were trapped in their homes by the fire.
The blaze ripped through the building’s west stairwell, and the flats nearest to this stairwell were the worst affected. Tenants told how their front doors and fire escapes were blocked by smoke or flames.
Asked if the design of the building will be considered as the council works to make Eccleston House safer, Renhard said: “We’ll be looking at all aspects of the investigation report, and speaking to residents.”
A full investigation report into the fire is yet to be published.
In a blog post last week, Renhard said the council is “constantly vigilant” about fire safety as research, testing and regulations change.
Referring to the 2019 Easton Bevins reports, he added: “New information regarding fire safety in blocks has developed since those post-Grenfell checks took place and we are in a better place now to understand what is needed than before.”
Greater transparency and accountability
The fire at Eccleston House, which investigators believe was started deliberately, came just weeks after a fatal blaze at Twinnell House – another council-owned tower block about a mile away in nearby Easton.
Asylum-seeker Abdul Jabar Oryakhel, 30, died after falling from a window on the 16th floor while trying to escape the fire which broke out in the early hours of 25 September. It was caused by a fault with an e-bike.
In the days after the blaze, residents raised questions about why there was no sprinkler system or in the tower block and some spoke out against the council’s poor communication and lack of accountability.
Tenants’ union ACORN also launched a campaign, demanding greater transparency from the council around fire safety and sprinkler systems in all its towers.
In 2019, Bristol City Council announced a five-year programme to install sprinklers at 59 tower blocks as part of £7 million plan to improve tower block safety following the 2017 Grenfell fire tragedy.
At the time, the authority said the project would take five years to complete. Four years later, however, sprinklers have been installed at just one of the city’s blocks – Butler House in St George.
As part of the “urgent” new measures announced last week, the council said it would accelerate its sprinkler programme, and that the need for them would be evaluated on a block-by-block basis.
Asked why the council has failed to make good on its 2019 promise, Renhard said the decision was made before he was in post as housing lead. He added: “There’s a question about whether that [five year target] was ever realistic as a timeline.”
The initial pilot scheme was meant for Castlegate House in Brislington, but that it was abandoned after “a majority of the residents responded to the engagement saying they didn’t want sprinklers”, Renhard said.
Renhard and Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees faced criticism following the fire at Twinnell House for failing to show up for an accountability meeting with residents of the building.
Renhard told the Cable that he was unable to attend due to a bereavement. He said that he and the mayor have met with residents of both Twinnell House and Eccleston House in the aftermath of the fires.
Asked about accusations of poor communication by the council, he said: “If our communication hasn’t been where it needs to be, then we’ve just got to accept that as a council and work to improve it.
“If that’s what residents are saying then I accept that. I feel like we are making effort to communicate – letters, residents’ meetings, text messaging – but if they feel there isn’t enough communication we need to listen and respond.”
Renhard met with residents of Eccleston House, other tower blocks and members of the wider community at Barton Hill Settlement on Friday to discuss the recent fires and address concerns over communications.
Following the fire at Eccleston House, the council has agreed to publish its latest fire safety risk assessments for each of its high rises. Many have already been shared on the council’s website.
The reports had always been available to residents on request, Renhard said. Asked why the council didn’t proactively publish them in the first place, he added: “I asked that question. It’s another hoop for people to jump through.”
Government refused to test cladding
EPS cladding is a different material than the type that was found to cause the spread of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, in which 72 people died. Concerns around EPS, however, have been growing in the past few years.
Polystyrene is cheap to use and insulates buildings well. But as it’s made from petroleum it can be very flammable. EPS systems, which are believed to be fixed to hundreds of buildings in the UK, have been linked to large fires.
Some experts say polystyrene insulation is safe to use if rendered well, in a non-flammable material like cement. Our investigation showed that the render on Eccleston’s cladding was damaged.
Fire safety expert Arnold Tarling, speaking after Bristol City Council’s announcement on EPS, said action should have been taken to deal with this kind of flammable material “long ago”.
“Now, it was known that these materials were flammable. Polystyrene burns, even though it’s fire-rated. We know that it spreads through the polystyrene very quickly,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.
“There was a fire in west London in the summer of 2016, which was a polystyrene-based fire. In September 2019, London boroughs asked the government about whether they would be testing EPS panels on buildings and on external walls, and the government refused to test them.”
A report from an Australian government research agency that tested an EPS system found there is “clear, test-based evidence” that the system can result in “vertical fire spread and pool fires” when exposed to a large fire.
Tarling said EPS cladding is fitted to buildings not just in Bristol but across the country, and that the government missed an opportunity to act much sooner.
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