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Tower blocks in Wales: How safe are they?

June 21, 2017 2:42 PM
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There are 36 tower blocks in Wales which are above a certain height and owned by councils or housing associations - the tallest has one storey fewer than Grenfell

The Tower in Cwmbran was once the tallest residential tower block in Wales.

At 23 storeys high, it has one floor fewer than Grenfell Tower, where at least 79 people died in a devastating fire that tore through the building.

It’s one of 36 council or housing association owned tower blocks in Wales which are seven or more storeys tall.

And, after the disaster in London, people who live in them have concerns for their safety.

It should be stressed, however, that there is no more reason to believe they are at risk in light of what happened in London. And it is believed that none of them have the type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower.

In 2013, Cwmbran’s Tower was refurbished. The work included the entire building being covered in cladding. An expert told us there are “major differences between the cladding on this tower and the cladding used on Grenfell Tower”.

Referring to The Tower, Matthew Needham-Laing, head of construction at Katten Law UK, said: “Firstly, there is no cavity, or should be no cavity, behind the cladding through which flames can spread unseen.

“Secondly, the insulation, being class ‘0’ and defined as non-combustible, is suitable for buildings in excess of 18 metres in height.

“Thirdly, the render coating is not liable to melt or ignite in a fire. The... insulation is non-combustible - it will not contribute to the combustion process.”

We spoke to people living in high-rise towers and heard differing accounts of how safe they feel. Some said safety measures made them feel secure, while others said they were uncertain about what to do in the event of a fire and that what happened in London had made them feel vulnerable.

Gareth Morgan, 68, has lived in The Tower in Cwmbran for 19 years and says he feels pretty safe in his flat, largely due to its sprinkler system. In 2013, it was the tallest block of flats in the UK to be retro-fitted with a fire sprinkler system.

Gareth said: “We have sprinklers in the flat and in the doorways and when the fire or smoke alarms go off, you certainly know about it.

“The odd occasion when we have had a fire, the fire brigade have been up here pretty quickly and have been able to deal with it.”

Another resident, who did not wish to be named, said she also felt safe despite living on one of the top floors.

She said: “They have sprinklers in every room and a fire alarm - that’s why I don’t understand what is happening in London, they didn’t have any of that.

“Not long after the fire in London, I asked the office downstairs about the cladding and I was told not to worry.

“The only rule here that I don’t like is that you have to stay in your flat when there is a fire elsewhere but generally I feel pretty safe.”

The fact that people in Grenfell Tower were told to stay put in the event of a fire has been another focal point in the disaster’s aftermath. But fire services continue to advise that the safest place for residents during a fire is normally their own home, unless it is directly affected by the fire.

In Cardiff, residents at a tower block in Loudoun Square in Butetown also said they felt safe. They said their building was fitted with sprinklers and “deafening” fire alarms throughout.

John Kelly, 66, has lived there for more than 33 years and said he feels safe.

He said: “There are assembly points at the back and front of the flats. We’ve been told that if there’s a fire not to take it on, close any windows and doors in your flat if you can and then evacuate the building. We used to have water hoses in the building, but they’ve replaced them all with sprinklers.

“We’ve got fire alarms everywhere, and there are pulley lines to set them off in each room. If they go off it goes straight to the fire brigade. What happened in London was horrifying but I feel very safe living here.”

A resident in Beech House on Cardiff’s Hollybush estate claimed they are unclear on what to do in the event of a fire and that advice was changed following a fire there last year.

They also said they were concerned that there was no alarm to let them know to leave when that fire broke out on the seventh floor.

Cardiff council said the advice had not changed. It said: “The procedure states that if a fire starts in a resident’s flat, they should evacuate as quickly as possible and alert their immediate neighbours on that floor if safe to do so. All other residents should stay in their flats and will be evacuated by the fire service if necessary.”

It added that training exercises with South Wales Fire and Rescue Service are carried out at its high-rise flats and that the most recent at Beech House was in January 2016.

Describing last year’s fire in Beech House, which has no cladding on the building, a resident said a chip pan fire broke out in a flat while the tenants - said to include a baby - had left for the day and it was only through neighbours noticing the smoke and calling for the fire brigade that more damage was not done.

After the blaze, fire crews were said to have taken part in training exercises at the block. People living in Beech House said they were only aware of an evacuation point because of signs in the building, not because they’ve been told.

Signs tell residents to shout “fire” if they see a blaze and notify neighbours if “safe to do so”.

None of the residents we spoke to thought there was a central alarm to alert the whole building, although there are individual alarms in each flat, and say they didn’t think there were any sprinklers in the building.

Referring to the fire last year, a resident said: “We didn’t know what to do and we still don’t. If it wasn’t for residents knocking on doors and shouting to get out, people wouldn’t have known.”

A ground floor resident echoed official advice, saying they had been told to stay put unless their flat was on fire in which case they would be forced to leave. But they found it concerning that there was an expectation that fires would be self-contained.

Asked specifically about Beech House, South Wales Fire and Rescue Service said it was “unable to comment”.

It did say it "worked closely with the housing sector and local authorities to ensure our high-rise buildings comply with fire safety legislation". And it said it "crews undertake familiarisation visits and training at high risk premises, which includes high-rise buildings".

A resident on the top floor of Beech House said she was worried about her safety, saying residents should be given fire extinguishers and blankets so they can try and control any potential blaze themselves.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says there are “thousands of tower blocks around our country” where residents will be “frightened, traumatised” after watching the horror unfold at Grenfell.

Back in Cwmbran, a man who lived in the middle floors of the building said he was concerned that if there were to be a major fire, his disabled partner would not be able to use the stairs.

He said: “The fire in London has brought it home to us and you think that could be us. We don’t know what kind of cladding they used on this building and we don’t know how safe it is.”

The man’s partner said: “I have animals here as well and if they don’t go in a fire, I don’t go. I am disabled and I don’t think we should be put up in high rises. I am not able to walk the stairs and I don’t like being carried.”

Another resident, who lived towards the bottom of the building, said he felt quite safe but a number of elderly people had become concerned following the fire in London.

He said: “I feel quite safe here because of the sprinkler system and the alarms are tested once a week. A lot of people have been here quite a few years and I have been here 10 years myself. Some of the older people have said they don’t feel safe now after what has happened in London.”

Alan Brunt, chief executive of Bron Afon Community Housing, which runs The Tower, said a number of residents had contacted them following the fire in London.

He said: “We are doing the best we can to answer their questions to reassure them.

“We are hand delivering some information to residents in our high rise blocks (this information was delivered on Tuesday). It is difficult as we don’t want to get involved in any speculation about what caused the fire and how it spread at Grenfell Tower.

“We were the first social landlord in Wales, and possibly the UK, to retrofit sprinklers to a high-rise block.

“That was in 2011 at Fairview Court in Pontypool but we have since gone on to do the work at our two others high-rise blocks, The Tower and Monmouth House, in Cwmbran.

“Our staff have an excellent relationship with local firefighters at South Wales Fire Service. They have supported us on several fire safety awareness campaigns and often use our high-rise blocks for training exercises.

“The public inquiry has now been announced and we will watch for any measures or recommendations that are made.”

Of the 36 tower blocks in Wales owned by councils or housing associations, 20 are in Cardiff and Swansea. They do not all have cladding.

There are others in authorities including Newport, Torfaen and Flintshire.

In Cardiff, the council has written to residents saying they have carried out assessments at all their high-rise properties. An independent review of all cladding on buildings will also take place.

In a letter to residents at their nine high-rise properties, the council says that while their buildings were re-clad in the 1990s, it was using “traditional fire-retardant materials, different from those used in London.”

No new cladding will be used on high-rise blocks until that review has been completed.

Most of Cardiff’s high-rise blocks are 11 storeys high, but the highest is 16 storeys.

In Swansea, the council has also said that the high-rise flats “ only used non-combustible cladding ”.

The type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower is being examined as a key reason the building was so quickly consumed by flames. The UK government has also launched an emergency review at thousands of tower blocks across Britain.

Cardiff, Swansea and Newport councils provided precise details on the type of cladding used on their tower blocks, where it has been used. A fire safety expert told us this was the safest type of cladding.

Newport City Homes said their tower blocks have Rockwool cladding which has a fire classification of A1. This means it is non-combustible.

Buildings and fire expert Matthew Needham-Laing says this is a mineral fibre wool and is not flammable.

This mineral based cladding is also used in Swansea. A spokesperson for Swansea council said: “[The] cladding which was used at Grenfell House is not used at any of the council’s blocks of high-rise flats in Swansea. We use high-pressure, laminate rock panel cladding and aluminium cladding, with a mineral core as opposed to a plastic core.”

Cardiff council said: “The council has not carried out any overcladding work to any of its high rise flats in recent times. The buildings are clad with traditional, fire retardant material, such as Rockwool and different from those used in London. The council will of course be reviewing arrangements for future schemes to ensure the safety of all tenants.”

The Welsh Government’s minister for communities, Carl Sargeant, said: “Between all residential social landlords in Wales, they own 36 blocks of flats of seven or more storeys.

“Social landlords have told us none of those appear to have been fitted with the type of cladding used in the Grenfell Tower.”

Broadly, speaking, cladding is a catch-all phrase for material used on the outside of buildings that is not structural.

Mr Needham-Laing said: “There is no real defined term for cladding. I regard it as everything that goes on the frame of the building that is not structural. It includes the aesthetics and the insulation.”

Although investigations are ongoing, it appears that the exterior cladding added to Grenfell Tower in 2015 had a polyethylene - or plastic - core instead of something more fireproof. A witness has described the cladding as going up "like a matchstick".

There are also concerns that there was a gap between the cladding and the tower wall, which could have acted as a chimney in which the flames could spread upwards at speed.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has said the cladding is banned on UK buildings of that height. The firm which completed the renovations said the work met all fire regulations.

There are other tower blocks in Wales which are not in the three largest cities.

Mr Needham-Laing outlined things people in tower blocks should consider.

“I would be asking what are the means of escape and have you practised that escape. There was a recommendation from the fire service that you should stay in the apartment or flat.

“This is based on the assumption that it will be contained. That way they can deal with the blaze without people running around and getting in the way.”

Sprinklers can make a big difference if a fire does break out. A fire at Lakanal House occurred in a tower block on July 3 in 2009 in Camberwell, London.

Six people were killed and at least 20 people were injured when a fire developed and spread through a number of flats in the 12-storey building.

“The coroner recommended sprinklers be installed in apartment blocks to stop flames spreading,” said Mr Needham-Laing.

“Sprinklers work inside an apartment but you need sprinklers on the outside to drench the cladding to stop it spreading externally. This is perfectly possible to install, it’s just case of money.”

“I think that people have got to look at that,” said Mr Needham-Laing.

“At Grenfell Tower people were saying they couldn’t get down the stairs.

“There are maximum heights for building with a single stairway and over a certain level and you need more.

If a fire does break out the first line of defence for people is the fire alarm. These should be wired into the mains to prevent batteries running out.

“A fire officer would insist that there is a heat alarm in the kitchen and smoke alarms elsewhere,” said Mr Needham-Laing.

“They would be centrally hooked up to the mains to meet fire standard requirements.”

Firefighters in South Wales have formally raised safety concerns about nine blocks of flats in Cardiff.

They all relate to residences near each other in the Caerau area of Cardiff, which all have fewer than four storeys.

We reviewed the list of safety notices on the Chief Fire Officers Association register in the light of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

We found that nine enforcement notices were listed as ‘in force’ for purpose-built blocks of flats from South Wales Fire and Rescue Service (SWFRS).

The buildings were Leckwith Court, Michaelston Court, Pendoylan Court, St Brides Court, St Donats Court, St Hilary Court, St Lythan Court, St Nicholas Court and Wenvoe Court.

In each case SWFRS raised concerns about the state of the emergency routes and exits.

The fire service noted that emergency routes and exits must be kept clear at all times and pointed out various other aspects of the regulations relating to them, including that they must be clearly marked by signs and that ‘it must be possible for persons to evacuate the premises as quickly and as safely as possible’.

Illuminated signs have to be backed up by emergency lighting in case power fails during an emergency.

Fire services in England and Wales have the power to send ‘enforcement notices’ out to organisations they believe are not complying with fire safety legislation passed in 2005.

The director of the management firm which owns the blocks said it was meeting its responsibilities when it comes to communal areas and working with the fire service to address issues.

Source: walesonline.co.uk

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