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Cladding: Are Chalcots tower blocks safe?

Camden says it is waiting for the results of further tests

22 June, 2017 — By William McLennan

Mandy Ryan, one of the residents demanding answers from the council

HUNDREDS of residents at five high-rise blocks in Swiss Cottage have spent more than a week anxiously waiting to learn if their homes are clad in the same material being investigated in relation to the deadly Grenfell tower blaze.

The Chalcots estate was refurbished by the same construction firm as the tower in Kensington, where a fire left 79 people dead – or missing and presumed dead – last Wednesday.

Questions are being asked about the role of the aluminium and plastic cladding that had been added to the exterior of Grenfell last year with the suggestion that its core included a plastic called polyethylene that allowed the flames to engulf the building.

Although confident that a different material was applied during the refurbishment of the Chalcots by Grenfell contractors Rydon 10 years earlier, Camden Council last night (Wednesday) was unable to give definitive answers as they awaited the results of independent fire tests.

Simon Happily, one of the first residents to begin demanding answers, said he was “increasingly angry at Camden’s slow response”, adding it was “like waiting for the results of a test for a major medical condition”. Television news reports last night suggested that the council was about to find out the cladding was the same used in Grenfell, leading a council spokesman to dispute this again, insisting that a different system had been used and the results from further testing had yet to come back.

Camden is also facing questions as to why it has so far chosen not to install sprinkler systems across its housing stock, while the daughter of a woman killed in a fire on a council estate more than 10 years ago said it was a disgrace that centralised fire alarms had not been installed as a coroner had recommended.

Mr Happily, who lives on the top floor of one of the Chalcots estate towers, said that they had been given “stay-put” advice – where people are told to remain in their home and wait for help in the event of a fire – but said this would be useless if their homes were covered in the polyethylene cladding.
He said: “Obviously if we have the same cladding the stay-put advice may no longer be relevant. God forbid there is another fire – we won’t know whether we stay or get the hell out.”

Mandy Ryan, who lives on the 22nd floor of Dorney, said: “All we want to know is if it’s flammable and are we going to go up in flames? How hard is it to say what the cladding is made of?”

Sian Berry, a Green councillor in Highgate and a London Assembly Member, said: “It needs clearing up very fast – before another night in my view.”
Writing in today’s New Journal letters pages Conservative ward councillors for the area said they had been “assured” that it was not the same cladding as Grenfell, after pressing for answers on behalf of residents.

Labour council leader Georgia Gould said the “cladding design on our buildings is not the same as that used on Grenfell”, but added that testing was being carried out on the materials used to assess if they are fire safe.

It is understood that the council is keen to make sure that cladding affixed to the buildings is the same as was promised by contractors before they issue a definitive assurance to residents. In total, the samples of cladding from 13 tower blocks across the borough have been sent for testing.

A major fire that took place in 2012 on the 17th floor of Taplow – one of the Chalcots estate towers – is being held up as proof that the cladding used is not unsafe. While a single flat was destroyed by the blaze, the flames did not spread and the council said at the time that the design of the building – intended to “compartmentalise” the fire – had “worked very well” and “allowed the fire brigade to contain the fire to just to one flat”.
Robert O’Toole, who chairs the tenants and residents association in Burnham, said: “I’m assuring the tenants that the cladding is safe. It is a completely different type of cladding. It was proven that it could hold up after a fire in Taplow in 2012.”

Rydon said that their work on Grenfell Tower “met all required building regulations – as well as fire regulation and health and safety standards”.
They referred all questions about cladding to Harley Facades, sub-contractors used to clad the towers both in Kensington and Swiss Cottage. The firm refused to comment on what type of cladding had been used.

A council spokesman said last night: “We have a different cladding system to Grenfell and the insulation used is made of rock-wool material, which prevents fire spreading. We also have fire-resistant sealant between floors, which would stop a flat fire from spreading to neighbouring flats – as proved when a fire was contained at a flat in Taplow block in 2012.”

He added: “We are doing further tests on the cladding in the lab at the Building Research Establishment at the moment and we will provide a further update once testing has been completed. We remain ready to respond to any changes to fire safety advice following this tragic fire.”

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