The lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire must be learned

Today [19/12/22] we delivered copies of Peter Apps’ book ‘Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen’ to Enfield Council.  

We have gifted copies of the book to Council Executives, in the hope that it will prompt them to revise the design of the tall buildings planned for its Meridian Water development.

Local campaign groups, Black Lives Matter Enfield, Better Homes Enfield, Meridian 4 Council Homes, and Unite Housing Workers, are calling on Enfield Council to redesign the tall buildings planned for Meridian Water so that they incorporate at least two staircases.

‘Stay put’ and single staircases planned for Meridian Water tower blocks

The regeneration of Meridian Water is led by Enfield Council. The land is publicly owned and the scheme is funded by Council loans and grants. The vision for Meridian Water is therefore both dictated and controlled by Enfield Council, who are both the master developer for the scheme and the planning authority.  

Enfield Council recently submitted and approved applications for 13 tall tower blocks to be built at its flagship Meridian Water development in Edmonton, including one which will be 30-storeys tall.

Of the 13 tower blocks approved so far, 10 will only have a single staircase and will rely on a ‘stay put’ strategy in the event of a fire.

We think this is a serious mistake and suggests council leaders and decision makers may have failed to properly learn the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.

The problem with ‘stay-put’

Peter Apps’ book sets out the tragic and harrowing consequences for residents living in the Grenfell Tower who were told to ‘stay put’ after the fire started. Many did, and many died.

Professor José L. Torero, an expert witness to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, described the UK as ‘truly an outlier’ in the way it relies on residents staying put in the event of fire.  

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 Report says that it is likely that “prompt evacuation would have resulted in the saving of many more lives”.

Since the Grenfell fire, residents in high rise blocks have been less likely to stay put when fires have occurred and are far more likely to evacuate. The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) recently reported that between April 2019 and March 2022, around 8,500 residents in London chose to evacuate buildings rather than stay put.  

Designing and approving tower blocks for Meridian Water that rely on a ‘stay put’ strategy in the event of a fire does not reflect human behaviour, and is in many people’s opinion outdated and unsafe.

The problem with single staircases

The reliance on using a single staircase during an evacuation can put both the public and firefighters at risk. The Grenfell Tower only had a single staircase, and the consequences of this are told in unflinching detail in Peter Apps’ book.

England and Wales are almost unique in the world in allowing tall buildings without a second staircase. Even within the UK, such a building would not be permissible in Scotland.

Pressure has been mounting on the government to require tall buildings to have multiple staircases since the Grenfell Tower fire, and the government recently issued a warning to councils which said very tall towers with just one flight of stairs were unlikely to meet building codes.

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) and the London Mayor have all called for new high rise residential buildings to have more than one staircase.  

We strongly oppose the design of the tower blocks that Enfield Council has approved for Meridian Water, as many of them will only have single staircases.

Some developers and councils appear to be listening and learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire

In September, developers working on Camden Council’s Agar Estate development, resubmitted plans for tall buildings in order to incorporate additional staircases. They are not alone.

Enfield Council needs to start listening

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) has written to Enfield Council twice to raise its concerns about single staircase tower blocks planned for Meridian Water. 

In November the LFB wrote to the Council for a second time and reiterated that it does not consider the proposed single stair approach appropriate:

“… the planning authority should consider access to multiple staircases as a fundamental requirement for tall buildings …”.

We think the council should take the concerns of the London Fire Brigade extremely seriously and amend the plans for the Meridian Water tower blocks.

The Guardian’s review of Peter Apps’ book said that:

Show Me the Bodies will never leave the mind of anyone who reads it.
The tragedy is that those who should read it probably won’t.”

The lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire must be learned, especially by decision makers, and that is why campaign groups have gifted copies of Peter Apps’ book to Enfield Council. We hope they read it and that they do the responsible thing and change the design of the Meridian Water tower blocks.

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