It has a tragic few months with the horrendous terror attacks Westminster, Manchester and London.
These were shocking terror attacks. We were then all stunned by the images from Grenfell, nearly three weeks ago. – sadly this time a man-made disaster
We all watched in horror as the fire engulfed so many families in their homes, we witnessed the heroism of residents who went to the aid of neighbours, and the courage of the emergency services.
Today, we now the blackened building of Grenfell Tower, “the outrageous crematorium on the skyline” of London, as described by columnist. Ed Vulliamy. Tragically at least 80 people lost their lives and many more have yet to be identified. When you look at the pictures of the dead you see the culturally diversity of these islands.
In the aftermath of the tragedy we saw an amazing response from neighbours, charities and the wider community come together, abandoned by the statutory agencies, working in solidarity to comfort, support, pray and provide practical support to victims and families made homeless.
In contrast, the response from the Council and statutory bodies was nothing short of disgraceful .We know that Kensington represents the stark divisions in London. with some of the poorest people living in the shadow of the richest people in London.
The reality is vividly described by Nigerian poet Ben Okri said: “If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower”
Grenfell asks us all serious question about what type of society we want to build, one based on market forces, deregulation and austerity or one which guarantees access to the basics human rights dignity: safety, a home, good health, a decent education and a living wage. I know where I stand.
It is now essential we urgently give families the answers how about the catastrophe happened and learn lessons from this tragedy.
Remember Belfast City Council had to learn painful lessons, 33 years ago in January 1984,toxic fumes from a fire in Maysfield Leisure Centre sadly took the lives of six people, including three children.
For NI, firstly we need to establish the facts about any buildings in NI which have unsafe cladding. NIHE and other bodies have acted quickly but all agencies and private companies must do the same.
I note that suspicious cladding was found by Belfast Trust in the critical care building in a limited number of areas. To reassure the public the Trust must remove any such cladding as soon possible.
Secondly we must ensure that the public investigation is comprehensive to discover the truth, learn lessons take decisive action and bring to justice any bodies or individuals who are guilty of any crime.
In terms of building regulations and guidance in NI it largely mirrors regulations and guidance in England with a slight time lag in terms of changes
Buildings over 18m high both in NI and England have the same requirements in terms of fire safety for cladding systems and external wall construction.
In England and Wales they have approved inspectors meaning that a developer can use a private company or the local council to deal with their application and site inspections.
In NI we do not have approved inspectors and developers must come to council who administer the building regulations function.
In some instances we are ahead – we chose not to omit escape windows and self-closers to fire doors for three storey houses, in England they dropped these requirements.
There is significant differences in terms of sprinklers. In England apartment buildings over 30m to top floor require sprinklers. In Scotland they require sprinklers over 18m in height. and Wales have introduced sprinklers for new houses. In NI they do not.
This means that a new building the size of Obel requires sprinklers in Scotland and England but not in N. Ireland.
There is also no requirement that refurbished buildings not require sprinklers – so it likely that a new refurbished building like Windsor House does not require sprinklers.
These regulations need to be urgently reviewed.
Northern Ireland Fire Service
In relation to the NI Fire Service, in 2010 the legislative framework changed to mirror the regulatory reform order in England to control fire safety for buildings in use. The changes place the responsibility on the owner of the building to carry out a fire risk assessment which is checked by NIFRS in relevant premises only.
Interestingly apartments are not relevant premises. (In apartments they only have legislative control over limited fire safety features for e.g. fire fighting and fire fighter safety) I understand that this is a matter the NIFRS are in discussion with the regulators about.
We needs to ensure that Building Control has the necessary powers to take effective enforcement and the sufficient resources in terms of staffing to effectively check buildings.
To finish I want to quote the final paragraph of Ben Okri’s poem on Grenfell
“If you want to see how the poor die, come see Grenfell Tower.
Make sense of these figures if you will
For the spirit lives where truth cannot kill.
Ten million spent on the falsely clad
In a fire where hundreds lost all they had.
Five million offered in relief
Ought to make a nation alter its belief.
An image gives life and an image kills.
The heart reveals itself beyond political skills.
In this age of austerity The poor die for others’ prosperity.
Nurseries and libraries fade from the land.
A strange time is shaping on the strand.
A sword of fate hangs over the deafness of power.
See the tower, and let a new world-changing thought flower.”
Tim Attwood is an SDLP Councillor in Belfast.