The cladding was there to shield insulation from weather damage. But, tragically, it carried the initial fire, which started in one flat, between the floors of the tower block.
Former housing secretary, now home secretary, Sajid Javid has claimed that the cladding that the developers used was in breach of fire regulations, because it was flammable. But he was trying to pass the buck. The fire regulations only state that the insulation should be fire resistant, not the cladding that protects it.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that Grenfell’s refurbishment made the building unsafe. But why was the building refurbished in this way in the first place?
The ‘policy context’ for the Grenfell Tower Regeneration Project, according to its ‘sustainability and energy statement’, is the Climate Change Act of 2008. ‘The council recognises the government’s targets to reduce national carbon dioxide emissions’, and ‘to deliver this, the council will’ carry out its plan for ‘conversions and refurbishments of 800m2 or more of residential developments’.
In its 2013-17 housing strategy, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea boasted that it had ‘agreed to clad a high-rise block in the north of the borough’ – Grenfell Tower – as part of the ‘greener housing’ strategy to ‘mitigate the causes of and adapt to the effects likely to occur due to climate change’.
The Climate Change Act was passed as part of the government’s commitment to meet the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in 2005, to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Kyoto targets and those of the Climate Change Act are ambitious. Even before 2008, developers and architects were worried about environmental impact. On his election to the presidency of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Paul Hyett announced ‘a crusade through which British architects and the RIBA address both their obligations to future generations – with respect to the delivery of a truly sustainable environment’.
At first, climate campaigners looked at industry. But the evidence showed that homes were a major source of carbon emissions. ‘They’re responsible for 31 per cent of energy consumed here’, protested environmentalist George Monbiot in his 2006 book Heat, arguing that the answer was government-enforced refurbishment.
In 2010, environment secretary Ed Miliband published a report, Warm Homes, Greener Homes, which identified social-housing projects as key to saving energy and reducing carbon emissions. It identified social housing as having ‘the potential to make a big contribution in… reducing carbon emissions from homes’. Because social housing is generally ‘in large purpose-built blocks, or on large estates, where social tenants remain the majority tenure’, it offers ‘carbon-reduction measures at scale’, it argued.
Note that Miliband identified social tenants as being more likely to support such measures. That is not because they are necessarily more supportive of carbon reduction, but because they have fewer rights than homeowners, and so are more easy to direct. Miliband wanted to ‘kickstart the installation of more ambitious eco-upgrades, with social housing providing particular leadership to stimulate the industry and reduce costs’. Now that social housing was on the frontline of the carbon-reduction campaign, social tenants were targeted for refurbishment measures, including cladding insulation.
Overall, the trend in building was to put much greater stress on reducing carbon emissions.