Grenfell and the problem of carbon targets

A web of new rules and regulations fed into the Grenfell disaster.

James Heartfield

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Though the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry has only just begun, a leaked interim report makes clear that one of the principle reasons for the fire was the use of flammable cladding added to the outside of the building by the contractors Rydon.

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. Part L of the Building Regulations covers energy and has been successively expanded to oblige developers to make savings. As a consequence, many more ‘new materials’, often different kinds of plastics, have been fixed to the exterior of buildings. At the same time, Part B of the Building Regulations, which deals with fire safety, has not kept pace – so that the kind of cladding that Rydon put around its insulation was not prohibited. The shift in the Building Regulations betrays official thinking regarding residents: reducing their carbon emissions is a priority, but their safety is not.

The Climate Change Act was taken on board by successive London mayors and integrated into London’s housing plan. The 2014 housing plan said, ‘the mayor is committed to a targeted programme of retrofitting and upgrading the capital’s existing housing stock’. Then mayor Boris Johnson promised to ‘work with partners towards the environmental retrofitting of all London’s affordable housing’, leading to reductions of ‘up to 600,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum’.

In its 2009 Carbon Management Plan, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea set out its commitment to the Climate Change Act: ‘The Act sets the UK’s domestic targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 60 per cent by 2050… under the Act local authorities will have a duty to reduce their carbon emissions.’

The planning application for the Grenfell Tower Regeneration Project set out the borough’s goals, principally ‘the complete overcladding of the exterior’. The ‘overcladding works are an integral part of the upgrade of the heating of the building’ and its ‘energy efficiency’, it said.

Why overcladding, you might ask? Energy was at the forefront of the council’s thinking. In its consultations with the tenants, the council saw the cladding as offering ‘a dramatic improvement in heat loss’ that would ‘generate significant energy savings’. As the application explained, ‘this project targets the main environmental deficiency of Grenfell Tower at its root: it is hugely wasteful of energy’. ‘The improved envelope performance and proposed replacement heating system reflect current energy standards for new residential buildings’, it said.

Grenfell Tower was not the only London block that was refurbished to meet the ideals of reducing carbon emissions. In Newham, the 23-storey Ferrier Point was also refurbished by contractors Rydon. According to the council’s sustainability strategy, the refubishment was ‘proposed to adopt a target of 60 per cent carbon reductions… in line with the government’s emission-reduction target’. In Camden, the Chalcots estate was also refurbished by Rydon, ‘a refurbishment designed to improve the estate’s carbon footprint’.

Since the fire, the London mayor’s office has lost its enthusiasm for retrofitting: ‘The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire has raised urgent and wide-ranging questions that must be answered over the safety of many older high-rise residential buildings, particularly those built in the 1960s and 70s that have been retrofitted’, reads the 2017 Housing Strategy.

The refurbishments at Ferrier Point and the Chalcots estate are under review, and will most likely be reversed, as will the three refurbishments at Mount Wise in Plymouth, and in all likelihood a great many more. Currently, the government has admitted that some 299 buildings have failed to meet fire standards. Refurbishment, it turns out, was a false economy.

Refurbishment, of course, does not have to make buildings dangerous. In the end, the use of flammable panels was the problem – whether or not the fault for that lies at the door of Rydon or with the government for permitting it. But extensive refurbishment was bound to introduce greater complexity and therefore greater risks. On the whole, it would be better to rebuild older estates from scratch. Refurbishment is the conservative option. On this point, we have to agree with mayor Sadiq Khan: ‘If it is not possible to safely retrofit existing buildings, the mayor believes government should ensure resources are made available to demolish them and replace the social housing like for like.’

But there are barriers to such an approach. First, councils’ spending and borrowing is capped, which makes it difficult for them to rebuild without involving private developers. Second, tenants – and leaseholders – do not trust rebuilding programmes, and with good reason. Their experience is that they are priced out of the new developments, either through much higher rents or, if they are leaseholders, because the compulsory purchase price is much less than the cost of a comparable flat on the newly built estate. Partnerships between councils and private developers generally lead to a substantial loss of original tenants, between the ‘decanting’ and the opening of the new block.

The country’s housing has for too long been dominated by excessive caution about building, coupled with indifference to safety.

James Heartfield is the author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years.

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