A fire tore through a block of student flats in Bolton, Greater Manchester, on Friday. It did so by “crawling up the cladding like it was nothing", according to eyewitnesses.
It was a terrible echo of the way that fire spread at Grenfell Tower two years ago.
Some 40 fire engines and 200 firefighters were sent to tackle the blaze at the six-storey building. Flames poured from the windows on the top floors of a building known as The Cube on Bradshawgate, in the centre of the town.
Two people were treated by paramedics at the scene.
Student Elise Millward who lived in the building said, “Lost everything in the Bolton fire. Lucky that we got out after false alarms constantly for weeks.
“I heard screaming and decided to check it out, had to scream at my flatmates it was a real fire. If anyone tries to tell me that no-one is at fault and it was safe they're wrong.”
Another student tweeted, “My accommodation burned down tonight. I have no possessions left. The fire alarms didn’t go off in all flats.”
Firefighter Andrew Scattergood tweeted, “That’s flammable cladding burning on a block of student flats. Two years after Grenfell. Two years of warnings about the hundreds of buildings wrapped in flammable cladding.”
Lucy Powell, Labour candidate for Manchester Central, tweeted, “Extremely concerning scenes from Bolton today. There are still dozens and dozens of buildings covered in dangerous cladding in Greater Manchester alone. We have been far too slow in removing it. Funds are insufficient and building owners are not being properly held to account.”
In June 2017 the Bolton News reported, ”Students living in the town centre have been reassured that their flats are safe, following inspections triggered by the Grenfell Tower disaster.
“Fire safety officers visited The Cube, in Bradshawgate, following the tragedy—but the building does not use the same cladding that contributed to the London disaster.
The Cube is owned by a private landlord, Urban Student Life (USL) which has 3,000 beds under its management. It says it charges from £98 a week to live in The Cube.
USL was bought by Valeo Groupe Europe, part of the giant multinational Valeo Groupe, a year ago.
Valeo Groupe says it “develops, builds, and operates student and senior housing communities that make a positive impact on the world”.
It is headed by Ted Rollins, founder of the second largest student housing company in the world.
It appears that the building was re-clad in 2018, according to council records that show the private company Assent Building Control signed off on the decision. This is normal practice following the privatisation of building control.
The fire again raises issues over the lack of action after Grenfell. A recent survey showed there are up to 600,000 people living in blocks over 18 metres who cannot confirm the safety of their buildings’ cladding.
A year ago, ministers gave councils the power to strip inflammable cladding materials off and reclaim the cost from the landlords.
However, amid disagreements between leaseholders, freeholders and developers over who should pay, there remain 169 private-sector residential buildings with cladding systems unlikely to meet building regulations.
Last year, it was reported that 54 student residential towers had material similar to that at Grenfell Tower.
Grenfell was covered with aluminium composite cladding panels with polyethylene cores — different from the high-pressure laminate (HPL) cladding used in Bolton. But HPL panels played a role in the spread of a fire at another London housing block, Lakanal House, in 2009, which killed six people.
Matt Wrack, FBU firefighters' union general secretary, said, “This terrible fire highlights the complete failure of the UK’s fire safety system. It’s deeply troubling to see fire spread rapidly up a building’s exterior again. It's a shocking indictment of the government’s shameful inaction after Grenfell. This is not how any building should react to a fire in the 21st century, let alone a building in which people live."
Les Skarratts, FBU North West executive council member, said, “Greater Manchester has lost more than 600 firefighters since 2010 alone and, alarmingly, Andy Burnham is trying to cut another six fire engines, including one in Bolton.
"We need to stop the senseless cuts to our fire and rescue service before we see another awful incident like this.”
Tory policies of privatisation and deregulation put people at risk.