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Deadly London tower block fire highlights potential dangers in other high rises globally

Tens of thousands of residential tower blocks around the world are set to be inspected for fire risks after a high rise in the UK lit up like a matchstick, killing at least 17 people with hundreds still reported missing.

Health and safety inspections are urgently being carried out on hundreds of tower blocks around the UK after a fire that started in a fourth floor flat spread rapidly up the 24 storey block in London turning it into an inferno, trapping people desperately trying to escape.

Although an official cause of why the fire spread so quickly is yet to announced, there are concerns that the new cladding put on the Grenfell Tower last year as part of a £8 million refurbishment could have contributed to the disaster.

It is thought that thousands of people could be living in tower blocks in London and the rest of the UK that need to be checked urgently as they could have similar cladding which is designed to improve the insulation of aging tower blocks, protect against the weather and make them look more aesthetically pleasing.

Similar cladding has been used in Dubai, where there have been three fires in tower blocks in recent years, in buildings in China and other parts of the Middle East. Dubai recently changed building legislation to force companies to reduce the flammability of cladding after a fire in the 63 storey Address Hotel on New Year’s Eve in 2015, one at the 826ft Marina Torch residence in February 2015 and at the Tamweel Tower in November 2012.

Concerns have also been voiced about there being only one staircase for residents of the Grenfell Tower to get out and that became blocked quickly, and that there was no sprinkler system or working fire alarms apart from any installed in individual flats. The fire has major implications for tower blocks around the world.

It has also emerged that UK Government ministers were warned numerous times over the type of cladding that turned the block into an inferno by fire and safety experts but they ignored the advice from a survey of hundreds of tower blocks which showed half did not meet fire safety regulations.

Authorities in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast have already confirmed that they will be carrying out urgent inspections of other tower blocks. Kensington and Chelsea Council, where the Grenfell Tower is located, said there will be an investigation and the Government has also promised a public inquiry.

Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 and contains 120 flats thought to be home to between 400 and 600 people. While it was refurbished recently, the work does not seem to have included installing a tower wide sprinkler system. When another block went on fire in London in 2009 in which six died, the coroner said afterwards that all tower blocks should install sprinkler systems and make sure there are adequate fire escape routes.

According to Arnold Tarling of the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, it was ‘an accident waiting to happen’. ‘They clad the concrete of this building with flammable insulation panels and rain screen cladding with a 30mm gap, which acted like a chimney. All the burning material falls down, starting more fires below, and the flames spread up and across searching for oxygen,’ he explained.

Angus Law, of the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, pointed out that the UK’s regulatory framework for tall residential buildings is intended to prevent the spread of fire between floors and between apartments. ‘If spread of fire does occur, as has happened at Grenfell Tower, the consequences are often catastrophic,’ he added.

Legal expert Adrian McClinton, an associate solicitor at law firm Coffin Mew, said legal action is inevitable and the council could ultimately be found to be responsible even although the block was looked after by a management company.

‘Many of the claims from the residents may be covered by insurance, however, there may have been serious failings by the management company, acting on behalf of the local authority, that may give rise to further liability in contract (to the tenants of the block) and in negligence,’ he said.

‘As the management company was acting on behalf of the landlord, the primary liability will initially fall on the local authority. Given the amount of concern raised by the resident’s associations prior to yesterday’s fire, it may be difficult to claim that the local authority did not know about existing problems, if these turn out to be relevant. Knowledge of any problems and not taking appropriate steps and/or not carrying out regular inspections may also invalidate any existing insurance held by the local authority,’ he explained.

‘Further, there are question marks over the refurbishment of the block which may also create claims in negligence against the contractors as well as claims for contribution to compensation payments. There may be prosecutions brought by the Health and Safety Executive and/or the Crown Prosecution Service against the local authority and its management company for breaches of relevant health and safety law including regulations designed to prevent injury or death by fire,’ he added.