A former Cabinet Minister who was responsible for housing has admitted fire safety aspects of building regulations were “a mess” in the run-up to the Grenfell Tower disaster.
On the anniversary of the Grenfell fire, Sir Eric Pickles insisted he acted “exactly by the book” in his response to a 2009 tower block fire which has been highlighted as a warning sign ahead of last year's tragedy.
In June 2013, the ex-Communities Secretary ordered a review of the fire safety aspects of building regulations in response to a coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire, which killed six, and asked councils to urgently assess the risk in blocks in their areas.
But Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey said Lakanal should have been a “wake-up call” to the Tories “but they failed to act” to halt the disaster, which claimed 72 lives, as the building regulations were never overhauled.
The day after the fire, the Government insisted the work was still “ongoing”. It then ordered a separate review of regulations led by Dame Judith Hackitt, and has committed to consulting on banning combustible cladding of the type used on Grenfell Tower.
Sir Eric, who left his Government post in May 2015, admitted the review he committed to in 2013 “started slower than it really should have done” but insisted he “followed the timeline that I agreed right from the beginning”, with a commitment to producing revised regulations in “2016/17”.
“I was told that it was complicated, that they wouldn’t really be able to start it for a year,” the former Tory MP for Brentwood and Ongar said.
“I was told by officials that it would take a long time to do because it was very complicated, but I started it.”
He went on: “There were a number of parts that were sort of in the line that they needed to do before they could untangle the mess, there were things that needed to be sorted out before they got to that point”.
The Keighley-born politician added: “Lakanal House I played exactly by the book.
“It was in Harriet Harman’s constituency, I wanted to make sure we did everything correctly so I did two principle things.
“I ensured that the coroner’s report went to every single local authority and housing association and asked them to review and to look carefully at old properties with multiple occupation as to what was needed to be done.
“The second thing I did was I started the review of building regulations."
Sir Eric added: “I was very clear that this (Lakanal House) was a high-profile case and that things had to be done.”
Mr Healey said: “The fatal high-rise fire at Lakanal House should have been a wake-up call for Conservative Ministers, but they failed to act.
“The coroner made a formal recommendation to Ministers to act to get sprinklers retrofitted into tower blocks and to overhaul building regulations. But by the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, only 1 per cent of council blocks had sprinklers fitted and a promised review of building regulations hadn’t even started.
“Ministers must now urgently do what they should have done five years ago - fund the retrofitting of sprinklers into all high-rise social housing blocks and strengthen our flawed system of building safety checks and controls.”