A fire that swept through a student housing block in Bolton has raised fresh concerns over flammable cladding on residential buildings, more than two years after the Grenfell Tower blaze cost 72 lives.
Witness reports suggested the blaze at the Cube building on Friday travelled rapidly over the surface of the building. Local politicians said it was covered with high-pressure laminate cladding, which can be combustible.
Paul Dennett, the elected mayor of Salford, identified the cladding as high-pressure laminate and said he would ask the government for more funding to remove dangerous cladding from buildings.
“We’re asking for more money really [to] deal with an industrial crisis around cladding. There is a lot of work to be done,” he said.
Grenfell United, a group representing survivors and bereaved families from the London fire, said it was “devastating to see images of such quick fire spread last night in Bolton. It brings back memories of Grenfell and we can’t believe that over two and a half years later, this is happening.”
Firefighters evacuated the privately owned building, which was home to more than 200 students, but said on Saturday they had not yet accounted for all the residents. Two people were injured in the fire, which affected the upper floors of the six-storey block operated by Urban Student Life.
Ace Love, who witnessed the blaze, told the PA news agency that “the fire kept getting more intense, climbing up and to the right because the wind was blowing so hard. We could see it bubbling from the outside and then being engulfed from the outside.”
The Fire Brigades Union called for an overhaul of fire safety measures. “This terrible fire highlights the complete failure of the UK’s fire safety system,” said its general secretary, Matt Wrack.
A public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster last month found cladding on the building was the main reason for the spread of the fire there in 2017. The London tower block was covered with aluminium composite cladding panels with polyethylene cores — different from the high-pressure laminate 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.
Following the Bolton fire, the Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the Cube building “does have a form of cladding that causes concern . . . We know that the prime minister is visiting later and we will be looking to work with him to understand what happened last night and see if we need to go further to remove cladding from these buildings and give families peace of mind.”
High-pressure laminate cladding passed fire safety tests commissioned by the housing ministry this summer when it was combined with non-combustible insulation.
However, when combined with flammable insulation, HPL cladding is “very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire” and buildings with this combination require immediate changes, the ministry said. It also warned that HPL panels “can have a wide range of fire performance”.
HPL cladding is banned altogether on new housing blocks of 18 metres or more in height, as part of tougher rules brought in after Grenfell.
Planning documents for the Bolton building, which opened as student housing in 2015, indicate developers had planned to use Trespa Meteon, a brand of HPL cladding. But the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has warned that products are often substituted during construction.
A programme of large-scale testing and government funding for cladding removal does not cover HPL cladding but has focused on the type used at Grenfell.
Of 431 high-rise residential and public-sector buildings with unsafe Grenfell-style ACM cladding, some 107 have so far had the cladding replaced.
Developers have flocked to the student accommodation sector in recent years, with some buildings — like the Bolton block — marketing the flats to individual buyers as investments.
Marketers Aspen Woolf are offering homes in the Cube building for prices from £39,950 with a 10 per cent yield “assured for one year”, according to their website.
The building was renovated and extended by Dublin-based Woodthorpe Homes, according to news reports from the time, to designs by RADM Architects.