Bolton fire: Government warned over laminate cladding risk before student flat block blaze

Vincent Wood
Every floor of the private student accommodation was affected by the blaze, fire chiefs said: London Fire Brigade

An investigation is under way into the cause of a fire that “spread rapidly” at a student accommodation block in Bolton covered in cladding.

Safety campaigners have warned the blaze on Friday night had echoes of the Grenfell Tower disaster after eyewitnesses blamed the spread of the fire on the cladding.

The blaze quickly gutted the top floor of the building and caused substantial damage through the following two stories of the student flat complex known as The Cube – leaving 220 students homeless.

And while it has been confirmed the building did not have the same aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding that led to the deaths of 72 people at Grenfell Tower in 2017, the local authority was aware the building had been covered with a high pressure laminate (HPL) variety of the building material.

In July government experts said HPL cladding should be removed from any high-rise building more than 18m tall over concerns that some varieties of the material are unsafe – with an advice note saying some grades of the panelling were “very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire”.

It is not yet known what type of HPL cladding had been fitted to the student building.

Witnesses had described the fire as rapidly spreading up the cladding as more than 200 firefighters battled flames through the night and into the morning.

Ace Love, 35, who described the fire as “crawl[ing] up the cladding like it was nothing”, said: “The fire kept getting more intense, climbing up and to the right because the wind was blowing so hard.”

Manchester metro-mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News: “It does not have the ACM cladding which is now banned, but it does have a type of cladding which does cause concern.

“There will be many people living in buildings with this cladding today who will be very worried.”

Referring to a visit to the building by Boris Johnson, he added “we will see if we now need to go further to remove the cladding and give these families peace of mind.

“The response from the community in Bolton has been fantastic. We want to pay tribute to everybody involved.”

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn was more direct in his call for action from Downing Street, writing in a tweet that if “flammable cladding contributed to the fire, it shows the government’s shameful inaction since Grenfell”.

On his arrival Mr Johnson praised the “incredible response” from the community after donations of clothing, food, toiletries and other essentials including phone chargers were handed in for students who had left their belongings behind.

Professor William Morris, the university’s deputy chair of the board of governors, told the prime minister: “It’s been a terrific response, just marvellous.

“Luckily nobody was badly hurt, the fear here was tangible.”

Pressure group Grenfell United said the fire in Bolton “brings back memories” of the disaster in west London and called for government action.

“Devastating to see images of such quick fire spread last night in Bolton,” tweeted the group, which represents bereaved and survivors from the fire.

“It brings back memories of Grenfell [and] we can’t believe that over 2.5 years later this is happening. Our hearts go out to all the students affected.”

The group said “answers and urgent action” are now needed from Downing Street and the Ministry of Housing.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) sent 40 engines to the scene after the blaze broke out at about 8.30pm on Friday.

Paramedics treated two people at the scene, including one person who was rescued by crews via an aerial platform.

No one is believed to have been seriously hurt in the incident – while pets including a rabbit and a hamster have been rescued from the building by firefighters.

Meanwhile the government has set up an emergency hardship fund for the students affected.

Secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, said in a tweet that the government was ready to offer assistance to those affected by the Bolton fire.

“While it is too early to speculate on the cause of the fire, we will be following Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Services’ investigation very closely,” he wrote, adding “I have asked building safety experts BRE to attend and support GMFRS and report urgently.”

John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said the blaze should act as a “wake up call” as it emerged that ministers are on course to miss their target for removing the deadly materials by 13 years.

Despite several types of cladding having been found to be dangerous in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, which killed 72 people, 267 blocks have still not had the materials removed.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said it is important an investigation into the fire takes place. She said: “Looking at those terrifying images of that fire in Bolton, I am in awe to our emergency services, the firefighters who bravely got that under control, and I’m so pleased that it seems nobody was hurt and that everybody has been rescued and got out alive.

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