Developers Must Act on Flammable Cladding

On Friday morning (7 May), a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the 19-storey New Providence Wharf development in Poplar. The building is partially clad in combustible aluminium panels similar to those involved in the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

Fortunately, in this case no-one was killed. But two men were hospitalised, 42 people treated at the scene by ambulance crews, and a firefighter injured in a blaze that spread smoke across at least six floors. But the longer delays to the removal of flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding continue, the more a fatal incident seems highly likely.

Therefore expediting the removal of cladding, and ensuring resident and stakeholder communications are accurate and sensitive, is of utmost importance for developers’ ESG agendas.

The leading cause of delays in ACM cladding removal are complex disputes between business and government over financial responsibility. But when incidents like the one at New Providence Wharf break out, audiences are not particularly interested in the technicalities of which organisation was responsible for the repair bill. All bodies with some stake in managing a development, public or private, will be faced with intense public scrutiny and reputational damage.

In the Poplar case, the developer and the Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government have been engaged in a war of words over responsibility following Friday’s fire. But all parties have been criticised by campaigners in statements widely circulated in the national press. The cladding issue also remains both highly politicised and personally sensitive. The incident now places an additional burden on all involved to ensure works are completed efficiently and quickly, and residents and those affected are supported and given timely, accurate, and useful information.   

The length of time that has already elapsed is another factor in heightening community frustrations. It has been four years since the Grenfell Tower fire and future injuries, economic damage, and fatalities in buildings containing ACM cladding would be viewed as entirely avoidable.

The Poplar buildings are among thousands in the UK affected by the post-Grenfell fire safety crisis. Almost a quarter of their facades are constructed with ACM cladding. In short, there is a significant risk for communities across the country which can be mitigated by developers working closely with residents, and retaining both a technical and a more human understanding of the dynamics of the issue. Core strands of ESG work would include.

  • Monitoring relationships with resident, leaseholder, and community campaigns.
  • Understanding systems and processes in local and national government, as well as the broader political environment.
  • Reviewing and updating risk assessments and contingency plans for fires of any type.

Developers will naturally want to ensure that the state meets its legal obligations and political commitments in the cladding scandal and collect any funds that they are owed. But this aim remains a second-order one to the absolute imperative of ensuring that flammable material is removed from buildings as soon as feasible.