Student flats operator ‘committed to help’ inquiry after Bolton blaze

By Kim Pilling, PA

Firefighters remain at the scene of a blaze at a student accommodation block, as its operators said they are “committed to help” an inquiry which will probe the impact of cladding on its rapid spread.

The Cube building in Bolton, which houses more than 200 students at the University of Bolton, did not have the same type of cladding that combusted in the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 and is fitted with high-pressure laminate (HPL) coloured panels.

Visiting the aftermath of the fire on Saturday, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham raised concerns that people living in buildings with such cladding would be “very worried”.

Valeo Urban Student Life (USL), which manages the Cube for the private owners, said that Friday night’s fire started on the fourth floor and spread to the sixth floor.

The town centre complex in Bradshawgate, described as “luxury student accommodation”, consists of two blocks and only the rear block was damaged, said USL.

On Sunday, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service said the rear block was under 18 metres and therefore not classed as a high rise building.

It added its “complex” investigation will consider what, if any, role the external wall materials played in the development and spread of fire.

Witnesses said what appeared to be a small fire ripped across and upwards within minutes, “crawling up the cladding like it was nothing”.

Mobile phone video footage taken by one of the evacuated students showed firefighters tackling flames on the balcony of a flat on the fourth floor.

Videograb of the fire shortly after it started in Bolton
Videograb of the fire shortly after it started in Bolton (Rafaela Nunes/PA)

Paramedics treated two people at the scene for minor injuries – one rescued by fire crews using an aerial platform – after the blaze broke out at about 8.30pm.

USL staff helped evacuate students to safety along with firefighters who worked through the night to extinguish the fire.

Greater Manchester Deputy Mayor Beverley Hughes said some of the firefighters involved had been through Grenfell-inspired training one day before.

She said: “The learning from Grenfell has paid dividends. Some of the firefighters had training the day before, particularly around evacuation.”

In a statement on its website, USL said: “Valeo USL is continuing to work together with the great welfare and accommodation teams at the university to rehouse students and help them put this upsetting incident behind them.

“Valeo USL is also actively assisting the emergency services with their investigations into the blaze and is committed to help with any investigations and looks forward to understanding the outcome of those investigations and any lessons that can be learnt.”

USL added it manages the Cube – opened in 2015 – for the leaseholders and was not responsible for the construction of the building, or subsequent amendments.

In July, a Government report announced that tests on HPL cladding when paired with non-combustible insulation found it does not pose a risk to public safety in residential buildings of 18 metres or higher.

The tests were on a HPL panel which consisted of fire-retardant chemicals but other such panels without fire retardant were unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire, the report said.

Cladding using any type of HPL panels with combustible insulation were also very unlikely to prevent fire spreading, it added.

In both latter cases, current Government advice is that building owners should take immediate action.

Exterior HPL cladding panels burned through in less than five minutes at the Lakanal House tower block in Camberwell, London, where six people were killed in 2009.

It is not known yet what type of HPL panels were fitted at the Cube.

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Mr Burnham set up the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force to provide fire safety reassurance, building by building, in the region.

As part of the task force’s work, the Cube was inspected in 2017 and a letter was sent requiring the fire risk assessment to be updated to consider the risk of internal and external fire spread.

Some insufficiencies were identified at the building in relation to compartmentation and it is understood action was then taken by the building owners to address them.

Pressure group Grenfell United said the fire in Bolton “brings back memories” of the Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed 72 lives in 2017, 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.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said it was “deeply troubling” to see fire spread rapidly up a building’s exterior again and called for a “complete overhaul” of fire safety in the UK.

Referring to a failed safety test of HPL when combined with combustible insulation,  Labour’s shadow housing minister Sarah Jones said: “It’s scandalous that ministers knew this type of cladding was lethal for over a year and failed to act.

“Ministers were shown a failed fire test on HPL cladding in November 2018. Yet they have left countless residents unknowingly living in death traps for years. The Conservatives must now do what they’ve failed to for two-and-a half years and act to remove deadly cladding wherever it is found.

“It’s time for real change. A Labour government will ensure nobody is left to live in flammable blocks, with a five-point plan including powers for councils to confiscate blocks which aren’t made safe.”