UK finds 34 high-rise apartment buildings with unsafe siding

AP PHOTO Residents are evacuated from the Taplow residential tower block on the Chalcots Estate, in the borough of Camden, north London, Friday. A local London council has decided to evacuate some 800 households in apartment buildings it owns because of safety concerns following the devastating fire that killed 79 people in a west London high-rise.

LONDON — Britain’s fire-safety crisis expanded substantially Saturday as authorities said 34 high-rise apartment blocks across the country had cladding that failed fire safety tests. London officials scrambled to evacuate four public housing towers after experts found them “not safe for people to sleep in overnight.”

Hundreds of residents hastily packed their bags and sought emergency shelter, with many angry and confused about the chaotic situation. Some refused to leave their high-rise apartments. Scores of evacuees slept on inflatable beds in a gym while officials sought better accommodations for them.

Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said it decided to evacuate four blocks in north London’s Chalcots Estate late Friday after fire inspectors uncovered problems with “gas insulation and door stops,” which, combined with the presence of flammable cladding encasing the buildings, meant residents had to leave immediately.

The evacuation comes amid widening worries about the safety of high-rise apartment blocks across the country following the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London on June 14, killing at least 79 people. Attention has focused on the 24-story tower’s external cladding material, which has been blamed for the rapid spread of that blaze, but multiple other fire risks have now been identified in some housing blocks.

The government said Saturday that the cladding samples that failed fire safety tests came from 34 apartment towers in cities including London, Manchester, Plymouth and Portsmouth. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said further testing “is running around the clock.”

So far, Camden Council has been the only local authority to have asked residents to leave as a precaution. It said about 650 apartments were evacuated, though initial reports put the figure at 800 apartments.

The council said residents would be out of their homes for three to four weeks while it completes fire-safety upgrades.

“I know some residents are angry and upset, but I want to be very clear that Camden Council acted to protect them,” Gould said in a statement. “Grenfell changed everything, and when told our blocks were unsafe to remain in, we acted.”