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Porter: We have worked hard to defend councils over cladding row

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The tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell Tower will never be forgotten. We still don’t know exactly how many people lost their lives in the blaze but what we do know is that the disaster is already one of the worst fire tragedies in British history.

The incident is unprecedented and has presented local government with some of the toughest challenges we’ve ever faced.

The Public Inquiry ordered by the government faces a significant task in ensuring that not only the events at the 24-storey block are properly investigated but that we make sure a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again.

I want to pay tribute to our emergency services, who have once again shown their immense bravery in responding to the horrors that unfolded at Grenfell Tower. I cannot put into printable words my admiration and respect for the work they did on that terrible night.

Our priority from the beginning has and continues to be our residents and their safety.

Councils with tower blocks in their local area responded quickly in the aftermath, working closely with their local fire service, and undertaking urgent reviews of their high-rise buildings. Most responded swiftly to government requests, providing samples for testing and reviewing building fire safety arrangements in their areas.

Councils will do whatever they need to do to ensure their buildings are safe, but appropriate funding must be made available so that they are able to support residents during this time of upheaval and ensure buildings are safe. They also need much clearer information about what standards are and are not acceptable for insulation and cladding systems, going forward.

We worked hard to defend councils in the face of suggestions that they had been slow sending in samples of cladding to be tested. This, quite simply, wasn’t true. All councils that we’re aware of that have the cladding in question on their tower blocks, have sent in samples to be tested and in the majority of cases they have had their results.

To be absolutely sure we were not giving the wrong information we have had to be cautious in our public responses so far. And with a Public Inquiry rightly being launched by the government, we also have to be mindful of the implications of any advice or information we have provided.

But, we’ve raised our concerns about the value of the cladding testing programme across all media: radio, television and print. We’re yet to be convinced that the current experts’ advice to test the combustibility of the material at the core of Aluminium Composite Panels rather than the integrity of the whole insulation and cladding system is the best way to test fire risks. Councils will be working with fire services, surveyors, etc. to assess each individual building and putting in place any new safety measures necessary.

Our caution doesn’t mean we, and in turn councils, haven’t been working around the clock both publicly and behind the scenes. We have offered support to those councils affected and we have made sure council leaders and chief executives have the information they needed to act swiftly and ensure residents feel safe and secure. This has included regular, sometimes daily, bulletins detailing advice and requests from government, media releases and face-to-face contact with all levels of council leadership and in-house communications support to councils.

We have been in constant contact with the Department for Communities & Local Government and other government departments and national bodies involved in the response, gathering information on behalf of our member councils and ensuring they are equipped with the information they need to act. A number of our staff are working in DCLG to provide direct support to councils and ensure a regular flow of information. I’ve also been meeting and talking to government on a daily basis at senior political level.

There is no doubt that this tragic incident has shocked the nation. With things changing on an hourly basis we will continue to work to provide our members with up-to-date and relevant information as it becomes available. Keeping our residents informed and councils aware of the requests made of them remains our top priority.

 Lord Porter, chair, Local Government Association

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