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Were PVC windows to blame for Lakanal House tragedy?

The Decent Homes programme was launched in 2000 with a target that by 2010 all social housing should consist of decent homes "a decent home is one that is wind and weather tight, warm and has modern facilities." Kitchens that are more than 20 years old, or bathrooms more than 30 years old are deemed to be automatically in need of being replaced. 700,000 homes are expected to miss the target date. In someways it has been a good programme - providing a spur to either improve housing stock. Or in some cases, such as Sunderland and Liverpool, selling off or demolishing stock where the cost of getting it up to standard would be prohibitive. It has been a catalyst for getting rid of some dreadful tower blocks.

The cost of the programme has been high - over £25,000 per property - over £40 billion altogether. (Much of the "funding formulas" seem to be on the never never with "Arms Length Management Organisations" set up and allowed to borrow vast sums on Government guarantees with no very clear idea of how it will be ever be paid back.) Yet, when you go canvassing you find not everyone is grateful. The leaseholders often feel their share of the bill is exorbitant and they resent the lack of opt outs. Some tenants also object to the element of coercion. "I didn't want a new kitchen I was used to the one I had," one old lady told me the other day.

Then there is the forced removal of perfectly good wooden framed windows to be replaced by plastic ones. I suppose it is too much to expect the bureaucrats drawing up the Decent Homes guidelines to have any concern for aesthetics. But what about safety? In 1995 there was a fire in Lakanal House which gutted one flat but was contained within it. In 1997 the Council put in PVC windows. In July there was another fire in the block which spread from flat to flat and six people died.

The architect Bill Solman, helped build Lakanal House in 1959 installing timber window frames, told the BBC:  "Timber has limitations, but it's better than plastic which melts. Plastic gives off cyanide fumes
and burns fiercely." Of the fire that took place, he adds:

"I began to look at the evidence and think plastic windows were the problem. The blocks went through building control procedures before they were built - so why would this awful thing happen? The windows were the main cause of the surface flame spread."


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