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London Police Evacuate Thousands From Buildings With Flammable Cladding

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The fire safety crisis in the United Kingdom is growing. Sajid Javid, the U.K.'s secretary for Communities and Local Government, provided this grim assessment in the House of Commons this afternoon.

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SAJID JAVID: As of midday today, the cladding from 75 high-rise buildings in 26 local authority areas has failed the combustibility test.

SIEGEL: Thousands of people have been forced from their apartments in the London Borough of Camden after the government found their buildings riddled with fire safety hazards. NPR's Frank Langfitt has the latest from London on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Michelle Gilmore got the word Friday night she'd have to abandon the apartment where she'd spent the last dozen years.

MICHELLE GILMORE: I think I was in shock. I can't really believe what's happening, to be honest.

LANGFITT: Today the 33-year-old was limping around in her flip-flops, trying to make her way briefly back inside to find relief for her rheumatoid arthritis.

GILMORE: It's a nightmare. My medicine's at home. I've just found everything's such a struggle.

LANGFITT: Do you think the apartments are unsafe?

GILMORE: I'm not going back there. There's no way I'm going back there. I refuse.

LANGFITT: That's understandable. A few hours later the government secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that flammable siding was just one problem in the tower blocks.

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JAVID: There were problems with gas pipe insulation. There were stairways that were not accessible. There were breaches of internal walls. And most astonishingly, there were hundreds - literally hundreds - of fire doors missing. The estimate by Camden Council itself is that they need at least 1,000 fire doors.

LANGFITT: The U.K. government is checking the siding on hundreds of buildings following a fire earlier this month at Grenfell Tower that took at least 79 lives. The flames quickly leapt up the building, appearing to consume the siding as it went. The siding was made of aluminum sheets sandwiched around a flammable plastic core. Today the company that made the siding, Arconic, said it would no longer sell it for high-rises worldwide. The government is still trying to figure out how so many buildings ended up wrapped in flammable siding. Some residents have a theory.

YEMI ODUNEYE: The bigger picture is they wanted to save money.

LANGFITT: Yemi Oduneye lives in one of the evacuated public housing towers and works for the government's National Health Service.

ODUNEYE: The government says they slashed budgets by 40 or 60 percent. These are the consequences. And the councils then, instead of saying who can do the best job, it's gone to who can do the cheapest job.

LANGFITT: But the price difference between flammable and fire-resistant siding at Grenfell Tower was not that big. And many buildings were covered in flammable siding years ago, before the global financial crisis forced heavy government budget cuts. Still, Oduneye feels the government here has lost its way.

ODUNEYE: Somewhere along the line the politicians have to rethink that we're human beings, not just numbers. I personally feel that we're not treated as people anymore.

LANGFITT: Given the extent of the problem Iain Duncan-Smith, a conservative member of Parliament, suggested today that the government rethink how it provides safe housing.

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IAIN DUNCAN-SMITH: We should really be asking ourselves the simple question and have a real review of whether it is necessary any longer in many of these cases to have these older tower blocks as they stand, and whether we would not be better off taking a very strong decision to bring some of these tower blocks down and provide much better, much more family-friendly low-rise or even council house accommodation. I wish you would comment on that now.

LANGFITT: Many of the thousands evacuated Friday are now living in hotels paid for by the government. Local officials say they'll strip the siding off the buildings in the coming weeks to try to make them safe again. But it will probably take more than that to regain the trust of residents. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.