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NEWS 21 Jun 17

London Fire Raises Bulgarian Concern About High-Rises

Following the fire in London's Grenfell Tower, in which dozens died, concerns have risen in Bulgaria over construction materials used in renovation work on apartment blocks.

Mariya Cheresheva
The remains of Grenfell Tower stand in London. Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth

The tragedy at London’s Grenfell Tower, which has left at least 79 people dead or missing as a result of a massive blaze, has raised concerns about the quality of renovation works on apartment blocks in Bulgaria, many of which were funded by a state-subsidised programme.

Experts have warned that the materials used for the cladding of Bulgaria’s communist-period multi-family buildings could be hazardous due to weak oversight of the work and loose regulations in terms of safety standards.

The National Program for Energy Efficiency for Multi-Family Residential Buildings, a social program by the government, "is not bad as an idea, but like many things in Bulgaria, it does not work for those it is intended for, but for those who implement the procurements,” Yordan Nikolov, a construction engineer from the Bulgarian Association for Insulation in Construction, told BIRN.

He explained that due to weak oversight and loose legislation, companies often buy construction materials of low quality, including easily-inflammable polystyrene for the insulation of the facades of buildings.

“One and the same companies are in charge of everything – from design, to purchasing the materials, to construction and hiring supervisory companies ... There is zero control, it just doesn’t exist,” Nikolov explained.

He described the situation as “extremely irresponsible for people’s health and life”.

The National Program for Energy Efficiency for Multi-Family Residential Buildings was one of the landmark projects of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s second government, launched in 2015 with a budget of one billion leva - around 500 million euros - to extend the lifespan of the country’s aging concrete apartment blocks.

It covers the expenses for the renovation of whole buildings, including insulation, replacing windows and pipes in apartments and improvements to communal spaces, using EU and state funds.

Shortly before Borissov resigned in November 2016, his government allocated another billion leva from the budget to extend the programme until the end of 2018.

By February 2017, over 2,000 blocks had benefited from the renovation, while another 2,000 were in the queue if more funds were allocated.

In March, the interim minister of regional development Spas Nikolov announced he had notified the state prosecution of alleged fraud with the programme, including unreasonably high prices for construction work carried out by private companies.

In June, prosecutors launched a probe into the implementation of the state programme in the municipality of Blagoevgrad – one of the "champions" of acquiring funds for energy efficiency – after an investigation by the local website blagoevgrad-news revealed a number of corrupt practices linked to the construction projects.

The investigation said the municipal authorities approved overpriced construction projects, many of them run by companies linked to the city’s deputy mayor, Yanko Yankov, who resigned shortly after publication of the probe.

“The problem is that the municipalities are responsible for all the activities – one cannot implement something and monitor it at the same time,” Marieta Dimitrova, author of the investigation, told BIRN.

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