All tenants deserve a safe roof over their heads
Last week I reported on BBC London News that 19 London councils out of 32 had given us a full response to a Freedom Of Information (FOI) enquiry about Fire Risk Assessments (FRAS) on London's tallest residential tower blocks.
Four refused point blank to furnish information. The remaining Councils were still apparently no where near being able to provide full answers to four simple questions.
How many blocks over six storeys? The last major refurbishment? The date of the last fire risk assessment? What risk rating each building has?
Of course we are asking because it has become manifestly obvious since Lakanal that tenants and residents are not as safe as they had assumed and landlords need to be extra vigilant.
Figures from local authorities show nearly 400 blocks still need assessing for fire risk. And over 100 towers are classed as having a high risk of fire.
We pointed out to these authorities that the information we requested was public information and therefore should be readily accessible. Some authorities insisted that the information was too difficult to gather and therefore the research too costly to undertake. Still some refused.
Southwark, for example, have right up until the end of last week kept up the mantra: "The police have asked us not to comment on matters relating to Lakanal House". They interpreted this to mean all Southwark high-rises. Of course the ongoing refusal begged an obvious question about whether the information might be embarrassing for Southwark council.
A week, as the saying goes, is a long time in politics. This week 30 Councils, (despite the difficulty of gathering the information) have provided the public information we requested back at the end of July. Bexley is the last solitary Refusenik authority. Southwark has provided most of it.
We can now report that 17 authorities have up to date FRAS. Thirteen do not. We have no information for one and the jury is still out on Southwark. There is much work still to be done.
There must be a suspicion that by reporting last week, what appears to be a systematic failure by a number of local authorities to conduct Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs), wavering local authorities decided to pull their finger out.
As I wrote in Barling's London last week, it seemed illogical that investigations at Lakanal House should prevent access to FRAs for Southwark's other 200 or so blocks over six storeys.
Then, late last week I happened to get sight of an email written by Chief Superintendent Wayne Chance, the Met Police Commander in Southwark. In it he suggested there was no police objection to the public having access to information on other blocks in the borough. Lakanal House for obvious reasons remained off limits.
The following day I asked Southwark why they still objected to giving us information if Chief Superintendent Chance didn't mind? It seems that for over three months, despite our repeated requests for information, and their intense cooperation with the police, Southwark had failed to have a proper conversation with the police about sharing information with the public or the BBC.
Annie Shepperd, Chief Executive of Southwark, said last week: "We have followed direction from the police that by disclosing information through responding to Freedom of Information, or any other, requests, we may prejudice their investigation."
A joint meeting between the Met Police, London Fire Brigade (LFB) and Southwark, after my observations about Chief Superintendent Chance's email, thrashed out a new line that releasing the information would not harm the Police or LFB investigations. Surely they could have worked this position out after BBC London's initial FOI request on the 25 July?
Let's turn to the information that has now been made available to BBC London from Southwark. Firstly, it shows that nearly 160 FRAs had not been carried out prior to the fire at Lakanal House on 3 July. A number were still not started after our first FOI.
It is clear that Lakanal prompted a massive response by Southwark to address the shortfall in risk assessments. Despite having had three years to comply with the law, after 3 July nearly 160 were done in the space of one month.
Secondly, three of the FRAs carried out after the fire, have already been found inadequate by the London Fire Brigade. Three blocks have had enforcement notices slapped on them citing among other things these poorly carried out FRAs. That must beg the question of how many of the other FRAs conducted in such a rush are adequate? Unless, of course, the LFB has checked them all already.
Another question emerges from all this too. Is the London Fire Brigade really in a position to make sure landlords comply with their responsibilities?
One example shows how difficult it can be for the LFB to actually verify with a local authority whether a fire risk assessment has been done.
Weeks after the enforcement notices were served on Southwark by the LFB (at Castlemead House, Marie-Curie House and Perronet House) the Deputy Commander insisted they had still not seen a copy of the FRA for one of the properties that needed remedial work. In other words, when the LFB served their enforcement notice the risk assessment was not inadequate; they had not even seen it!
Southwark say they have completed a risk assessment, so why had the LFB not seen it? And if they had not seen it how did the LFB conclude one existed and note it was inadequate on the enforcement notice?
If that's not enough to make residents fall off their trolley; at Perronet House, Southwark's Head of Housing wrote to residents at the end of August saying there were no concerns about the block. This is despite the fact that the Council was desperate to avoid an enforcement notice and remained in deep discussions with the Fire Service about all the things a joint inspection had shown were wrong.
I understand that block is having hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of modifications to make it fire safe.
Council landlords have a duty to adhere to minimum standards on fire safety as laid down by the law. Where standards are not met the London Fire Brigade are meant to enforce the law. What we are seeing is a pattern of inconsistency, inaccuracy and out and out confusion.
If the enforcer is unable to regulate in a timely manner, there may be a danger that we are unlearning what was already known about the risks of fire. A robust regime should protect us against this.
Ultimately it is impossible for such a confused fire safety culture to protect council tenants and residents who pay good money to have a safe roof over their heads.