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Archives for March 2010

Southwark's climbdown

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Kurt Barling | 17:43 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Soon after the fire at Lakanal House last July the Head of Housing and Deputy Council Leader in Southwark, Kim Humphreys, responded to local residents' anxieties saying that, "all housing officers have been approved by the Fire Brigade to undertake these (Fire Risk) assessments following the completion of fire risk assessment training by the Fire Brigade".

Shortly after this statement was made I walked from the top of a block in Rotherithe to the bottom and saw a whole heap of problems that the housing officer had obviously missed. By the time I reached ground level it was obvious there was a problem with Fire Risk Assessments.

We decided to survey all 32 London boroughs to see how many Fire Risk Assessments had not been carried out in blocks over five storeys.

It turned out to be hundreds. Southwark continued to insist that theirs would be carried out quickly through their "independently assessed methodology". Read for that, housing officers continuing to do the job.

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Here at BBC London we continued to press Southwark, because it was patently obvious that administrative housing officers simply could not have the technical skill-set to ensure complex buildings were fire safe.

Local authority press officers and their advising officials continued to argue and wrote copious briefings that they had the safety of their tenants and residents uppermost in their considerations. But their actions continued to display, at best, a cavalier approach.

Only after the London Fire Brigade dispelled the fiction in January 2010 when it said that their training course "is not designed to equip attendees to carry out FRAs in complex structures where a clear level of expertise in required", did Southwark change its tune.

Initially they blamed the LFB for not explaining the limits of their training package, despite it being obvious that one days training could not possibly equip a housing officer with surveyor skills.

Now, finally to great fanfare Southwark Council has announced that all its high rise blocks are to undergo full technical inspections for fire safety costing £192,000. They've set aside a whopping £19m to cover costs of likely "safety works".

One wonders why they have taken nine months to come up with this plan when it could have been implemented when they initially started their Fire Risk Assessments in 2008. Perhaps £192,000 now seems a sensible cost after enforcement notices costing millions and hundreds of thousands of pounds paid to lawyers to defend themselves in the wake of the Lakanal House tragedy.

Southwark concedes then, despite long protestations to the contrary, that any inspections carried out prior to these "technical" ones were inadequate and large scale safety works will be needed.

In other words they have been less than open with their tenants about the risks associated with their high rise blocks and their inadequate approach to identifying faults in the past.

In another novelty urged on local authorities on this blog several months ago Southwark Council is going to publish all FRAs on its website. A triumph of common sense or a result of sustained scrutiny?

It is all very well for local authorities to claim that they have seen the light, these measures will, if carried through, have a profound impact on the safety of these buildings, but the harsh reality is they have done it under some of the most intense public scrutiny after the deaths of six innocent people.

Kim Humphreys said on Wednesday that "we take fire safety extremely seriously and will not cut corners when it comes to making our blocks meet the highest possible standards of fire safety".

There is plenty of evidence that this is precisely what did happen in the run up to the fatal fire at Lakanal House. Corners were cut and the law in the shape of the Regulatory Reform Order 2005 was not complied with in many parts of the Capital including Southwark.

Either complacency or fear gripped local authorities after the disaster as they tried to blame the London Fire Brigade's approach to enforcing the new regime. At last Southwark has finally come back down to earth.

There is plenty of evidence that as journalists probed local authorities continued to try and defend their inadequate approach. Of course, no amount of rectification after the event can get away from the responsibility issue whilst the mistakes were being made. A full inquest will yet explore these issues.

The London Fire Brigade has just announced its new Fire Safety Plan for London until 2014. Interestingly the LFB has also decided to enter the modern age and publish fire enforcement notices online. This will have the effect of letting ordinary members of the public know if their landlord has been up to no good in the past.

If all 32 local authorities in London and the capital's housing associations follow suit and put Fire Risk Assessments online then there will be no excuse for people not to know about the risks associated with their homes nor who the slackers are in terms of managing those risks.

It may well complement other efforts to change the fire safety culture in the capital by concentrating the minds of public and private landlords on their responsibilities and naming and shaming those who don't get their act together.

Elephants at City Hall

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Kurt Barling | 14:41 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

As we all know there has been a series of unlinked dramatic fires across the capital since last July. The fire in Southwark at Lakanal House claimed the lives of three adults and three children.

The three official inquiries - Police, Health & Safety Executive and Fire Brigade - into how that fire started are still ongoing. The inquest into the deaths of the victims was told in December that it would take until this summer to conclude their investigations. Serious questions have been asked by local MP and Deputy PM, Harriet Harman, as to why they need take so long.

Meanwhile, a number of dramatic fires have raised fresh questions about the risks associated with buildings constructed with timber-frame techniques.

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London must offer 'sport for all'

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Kurt Barling | 09:43 UK time, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Sporting legacies are a hot topic with the Olympics coming to town. Once upon a time each of the 32 London Boroughs took great pride in their sporting facilities. School sporting champions were paraded and celebrated civically.

I recall joining my local athletics club around the age of 10. It was in my local park and we trained on a cinder track. For those who don't remember them, they were very dirty and hard work but they were everywhere.

As sporting expectations grew and sport was elevated beyond just another leisure activity the demand for improved facilities grew.

Initially in the 1970s when local authorities still saw the provision of this type of public service and public space as a core activity investment continued to flow.

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