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Who's judging the Judge?

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Kurt Barling | 12:06 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

It has become pretty clear that Southwark Council wants as few people to talk about the Lakanal House disaster in public as possible; more on that later.

By the beginning of August it had also become clear that no-one, not the fire authorities, not local authorities, not central government, had a clear idea of how widespread the problem with high rise dwellings might be across London.

At BBC London we sent out a series of Freedom of Information requests to each one of the 32 London Boroughs. After two months we finally have enough results to piece together an approximate picture of fire safety assessments in blocks over six storeys across the capital.

southwark_towerblock.jpgWe asked each council how many blocks over six storeys each authority had? When each was last refurbished? For each block the dates of the last fire risk assessment? And which official within each local authority has responsibility for ensuring compliance with the fire safety regime in place since 2006?

Believe it or not four councils have refused to give us what should be public information. They cite the difficulty of retrieving the information and the cost it would entail.

Strange then how 28 councils have endeavoured to get us a full inventory of information. I'll name those authorities who appear to find it such a challenge to find information in a moment.

There are a few structural things that emerge from our developing database.

First not all authorities have responsibility for their social housing. Some have hived off their housing stock to housing associations. Others have given day to day responsibilities to Arms Length Management Organisations (ALMO). It's not yet clear if this has a bearing on the efficiency with which fire risk assessments are carried out.

Nevertheless, a number of authorities have a quite appalling record of complying with the Fire Regulatory Reform Order (2005).

Lambeth tell us that they have fire risk assessments on less than 5% of their current 112 blocks over six storeys.

Furthermore they are currently undertaking major refurbishments on one estate for which they appear to have no record of fire risk assessments.

The law is clear; a major refurbishment requires an ongoing fire risk assessment. We took a reputable surveyor to one block and he inspected some of the work being done.

His assessment was that the work to make the building and flats look nicer is actually increasing the risk of fire spreading throughout the block.

If his assessment is correct, how can this not be a scandal? There is supposed to be a robust fire safety regime in place.

One of the residents of the block, who is also a leaseholder representative, says he has been trying to get hold of a fire risk assessment on his block since a fire in a neighbouring block last November.

He's never seen one so we can only presume it doesn't exist.

Stacking up the number of other blocks across the capital we know about without an up to date fire risk assessment, we estimate a figure of 253 blocks.

Some of these blocks have been recently been refurbished under the government's ambitious Decent Homes Programme. One of the problems with this vision is it seems to lack specific guidance on fire safety regulations.

Despite this the law remains unchanged; fire risk assessments are still necessary.

Islington, like many other boroughs, has invested money in improving people's homes but without a fire risk assessment on over a dozen refurbished blocks it is impossible for anyone to say whether these improvements have improved fire safety. It could be, that like at Lakanal House, some 'improvements' actually make buildings less safe.

The big question is why have they not been done? The London Fire Brigade (LFB) will have to answer this one. So will the Tenants Regulatory Authority which regulates ALMOs and Housing Associations.

Although it is the responsibility of the social landlord to ensure risk assessments are done in the social housing sector it would appear that very little is being done to ensure they comply with the law. No-one is judging the judges so to speak.

They are being left to their own devices and pulling up short. Don't forget we are making this assessment from council's own figures.

Lambeth have accepted three years on from the new regime that they have not done the job but that now spurred on by the Lakanal fire they stress they have more social housing than most other London Boroughs and "by December all blocks over 10 storeys will hold a valid fire safety risk assessment, with the remaining high rise blocks being completed by March 2010."

This is a bit like arguing that as long as you're not found out breaking the law it's all right as long as once you've been found out you do your best to change your behaviour. I'll try that line of argument next time I get a speeding ticket and see how far it gets me.

Our research is not quite complete.

Hopefully it will be done within a week. We'll then put it up online so that high-rise Londoners get the clearest picture yet of how much work needs to be done to get fire risk assessments compliant with the regime which is supposed to make high rise dwellers safer in their own homes.

Three authorities, Bexley, Camden and Havering failed to give us information. All three have repeatedly been asked.

Although they have had over six weeks like all the other authorities to respond our persistence may mean they will deliver in due course.

One authority, Southwark, says it would be prejudicial to the ongoing police investigation at Lakanal House to respond.

It's not clear to me why Southwark couldn't give us the information for every other block and just leave Lakanal House out of it.

We already know they failed to provide adequate risk assessments in three other blocks; the LFB have issued three enforcement notices. Southwark have until 31st December to comply with them.

The lessons from Lakanal clearly can't wait until police investigations are completed, nor until inquests into the six deaths are held.

Our investigations have shown that there are serious systemic shortcomings in complying with fire regulations by numerous local authorities.

Yet a third of London's boroughs have an up-to-date fire assessment record. Clearly it is possible to get the work done.

Two authorities have raced to become compliant since the Lakanal tragedy.

Southwark is, however, not alone in failing to keep up to date. The important point is until these risk assessments are carried out it is simply not possible to know whether tens of thousands of Londoners are living in a safe environment.

Furthermore most authorities have been unable to name an individual officer who is the "responsible person" within the authority, as the regulations recommend, for ensuring compliance with these basic fire safety regulations.

Someone, perhaps the housing minister, needs to make sure social landlords begin to take their responsibilities seriously.

Surely the law becomes an ass if it is consistently ignored?

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Maybe if all tenants refused to pay rent and council tax until the assessments & work orders were completed, councils would take more notice.

    After all, it is a breach of contract if the landlords don't meet their legal responsibilities, and councils are claiming money under false pretences if they don't meet their own legal responsibilities. (Which Council Tax is supposed to pay for).
    Paul Harries
    (Gloucester)

  • Comment number 2.

    This enquiry should be extended to cover all of the UK. Given that one day risk assesments become available, how long will it take the social landlords to carry out the remedial works which will surely be found to be essential? On past non performance, years!

  • Comment number 3.

    What chance is there of this new legislation succeeding? Many fire authorities have ignored the requirements of the Act. I have taken action against my Fire Authority when it ytranspired that thy had completely ignored the application of the regulations to its own premises!!!

    Similarly the local authority produced appalling standards of risk assessments for its own premises whilst coming down hard on others who are trying to comply with complex matters of safety with NO assistance whatsoever from the Fire or Local authorities.

    I am currently awaiting the result of an ombudsman enquiry into these two Authorities following FOI enquiries that exposed them.

  • Comment number 4.

    Over 10 years ago,when this balmy legislation was being thought up, senior management within the fire service were told that taking responsibilty for fire inspections from the fire service and giving it to property owners and local councils wouldn't work.
    Its like making MOT's voluntary, how many cars would be driving round with one ( Not many) in fact, because it costs money to get one, it would be a low prority.
    How many people would have a fire risk assessment done on the properties they are responsible for..
    Previously they were inspected on a regular basis by local fire brigades.
    Now they are not.
    Hotels, Offices, Shops, are not inspected yearly or 2 yearly as they were previously.
    More seriously how many Schools, Colleges, Blocks of flats, Old folks homes,Pubs and clubs have current risk assessments, less than 50%.
    And if they have them, how many are acted on to make sure that buildings safe, - very few, because it costs money.
    The inspection of all these buildings have been taken away from the people who know about fire ( The fire service) and have been given to people, who's first thought is, " how much will it cost".

  • Comment number 5.

    I won a Gold Medal from The British Invention, for a compact, very strong and easy to use Fire Escape ladder (called The Great Escape Ladder)and since the beginning of this year, I have been talking to the Council about installng the escape ladders in their properties (I live on the top floor in a Council house conversion and I only have one route to exit) I have informed the Council that the property I live in does not comply to Building Regulations Approved Document B4 (Means of Escape), where it says in paragraph's 2.5, 2.6 & 2.7 that all residential buildings above 4.5 metres must have two exit routes. I offered my escape ladders as a solution and last resort means of escape as it is never the fire which kills people but infact the deadly smoke that can cause smoke inhalation or death. The Council ignored my claims and told me that unless Old and disabled people are able to use my ladders that they couldnt consider it as an option (I thought this was a strange excuse as most of the people considered old or disabled live on the ground floor level) its the Majority of able bodied people who live on the higher levels and most of the people I have asked about my ladders, have told me that they would use it if they had no way out. Then the Camberwell fire happened, six prescious lives perished and now there is a public inquiry. I turned to the Local Government Ombudsman and my Local MP and raised the issue and they have given the Council until the 5th November to respond. I have designd a product which can potentially save life, make the home a safer place, create jobs and wealth and be a great export for the UK. Surely I deserve to be treated with a lot more respect then I have witnessed from the Council's executives who are more concerned about the big bonus's they receive at the end of the year (Tax payers Money which should be invested protecting their tenants Health and Safety). I'll be more than happy to demonstrate how effective my Great Escape Ladder works, if the BBC News team wish's to interview me at my fourth floor death trap.

  • Comment number 6.

    I am not surprised by this report, and I doubt if many housing/technical managers are. Since the Fire Brigade's mandate to inspect public sector housing ended, it has indeed been a "less important" duty. Look at the scant money available to carry out housing, social, technical duties, and fire precaution comes way down the list. It is horrible, but true, that people will die before things change much. Well, what else will happen if we continue to to provide (third-rate) public housing at unsustainable rents? You pays for what you gets, fire included.

  • Comment number 7.

    The system by which various professional organisations have qualified so-called Fire Risk Assessors on the basis of a 3 day course is part of the problem.

    Trained Fire Engineers with many years of experience are required to undertake a professional assessment.

    I have found that on numerous occasions these quasi- professionals have failed to identify key fire hazards due to lack of both training and experience.

    There is a much larger problem here and that is a regulatory one. Almost all Britain's flats are designed on the assumption that it is safe to stay in place.

    An actual fire hazard analysis of such facilities reveals many unsafe conditions that were not anticipated and render the assumption invalid.

    In my professional opinion, the 'stay in place' strategy is fundamantally unsafe and is inconsistent with the risks in council flats in particular.

    By comparison compare hotel construction. This occupancy is probably a lower risk than most rental highrise buildings, yet such occupancies do not use the stay in place strategy. In addition, primarily due to fires that occurred in the 1980s have established their own standards that are applicable with the hotel group. The disparity between the significant requirements to which hotels volontarily comply and flats for which the fire safety requirements are minimal up to a height of 30m, is expediency on the part of the government, supposedlky on the basis that costs of construction must not discourage the devopment of flats, even if they are unsafe.

    John Ivison BSc(Hons) MIFE.MSFPE P.Eng
    Independent Fire Engineering Consultant
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 8.

    Confusion reigns. Who is responsible for ensuring fire risk assessments are undertaken. The Fire Authority in London (LFB) says they have an enforcement role. This does not mean that they themselves carry out the fire risk assessment (FRA). Difficult to see whom they are enforcing to do what if they don't know who is not complying in the first place. If the LFB's methodology for targetting paricular types of buildings, assessing risk and weighing priorities is reliant on a process of random sampling and reports from other sources (tenants, media, building industry professionals); is it proving ineffective? A minimum of 300 plus blocks without FRAs begs the question.

    The Department from Communities and Local Government makes it clear that "Under the Fire Safety Order, Fire and Rescue Authorities have a duty to enforce the provisions of the Order." A FRA is a legallly required provision.

    If the figures given to us freely by some of London's Town Halls are accurate there are hundreds of enforcement actions to be undertaken. This will take time, resources and inevitably money. A conundrum that Sir Ken Knight's review will clearly need to address if Fire Safety is to be given the priority the government says it should have.

    We live in a era when the responsibilities of social landlords have to be balanced more equitably with the increasing numbers of leaseholders. Leaseholders are demanding to see documents like the FRA. Some, although clearly not all, Council's seem stuck in an age where council tenants were largely seen but not heard.

    The story of the official approach to fire risk we are slowly uncovering across London probably gives an insight into the narrative of local accountability, or the problems with it, in an age when citizens are more able and willing to ask tough questions and some areas of local government are incapable of offering a coherent answer.

  • Comment number 9.

    This terrible fire at Lakanal in Camberwell is a tragedy which need never have happened if the current legislation had been followed.

    We have the Building Regulations, Codes of Practice, the CDM Regulations and the Fire Safety Order to safeguard the public. Their whole object is to contain and prevent the spread of fire within a building. As it said in the "British Standard Code of Practice CP3: Chapter IV (1962) Precautions against Fire in blocks of flats and maisonettes above 80'0" in height":

    "The guiding principal in the recommendations which follow is safety of life."

    If that had been enforced it would not have stopped the breakout of the fire in Lakanal or anywhere else BUT it would have prevented its disastrous spread.

    Until 1986 London had a form of building control under the London Building Acts which went right back to Christopher Wren and the Great Fire of London in 1666. But in a fit of pique Margaret Thatcher took her personal spat with Ken Livingstone to a new level. With a stroke of her pen she abolished the GLC which led to the repeal of the London Building Acts. She was no better than the mad Queen in Alice who exclaimed, "Off with their heads!"

    The District Surveyor who enforced the Acts was a highly qualified individual with an engineering degree who also had to pass rigorous exams set by the District Surveyors Association. They were completely independent and enforced the Acts on the inner London Boroughs and Council Housing. Outer London came under the building regulations.

    Lakanal where the fire occurred was a Section 20 Building under the London Buildings (Amendment) Act 1939 and s20 was administered by the DS. It had to be to his personal satisfaction. The first thing an architect would ever be asked when taking a scheme for discussion with the DS was what class it was. From that stemmed the fire rating in hours for the structure - 1 hour was the minimum. This would determine how many sets of escape stairs the building needed and the maximum length of the escape corridors. This was the distance from the flat to the fire escape fire doors. Once that was agreed everything else followed.

    What we have now, and what Kurt Barling has uncovered, is a system based on wishful thinking. Maybe people in authority think, "Well if we enshrine all this in legislation everything will be hunkydory." The real world doesn't work like that. It's full of people who cut administrative corners, who ask themselves, "Can we get away with this?"

    When the Fire Precautions Act 1971 was repealed after the Select Committee which recommended it following a fire disaster in Irvine in Scotland in 1999 there were wise heads who said it could lead to a reduction in fire safety standards. Many firemen said that. Not because they might have lost their jobs and status but because they are the very people who have to go into buildings which happen to be ablaze. Why should they risk their lives needlessly?

    So what did we get in its place?

    The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 which came into force in October 2006 exactly 3 years ago should have done the job. The trouble with it is that it is self regulating just like the banks and their wonderful bonuses. A Local Housing Authority is judged sufficiently experienced not to require external monitoring. The LHA is deemed to be able to run its own internal system. The trouble is there is NO external audit. That only happens if something goes wrong.

    When the Select Committee submitted its report they had this to say:

    "We do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks."

    It is a VERY high price to pay to discover that the system doesn't quite work like the legislators thought when 3 totally innocence young women and 3 young children, including a 3 week old baby needlessly die in a fire which spread with with such catastrophic speed that it almost trapped the firemen sent in to put it out.

    What Kurt Barling has done is to pull aside a curtain which has now revealed the unsavoury administrative situation behind that.

    The public deserves better than what he has revealed.

    The BBC and Kurt Barling in particular deserves nothing but praise for taking the lid off this massive can of worms.

    I hope that what has been done will lead to the safeguarding of lives.








  • Comment number 10.

    Yesterday our running tally for tower blocks higher than six storeys without a fire risk assessment ran to 316 across London.

    Some authorities have been slow to give us the information. Down from yesterday's four refuseniks only 2 Councils (Camden & Southwark) are now deliberately holding back the public information we requested.

    We are still awaiting the full set of information from 5 more authorities and they have now promised it. Running total with 25 authorities having responded to our specific queries 438 blocks without a risk assessment.

  • Comment number 11.

    You may also wish to ask about sprinklers. If Lakanal House were built today it would have two staircases and sprinklers. It is very difficult to add a staircase to an existing building but sprinklers could have been fitted in Lakanal House for about £100,000. Many fire safety experts believe that sprinklers would have prevented this tragedy. There has never been a multiple fire death incident in a high-rise block of flats fitted with sprinklers and thousands of such buildings exist in North America with a smaller but growing number in the UK. Reports claim that £3 million was recently spent to refurbish Lakanal House. A few percent of that could have made the difference on 3rd July.

  • Comment number 12.

    I remember the appauling neglect that was visited on social housing in London when I lived in Peckham in the '80's, and it would appear that nothing has changed. I suggest that all those MPs content to claim living away from home allowances should be obliged to take up residence in Lakanal and her ugly sisters. You would certainly see change then, voiced as it would be by those both articulate enough to express themselves clearly, and bold enough to speak out without fear of loss.
    Therein of course lies the tragedy of social housing - that it will always remain at the bottom of the list of things to do because there are few who can for lack of education or basic language skills, or who are willing to speak out for fear that they will lose their tenure and be marked as troublemakers.
    This story has made it all the way to Australia, so do not for one minute imagine this to be a parochial affair.
    Social housing in Australia, the bulk of which is in the form of single residential and low-rise multiple residential developments dating back to the '70's when urban densities were rapidly increased, is managed by state authorities not local Councils, so is generally well resourced and managed. This includes annual inspection of properties, including testing of smoke alarms and other safety features, and planning of maintenance and upgrades as appropriate.
    The Building Code of Australia requires all multiple residential developments to have protected secondary means of escape, and sprinklers for all residential buildings with an effective height over 25m. Individual thermal and smoke detectors are linked throughout so all residents are alerted to a fire event in one residence.
    All multiple residential developments are vetted by our Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) who have a number of technical officers specifically appointed to check fire safety and compliance with the Building Code as a part of the approvals process, and subsequent amendments such as changing doors or compartments must be likewise approved. Whilst unauthorised changes can result in criminal charges and heavy fines in the private sector, FESA is universally empowered to impose notices of closure on the building and the owners, not just advise a breach and see whether anything has been done about it.
    Could the same occur in Australia? Possibly, but certainly less likely as our housing is better managed and resourced by a dedicated state-based organisation, and is controlled and monitored by a fire authority with the power to take direct action if required.

  • Comment number 13.

    I read the comment which you posted at 6:31pm on the 29th Sept 2009 (10th comment) with great interest. What caught my attention was that you mentioned that Camden Council were deliberately holding back the public information you requested. When I wrote my comment at 11:04pm on the 28th Sept 2009, I never mentioned which Council I was experiencing the difficulties with but since you have mentioned Camden Council, I see no reason not to mention who I was referring to. I was infact writing about Camden Council, as I live in a house owned by Camden Council, which I believe does not comply with the regulations set out in the Approved Document B4 (Means of Escape). Today I received a letter from my Local MP Glenda Jackson, who received a letter from the Fire Safety Advisor for the London Borough of Camden, concerning my Fire Safety Claims and to my surprise the Advisor had expressed that Camden have explained to Me that the Council gets many companies on a daily basis trying to sell their fire safety products. "Having listened to what Mr Waithe has to say, his product does not meet any of the Councils identified fire safety needs". The problem that frustrates me with this statement is that I have never had such a discussion about other companies trying to sell fire escape ladders to Camden Council nor have the Council ever expressed to me what their requirements are. Camden Council have not evan seen a demonstration of my escape ladder to disrespect its capability as they are deliberately doing. I was told by a Camden Health and Safety Officer, that Old and Young people may find great difficulties climbing down my ladder but I have proved to Brent, Harringay and Cardiff Councils, that Old and Young people are very able to Climb down to ground floor level from a block of flats using my Fire Escape Ladder as was demonstrated and documented in the Times Chronical Newspaper Series (G). I would never expect a weak old aged or young seriously disabled person to use my ladders with ease just as I would never expect that any Council who respects the Law of Health and Safety & Human Rights Laws, to house anyone who come under this discription to be housed above the ground floor level anywhere in the UK. I suspect that the deliberate holding back of public information from Camden Council that you have mentioned has something to do with the Council not wishing to be seen to over contradict themselves. Meanwhile, its only a matter of time before we hear of someone else being trapped in another burning building wth only one way out which unfortunately is blocked with deadly smoke. The only route out of such a building is through the Window (which is the exit route that the Fire Brigade would use in a resque attempt down a firemans fire ladder).

  • Comment number 14.

    The results of this investigation come as little surprise. The Law has said to occupiers that you can look after your own fire safety. In my experience you will find the vast majority of workplaces do not have a risk assessment or even know about their legal obligations.

    It is impossible to comment on whether or not a FRA would have made any difference at Lakanal House until more facts are known. It is certainly possible that a proper FRA could have found problems but then it is equally likely that the actions of residents could have contributed to the fire regardless of actions taken by the council.

    At the very least these councils are not complying with the Law, just like many others out there who should be. People need to start taking fire safety seriously and in the UK that only happens when people are killed. Risk assessments are irrelevant if they sit in a folder for years after they are completed, read by no-one and acted on by nobody.

    The Fire Service faces a massive increase in number of inspections of premises which would not have been inspected under the Fire Precautions Act and are faced with organisations ill prepared to carry out this role. In addition, the more scruplous can hide behind the very risk assessments many seem to think are so important whilst the legal system doesn't want to know. Prosecutions under any fire safety legislation have been few and far between as FRSs worry who is going to pay for it all if they aren't successful.

    As far as escaping from buildings or staying put is concerned it very much depends on what the situation is. Escape systems which allow rapid escape from a flat aren't new and while are innovative and important in their own right are missing the point slightly. Let's stop fires occuring and if they do start let's stop them spreading.

    Brinson mentioned sprinklers. Bang on there - Lanakal House may have been a different proposition had they been fitted. It is likely many fire deaths would be avoided if the legislators had the bravery to insist on their installation yet economics seems more important than life.

    In response to the staying put strategy I would counter by saying that it does have its place depending on the building, its occupants and the nature of the fire. If there is no way of phasing evacuation especially in high rise, densely populated buildings by using intelligent evacuation policies, you run the risk of inefficient evacuation and slower response from the emergency services who can't reach the affected floor. It may also put people at risk if they try and evacuate when there is no need.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    When the fire brigade go to a fire in a highrise block they assume it complies with the regulations and assume rightly or wrongly that it is safe for people to stay inside their flats. They tell them to do so.

    All too often there have been cases in blocks of flats where this has not been the case and people have died. In some cases the fire brigade have been trapped. The 16 storey Merry Hill Court in Smethwick is an example. That fire in 1990, the second in a year in the same block, killed a tenant who had alerted the brigade and who was told to stay put.

    All the service ducting in that 13 storey modern block was encased with painted plywood. The fire stopping between floors consisted of newspapers stuffed between the pipes as they passed through the concrete floor.

    This fire spread over 6 floors in a matter of minutes. It spread along the floors and between the flats through the ducting that contained the gas pipes.

    More than 170 fire fighters took over 3 hours to put out the blaze because the dry riser failed to work. They had to pump water out of a local canal.

    That fire travelled up the building and down it trapping the firefighters as burning debris fell down the unstopped service ducts. Inside the ducts were gas pipes with wiped lead connections. The connections melted with catastrophic results.

    The fire at Lakanal which killed six innocent people happened on a bright sunny afternoon. The fire brigade got to it quickly. They had begun to put out the fire in the flat where it started. If you watch the videos shown on utube you can see steam coming out as their hoses played on the fire.

    Then they got trapped as a huge fire engulfed the floor above them and fire began below them.

    What would have been the outcome if this fire had happened not at 4pm but at 4am?

    Would we be looking at a death toll on the scale of Hillsborough or Valley Parade home to the Bradford City Football club or Summerland in the Isle of Man?

    The fire at Kings Cross Tube brought a level of cleanliness not seen on London Underground since it was built. Decades of grime was removed within months.

    We are treated almost on a daily basis to screams from the tabloids about rising taxes and who is going to pay.

    Well some people did pay in this tragic fire. They paid with their lives and that surely is too high a price to pay both for them and their families. Isn't it?

  • Comment number 18.

    As Secretary of Hawkstone Residents Association (Southwark)I would like to thank Kurt and the BBC London team for working so hard on the story. Today we heard from Southwark that highly flammable expanding foam was used to fill wide gaps (between aluminium frames and concrete) in Brydale House however "this substance does not perform a fire resisting function, it is a filler that acts as insulation". Why use a highly flammable substance as an insulating filler? For a little more money a fire retarding product could have been used. It does appear to us that the ripping out of the very closely fitted solid wood 1960's frames and replacing them with poorly fitted frames has made the block less safe. What about the 1 hour design? Our Chair, Kathy Hennessy, featured on a recent BBC interview with Kurt, has raised concerns for decades along with many other resident association leaders. Thanks Kurt, team and the BBC. Jerry Hewitt, Secretary, Hawkstone T&RA

  • Comment number 19.

    The news of the fire in Camberwell in September shocked people in all nations. The news even reached Japan, a country that has had a lot of experience with fires throughout its history. Being on the belt of fire Japan has experienced and still is experiencing earthquakes on a regular basis, and fires are often a result of such earthquakes. The last big one of a seismic intensity of over 7 on the Richter scale happened in Osaka in 1995. Old wooden buildings collapsed and the fires that broke out everywhere were the most devastating cause for people’s deaths.
    Japan has learned and still is learning from history, and nowadays most houses build in the past 20 years are earthquake and fire resistant, built following specific building rules and equipped with fire escape ladders from balconies, sprinklers in rooms, smoke alarms in rooms and fire extinguishers on each floor. Each of these are checked and have to be checked every year.
    The government is also slowly tearing down old government housing and replacing it with buildings that fit the higher standards. But it is a slow process and government-owned houses plus old private houses remain a fire hazard especially in cities where houses are packed onto any square metre available. It is not perfect, but one is trying.
    Having lived in Europe (England, Germany and Italy) I realized that safety in houses in those countries is far from perfect. Renting accommodation remains a popular and only choice for a great number of people, each of them putting their lives into the hands of councils/ landlords, hoping that all will be alright. Is that right? Are a few number of people allowed to play with other people’s lives, just because they “hadn’t got round to checking and upgrading these buildings”? In Camberwell the council seemed to have been getting away with breaking the law for many years. Landlords of private properties can be sued for their negligence so why not councils? Shouldn’t councils have even a greater responsibility compared to private landlords, because they’re dealing with a greater number of people? Somehow it just seems that their size and authority gives them more cause and reason to cover up what they missed out to do. I hope that the fire in Camberwell will take the cover of councils and bare the ugly truth. Only that way one can start to rebuild and improve housing and safe lives.

  • Comment number 20.

    I do not understand why Southwark of all places are refusing to give the information under the FOI , HOw will it impacton the Camberwell investigation if residents in another part of the Borough ask about their risk assessment and how will it prejudice anything by giving the BBC the info about how many risk assessment they have done, They do not have to say which blocks they only have to say how many, they keep saying they are taking this issue seriously, and are putting residents safety first and foremost but then do not want to tell us if they have done a risk assessment on our blocks, The real reason why they do not want to tell us is probably they have not done any, and they do not want us to know, I know Lambeth is appalling with not doing any, but at least they have had the decency to inform people of that and tell residents that they are doing something about it, Southwark say nothing and make some stupid excuse about Camberwell , YES it's because of Camberwell that we all want to know if we are safe in our beds,

  • Comment number 21.

    what I find amazing is that a lot of these councillors at Southwark are lawyers and barristers and it is a criminal offence not to do risk assessments and breaching the RRO interestingly enough they are Lib dems that uphold the FOI requests and publicly criticised the government for blocking the FOI on MPs expenses, but now in Southwark they ignore FOI requests about our lives, which is public information THe thing is most of them all live in nice houses and not in tower blocks and therefore why should they worry.

  • Comment number 22.

    I live in Southwark on the 12 floor of a 20 storey block, on the Leathermarket JMB, we had refurbishments done they put in heavy wired smoke alarms but did not give us new doors, I am told that our doors should be self closing to comply with fire regulations and they did not, So it is doubtful if they did a risk assessment otherwise they would ahve known, I find it irresponsible to spend this amount of money on tyring to keep us safe when the work actually makes it more dangerous.

  • Comment number 23.

    The Local Government Ombudsman have given Camden Officials until the 5th November 2009, to respond to my complaint that the building that I live in does not comply to regulations set out in Approved Document B4 (Means of Escape) By Law, I should have two exit routes of escape from the fourth floor level to take me down to the ground floor level. On Friday 2nd October, Camden Council contacted me to arrange an appointment for the 12th October 2009, to do a risk assessment of the fourth floor apartment I am currently occupying. A Fire officer will attend the premises with a Camden Council Officer from the Occuupational Development Directorate, to respond to me under the Council's Complaint Procedure. I will also be given the opportunity to introduce my Award winning fire safety solution (The Great Escape Fire Ladder) which I will prove is a workable, viable and potentially life saving product which should be installed in the property that I occupy. I would like to invite you and your team at the BBC, to attend my apartment for this official meeting next week as a witness and reporter to this ground breaking turn around by Camden Council? Lets all do our bit to make the home a safer place, not only for me but for everyone in the UK who currently lives in Council owned or Housing Association properties. I look forward to hear from you.

  • Comment number 24.

    Approved Document B part B1 (B4 covers External Fire Spread) paragraph B1.vi states that:

    “For the purposes of Building Regulations, the following are not acceptable as means of escape:
    a. Lifts
    b. Portable ladders and throw-out ladders”

    This may be a contributing factor to your council’s rejection of your escape ladder.

  • Comment number 25.

    When the Great Escape Ladder was originally designed and constructed, it was a portable version (This was in 1993) and a Senior Divisional Fire Officer from the Fire Brigade, had a look at the device and told me that if the ladder were to remain a portable that it couldnt be considered as an escape route, he then went on to say that because of the design and strength of the device, if it were permanantly fixed to the wall under the window sill, it could be considered as a last resort means of escape. Since that period I have redesigned the device to be fixed under the wall of any window sill, balconies and roof tops and then I asked the British Safety Council's Director General, James Tye, who went on BBC TV (on a program called "Eureka")and said, "of all the fire escape ladders he had seen around the world at fire equipment Exhibitions, he had seen nothing which compared to this device and that it was the best he had seen". Too many lives have perished since that time and no other solutions have surfaced. Brent Council had approached me to ask the tenants living in the Chalk Hill and Stonebridge Estate, if they would be happy to use the ladders to escape if there was a serious fire and no way out to escape and all 3000 tenants signed the petition agreeing that they would use the ladders. Brent Council's Chief Housing Director, then asked for a full scale demonstration of the escape ladder device, where it was demonstrated that both young and elder persons were able to climb down safely to the ground floor level. The device has since won a Gold Medal at the British Invention Show Annual Awards under the catergory of Best Industrial Design. The Great Escape Ladder offers a solution and a way out if someone is trapped in a burning building (especially buildings which are suppose to have by Law, two routes of escape but only have one. The Council needs to consider this more than ever before since the loss of all those lives in Camberwell this year.

 

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