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All change on the fire front

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Kurt Barling | 12:13 UK time, Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Amazing what publicising a cock-up can do. Because things have started to happen across a number of London Boroughs since we reported there was a backlog of several hundred Fire Risk Assessments for tower blocks across the capital.

Let's start with Lambeth Council. We correctly reported that they had only completed two Fire Risk Assessments.

One of those was on the Ethelred Estate after fire had broken out. We featured that block on the evening news and showed how nearly a year on from the fire, the damage had not been seen to.

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Anyhow, last week the London Fire Brigade warned the council they might have to move several hundred people out of the blocks if they didn't get their act together.

LFB went back to remind them of the enforcement order they had issued to keep the common areas clear. It seems our report alerted them to too much combustible material being stacked up in the common parts of the two tower blocks.

Despite the fact that tenants and residents are living through upheaval as a result of major works, teams of workers were sent in to clear the combustible material without warning. Some people came home to find their personal belongings dumped in Council rubbish vans.

So they got rid of the fire hazard but residents say, failed to give them adequate time to remove their own belongings.

I went in to one flat a few weeks ago that was in the midst of having major works done. It was covered in works dust and it beggars belief that more provision was not made to help people to store valuables with so much filthy work going on.

Southwark meanwhile are busy crowing about the level of investment that is going in to making tower blocks fire safe in their borough in the wake of Lakanal.

It's a curious thing when a local authority responds to an enforcement order saying they have got things wrong, by saying that they are spending millions to put things right. That's the point isn't it? Turning it into positive marketing is a bit of a cheek.

Then I got sent a lot of paperwork from a blogger from Southwark responding to last week's Barling's London. It turns out that he and his fellow leaseholders are going to pay through the nose themselves for a sizeable chunk of the remedial action in their block of flats.

The estimate for his block is around half a million pounds for leaseholder costs, around half the total; so much for council investment.

Then there is Hounslow Council. They got the hump that we had pointed out, using the information they gave us, that they had not carried out Fire Risk Assessments on a number of high rises in Brentford.

Despite complaining about our intervention they told us about a catalogue of works they have now commissioned on the block after we visited.

Repair to a broken fireman's lock on a fire door. Filling in holes made through the concrete floors, to allow television cables to pass through, restoring the compartmentation between floors. Making sure there is better illumination of the emergency fire exits and the buttons to release the doors.

Putting up better signage around the block to aid evacuation in the event of fire. The council will now write to leaseholders who have replaced their fire retardant doors to remind them how important it is to have the correct doors. Oh and the Council has decided to approach the National Grid to stop supplying mains gas to the block.

According to them these were just "odds and sods and minor issues" to be addressed. Glad we pointed them out and clearly made the blocks safer to live in for tenants and residents, although the council did confirm that they keep a fire door locked for security reasons.

And then there was the final refusenik council, Bexley. After failing to provide information for over two months they finally sent us data about high rises and their FRAs.

Curiously Bexley, like a number of other Councils, seem blissfully unaware of the law that's been in place since 2006. Either that or they are willing law-breakers.

Sixteen high rise blocks have had refurbishment works, but Bexley list them as having FRAs long before the works were carried out. The law requires that new FRAs are carried out to ensure that refurbished blocks comply with the fire regulations. They cannot be serious.

Sixteen other blocks they have given us information for had fire risk assessments in the same month as we requested the information. Funny that.

So, all in all, quite a busy week for fire officials and council housing departments starting to try and clear up the mess of their own doing.

I'm still trying to work out how an enforcement agency, the London Fire Brigade in this instance, can make sure the law is complied with if they have no obligation to check if Fire Risk Assessments are being carried out.

That, to my journalist's brain, looks like a major oversight in the law. A huge black hole into which absent Fire Risk Assessments disappear at whim.

Surely there are enough officials lurking around the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority to devise a system where it's easy to check off whether each tower block in the capital has an FRA. After all it only took two journalists (me and Ed Davey) eight weeks to find out.

At least then, tenants and residents would know that the law is being complied with. Moreover the LFB would know when a Council didn't give a stuff about ignoring their obligations and could get busy enforcing.

We do now have a full inventory of all 32 London Boroughs, so there is no excuse for not having access to the information. In the fullness of time the LFB could even put the naughty ones up on their own website.


  • Comment number 1.

    Leaseholders of Perronet House have been sent a break-down of costs for the ongoing 'fire safety works' currently underway for over 1 million GBP, more than the half a million suggested in this blog. The work quoted seems uncompetitive i.e. more than 2,000 GBP for new front and back doors - our own research suggests we could source similar doors for 25% of the price. Other itemised costs appear to replicate work already undertaken with our service charges such as rat deinfestation, fire exit signage and ceiling tile replacement. The numbers do not add up and someone needs to hold Southwark accountable. We leaseholders are not an open cheque book! The fear is this estimated amount will increase vastly if Southwark's record of service charging is anything to go by.

    It is important to note that all of this work is continuing without section 20 dispensation - we have only just received paperwork from the LVT regarding the council's application - surely this is a risky business to assume the LVT will grant dispensation? Despite the lack of consultation and permission, residents' front and back doors are being measured and photographed, holes are being drilled through our walls for new wiring and our corridors are full of high-vised, hard-hatted workmen. Everyone deserves a safe place to live, however, knee-jerk panicked reactions from Southwark are adding to the bill which we have to pay. As leaseholders we are being asked to pay a huge bill without any evidence that this project is being managed properly or that the works are even required. The whole process seems subjective and reactive - without consideration for the crippling effect this very expensive shopping spree will have on leaseholders.

  • Comment number 2.

    SickofSouthwark is right, They could have done this job cheaper, each door they are puttingo in is £1000 each when there are cheaper doors,

    Many of the doors In Perronet House are already up to the standard, and have the relevant self closing and 30 minutes sustainabilty, The council have told LHs that if they can provide a fire certificate from the manufactor they won't have to have a new door and they will save money,

    Why can't the council do this with tenants doors some of them fit the standard it's just that Southwark have not got the records to show what is and what is not up to standard, they also are not competent enough to decide what is and what is not, so because they have to get this right in order to comply with the enforcement Notice they are just putting new doors on everywhere to cover their backs without any regard for the public purse and the charges to LHs They just want to prevent them being in more trouble than they are already are.

  • Comment number 3.

    Reading the article by Kurt and points made by sickofsouthwark i was reminded on the progress meetings for Brydale House. I have copies of the (various)contracts for that £3m+ job. My point is that during the contract period the contractor was also made responsible for the building in occupation and the health and safety of residents. and OMG was that place a mess. dust, dirt, debris etc. and in 2007 we asked for the Fire Officer to be involved back then (part evidence emailed to Kurt). All the highly paid and qualified people were struggling to see why the bottom of a protected stairwell needed a fire door. The elephant was right in front of their noses but they still argued the point. None of this is new, and it is very deeply entrenched in the dangerous ways of working in Southwark and looks like other Councils too. The Council lost control of its "partnership" trial expenditure, and also expenditure in other Housing Areas. Leaseholders have to pay up (and maybe borrow from the Council which makes Southwark more money), and some of the money handed over by Government for all properties to be incrementally maintained is wasted too. Southwark bleats about money, but it is a subsidy system beneficiary. The waste is shocking. Indeed, watch out leaseholders! At least the leaseholder associations are doing a great job of holding Southwark Council to account and the same cannot be said of the borough-wide tenants association which is financed by.... the Council! Jerry Hewitt, Secretary Hawkstone T&RA

  • Comment number 4.

    And as Perronet House leaseholders paying tens of thousands of pounds each to fund Southwark's PR campaign wasn't enough, I had contractors force their way into my flat on Saturday morning.

    I was away on business. A friend was in my flat, asleep on Saturday morning at 9am. She ignored the doorbell being rung repeatedly on 2 occasions as she was just a guest. She decided to answer it the third time as the bell was being held down for nearly a minute at a time and she thought it was an emergency.

    It turned out that it was contractors requiring the return of a health and safety form they'd put through my door the day before. I'd filled it in but they'd left no instructions of what to do with it. They then told my guest she had to fill it in on my behalf and forced their way into the flat to measure the doors.

    So three Southwark council contractors intimidated a lone woman into signing away my health and safety rights for asbestos removal happening today and then barged in to measure doors.

    This whole debacle is an already expensive disgrace. And the story has hardly started.

  • Comment number 5.

    This week we finally saw the detailed LFB enforcement order on Perronet House. We had to obtain it from within the fire service. Prior to that the council repeatedly insisted the only document was the one they distributed to a few of us in early September containing a couple of pages of bullet points. We can now see the detail of what's needed and the threats from LFB of sending someone at Southwark Council to prison!

    Now it's time we saw the contents of the Fire Risk Assessments. It's time we had a voice in deciding what risks were actually addressed, either as a matter of urgency, as a wish list for including within scheduled maintenance work or not at all. None of this needs to be rushed. Work needs to stop.

    We can now see the majority of work underway at Perronet House falls outside the LFB enforcement order and is instead related to the interpretation of a number of different FRAs of the block in recent weeks. I have heard from Southwark Council that the FRAs for Perronet House are contradictory and open to interpretation. It appears that the council is now naively approving everything on the FRAs as a rapid knee jerk reaction to the media storm which has portrayed them as negligent of our safety. They crow of their investment yet the money they are spending is funded by leaseholders and tax payers, and they rush to complete it by seeking dispensation from the LVT! The consequences of rushing the job and of not consulting with residents are multiple. (1) Cost is a major factor, but (2) the aesthetic fabric of the building is being damaged and some (3) I believe some work will undermine community cohesion by creating physical barriers in communal space and an aggressive, dehumanizing environment.

    What we see of the work completed so far and of the plans shows that the work has been specified based on two crude criteria: (1) it's quick (regardless of cost) and (2) it meets the enforcement order and FRA. What is missing is the diligence necessary to keep cost under control, and the intelligence to ensure work is of genuine significant fire risk mitigation, maintains or enhances the appearance of the building, is easy to maintain and ultimately fosters a good feeling amongst users of that space.

    The £1m of major works underway at Perronet House comes at a high financial cost and social cost. Were it not being inappropriately rushed this could be avoided.

    We demand work stops, FRAs are disclosed and a full and proper consultation begins.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sorry Kurt, it appears i misinformed you on the amount perronet leaseholders are being asked to pay.
    As has been rightly pointed out above, it over £1 Million pounds that Southwark has determined is rechargable to the block.
    There's something in the law about reasonable costs - where of course, the legally correct procedures have been folllowed in the first place...
    I wonder, is it reasonable to charge £1250 for an entrance door, (and another £1000 for the exit!) when they can be supplied and fitted for up to 50% less (and before anyone asks, yes, that is to the spec required by the enforcement notice)?
    Is it reasonable to charge £193,000 on mains electrical work when it is not required by the enfocement notice and has not been competatively tendered?
    Is it reasonable that as a result leaseholders are forced to have major electrical work carried out (at additional expense) or find themselves disconnected from said new mains electricity?
    Is it reasonable that Southwark has neglected residents fire safety (borough wide)for such a long period of time even though new regulations were passed into law in 2006?
    The answer is clearly no.
    But if you asked me if it was reasonable for Harriet Harman to say "leasholders are being used as a cash point" by Southwark?
    The answer is a resounding yes!

  • Comment number 7.

    looking at the 2008 risk assessment for John Kennedy House (SE162QE) a "risk level for building" is given as 3 (low). However, and it is a big but, the report is qualified because it states "Our inspection was confined to the communal areas". So are the inspection and enforcement visits by the Fire Service. So it looks like Southwark have worked out that they have to barge in one way or the other. But then what use are all these risk levels if the access is only provided to perhaps less that 20% of the "building"? My front door is not FD30S. And nor are 1000's of front doors in Rotherhithe so I wonder about that.

  • Comment number 8.

    Until the fire at Lakanal House the biggest health and safety issue at Perronet House were our very unreliable lifts. Apex, the contractors who have at times repaired them informed us and the council that they were to old to be reliably fixed - the winding gear dates from the early 1970s. They needed total overhaul. Many of us are regularly trapped in the lift or must resort to the stairs - I've seen an elderly lady carried down 8 levels on a stretcher because the lifts weren't working.

    Here is a recording a resident made last year of a lift in Perronet House breaking down and trapping a resident

    We heard earlier this year, with great relief, that our lifts were finally due to be replaced in Q4 2009. But now this work has been delayed indefinitely because of the fire safety works. But the problem is getting worse. This week one lift has broken down twice already and has been out of action now. On the first occasion asbestos removal contractors were trapped inside for an hour on their first day of work, the day after I heard a resident was trapped inside for 3 hours! On both occasions the fire brigade refused to release them because they were men!? - this is a new policy and led to the passenger's alarmingly long incarceration.

    Our problem with the lifts is soon to become even worse because the LFB have announced that as of 1 November they will charge £260+VAT to release people trapped in lifts (after 10 free call outs). An allowance of 10 free call outs for releasing trapped residents would expire very quickly here when you look at Perronet House's track record for lift reliability over the last year. This cost will be billed to Southwark Council.

    The council's money shouldn't be spent paying for the LFB to release residents from knackered lifts, it should be spent on constructing lifts that work. To me this is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than carrying out work that's not even in the LFB enforcement order.

  • Comment number 9.

    A meeting was arranged in regards to my concerns about the lack of escape routes in my apartment on the fourth floor of a converted house.

    The meeting at my studio flat went ahead on Monday 12th Oct with both the Head of Standards and Compliances and the Head Fire Safety Advisor.

    We discussed the condition of the house as a whole and we discussed about the benefits of my version of Escape Fire Ladders.

    When I asked the two Executives about the alternative Solutions they claimed in the local Newspaper a month ago, I was told that they were considering a water sprinkler system for every home. I looked at them very surprised and asked them "how much would that cost"? then I was told "£1000 each flat", to which I said "theres no way in my lifetime that this could be achieved in every home".

    I then suggested that if I were to set up a campaign to do a national scale petition to ask the general public what they would prefer and to my surprise the executives said that "its obvious that the public would choose the Fire Escape ladders".

    The executives had thought that my Escape ladder was a portable version evan though I have never ever told anyone that it was a portable fire escape ladder (My design of a compact escape ladder, is a permenant fixture to the wall under the window sill and it has a platform to stand on, plus handrails to help people to hoist themselves onto the ladder to safely escape down to the ground floor).

    I showed the executives a letter that I received from the Chief Fire Officer and Director of Operations at the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, where it states that "although the escape ladder could not be considered as a primary route of escape but that it could be considered as a last resort and alternative means of escape and that the escape ladder is capable of performing a rescue provided all building occupants would need instruction on its use, users would need practice and that the steel wire on the flexible part of the ladder would require strict maintenance to ensure their condition remained satisfactory".

    The executive with the title of Fire advisor said that he knew very well the Officer who wrote the letter and that he agreed with every word the Officer had stated in his letter to me.

    The meeting at my flat seemed quite short because the executives told me that they had other meetings scheduled for 10:00am and although the meeting at my flat was scheduled for 9am, they arrived at the premises at 9:30. They both spent the first 15 minutes doing an assessment of the building staircase outside my apartment and another 5 minutes on a telephone call which interupted our meeting.

    The executives gave me no time to demonstrate how my version of escape ladder's function, which I have set up from a window in my storage room. I was prepared to climb onto the ladder device and climb down the ladder to the ground floor level to show how strong and safe the laadder is for most of the general public.

    I was called by the Ombudsman Investigator the next morning to ask how the meeting progressed and I explained everything that i remembered about the meeting.

    The Investigator said she would write an e-mail to the executives, in less than an hour later, I received a call from the executive, where I asked him to confirm that they told me that they were considering water sprinkler systems in all their buildings. This time he said that the water sprinkler system was an idea being considered for high rise blocks of flats and not house conversions like the one I live in. I thought to myself, why would they be telling me about what is being considered for a block of high rise flats when I am concerened about the problem in my fourth floor flat in a converted house.

    I then asked "what were the solutions for converted houses like the one I am living in", and he said that there were no solutions being considered for the houses because of the design and age of converted houses would not allow this solution to function effectively.

    My conclusion of the meeting is that the Council have no solution for house conversions which are by far the bulk of the housing stock and therefore are not able to comply to the Approved Document B4 ruling that each flat above 4.5 metres from the ground floor must have two routes of escape out of the building.

    I believe that Escape Ladders are the only viable alternative means of escape if the main primary route is blocked by toxic smoke.

    I also believe that if the general public were given an opportunity to choose what they prefer as a quick and ready to use means of escape, that they would choose to have the Escape ladders installed in their premises.

    With the support of News papers and various on-line petition forums, it is possible to gain up to a million signitures voting for the introduction of fire escape ladders in our homes and flats in every Borough in the Country.

    I believe a petition would help MP's to lobby for the law to be upgraded to have escape ladders installed in all council residental buildings, especially their converted houses which are the bulk of the housing department's stock.

  • Comment number 10.

    For 5 weeks the contractors at Perronet House have had some plastic/rubber covering down on each landing of Perronet to protect the floor. I did not know this until it was put on my landing and when I saw it I immediately thought it was not fire resistant. I then wrote to the Fire authority to ask them and it turns out low and behold that it is not fire resistant and the fire authority have asked them to remove it, When I asked Southwark why it has been there for all those weeks, they said it is widely used and they assumed it was fire resistant ,when they realised it was not , they have removed it, all, They only realised it was not when I brought it to their attention, and the fire authority gave them a telling off, I am not an expert but knew instantly this was not fire resistent, there are umpteen council officers , health and safety experts etc coming in and out of Perronet every day 5 times a day.and not one of them noticed it in 5 weeks what else are they not noticing I wonder

  • Comment number 11.

    It may be of interest that the estimated charge for this non-fire retardant material that has graced our floors for the past five weeks is itemised at a cost of 8,500 GBP on the recently received break down of costs sent to leaseholders of Perronet House - do you think we can now assume this cost will double as the flooring has been pulled up today and will no doubt be replaced with a more expensive plastic/rubber covering?! This is yet another example of Southwark's 'rush job' leading to further expense and extravagent waste of leaseholder money. Can someone please slow things down?! This needs a sensible and considered approach due to both the financial and safety implications. There are errors happening everywhere under our noses and we will be paying for this for a long time to come. Southwark please stop now before you bankrupt us all.

  • Comment number 12.

    Good news! One year after a fire risk assessment recommendation green fire exit signs were fitted to the John Kennedy House today. And do not use the lift in event of fore signs too. this morning i was talking with a local journalist about front doors again. I sent him a page from a withdrawn 2005 tender document. Tenders docs are withdrawn when the Council decides to make cuts in specs, or pull the rug on major works altogether which they like to do to our Estate. Are our JKH front doors to flats FD30S? No. They are unknown (no strips, no closers). Is there an FD30S from kitchen to hall/lounge? No. Perhaps it is an FD30, but I could not tell you. Doors to the protected hallway? FD20 from bedrooms. And if I take refuge in the lounge? Well, I dont have double glazing yet (still waiting) in this 15 story 1960'ish tower block so no highly flammable expanding foam to fuel any fire. So what about compartmentalising for 60 minutes? Where? Where in the flat should I take refuge? 23 minutes, FD20 doors? I have no confidence whatsoever in the 60 minutes compartmentalisation. There are 1000's of front doors in Southwark that were put in for security firstly and not fire safty. And very good doors they are. One risk assessment remarked that they were in good repair BUT then recommended a survey be done to verify FD30S. Errr...nothing as far as we know. Last time it took the police about 10-15 minutes to smash one down. I hope they can upgrade the doors to FD30S or it is going to be a waste. And I see on Google lots of ways to upgrade doors.

  • Comment number 13.

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


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