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All tenants deserve a safe roof over their heads

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Kurt Barling | 14:11 UK time, Monday, 5 October 2009

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.

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The law requires that anybody asking a question of an official organisation must allow 20 days for a response. It's designed to enable officialdom to do its job in a reasonable amount of time. Two months, in other words, should be plenty of time.

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Tenants of Southwark Council have information rights under their tenancy agreement, and also the Southwark Constitution, and yet residents are still waiting for information about their homes. It may well be that Kurt will get the FRA info before they do! For someone like me who deals with Southwark Council day after day there is no confusion, it is just how Southwark Housing operates. When information is provided it must be checked and carefully verified, and we find no end of inconsistencies and oddities, one piece of information may not cohere with another. And sometime the whole tangle is overwhelming. Just to repeat that Southwark Council is using highly flammable expanding foam as "insulation" around replacement windows in high rise blocks. Where is the 60 mins compartmentisation assumption then? For a few pounds more they could have used a fire retarding product. It is all very much about money. John Chester is a Brydale House leaseholder WWII war veteran forced to pay big money to make his home less safe which is a disgrace. Jerry Hewitt, Secretary Hawkstone T&RA

  • Comment number 2.

    If all Council's were to spend hundreds of thousands of Tax payers money on modifications to make their high rise blocks safer to live in, then they should also look at the hundred and thousands of house conversions they own which do not have a secondary means of escape. The Guidelines in Approved Document B4, requires all residential buildings above 4.5 metres, to have two routes of exit to the ground floor level. I use to live in a block of flats where two people had died jumping from their balconies to escape a serious fire and this forced me to seek for alternative acommadation in a lower level building. After a period of time I was offered a fourth floor flat in a converted house where I lived above a tenant who thought it was clever to burn unwanted letters in his apartment or on the staircase. What put the fear right back in the front of my mind, was that the staircase was my only route of escape and this forced me to look for alternative ways to get out should a fire become too fierce and out of control. I then realised that the only other way out of my apartment would be to jump from the fourth floor down to the concrete pavement on the ground level (My chances of survival were slim to nothing at all). I then took it upon myself to look at the Building Regulations Apprroved Document B4 and realised that I should actually have an alternative route of exit from my fourth floor apartment. I spoke to my estate manager, the Fire Safety Advisor and the Health and Safety Officer for the Council and to my surprise they all had their "gaurd" up and defended the Council with very lame excuses such as, "All our Buildings follow the guidelines and we are satisfied that you have suitable and sufficient means of escape in case of a fire". If it wasnt for the Camberwell fire which ended the lives of six precious human beings and for your amazing findings since you started your investigation, then I would still be banging my head against a very thick brick wall (quite the same as someone trying to escape a burning building with no way of escape). What are the Council's going to say if another soul is trapped then dies in the event of another serious fire?
    Surely its TIME for Council's to take a positive step forward and put serious effort to make Council's houses and flats a safe place to live in. There should be Fire Escape Ladders in every home as a last resort means of escape and this should be a standard fixture just like its a standard fixture to have a window in every building. A window which could provide the only other way out of the building.

  • Comment number 3.

    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.

  • Comment number 4.

    In reply to Tony: the rents collected are not taxpayers money, it is rent money from hard working tenants and charges from leaseholders. some rent payers in councils like Kingston (Kingston's 'negative subsidy')are paying over cash only to have it wasted by other Councils such as Southwark. Central government "calculates" money for every archtype and property and then hands it over to the Council "pot" who then misdistribute and waste much of it. The waste of money is huge, and the mistake was to then let Councils spend the money elsewhere than it was calculated for. Unfortunately, the current Building Regulations mostly can be disapplied and ignored for refurbishment, and so we have to do our best to encourage the landlord to bring properties up to current building regulation standards where possible but since it is all about money they do their best to avoid it. And many properties have severe design defects that mean they are unlikely to ever be "decent" even when decent is strictly done to the minimum. As it was at Brydale House. I have a £10 rope on my balcony just in case! all the best, jerry Hewitt, Secretary Hawkstone T&RA

  • Comment number 5.

    I think there is a lesson in this saga of the Freedom of Information requests. Tenants and residents have the right to see the Fire Risk Assessment for their block. What good reason can there be to keep this public document, paid for by rent payers and leaseholders, under wraps? Why not make it available online on each London Borough's website in the same way as planning applications are now made available. I can see no reason why each London Borough can't also keep a registry of Fire Risk Assessments online, so residents have a ready reckoner for checking their block. The means of escape are important, but arguably the most important issue is to prevent fire happening ans spreading in the first place. If the London Fire Brigade haven't got the resources to check whether fire assessments are up to date, obliging authorities to publish them, will give the people who live there the ability to monitor the situation themselves and report the backloggers.

  • Comment number 6.

    I wonder if Southwark would be releasing the information if the BBC had not seen the email from the Borough Commander. I suspet they would have carried on refusing. Why couldn't they ask the police at the time of the FOI request or throughout the 3 months if it was okay to release information instead of just keep saying a load of codswallop. We al know why they did not want us to see the list because of all the risk assessments were done after the fire most of them were done on the 13th July, and they did not do any for 3 years then they do them in one day, who did them SUPERMAN, how adequate are they We also need to see the risk assessments for each block it's no good just saying when they did them, what did they find and are we safe and what are they doing to put any breaches of safety right. The main question is WHY HAVE THEY NOT DONE ANY FOR YEARS. Why have they put our lives at risk , and then do not have the courtesy or decency to inform us why, or not hold anyone to account for it.

  • Comment number 7.

    Thanks for your best wish's Jerry! I hear you loud and clear Kurt but is it possible to prevent fires from happening and spreading when most fires which have resulted in serious injury or death were accidents unforseen and totally out of control... There will always be accidents as nobody is perfect (many fires are caused by electrical fault or cooking incidents in the kitchen or during the Christmas festives when millions of people have Christmas tree lights hanging on a tree which becomes bone dry in a matter of days and are placed in a corner of the room next to the net curtains) some people fall asleep with a cigarette still alight between their fingers... some fires are started deliberately by arsonist where innocent souls are caught unaware. If people were given the opportunity to escape their smoked filled buildings in the event of a serious fire, the job of the fireman would be made alot easier and allow them to concentrate on controling the spreading of fire and putting it out as quickly as possible. Correct me if i am wrong but the firemen trying to control the fire spreading in the Camberwell fire, were also heavily distracted trying to reescue trapped tenants and it was that which cost the lives of six souls who were still alive when the fire engines arrived. It must be extremely heartbreaking for both the families who lost their loved ones and for the firemen who couldnt save those lives.

  • Comment number 8.

    I wonder if anyone is interested in who will pay for all of these fire safety improvements? Perronet House leaseholders comprise 41 of the 90 flats in the building and have received a break-down of costs for the fire safety improvement works today - total job over 1 million GBP. Our household's estimate is more than 13k. Work is continuing apace without consultation despite the fact the LVT have not yet issued a section 20 dispensation. How much of the work is due to long-term Southwark negligence is debatable - is this massive expenditure an expensive PR exercise after Lakanal?! If so, should the leaseholders be picking up the bill or are Southwark liable due to poor maintenance and inadequate fire safety measures?? Kim Humphries has boasted on camera that millions are being spent on fire safety in the Borough - our worry is that some of these millions belong to us, as leaseholders. In a bid to counter the negative publicity generated by Lakanal there is a worry that Southwark are going above and beyond LFB recommendations. Why should we pay for this? Our view is unheard as work progresses without consultation and our place of residence is turned into a building site.

  • Comment number 9.

    Whilst the issue of the Leaseholders is important it is nothing compared with the issue of the fact that for 3 years and even now our lives have been and are still being put at risk, Although Southwark say they have done a risk assesment we do not know that, no one has seen it, even the BBC, have not seen it, and given the fact that Southwark have been misleading us for weeks over the whole issue it's hard to believe anything they say or be confident about the accuracy of information. For instance the council say they did a risk assessment for Perronet on the 14th August , The Assistant commissioner of the Fire Authority wrote to me on the 11th September saying he had not seen one, so if the council done it why didn't they hand it over. Whilst I sympathesise with the LHs about paying for the works what price can be put on someone's life

  • Comment number 10.

    perronet person, in answer to your comment about Southwark are going over and above what the LFB have asked of them how do we know this , the LFB have refused to tell me what they have actually asked them to do,and the only thing that is not on the order is the hard wired fitted smoke alarms that LH do not have to have if they do not want to, To my knowledge,new front doors, celing replacements etc are what the LFB have asked them to do, although one issue is that the false celings are made of wood which is illegal to have been there in the first place so one could argue that given that they should not be there , Southwark should pay to take them away, and should not charge the LHs for that work, Our front doors should all be self closing and have a sixty minute fire resistance on it they are not at the moment so one could argue that as they should have been in the first place Southwark should pay for it, the only issue is from what money should they take it from, I think whoever is responsible for this complete negligence and incompetence should pay for it, not just with their job, but from their own pockets, as well

  • Comment number 11.

    @ jyatak and perronetperson,

    I think the issues are one and the same. Southwark Housing Office has been mis-managing their properties for years. This has resulted in a tragedy at Lakanal and also resulted in extortionate bills for emergency repairs.

    I'M a LH at Perronet and I feel perronetperson's pain. We're all used to Southwark's reactive approach to building management and can recount numerous examples. But this is a new level of behaviour from them. It's

    £2400 per flat for doors. Fire breaks every 15 metres in the corridoors. £10,000 for rat control. It tells its own story. This should be coming from the PR budget not from our pockets.

    The building must be brought up to standard immediately. But so must the building management. I refuse to pay for incompetent staff any more.

    The first reaction from Southwark to the press after the Lakanal fire focussed on how much had been spent on that building in recent times. They're seeking to create another one of those stories by throwing money at the buildings.

    The worry is that much of the work is being done shoddily, without tender, without resident consultation and in a media-fuelled rush.

    We will be poorer but no safer.

  • Comment number 12.

    I get very angry about this. If central government had required local authorities to spend Major Repairs Allowance and Management and Maintenance Allowances etc. on the dwellings that it was calculated for then the "depreciation" of some blocks might be much less, not perfect but less. Leaseholders might not be facing having to pay for repairs TWICE, once when they were paying rent for years and now again for rolled up "backlogue" repairs as leaseholders. But now some leaseholders are having to pay THREE times and paying again to put right the shoddy rougue trader work. We wrote to Kim Humphreys years ago on this very matter but the Council stood by its "partners" and defended them. There is no point making complaints to Southwark Council about this because their corporate complaints system has crashed when it comes to Investment matters and when it suits them. The London Fire Service has given Southwark Council 10 days to fix up a fire door in Brydale House that has been defective for years. Brydale House recently has £3m spent on it. Even the new hubdean surface is crazing and cracking. The rot goes right to the top in Southwark Council. Incompetence and incapability allow for some kind of caring, caring people who are just not withit, but sadly some do not at all. And the words I would use to describe them would be moderated out. Jerry Hewitt, Secretary Hawkstone T&RA. Southwark.

  • Comment number 13.

    CllR Humphreys is quoted in the local paper today as saying that fire risk assessments can not be done overnight, YES we all know that, so why were they? nearly if not most of them of blocks of six storeys high were done in the space of two weeks ,some on the same day. They did none for 3 years then suddenly a whole gash, of them I have learned that Southwark only started doing them this year, HOs have had one days training and some of them had to do over 30 blocks each on their own in about two weeks, the risk assessments that have been done by Southwark inadequate done by incompetent people and many lives are still being put at risk. I wrote to the Leader of the Conservative Group asking him did he think it acceptable that our lives were being put at risk he has made a complaint about me harrassing me and making unfound allegations so don't bother asking your local councillor about this if they are Lib dem or Tory as they will make a complaint about you. There has been no political leadership on this issue and no accountability and us residents have now got to make a stand.

  • Comment number 14.

    What the councillors do not seem to understand is that not doing a risk assessment is putting lives at risk,it is also a contravention of the RRO Regulatory Reform Order It is a criminal offence, It becomes an offence if it is demonstrably found to have put one or more people at risk of death or injury. This piece of legislation is a criminal law not civil and will therefore can be given punishments of a criminal nature. The council have to appoint "a responsible person" if they do not do so, the responsiblity falls to the Cheif Executive and the Leader of the council, has Southwark got a "responsible person and if so who is it, who is going to take responsiblity for this disgraceful negligence and when is someone going to lock them all up and throw away the key

  • Comment number 15.

    Since all this issue started no one once as my Local MP Simon Hughes said anything about this, I have sent him numerous emails about the subject and he has not responded, to one of them, My husband is disabled and therefore has been put at extreme risk Simon Hughes has not been to seem him or asked after his welfare The RRO is a law and to breach it is a criminal offence It is the duty of any MP to ensure that the council and other organisations are not breaking or breaching any laws , especially when it impacts on their constiutents Any MP also has a DUTY OF CARE to their constituents of which Simon Hughes has failed in, He has not challened his colleagues over such disgraceful irresponsible , negligence, What would happen if a fire broke out in one of the blocks that was under his constituency we would not get the help Camberwell got because he would not want to speak out about his Lib dem colleagues. The Lib Dems in particular criticise the government for putting lives at risk in Afghanistan , yet Simon Hughes says nothing about the his own party putting lives at risk in his own consituency.

  • Comment number 16.

    I have a friend who lives in a tower block near by and he tells me.

    The council were warned about the tower blocks I know more than one person that warned them over the phone on several occasions about the dangers and fire risks especially where parking is concerned.

    And the council don’t listen, one week after the fire in lakanal at the block opposite the council allowed the tenants hall to be rented out and allowed the visitors to park anywhere and everywhere they wanted which made it impossible for any fire services to gain access to that block, had there been a fire there would have been yet more deaths due to a complete lack of care.

    There is only one entrance to the whole of the block there is no fire escape whatsoever, the block should there be a fire on the stairs you are at the mercy of the fire brigade to get you out of the block, this I have seen when I visit.

    The block has over the years he tells me had many refuse fires in the shoot areas and one of the new features of the block are metal access panels that should be kept locked but were always left open.

    The councils have replaced panels with wood rather than fire resistant materials and in the case of lakanal the main panels facing to the outside were of a plastic material.

    The fact as he sees them are this, when he moved in to the flat it was fire safe except for the lack of escape routs out of the block the flats were themselves safe, parking was not an issue, over the years more people have cars but the council have not catered for them so these cars park anywhere they can causing access problems.
    Again the council have been told and warned but choose to ignore what they have been told.

    From what he has told me and from what I have seen lakanal will not be the last disaster because Southwark council have not addressed the issues that could save lives.

    The council are putting in new doors and pulling down panels forcing people to lose some of their storage space and attempting to provide containment but how do the people get out of the block if the fire were to be on the stairs? Simply they can’t.

    He tells me how he watched the people running up and down the balcony unable to escape the block they had no trouble getting out of their flat they had nowhere to go, he said how he watched one man tying sheets together to try to lower his children from the balcony to another floor in the hope of them escaping from another landing.

    He also said how this went on for around four hours before anything was done, so what good would have been the 60 minute fire trap for each flat he wonders.

    He tells me the people that died did not die in their own flat they got out of that with no problems, but were so afraid and hid in another flat simply because they could not get out of the blocks.

    What is the point of putting in containment if the people can’t get out of the block?

  • Comment number 17.

    Ok recent events affecting the same tower blocks.

    I was speaking to my friend only today and he told me that there was a fire in the block he lives in, which is directly opposite lakanal many of the residents had to leave their flats because of the potential risk some were hysterical.

    I asked him about the fire alarms that was fitted if they went off and he said he did not hear any.

    But he did say the stair way appeared to be full of smoke.

    This time the fire service was on top of it as he watched from his window but it looked to him as though it was only yet another refuse shoot fire just one of many over the years which he has seen.

    Still it begs the question, had the fire been on the stairs or spread from the refuse area to the stairs how the residents would have got out of the building and perhaps we may have been looking at yet more sadness

  • Comment number 18.


    That is true, that all tenants deserves a "safe" residence...And, for the ones that are not able to answer the questions that were posed, should be investigated more for other problems.

    (Dennis Junior)


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