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The devil in Southwark's details

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Kurt Barling | 14:56 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

So Southwark Council have embraced the spirit of openness. After the enforcement notice for high rise block Peronnet House was made available by a Leaseholder to the press last week, the Council decided it wanted to share this information with tenants.

Their lead Councillor on housing, Kim Humphreys put it this way, "we think it is important that all residents are able to understand what we are doing to improve fire safety in the borough."

Two months ago I queried why a report in 2000 had said Perronet House was a medium risk and whether there had been remedial works. I was told back in August that there were no significant problems with fire safety at Perronet House. The ground has clearly shifted beneath Southwark's fire safety feet.


The detail is interesting. Firstly the Fire Risk Assessment that was conducted on14th August (after the fire at Lakanal House) was obviously not in place when the enforcement notice was served on the Chief Executive at Southwark, on the 11th August.

In fact, "no evidence of fire risk assessment was demonstrated during the audit process" according to the London Fire Brigade. It would seem instead the Council did a rush job and then got independent experts in. This led to a revised risk assessment which was then submitted to the LFB on 21st September.

I can only presume the information I was given at the beginning of August fell far short of what their independent experts advised them. Hopefully these experts will be kept on to check all the other hurried FRAs carried out after the Lakanal fire.

The Chief Executive has now been named as the "responsible person" for ensuring compliance with the fire safety regulations. Presumably this responsible person will in the fullness of time, explain why nearly 200 Fire Risk Assessments on blocks over six storeys were not carried out in accordance with the law prior to the fire at Lakanal which killed six people.

So what about the ongoing works? It's busy. Wholesale front door replacement and adequate fire stopping intumescent strips are to be installed. All escape doors to the communal areas are to be replaced. The overhaul and upgrade of doors to communal chute rooms are to be replaced. So are the doors to the common communal area. Security grills to the front of properties will need to be removed according to the LFB.

The suspended ceilings in the communal areas are to be taken down and replaced because the existing ones were not fire resisting. The new ceiling will have fire breaks in the ceiling voids where no existed before. A programme of sealing any flaws and breaks in the compartment walls and flaws caused by pipes or cables have started. The overhaul of all the glazed wooden doors to the staircase enclosures are to be overhauled so that they all self-close.

Finally the LFB noted that there was an inconsistent or inadequate level of means of warning in case of fire to the occupants of the flats. Southwark say they are going beyond the requirements of the order by installing hard wired smoke alarms and heat detectors to tenants' homes. Leaseholders will get the same service if they cough up.

Although it's not clear how tenants or the fire brigade will be given early warning if a leaseholder flat has no smoke alarm!

That is an awful lot of work that was missed at the beginning of August and suggests that there is a cultural misunderstanding of what it takes to preserve fire safety in these high rise blocks.

One can only hope that the remainder of the 200 blocks with post-Lakanal FRAs have not been so poorly served with identifying the real risks. One can only presume that the initial advice that Perronet House was NOT at risk was NOT given by a "competent person" as required by the fire regulations.

Strangely enough after we pointed out they had missed out 86 blocks from their inventory of FRAs sent to us a month ago, they have impressed upon one of their Tenant Management Organisations the importance of getting the work done.

So despite telling us that all Fire Risk Assessments were complete a few weeks ago it turns out 21 are due this week for Devon Mansions. At least Southwark now seems to appreciate that as the Landlord it's their responsibility to make sure FRAs are done. Fire safety has been placed firmly on the agenda.

Southwark still has a mountain to climb, but hopefully it can now lead the way for all those other London authorities that have also served their high rise tenants poorly.


  • Comment number 1.

    If the Cheif Executive is the "responsible person" I am worried about that, only when I sent her an email recently copying in, 3 officials from the fire authority she responded by saying that "Mrs Yatak as I have told you if you want me to receive your emails do not copy in a "chorus of observers" meaning the Assistant Comissioner, the Borough Commander, and the Southwark Inspector of the fire authority, So not very "responsible" to call the hierachy of the fire authority who are the enforcing authority , a "chorus of observers" as they are hardly observers, are they, If it is her that has been the responsible person for not ensuring the FRAs have been done, then that is more like "irresponsible" if you ask me.

  • Comment number 2.

    Once again it seems the council have only published the details of the enforcement order becuase they knew the press had it, and they did not want it made public , as they would have made them look bad again ,as residents are fed up with only being told everything by the press, they have had the details of this notice for months since it was issued but they never released any of it. I got the enforcement order from the Fire Authority after the council refused to send it to me despite it being a public document, and even when the press printed the order the council still did not publish it, it is only now that they have done so to avoid public anger again, It is interesting that they have only published the details for Perronet and not the other blocks which makes what Cllr Humphreys says a load of codswallop and spin.

  • Comment number 3.

    Kurt I was told today at a meeting I had with Southwark and the fire authority while we were on a site visit at Perronet that the the HOs who do the FRAs are not able to determine if a front door to a flat is fire rated and whether it meets the fire regulations, in fact I was told that there is no one in Southwark that can tell if front doors are fire rated, Then I was told that there is not even a space on the FRA for a front door and therefore it is not part of the FRA so all the FRAs that have been done have not had their front doors assessed. Also when the fire inspector came round today the fire exit to the disabled landing was blocked with rubbish so it was noted by him but how does all this convince us that they are taking it all seriously now, it does not

  • Comment number 4.

    The FRA for John Kennedy House written in 2008 by Active Fire Management noted that our front doors are in good repair BUT that a further survey would need to be done to determine if they were FD30s. There has been not response. The Fire Service said they stop at the front door. We were told at a meeting on Monday that Major Works projects may be held up and delayed, with budget cuts because of all the fire works that must be done. The Council has encapsulated asbestos ceilings in our high rise and I wonder if these should have fire stopping?

  • Comment number 5.

    Well Hawkestone TRA now you know why they were not done as no one in Southwark would even know what a FD 30 is let alone know if a door was one, so you will have to wait until the "responsible person" in Southwark starts becoming "responsible" and ensures that a competent person can do the FRAs and determine about the doors or Southwark get another enforcement notice on your estate, which the way they are going may happen sooner rather than later

  • Comment number 6.

    Kurt you say in this article that you hope that the advice about "no cause for concern" was not given by a "competent" person as the regulations state, it was given to us by Margaret O'brien the head of housing who told us that the LFB had not indicated any significant concerns, The director of Housing Gill Davies also confirmed this at a meeting to tenants that the LFB had not given any indication, and a Senior Councillor Cllr Noakes also told us that the LFB had not raised any concerns and then slapped them with the enforcement notice.

    That is a lot of incompetent people, which one of them is the most incompetent I wonder. It was quite clear, that the LFB had raised concerns as the council had already stated they would do the work voluntary 3 weeks before the notice came, Our celings were flammable and how could the LFB therefore have told them they had no concerns the fact was the council did not want us to know the truth they was just going to give us a load of codswallop about doing improvements and precautionary work as they called it.

  • Comment number 7.

    You're absolutely right Kurt, it's an awful lot of work that was missed in August and it's work that's been neglected for many years!
    We’ve managed to extract from Southwark Council a split showing what work was LFB Enforcement Notice related and what wasn't.
    Over 50% of the work they are doing is unrelated to the Enforcement Notice!
    We’ve asked Southwark to stop this unnecessary work and consult in the proper way. They have refused. And they’re still refusing to release the Fire Risk Assessment.
    Southwark's new mantra of 'above and beyond' (PR speak for: we're trying to divert attention from our accountability for the neglect that's being exposed) sees them intending to spend over £450,000 re-wiring the building for the hard-wired smoke alarm for tenants.
    This is not required by the Enforcement Notice and leaseholders have not been consulted.
    Southwark's Director of Strategy for Environment & Housing told us last Monday this re-wiring was part of their major works programme and as such they had to do it now. However the evidence from Perronet sales from 3 years, 1 year and even 2 months ago shows Southwark never had this major work on any forward planning documentation.
    It is yet another example of the boorish contempt with which they treat leaseholders. This unnecessary work alone stands to cost leaseholders over £6000 each! When added to the works required to comply with the LFB notice, leaseholders are expected to pay an average of over £11,000!!
    And it doesn’t stop there - if leaseholders don’t make major revisions to the wiring in their flats in the next 7/8 weeks (at our own additional expense) we’ll find ourselves disconnected from the electricity – a Merry Christmas from Southwark!

  • Comment number 8.

    I have now been giving a warning about sending too many emails , about this issue , I have also been told now that I am not allowed to ask any elexted member why no one has been held to account for this negligence, as apparently I am not allowed to use the word negligence, as no one has been found guilty of it, as yet, but surely not doing risk assessments for years on hundreds of estates is negligence, councillors including our ward councillors for Perronet are complaining that I am harrassing them by even writing to them and I am taking up too much of council resources and time by sending my emails, apparently they have limited resources so I think the LHs as well as the cojncil tax payer should question why there is not enough resources in particular when they are spending millions of pounds of this work , when some of it is not neccessary, it's a case of too many Chiefs not enough Indians

  • Comment number 9.

    I have just read an article in Private Eye about Southwark. It is called "Death Trap", it is very good and states that when Southwark did the central heating 20 years ago, they put in wooden false ceilings , it states that this is in clear breach of the London Buildng Act, and against fire regulations. Obviously at that time they did not get building control permission or anything. It also states in the article that although Southwark say they were metal windows, they would have certainly had some element of PVC, The council have told me twice in an email that the ceilngs at Perronet were not flammable and they are replacing them as a precautionary measure, despite the fact that they are part of the enforcement Notice and they have to replace them and now if it is true that they are in breach of the London Building Act it is not wonder they are reluctant to tell us the truth them. as that would be another law that has been broken and another Act of Parliament completely violated. I wonder how residents feel now knowing that wooden false celings that were put in the 80s are illegal and that many blocks still have them. as the Housing officers that check things are not qualified to to check the false celings and are not able to take out of the panels or tiles to see under them

  • Comment number 10.

    Details are what Southwark Council and their contractors are lacking right now, as the comedy of errors mounts up in a project that is being executed in a great hurry (there's weekend work at Perronet House now, and evening over time as they rush to meet the first deadline of Halloween). What with all the fandango to reduce fire risk it seems not enough is being done to mitigate other risks.

    - On the 8th floor of Perronet House a new fire ceiling was installed this week, only for it to be discovered by a tenant that it was too low to allow his fire doors to open into it (the contractors thought the doors opened inwards). The same problem looks inevitable on the 6th floor too, given the height of the ceiling brackets.

    - Nearly a hundred doors have been ordered (from Poland), based on an assumption we'd all be having them, except it now transpires we can have our own installed (for less) if they meet the fire standard.

    - Letters about the major works at Perronet House have been dispatched to previous owners of a property, in one case the owners sold their flat more than 2 years ago. They are worried they'll have to pay, and their complaints and letters of clarification have been ignored.

    There's more, but I've got a bus to catch.

    Surely the council should have challenged the time scale of the enforcement order more... or perhaps better still not tried to 'envelope' in a lot of extra major work (nearly half the cost of the project falls outside the LFB enforcement order) at the same time. They've bitten off more than they can comfortably chew.

  • Comment number 11.

    When asked for a comment, the manufacturer of the plastic window frames or a spokesman for that industry was said to have claimed that the plastic had a higher combustion temperature than that of the wooden frames that had been replaced.

    This rather misses the point.

    It hardly matters whether or not the plastic from which the window frames were made has a higher or lower combustion temper, as one should really be asking at what temperature wooden window frames will melt or at what temperature wood softens to such an extent that it loses its structural integrity. As far as I know, wood does not behave in that manner whereas thermoplastic does - and uPVC is a type of thermoplastic.

    Wood, on the other hand, starts to char on the outside and retains much of its structural integrity because of the insulation afforded by that charred layer. The time before structural failure of wooden window frames or doors can also be significantly increased by the choice of surface finish applied - this is not true of plastic doors or windows.


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