Revealed: Chalcots tower block fire safety report did not include ‘biggest risk'

EXCLUSIVE: CNJ obtains findings of last fire risk assessment at evacuation estate

Thursday, 29th June 2017 — By William McLennan


The evacuation of the Chalcots begins last Friday

A SERIOUS fire safety flaw which led to the urgent evacuation of 4,000 people at the Chalcots estate had been missed by previous inspections, while other issues were already known about but not acted on, the New Journal can reveal today.

The London Fire Brigade did “enhanced checks” on Friday after it was revealed the five tower blocks were wrapped in flammable cladding, similar to that used at Grenfell Tower. Inspectors unearthed a number of worrying failings which caused Camden Council to ask residents to leave the estate in Adelaide Road at a moment’s notice.

The main concern was incorrectly fitted gas pipes that had created gaps between floors that could allow flames and smoke to spread through the building. The New Journal has learned that fire risk assessments, commissioned by the Town Hall and carried out by a private firm, were carried out in 2016 but failed to pick up this key issue. Other concerns, including faulty fire doors, had been noted on risk assessments, but not acted on and were due to be fixed in forthcoming maintenance works.

The New Journal has obtained a summary of the latest assessment for the Taplow tower, carried out in April 2016, which made no mention of the gas mains. Council leader Georgia Gould said that she was told by the fire brigade that the gas pipes were “the biggest risk to the building”.

The assessment, which gave Taplow a “moderate” fire risk rating, said that improvements were needed to fire doors in communal areas and residential front doors. Even before the Brigade sent in its inspectors on Friday, these and other concerns were raised at a tense meeting between Chalcots residents and council leaders at Swiss Cottage Library on Thursday.

This was 24 hours before Cllr Gould gave the order to go. Camden then moved from a programme of replacing the cladding to the flash evacuation.

Cllr Gould getting a briefing at the Chalcots

Communities minister Sajid Javid told the House of Commons on Monday that something had gone “drastically wrong” at the Chalcots, adding: “The estimate by Camden Council itself is that they need at least 1,000 fire doors because they were missing from those five blocks.” The figure is disputed by Camden, who say that some of the fire doors were not up to standard, but were not “missing” and said they had ordered so many doors to make sure all would now be of the highest standard. The problems found by inspectors relate to “compartmentalisation” of the building’s design. It is this system – which means that each home should be able to contain a fire for up to 60 minutes without spreading to neighbouring flats – that informs the “stay put” advice for residents to remain in their homes if a fire breaks out.

Arnold Dix, a fire safety expert, told the New Journal yesterday (Wednesday): “The importance of separating each flat from its neighbour is fundamental to making them safe. If that doesn’t work, all bets are off. Once the compartmentalisation fails, the fire rushes through the core and then it’s all over.” Mr Dix, who took part in the review in the wake of the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009, the last London tower block fire to claim multiple lives, said that the failings were “catastrophically serious”.

He said that “Camden totally let down their residents” by not identifying the risks earlier, but said the problem extends to all councils.

Cllr Gould said the discovery that the fire brigade’s main concern had not been picked up by routine risk assessments “raises a lot of questions about fire safety”. She added: “I will be reviewing this alongside tenants as soon as the immediate crisis is over. “The last thing I wanted to do is move residents out of their homes on a Friday evening. I asked the fire services if there was anything I could do, use any resources to make this building safe for people to stay in – and their answer was categorically no.”

She accepted that many of the concerns raised by residents had been validated by the fire brigade’s inspections and pledged to increase transparency and public engagement. “I want to assure tenants that in future all fire risk assessments will be published as soon as they are completed and tenants will work alongside the council to ensure completion of all tasks,” she said. “We will work together to make sure this never happens again and we are already starting a programme of enhanced fire checks in all our blocks.”

Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq said “residents were asking questions of the council and so would she”, while Conservative leader Claire-Louise Leyland, who has been working at the rest centre for evacuated tenants at Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre, said: “We had to act on what we’ve been told by the fire services.”

Green councillor Sian Berry, who has also volunteered for several days at the rest centre, said: “I rang London Fire Brigade and spoke with an officer who said the critical issues, including inside the buildings, far exceed the level of risk for them to issue a legal order, and that they would have issued an Article 31 prohibition notice if Camden had not evacuated. It was then technically Camden’s decision to do this as a pre-emptive measure but the council literally had no choice.”

“The UK needs a whole new safety regime,” she said. “Years of cutting so called ‘red tape’ and the discrediting of health and safety have taken their toll and change is needed. In Camden I’ve ordered a comprehensive wave of safety checks – a new more intrusive and expansive fire safety scheme that covers all of our blocks. Grenfell changes everything for us all – the status quo won’t stand and the government needs to follow by looking hard at its own policies on health and safety and building regulation.”

Cllr Gould added: “We’re already out there checking blocks right now and this work will continue until we are satisfied that they are safe. I understand that this is a distressing time, not only for Chalcots residents but also for those who live in other blocks so we are moving as fast as we can to provide reassurance. Last Thursday it was tenants who raised these issues of concern to me. I greatly value the relationship we have and we will continue to work side by side with residents, to make sure they are safe.”

The New Journal‘s Chalcot Inquiry campaign is calling for a full, independent investigation into what went so badly wrong at Chalcots that 4,000 people were driven from their homes.

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