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14 June 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:10pm

There was a chance to end tower block fires in 2009 – we missed it

After Lakanal House, I never thought I’d see this again, but now I have.

By Emily Twinch

After six people died in a tower block in Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, on 3 July 2009, the professionals working in social housing said – don’t let’s forget about this. Don’t let the increased focus on increased fire safety in tower blocks die. There was a real worry that would happen.

And – it seems – it has. 

At least 12 people have lost their lives in a tower block fire, and 50 people ended up in hospital. 

More than 200 firefighters were called to the burning  24-floor Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West Estate in north Kensington on Wednesday morning.  

Horrendous reports are coming out of a mother dropping a baby out of a window from the 9th or 10th floor, someone walking over a dead body after finally being able to escape from their flat after being trapped for hours and – unbelievably – that the fire alarm system didn’t go off.

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How? Why? The 1970s tower block was, apparently, given a “medium” fire risk rating last year by the London Fire Brigade and Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council last year. If there is one thing firefighters like to drill into people, it is the importance of fire alarms.  

And the block had just undergone £10m worth of refurbishment to “enhance the energy efficiency of the building”. Was fire risk not a consideration as part of those works? 

Accusations are flying about on social media and the net. Resident group Grenfell Action Group said it has repeatedly warned owners of the block, Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – which manages the block – about “very poor fire safety standards” in the tower. But their warnings, the group says, “fell on deaf ears”. 

Gavin Barwell – then housing minister – has come in for some stick for delaying a fire safety review, which had already been waiting for years. 

I remember sitting through the Lakanal House “super” inquest, as it was called, four years ago. It was amazing how many mistakes by so many people were made. It reminded me of the film Sliding Doors. If only someone had done this, or not done that. 

Senior managers at Southwark Council were warned by staff that Lakanal House needed a fire risk assessment – they were ignored. People carrying out fire risk assessments were given little or no training, and then expected to go out and decide if a tower block was fire safe or not. There is also a debate as to whether a fire risk should be done inside a property or not. Of course, with this fire, as with Lakanal House – it looks like it all started with faulty electrical goods, which could only be found if someone went inside the flat. In Grenfell Tower it was apparently a faulty fridge, and with Lakanal House a faulty TV. 

Cladding is being bought up again. It was part of the £10m refurbishment carried out on the Kensington block last year. The outside of Lakanal House was deemed to have “medium” risk of a fire about 10 years before the fire there. As Ian Wingfield, ward councillor and cabinet member for housing of Southwark Council at the time said: “If nothing was done about it in the intervening 10 years it might have moved from medium to high [risk] in that period.” The inquest into that fire found that panels fitted to the outside of the block in 2006-07 burnt quicker than the original materials. 

Fire spreads at an incredible rate. At Lakanal House the fire spread inside and out. You can see from the pictures Grenfell Tower has been engulfed in flames. How quickly it must have spread here. 

Another issue experts are likely to look at when investigating here is the fire “compartmentalisation” of the building. Regulations say buildings should be designed so that if a fire does break out, it doesn’t spread to other flats for at least an hour. 

After the Lakanal House fire, I did a big freedom of information request investigation into what attention fire brigades and councils were placing on fire safety of tower blocks. The results revealed the answer – very little. It gradually improved in the intervening years. 

But when MPs refused to support, for example, an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill last year – that would have made homes “fit for habitation” in the private sector, it was an indication of how little they prioritised tenants, whether private or social, in their homes. 

After Lakanal House, I never thought I’d see this again. I have. Perhaps this time there will be a real focus on fire safety of tower blocks. Perhaps that desperately-needed government review of fire safety regulations will happen. But with the current political turmoil, Brexit, and a host of other pressing issues, I fear it never will. 

Emily Twinch is a housing policy journalist, who has contributed to the magazines Inside Housing and Public Finance. 

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