Monday 19 November 2018

Willow House: After the fire

On June 14th, one year after the tragic loss of life in the Grenfell fire, Barnet's Tory group Leader issued the following press release:

“The Grenfell Tower fire deeply shocked and saddened us all. One year on, as we pause to reflect, we will remember all those who lost their lives and will continue to keep in our thoughts the people affected by what happened.

“We must learn the lessons from this terrible tragedy and we will continue to review and enhance fire safety measures in flats to ensure people feel safe in their homes.”

We must learn the lessons.

What lessons has Barnet Council learned, from the tragedy of Grenfell, and the chaotic aftermath, when the local council in Kensington and Chelsea was called on to support those affected by the fire, and find them alternative accommodation?

Well, we know what was supposed to happen, here in Broken Barnet.

Barnet Council and its 'At Arms Length organisation' Barnet Homes, which looks after the council's social housing, immediately undertook a review of safety in its high rise buildings, with particular regard to the risk raised from cladding similar to that used on the Grenfell flats. 

But not all of Barnet's social housing is high rise: so what safety measures were reviewed in regard to the rest of Barnet Homes' properties, or indeed other blocks of flats run by housing associations?

According to this press release, published on 26th June, as well as pledging £30 million in funding for improved safety in high rise buildings, the council would also take action in regard to other forms of social housing:

In addition, the (Housing) committee agreed that Barnet Homes should proceed with developing a programme of fire safety work for low and medium-rise flats.

It is not clear, however, what that agreement meant in practical terms.

All council properties are meant to be subject to regular fire risk assessments, and these inspections will make recommendations for the implementation of any necessary actions to improve safety. 

To what extent, and how quickly, these recommendations are put into action, is an area which clearly is of crucial significance. 

Not long after Grenfell,  Michael, (not his real name), a resident living in a low rise block of flats overseen by Barnet Homes, wrote to me with his concerns about the failure to put in place what he believed to be vital safety measures identified as a result of inspections made years earlier. 

Only one part of the action plan, he claimed, had been processed, after the report, apparently leaving some private flats with fire safe doors not fitted, among other recommendations.

He further claimed that entrance systems and lighting had not been changed and no follow up assessment had ever taken place.  Roof voids, he alleged, were not inspected. 

When he questioned Barnet Homes, he said, he was told these points were not a priority. When asked, in 2013, why work had not been actioned within the time limit, especially in regard to a communal entrance, they responded that this should be of no concern: and that due to the number of properties managed by Barnet Homes, and the demand on its resources, it had not been 'practically possible' to meet the recommended timescales. But that was ok, he was told, (in emails I have seen), the 12 month period was not mandatory, and was just a target. 

Thirty minute fire resistant doors were supposed to be put in place, but some of the privately owned flats had not been required to do so.

This resident asked:

My question is, how many other "P1" issues Barnet Homes decided they could over rule based on their own decision making and not the qualified assessor?

I was so alarmed, last year, by what he had reported in regard to his block of flats, I raised the matter with local councillors, who said they would pursue it. I don't know what happened, after that.

In June this year, I was contacted by BBC London, who were investigating reports of a large number of Grenfell type fire doors - the 'Manse Masterdor' - still left in many social housing properties: did I know that Barnet was one of the boroughs said to be in this category? I did not - but we do know now that Barnet already knew they had these doors: see this section of an FOI response  to someone's query, published in April 2018:

8a) Prior to November 2014, were any of your properties provided fire doors by
the company 'Manse Masterdor'?
If you answered yes; 8b) how many doors?
8c) in how many buildings?
9a) Since November 2014, have any of your properties been provided fire
doors by the company 'Masterdor'?
If you answered yes;
9b) how many doors?
9c) in how many buildings?
210, of which 65 are also included in the 109 properties mentioned in response to
question 8c

There was also a rather shocking question and response on the subject of fire inspection:

3) Since the Grenfell Tower fire on the 14th June 2017 has your council
commissioned independent fire testing of the fire doors fitted in tower blocks
within your council?

None. Where there is a need to install flat front entrance fire doors to London
Borough Barnet /Barnet Homes properties Barnet Homes instruct their contractors to
install doors and/or door sets which are certified to a specific level. This level is in
most cases FD30S. The certification is provided by the door manufacturer following
tests conducted on the doors under controlled conditions. The system as it is
currently designed is the norm within the industry and it is relatively unusual for
landlords to commission tests on doors which they have procured precisely because
they meet a specific level of certification. The Government is conducting an
investigation into certain types of fire doors but there is currently no change to
existing fire safety advice from the National Fire Chiefs Council.

So ten months after Grenfell, there had been no testing of any fire doors in Barnet Homes properties, nor were any planned, until the government advised them to do so. Acting in accordance with the law, but not exceeding its duty of care beyond those limitations.

In May, however, the government did advise action. No need to panic, though: Barnet Homes said there was a low risk to safety. Test your smoke alarms, they suggested, and, oh - in case you had not thought of it, keep your front door properly closed

In the event of fire, "follow existing fire procedures for the building ..."

The same statement said that Barnet Homes had written to all their residents to inform them they would be undertaking a programme to replace the Manse Masterdors, 'subject to the final advice provided by government'. 

Asking Michael now (this June) about what had happened in the case of his low rise block, he told me that only days earlier he had received a letter from Barnet Homes telling him he had a Grenfell type door, and that it would be replaced. No timescale was given. If there was another fire, the advice was, he says, "to stay in his flat".

It would seem the old doors are still in place in his block: although a few months ago residents were asked to choose the colour of the ones that might eventually be provided. 

Low rise properties are of a lower priority, when it comes to the safety programme: but does that mean that so long should be taken in actioning measures deemed necessary years ago?

This thought, and many others, came to mind recently after the recent shocking incident at Willow House, in the Grange Housing estate in East Finchley, which served to underline the necessity of stringent fire safety measures, even in 'low rise' housing blocks.

In the early hours of November 7th, a group of sixty residents of Willow House, a block of flats with three floors, awoke to find the building in which they lived was on fire. 

What happened next raises more questions about not only the level of safety in Barnet Homes properties, but in regard to the ability of the local authority to provide the necessary support to residents affected by any similar emergency: an issue which should have been addressed - and many had thought had been, by Barnet Council, and Barnet Homes - in the aftermath of Grenfell, and following the seriously disorganised response of Kensington and Chelsea to the needs of the surviving residents.

In the course of the fire at Willow House, sixty residents were evacuated from their homes: thirty nine of them are now homeless. 

Three days after the fire, I met several of the residents at a lunch organised by some of the admirable local volunteers and community activists who stepped in to fill the hole left by the initial inadequate response by Barnet Homes and the local council. 

Before the lunch, I had walked around the corner from the Catholic church hall where it was being organised, to the scene of the fire. 

The bitter, acrid smell, even then, three days later, was overwhelming. 

Behind safety barriers Willow House stood in ruins, the roof collapsing, daylight showing through, the glass in the upper windows clinging in shards to their frames. Downstairs, builders had already sealed off the flats with metal casings. The sign, "Willow House', was still visible, but smeared with soot. 

The lunch itself, with an abundance of food provided with great generosity by local families and businesses - even the flower stall in the street outside had sent in a massive bouquet - was a sobering experience: quite clearly, only three days later, most of the residents were in shock, exhausted and traumatised by what had happened, their lives turned upside down, their homes lost, and in many cases, all their possessions destroyed.

One of the families I knew slightly, from another context: friends of a friend, their children amongst those displaced, and returning tentatively for the first time to the scene of their former home. As they talked, their little one sat quietly at a table drawing. Quiet, but his frantic scribbles told their own story. Another pair of children sat silently playing 'Jenga', building up a tower of wooden bricks, and removing them, one by one, until the building collapsed.

The story that emerged from these residents was disturbing, for many reasons.

It was reported that the fire had only been spotted by a passer by, some said an ex soldier, who bravely ran to the building and banged on doors until the occupants were alerted. 

There appears to have been no fire alarm in any communal area.

Only some of the flats had smoke alarms.

The fire had started in an empty flat, and quickly spread to the roof. If the passer by had not alerted the residents of Willow House, the alternative outcome is unthinkable.

When tenants rang what they thought was Barnet Homes' emergency line number, they instead found themselves talking to a repair service.

Members of the community saved the day, unasked, taking charge of the emergency, in the absence of any organisation by the council: someone opened up the nearby Green Man centre, and a local vicar, who also helps run a food bank in the church hall, stepped in to help, with the involvement of a local charity, and members of 'Grange Big Local'.

When Barnet Homes team members did arrive, they came with what sounds like no practical assistance for the residents, who had escaped the fire in their nightclothes, some with no money, no bankcards, no ID. 

Eventually those made homeless by the fire were sent to a hotel in Whetstone. They were told meals would be provided, then found they were not. The next day, in Barnet House, it fell to local Labour councillors who happened to be in the building at the time to use their initiative and open up the council staff canteen, in order to feed the families.

There was supposedly a 'Gold' meeting - of the council's emergency support team - the day after the fire. Quite what was the outcome is unclear, as almost every hard won concession for the residents since then has been achieved only with a fight, at a time when they are least able to focus on practical matters, and are struggling to come to terms with what had happened.

Some money was allocated to the residents, but not enough, and not to all of those affected by the fire, including one private resident I spoke to, who had had to sleep on the floor of a friend's flat, and was not contacted by the council. It seemed as if complete records of residents, whether Barnet Homes, leasehold or privately rented, had not been compiled. This is part of a larger problem, caused by an assumption - an incorrect one - by the housing authority that it had no duties in law to private tenants in these circumstances.

Work has begun on securing the building, but it will be at least six months until the building is habitable. What happens in the meanwhile?

On the Friday, two days after the fire, residents were told they would have to leave the hotel. They would then be homeless. 

Some were informed they would have to accept alternative accommodation in Romford, Edmonton, or Enfield. 

As one of the families told me, in distress, and quite understandable anger, that this was impossible when their young children were at school in East Finchley, and their jobs local too.

Only when local Labour councillors again intervened was the threat of immediate eviction from the hotel lifted. 

With the help of sympathetic housing lawyers, residents became better informed of their rights. On Tuesday there was a meeting between residents and council staff, at which housing officers are said to have apologised for the poor response and lack of support - and have now agreed that now the displaced families will be housed locally. (Too late for one family, already sent out of borough, unfortunately). Only at this point, however, was it acknowledged that the children who had been through this traumatic experience might need assessment, and counselling.

No wonder that, as was clear from the lunch meeting after the fire, and as reported in the Ham & High later in the week, residents felt utterly abandoned by the local council at a time when they most needed help. The help they got was a spontaneous reaction from neighbours and local church and charities: we know that the attitude of the Tory administration is one preferring the third sector to take over their responsibilities, but in the case of an emergency involving sixty displaced residents, this really is not good enough. 

No wonder too, then that they felt they were left to their own devices and pressured into accepting inappropriate housing because they were (largely) social tenants. Can you imagine the same response to a group of residents in Totteridge, or Garden Suburb?

What if there is a major emergency, either in regard to another fire, or even, as is unfortunately quite possible in this borough, a terrorist incident? What capacity and organisational preparations does Barnet have in place, if at all?

Should any of the residents have had to endure such unnecessary distress, at such a time and resort to argument, in order to secure what ought to be provided for them, as a matter of course? 

At the lunch given after the Willow House fire, the group of residents held a discussion, and listened to the advice given by a survivor of Grenfell - Bilal, from Grenfell United, who had come to offer his support. An engaging, articulate man, he has become a very effective advocate for his fellow residents, and his community.

He addressed the residents, and said how much it reminded him of his own experience after the fire, coming out with nothing more than the clothes on your back - he urged them to stick together, and to 'keep the noise levels high' so as to fight for the right to remain as they were, and as they are, as the people of Grenfell were, and are: a community. 

Push for your rights, he urged.

The residents of Willow House decided then to act collectively to push for a better response from the council and Barnet Homes.

I spoke afterwards to Bilal, and I asked him if it had not been particularly hard for him, coming to the scene of another fire. He admitted that the smell had affected him, the familiarity of it. Familiar, too, was what he had heard from Willow House residents - the lack of organised assistance, the further distress, after the terrible event itself; the variation in levels of support, according to the ability of the individual to lobby for their own needs.

Also at the lunch was the parish priest, in whose hall we were. We fell into conversation, and I explained about this blog. A little while later, before I left, he back to me and asked thoughtfully: why then, did I think Barnet was broken, and what could we do about it?

I told him why I thought we had arrived at this point. 

That the corporate culture in this borough is utterly materialist, and cares nothing for the idea of community: that it only adopts the recognition of community when it suits, as a means of opting out of its own duty of care, and devolving responsibility on to others.

That the policy of Barnet Tories is to move the poor and disadvantaged out of the borough, whenever possible - to Romford, or Enfield, or Hillingdon, or even Peterborough, or Birmingham.

That in the London Borough of Capita, the very principle of social housing is seen as fundamentally wrong, as indeed is the concept of the public sector. 

That a council estate is nothing more than a potential development opportunity. 

Anyone lucky enough to have a secure tenancy should be grateful, and if your home burns down? 

Hard luck.

Clear off somewhere else.

What can we do about it? Not sure, really.

You cannot force people who do not care, to care. You can only compel them to follow the rules, to do their duty.

In terms of maintaining the housing stock they own, Barnet does have statutory duties, as indeed it does in regard to the safety of tenants. 

There must now be an investigation into the actions taken by the council and Barnet Homes after the Willow House fire.

Should there be a need, at any point, for an emergency response to a major incident, what happened in East Finchley does not indicate any capability by the local authority to provide the right level of support. 

In terms of fire safety in Barnet Homes - we don't know - yet - what, if any, progress had been made in the replacement of fire doors on the Grange estate, or when the last fire inspections were made. But at the very least, should there not now be more measures installed - fire alarms, and sprinklers, for example - and full lists of occupants, in all of Barnet Homes' properties? 

Yes, resources are stretched: but if the authority can go to so much effort in applying to the Public Works Loan Board for £22 million pounds to hand over to a private rugby club, just to build itself another stand, could it not consider using this process for the purpose intended - that is to say for the benefit of the public, for better housing, and a safer future for the families of this borough?

1 comment:

Kashif said...

It was a tragic loss. I heard about fire curtain safety for domestic and industrial use.