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Chalcots Estate: what we know so far

24 July, 2017 — By William McLennan

At 8pm on Friday, June 23, Camden Council ordered 4,000 to leave their homes in five tower blocks on the Chalcots estate at a moment’s notice. The impacts of this decision on hundreds of families are still playing out and led the New Journal to launch our Chalcots Inquiry investigation.

This is a summary of what we know, with links to articles. 

On June 15, the day after an unprecedented fire claimed the lives of at least 80 people in Grenfell Tower, residents of the high rise blocks in Adelaide Road began to question their own safety.

A week later, on June 22, the New Journal revealed that samples of cladding from all five towers had failed fire safety tests and would be removed.

Later that day, council leaders faced anger and fear at a public meeting as residents said they had warned for years of safety failings. They left, having been re-assured they were safe in their homes.

The London Fire Brigade carried out a rigorous inspection the next day and at 5pm told council leader Georgia Gould that they had discovered a number of safety failings which, in combination with the flammable cladding, meant the blocks were not safe to sleep in that night. At 8pm, residents began to receive the order to evacuate.

The main driver behind the LFB’s advice was the discovery that gas mains, rising vertically through the towers, before splitting off into people homes, had been incorrectly installed, leaving gaps between floors and walls. This breached the “compartmentation” of the building and could allow smoke and flames to rip through the building.

Many wanted to know whether the safety failings had been picked up earlier and, if so, why they had not been acted on. A leaked summary of previous fire risk assessments, obtained by the New Journal, revealed that the key safety flaw had gone undetected, while others, like faulty fire doors, were known about but not acted on.

While Cllr Gould said that the polyethylene-filled cladding was “not to the standard that we had commissioned”, the firm responsible for installing it said all works had met the specification and were signed off by the Town Hall.

As the complicated web of contractors responsible for the refurbishment and upkeep of the towers became clear, the New Journal looked back at the history of the estate and the unique private finance initiative used to fund the works.

Questions were asked about what was cut out of the private finance deal after the Treasury in 2005 slashed the amount of money on offer from £120million to £66million.

Rydon, the lead contractor, hit back at Camden Council for suggesting the works were not up to standard. The New Journal unearthed documents that the firm had used to support their claim the Town Hall had agreed to install cladding containing polyethylene rather than a more expensive flame-retardant material.

Previous fire safety inspections at the towers by a private firm and the London Fire Brigade had not even attempted to check the “compartmentation” of the building. The head of the risk assessment firm questioned the need to evacuate and said “on that basis every tower block in the UK should be evacuated”.

While several hundred families were put up in hotels and temporary accommodation, around 100 flats remained occupied, with refuseniks ignoring the council’s evacuation order.

A week later, the Town Hall was beginning to ask residents to return to their homes after a wave of urgent safety works. Importantly, gaps around gas pipes had been filled in with flame-retardant sealant. But residents said they had lost faith in the council and demanded independent verification of the works before they moved back.

Lawyers intervened on their behalf and said that “residents should not be forced back”.

After Camden published the fire risk assessments in full, it was revealed that they ignored the findings that could have prevented the evacuation if acted on earlier.

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