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Papering over cracks inside Chalcots towers

Amid the chaos of the Chalcots estate evacuation, one tenant revealed the faults in his high-rise home, as a history of neglect catches up with the council

29 June, 2017 — By John Gulliver

Ivor Grealey at his Taplow tower home on the Chalcots estate

I STARED incredulously at the badly fixed front door frame, the loose plaster and bits of newspaper that had been wedged in to fill cavities. It was a botched building job. And the botched frame was holding a fire door. I carefully took out pieces of the newspaper as evidence for what seemed failures by whoever from the council had inspected the door, assuming, of course, that an inspection had been carried out.

I was in a flat on the 19th floor of the Taplow tower block on the Chalcots estate late Friday night – a few hours after council leader Georgia Gould had decided to evacuate thousands of tenants because fire service inspectors had deemed the blocks as dangerous and unsafe.

I had met the tenant, Ivor Grealey, outside the block where men and women, faces distraught, who had been ordered to leave their homes, were hurrying out of the large front door with heavy suitcases, along with a young man in a wheel­chair, and scores of people gathered on the pavement – and meanwhile a middle-aged man sat on a low wall playing a guitar and sang.

It was all a bit surreal. Was it a carnival? Or a frantic mass exodus of people frightened out of their wits.

Newspaper wedged into the front door (left) dated November 2006 (inset) when refurbishments were carried out

I got chatting to Mr Grealey who took me to his flat to show me the faults in his home. The lift was full of people dragging suitcases or rushing from one floor to the next. I could see at a glance the obvious absence of linking fire doors in the corridors. Was it possible that this had never been spotted by council officials or councillors in all the years they must have gone in and out of the building?

When he told me a fire door had been fitted during the refurbishments – more than 11 years ago – I glanced at it and saw the wedged newspapers. Later, back at the office, I was able to see that they were dated 2006 – the year the refurbishment was carried out.

Then Mr Grealey told me that a deep gaping cavity going up to the flat above was revealed once he had removed the plastic window shelf – deep enough for him to easily put a broom handle in there. And, to make matters worse, the plastic was flammable.

In other words there was a wide gap between his flat and the cladding which would form a “chimney” for a blaze to sweep up the building if a fire broke out.

Mr Grealey, in his 60s, was employed as a building worker, often as a carpenter, on many big building sites, especially in the West End, and said he had told council officials at a tenants’ meeting last week of the gaps he had found – and they were “very worried”. Later, for my photographer, he removed a piece of plywood which enabled him to push an entire sweeping brush through a space in the ceiling that he said would allow fire and smoke to spread.

Cavities between the flat and the cladding which would form a ‘chimney’

It seems that the replacement of the windows during the refurbishment 11 years ago led, in effect, to the creation of a new external wall and that, in turn, has created a gap that could easily become a raging chimney during a fire.

I spoke on Tuesday to Sam Webb, an eminent buildings’ expert attached to the Royal Institute of British Architects, who worked for Camden Council when it was first formed in the late 1960s. He recalled that Chalcots estate towers were designed by an architect then contracted to the newly absorbed Hampstead Council.

All building works had to be approved by the London fire service his­torically under the power­ful Fire Act, Section 20, that could be traced back to the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was watered down by Mrs Thatcher with the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1984, until it practically ended in 2013.

He had been warning governments of the dangers caused by the erosion of regulations but, like others, had been simply dismissed as being “enemies of the people” – the charge, he described, made against the scientist in Ibsen’s great play, An Enemy of the People, who warned the community against toxins in the water used in the local spa.

“Why does it take a disaster, a Greek tragedy, to make governments take notice?” he asked.

Council tenants have often been treated as second-rate citizens. The first tenants to move into the estate in 1969 were either the poor – often from Kentish Town – or newly arrived immigrants who were living in squalid conditions.

Were standards less strenuously applied? Complaints by tenants first emerged in the 1980s and 90s, “leaking” windows among them, which led to the refurbishment in 2006 where economies were once against applied. Now, history is catching up with the council.

MY enquiries show that the architectural firm who masterminded the refurbishment of Chalcots estate is known as HTA – Hunt Thompson and Associates – based in Parkway, Camden Town.

They are one of the most eminent design firms in Britain and are often commissioned by Camden Council, I gather. A headline in the Architect’s Journal referred this week to “HTA’s Chalcots Estate”.

Chairman of HTA is Ben Derbyshire, who has recently been chosen as the next president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It is understood, RIBA has decided to hold an inquiry into the Grenfell disaster.

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