Revealed: The deadly delays over fire safety work to your council homes
Exclusive: Inquest into blaze death reveals massive council homes backlog
26 April, 2018 — By William McLennan
The fatal fire at a council-owned block in Daleham Gardens where safety recommendations had not been implemented
FIRE safety works have been routinely delayed at council properties because the Town Hall department responsible is short-staffed and has a “massive workload”.
The New Journal can reveal today that potentially life-saving recommendations made by inspectors at properties across Camden were not acted on, with vital advice ignored for several years in some cases.
The revelation follows an inquest into the death of a young woman who lost her life when flames ripped through her home in a council-owned block in Hampstead. St Pancras Coroner’s Court heard that a list of improvements, recommended by a Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) – a legally-required inspection – had not taken place before the blaze broke out in Daleham Gardens last November.
It can also be revealed that Camden Council is at the centre of a London Fire Brigade investigation, looking at how the fire was able to spread throughout the building, trapping 35-year-old Magdalena Fink in her flat, where she was overcome by smoke.
Ann Quinlan, who is one of only two “fire safety contracts managers” responsible for commissioning the works, told the inquest that her department struggled to cover the thousands of council properties across the borough.
Explaining the delays, she said: “My workload was massive, or is massive.”
Senior coroner Mary Hassell said Ms Quinlan was “not supported” and her department “understaffed”, but added that she did not blame an individual for the lack of resources.
Arnold Dix, who runs fire safety firm Alarp, said failing to act on risk assessments was “absolutely unforgivable”, adding: “Those responsible for housing safety should hang their heads in shame.” He said: “FRAs were weak to begin with, but without follow-up they are even more dangerous than doing nothing at all.”
Fire safety expert Dr Gordon Cooke said: “If it is not acted upon, people are lulled into a false sense of security.”
Camden Council told the New Journal last night (Wednesday) that an additional eight members of staff were to be recruited this year to bolster the fire safety team, as part of their commitment to a “new era of resident safety”.
The fire at Daleham Gardens
Attention has been focused on risk assessment and fire safety in the wake of the Grenfell Tower blaze, which claimed the lives of 71 residents. Around 3,000 people were evacuated from the Chalcots estate in June last year after the fire brigade discovered a raft of internal defects, alongside the presence of flammable cladding on the buildings’ exteriors. Urgent works were carried out to allow residents to return within a month, including replacing and repairing fire doors and fitting “self-closing mechanisms” to the front of every flat door.
However, FRA reports from 2012 show that experts had told Camden Council to make these improvements for at least the previous five years. Chalcots tenant Paul Urquhart, one of a group of residents who have spent months studying fire safety in their free time, said: “If the recommendations of the 2012 FRAs had been acted on, it is reasonable to assume that the evacuation would not have been necessary.”
He added: “Ultimately, someone has to be responsible for this. If the fire managers are under-resourced, someone is responsible for their resource allocation.”
The problem, however, is not confined to the Chalcots estate. At Holly Lodge Mansions, a fire risk assessment in 2012 recommended the installation of self-closing mechanisms on all flat entrance doors, according to documents obtained by Highgate Green councillor Sian Berry. This has still not been completed.
Mr Dix said that door-closers were essential and their absence could lead both to flames spreading and escape routes being blocked. At Parliament Hill Mansions, Clevendon Mansions and Makepeace Mansions, inspectors said in 2016 that within a year emergency lighting should be installed in the escape routes, along with high-visibility strips on the edge of each step. This has yet to be done. It is not known how many other properties are still awaiting improvements.
Cllr Berry said the delays were the product of a lack of transparency, which meant residents did not know which works were needed on their homes. “If residents had been aware they would have been able to put pressure on the council,” she said.
Labour councillor Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden Council, said: “Shortly after I became leader I pledged to work with our residents to build a new era of resident safety. In November we employed a new director of resident safety, the first role of its kind in local government. We are building up our in-house capacity to make sure we have the expertise to make robust checks, assess risk and follow through quickly.”
A council spokesman said that the director of resident safety, Keith Scott, has been working to “address actions identified in fire risk assessments and prioritise these actions as appropriate”. Addressing the fire brigade’s investigation into the Daleham Gardens fire, the spokesman said the council will “continue to co-operate with this as it progresses”.