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Thin Red Line: Deadly blaze leads to new questions over fire brigade cuts

Belsize Fire Station - close to the scene of the tragedy - was shut down in 2014 and will be turned into private flats

23 November, 2017 — By William McLennan

Belsize fire station was closed in 2014 despite public appeals for it to be kept open

SWEEPING cuts to the London Fire Brigade were under scrutiny again this week after the fatal blaze less than a mile from a shuttered fire station.

Crews arrived on the scene in less than five minutes, but questions have been asked about an overall rise in response times in the area since Belsize station, in Lancaster Grove, was axed by Boris Johnson in 2014 as part of £100million cuts to the brigade.

Nine other stations were closed, 27 fire engines scrapped and more than 500 jobs lost. The New Journal launched the Thin Red Line campaign to probe the impact of these cuts on Londoners’ safety. Writing in the New Journal today, Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq says: “It is impossible to ignore that this tragic incident happened a 30-second drive from the very Belsize fire station that was closed in 2014.”

The average response time for the first engine in Belsize was just four minutes and 18 seconds in 2013. By 2017, this had increased to six minutes and 21 seconds. The average response time for the second engine, which is vital because firefighters cannot enter a house blaze until two crews are on the scene, has increased from six minutes and 19 seconds in 2013 to six minutes and 36 seconds.

On Tuesday, the first two engines were both sent from West Hampstead and arrived in four minutes 38 seconds and four minutes 47 seconds. Residents, unions and politicians – including deputy mayor Sophie Linden – marched in protest at the Belsize station closure in 2013, but Mr Johnson, then Mayor of London, pressed ahead with the cuts, even overruling members of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, who voted against the move.

Earlier this summer politicians once again pledged to look at the alleged gap in fire cover, after the Chalcots estate was found to be wrapped in flammable cladding similar to that used at Grenfell Tower. A week after the blaze in west London that claimed 70 lives, Ms Siddiq and Camden Conservatives’ leader Claire-Louise Leyland said they would write to London Mayor Sadiq Khan about the issue.

Referring to response times that have increased in the area surrounding the station, Councillor Leyland said: “I absolutely agree that response times haven’t been what we hoped they would be. We took expert advice in saying that they would get here quickly enough. I am sorry, in retrospect.”

Ms Siddiq raised the issue in Parliament and asked communities secretary Sajid Javid to “give his support to reopening Belsize fire station… so my residents can feel safe in their homes again”. He declined.

Responding to the rise in response times, Labour London Assembly member Andrew Dismore said: “In fire spread, seconds really count. Camden residents are clearly less safe thanks to Boris Johnson’s reckless fire cuts.” A review of the fire brigade’s resources determined no further cuts should be made.

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