CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Why weren’t estate’s fire hazards spotted years ago?

29 June, 2017

The Chalcots estate

A BIG question mark hangs over the most extraordinary event now taking place in Camden this week – the evacuation of thousands of people from the Chalcots estate.

Why weren’t the fire hazards on the estate – considered so dangerous by the fire service on Friday as to merit an immediate evacuation of families on the estate – spotted years ago?

We appreciate, of course, that the quality of the cladding would not have been known if it had not been for the Grenfell disaster but, surely, any council official or councillor visiting the block – and they must have gone in and out of the block countless times over the years – ought to have noticed the lack of fire doors or the poor state of existing ones?

Equally, council building officials ought to have discovered years ago that bare gas piping running through the estate should have been covered with insulation.

Nor has it ever been thought that Chalcot was a model estate that needed little scrutiny.

It was the source of endless complaints in the 1990s and early 2000s by tenants, many of which we reported in these columns – complaints that at one level or another were initially dealt with by officials as well as councillors.

So, in one sense, it was known as a problem estate.

How then did what was so dangerously wrong go unnoticed?

It was not a question of faulty workmanship – that sort of fault has often been reported in the New Journal over the years – but failures to provide fire safety precautions that should be seen as basic human rights.

Tenants have been allowed to continue living in blocks where serious injury or death may have been caused, for instance, by the absence of fire doors.

As the landlord, the council has a duty of care towards it tenants, as do the elected councillors.

Are they truly aware of this?

Do back-benchers leave it to senior councillors to worry about?

Do senior councillors leave it all to the officials?

We know we may be touching a raw nerve here, but it needs to be said.

That is why we are calling for an independent inquiry with all its attendant demands set out.

In the meantime, while the council leapt commendably without reservation into action once they were pulled up by the fire service, the manner in which action has been taken is of concern.

Should the council leader, Georgia Gould, have engaged in presidential politics by taking a decision as a politician – along with the chief executive and deputy chief executive – of such a serious nature?

If only as a cautious measure you would have thought she would have had the political sensitivity to gather around her three or four senior councillors – it would have been possible to get them together within an hour or so – simply because group thinking in these circumstances is immeasurably better and more productive than snap thinking by an individual. And it is councillors, not officials, who should take decisions of this character.

The logistical fall-out of the evacuation decision is still being felt. A collective decision may have been able to avoid some of them. Scores of families are refusing to budge. Evictions loom on the horizon.

And how long will the modifications take? Probably not weeks but months?

Worrying, too, is the fact that as far as we are aware no meetings of councillors have been held to discuss one of the biggest emergencies Camden has seen in decades.

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