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A matter of life and death

Now we know why the fire spread in Lakanal House in Southwark what can be done to stop it happening again?

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Almost four years after the event, we now know why the fatal fire at Lakanal House in Southwark, south London, spread so rapidly. As a result, Harriet Harman, local MP and deputy leader of the Labour Party, has called for the law to be changed so fire risk assessments of social housing are conducted independently rather than by social landlords. So what should be done?

First, Southwark Council clearly failed its residents in not conducting a fire risk assessment of Lakanal House prior to the blaze. Social landlords such as Southampton Council and South Yorkshire Housing Association have shown it is possible for landlords to be effective in conducting FRAs and working with residents in doing so. The solution to spreading this best practice is not to bring in third-party consultants, but to ensure housing officers are better trained.

Second, a key reason for the rapid spread of the blaze was that the ‘compartmentation’ - where a fire should be contained in a flat for an hour - of some properties had been compromised during a series of refurbishments. The extent to which compartmentation may remain effective should be addressed in a FRA. The suggestion by the coroner, Frances Kirkham, that samples of flats should be examined during an FRA to determine this is a good one.

Third, much has been made of the failure of emergency service operators to liaise adequately with firefighters on the ground and tell Lakanal residents to evacuate rather than stick to the policy of staying put and relying on compartmentation, allowing time for people to be rescued. Landlords currently determine whether a ‘stay-put’ policy should be in place for individual buildings in the event of fire. Housing officers who have conducted FRAs will be perfectly placed to communicate this decision to residents.

Fourth, in our Safe as Houses campaign, launched in the wake of the Lakanal fire, Inside Housing called for a national register of high-rise blocks to be set up which contained easily accessible information on the most up-to-date FRA. The Tenant Services Authority, the predecessor to the Homes and Communities Agency, pledged to do this for England, but failed to deliver. The HCA should make good on this promise.


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