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My family almost died in a fire in a building below 18m. There is no justification for the government’s arbitrary height threshold

We lost everything when fire ripped through our building in the middle of the night and it was only because of luck that there were no deaths. But we would not have qualified for the government’s remediation funding, writes Thrishantha Nanayakkara

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A fire at Richmond House took place in September last year (picture: London Fire Brigade)
A fire at Richmond House took place in September last year (picture: London Fire Brigade)
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We lost everything when fire ripped through our building and it was only because of luck that there were no deaths. But we would not have qualified for the government’s remediation funding, writes Thrishantha Nanayakkara #UKhousing

My family almost died in a fire in a building below 18m. There is no justification for the government's arbitrary threshold #UKhousing

It was after 1am on 9 September 2019. I woke up, hearing banging on the door. There was a faint alarm in the corridor, but it took a while to realise what was going on. We only picked up our mobile phones, to call 999. Burning debris was falling outside the door but we ran through it.

Horror made us feel numb. Did all the families wake up in time? Is anybody still trapped inside? Fear, despair, uncertainty and helplessness were shaking us. Our home in Worcester Park was on fire.

The flames were raging and quickly engulfed one side of the building. The list of things we said goodbye to grew and grew. The children’s schoolbooks, certificates, passports, mementoes from countries we had lived in, photo albums, everything on our laptops.

I was not sure how my daughter was coping. Her A-Level study notes and textbooks were burning. My son, who was 13, kept silent. But I could imagine the thoughts going through his mind. He didn’t even have time to pick up the teddy he had been sleeping with for the past eight years.


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We had never met Catherine, but in the early hours she took us into her home to get some rest. She even gave us the house keys when she left to drop her children at school. We were relying on the kindness of people in our community whom we had never met, and their generosity rose above the might of the fire.

We all started to wonder how the fire had spread from one end of our four-storey building to the other within just about 20 minutes. The breach of trust was so apparent in our faces. Was the structure not properly constructed to resist fire? How was it possible that not just one or two but all 23 homes were destroyed? When were we going to see the reports from the police and fire service?

“My son didn’t even have time to pick up the teddy he had been sleeping with for the past eight years”

Our lives were in limbo. What would the building insurer do and not do for us? And how would the government, in their power as a regulatory and law enforcement body, protect residents? There were so many meetings but not many straight answers.

Our daughter started to get frequent headaches and received counselling through her school. Her predicted grades went down.

She started to show rapid recovery early this year, before the COVID-19 lockdown. However, her school rejected an appeal to give more weight to her recent performance. Sadly, the result of all the disruption caused by the fire was that my daughter lost her first choice of university.

My son also went through a hard time. His school and the community of parents were so supportive, which meant so much to us, but the shocking memories of the fire still keep haunting him.

A forensic report by Probyn Miers attributed the rapid spread of the fire to flaws in the construction, including defective and missing cavity barriers. The London Fire Brigade’s investigation also revealed that sub-standard materials, which wouldn’t be compliant on a taller building, had contributed to the speed of the fire and created flaming debris and acrid black smoke.

We turned to the pre-incident risk assessments. Why hadn’t those reports raised the alarm about the grave dangers? Building standards, regulations and routine risk assessments clearly have a long way to go to provide meaningful assurances about safety.

Until they do, thousands of people could be at risk.

“I can see no rationale for this random threshold. We have clear evidence that no simple relationship exists between building height and lives being at risk”

We need both innovative thinking and honesty about past failings in the construction industry. When decision-makers look at the numbers, we need them to think of human lives and not just profit.

It is one year on from the fire but still no clear responsibility has been taken by Berkeley Group, the developer, or by Metropolitan Thames Valley, which sold the flats to us.

Ordinary residents don’t have the financial resources of big corporations, but we may have to go to court. It’s important that someone takes responsibility, otherwise how will we know that lessons have been learned?

After everything that happened at Richmond House, the government’s Building Safety Fund excludes buildings with a height below 18 metres. I can see no rationale for this random threshold. We have clear evidence that no simple relationship exists between building height and lives being at risk.

People could have died. We lost almost everything. Our experience and the impact on our families should not be in vain.

Thrishantha Nanayakkara, former resident, Richmond House

10 steps to End Our Cladding Scandal

Based on the recommendations of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee and backed by a range of sector bodies and MPs from across the political spectrum, these are Inside Housing’s 10 steps to End Our Cladding Scandal:

  1. The government must lead an urgent national effort to remove all dangerous cladding from buildings by June 2022.
  2. The Building Safety Fund must cover all buildings, regardless of height, and a range of internal and external fire safety defects, not just cladding.
  3. The government should provide the money up front and then seek to recover it from any responsible parties or via a temporary levy on development.
  4. Social housing providers must have full and equal access to the fund.
  5. The government must compel building owners or managers to be honest with residents about fire safety defects.
  6. The government should cover the cost of interim safety measures.
  7. The government should act as an insurer of last resort and underwrite insurance where premiums have soared.
  8. A fairer, faster process is needed to replace the EWS form and funding is necessary to ensure all buildings requiring a form are surveyed within 12 months.
  9. Mental health support must be offered to affected residents.
  10. Protecting residents from historic and future costs must be a key commitment of new building safety legislation.

End Our Cladding Scandal: campaign backers

Organisations:

  • Grenfell United
  • Resident cladding action groups: UK Cladding Action Group, Manchester Cladiators, Leeds Cladding Scandal, Birmingham Leaseholder Action Group, London Cladding Action Group, Liverpool Cladiators, One Housing Action Group, Homeowners of L&Q, Richmond House Residents and others
  • A collective of lawyers representing Grenfell Tower families at the public inquiry
  • The Sunday Times
  • Shelter
  • Fire Brigades Union
  • Royal Institute of British Architects
  • Chartered Institute of Housing
  • National Housing Federation
  • Unison
  • National Leasehold Campaign
  • Leasehold Knowledge Partnership

Individuals and experts:

  • TV presenter Kevin McCloud
  • TV presenter Phil Spencer
  • Architect George Clarke
  • Actor and comedian Kathy Burke
  • Actor Carey Mulligan
  • Singer/songwriter Marcus Mumford
  • Actor Ross Mullan (Game of Thrones)
  • Leilani Farha, dormer UN special rapporteur for housing
  • Jonathan Evans, chief executive of Ash & Lacy
  • Building Safety Register co-founder Matt Hodges-Long
  • Professor Sue Bright
  • Executive coach Gill Kernick
  • Safety consultant Stephen MacKenzie
  • Safety consultant Phil Murphy
  • Architect Francis Maria Peacock
  • Chris Blythe OBE, former chief executive of the CIOB
  • Solicitor Giles Peaker

Politicians:

  • Andy Street, metro mayor of West Midlands (Conservative)
  • Sadiq Khan, mayor of London (Labour)
  • Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester (Labour)
  • Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool City Region (Labour)
  • Mike Amesbury MP, shadow housing minister (Labour)
  • Matthew Pennycook MP (Labour)
  • Kim Johnson MP (Labour)
  • Shabana Mahmood MP (Labour)
  • Liam Byrne MP (Labour)
  • Ian Byrne MP (Labour)
  • Abena Oppong-Asare MP (Labour)
  • Margaret Hodge MP (Labour)
  • Ruth Cadbury MP (Labour)
  • Apsana Begum MP (Labour)
  • Rushanara Ali MP (Labour)
  • Sam Tarry MP (Labour)
  • Mohammed Yasin MP (Labour)
  • Lucy Powell MP (Labour)
  • Rebecca Long-Bailey MP (Labour)
  • Justin Madders MP (Labour)
  • Florence Eshalomi MP (Labour)
  • Andrew Mitchell MP (Conservative)
  • Sir Peter Bottomley MP (Conservative)
  • Bob Neil MP (Conservative)
  • Bob Blackman MP (Conservative)
  • Anne Marie Morris (Conservative)
  • Stephen McPartland (Conservative)
  • Caroline Lucas MP (Green)
  • Lord Young of Cookham (Conservative)

  • Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Conservative)
  • Cllr Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council (Labour)
  • Cllr Ian Ward, leader of Birmingham Council (Labour)
  • Philip Glanville, mayor of Hackney (Labour)
  • Paul Dennett, mayor of Salford (Labour)
  • Sian Berry AM (Green)
  • Caroline Pidgeon AM (Liberal Democrat)
  • Tom Copley AM, deputy mayor for housing (Labour)
  • Leonie Cooper AM (Labour)
  • Murad Qureshi AM (Labour)
  • Neil McEvoy MS (Labour)
  • Cllr Jonathan Bartley (Green, co-leader)
  • Cllr Douglas Johnson (Green)
  • Cllr Suzanne Richards (Labour)
  • Cllr Liz Clements (Labour)
  • Cllr Maria Toolan (Labour)
  • Cllr Christine Banks (Labour)
  • Cllr Nick Small (Labour)
  • Cllr Geoff Barraclough (Labour)
  • Cllr Paul Dimoldenberg (Labour)
  • Cllr Martin Whelton (Labour)
  • Cllr Jon Connor-Lyons (Labour)
  • Cllr Sam Wheeler (Labour)
  • Cllr Marcus Johns (Labour)
  • Cllr Joan Davies (Labour)
  • Cllr Sem Moema (Labour)
  • Cllr Shama Tatler (Labour)
  • Cllr Johnson Situ (Labour)
  • Cllr Anne Clarke (Labour)
  • Cllr Ken Wood (Conservative)
  • Cllr Meirion Jenkins (Conservative)
  • Cllr Robert Alden (Conservative)
  • Cllr Peter Golds (Conservative)
  • Cllr Anton Georgiou (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Jayne McCoy (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Rabina Khan (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Ruth Dombey (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Anthony Fairclough (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Hina Bokhari (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Jenny Batt (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Ben Andrew (Liberal Democrat)
  • Cllr Andrew Wood (independent, former Conservative)
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