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The lessons of Lakanal

The Lakanal inquest needs to provide answers not just for the bereaved families, but for fearful tower-block residents across the UK

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Friday 3 July 2009 is a day that I and many others in Southwark will never be able to forget. A beautiful Friday afternoon – so warm that everyone had their windows open to take advantage of the cool wind that those in high-rise dwellings often enjoy on balmy days.

The fire in Lakanal, a 14-storey tenement on Sceaux Gardens estate in Camberwell, started just before 4.30pm in a ninth floor bedroom. It quickly engulfed the entire dwelling, but the London Fire Brigade arrived within five minutes of the 999 call from the resident, who thankfully escaped unharmed. The arriving fire engine alerted me to the fire – I live on the 11th floor of Lakanal’s sister block, Marie Curie.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, falling debris alighted two further fires on the fifth and seventh floors – sucked into open windows by the wind and alighting curtains. We then witnessed the fire spread upwards and then laterally – even crossing the central lobby and stairwell, which should act as a fire break.

Watching the spread of fire was terrifying and when we learned the next day that three women and three children had died, there were many sleepless nights on the estate and surrounding area.

After nearly three and a half years, the inquests into the six deaths are due to start today (Monday 14 January) and are set to run for eight to 10 weeks. We all hope that those who lost loved ones will finally learn what happened on that day and the factors that contributed to this tragic loss of life. Why and how did the fire spread so rapidly – why did so many of the communal parts of the building become smoke-logged and how did the fire invade multiple dwellings? The inquests will review all the evidence and we hope that the coroner will determine all the factors that played a part in the tragic events of that day. And we then need to make sure that such an event can never be repeated.

Learning that Southwark Council had not completed Fire Risk Assessments on the majority of their high rise blocks at the time of the fire was devastating  – as was having prohibition notices served on our landlords by the London Fire Brigade within a month of the fire (for Marie Curie and four other ‘scissor-block’ design buildings in the borough) – when you live there. That pales into insignificance when I contemplate the loss of the families, however. And all those former Lakanal residents made homeless and living in church halls and community centres for weeks. Denied access to their homes by the police and trying to keep their lives on track, with nothing but what they escaped with and some donated clothes and money. For some, the strain was too much and they lost their jobs as well as their homes and possessions.

And so to the future – I can’t answer for the bereaved families’ hopes in this area, but I can speak for our members in Marie Curie and the wider estate. We need the reassurance that our homes are fire-safe today and that all the relevant building regulations are complied with whenever the building’s structure is altered in the future.

A growing number of Southwark’s tenants and leaseholders now believe that Southwark Council can no longer be trusted with the three responsibilities of landlord, custodian of building regulations enforcement and responsibility for FRAs. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2006 transferred responsibility for FRAs from the London Fire Brigade to London’s councils. Four years after the transfer was first announced to Southwark Council, they had completed less than 25 per cent. This is unforgivable and I am confident that Southwark was not at the bottom of any league table on this. I now believe that the RR(FS)O 2006 should be repealed and that FRA responsibility should rest with the London Fire Brigade once more.

If the inquests also establish that Lakanal did not meet the standards of the Building Act in terms of fire safety as well, I believe that this also points to the need to address this by a change in the law, so that responsibility for building regulations enforcement does not rest with councils that are also landlords. But we do not yet know whether this is the case.

And perhaps the most worrying event in recent weeks that our members have had to contemplate is the mayor’s announcement that he is contemplating a budget cut to the London Fire Brigade so severe that 16 fire stations will close – on the hit-list are Peckham, Southwark and New Cross – all three of which were involved in fighting the Lakanal fire and the rescue operation that saved the lives of several other residents.

Dave Lewis is secretary of the Sceaux Gardens Tenants’ and Residents’ Association

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Bereaved families give evidence to Lakanal inquestBereaved families give evidence to Lakanal inquest

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