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A burning issue

In the wake of several tragic fatalities, an Inside Housing investigation reveals social landlords are receiving fire safety enforcement notices at a rate of one a week. Martin Hilditch finds out what is going wrong

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A burning issue

At 2.47pm on 4 February 2011 Kunaliny Alagaratnam picked up the phone and called the fire brigade. The 42-year-old mother of two young children was panicking because a fire had broken out in a neighbouring flat and her home was filling with smoke. At precisely the same moment she was dialling 999 firefighters were actually arriving at the building, because the alarm had been raised by other residents minutes earlier.

For Ms Alagaratnam and her cousin Santhirapathy Tharmalingam, 59, who was also in the flat, it was already too late. The operator who took the call listened as both women, in great distress, were overcome by the fumes.

Firefighters gained access to their flat - on the 16th floor of Deptford’s Marine Tower - at 3.10pm. Despite the efforts of paramedics and firefighters both were pronounced dead at 4.15pm.

The blaze had been started by Ms Alagaratnam’s neighbour, Sandra Clarke, who deliberately set fire to her own home on the day there was due to be a county court hearing over her rent arrears. She escaped and was last week convicted of two counts of manslaughter, following a trial at Woolwich Crown Court.

Further consequences

Ms Clarke’s conviction does not, however, mark the end of this tragic story. The fire - and its subsequent spread across the 16th floor - is still the subject of an ongoing investigation by police and the London Fire Brigade.

A week after the fire Lewisham Homes, the arm’s-length management organisation responsible for looking after the block, was served with an enforcement notice by the LFB. The notice outlined how the landlord had failed to review Marine Tower’s fire risk assessment, which landlords are required to carry out to identify fire hazards in their premises. It also said the ALMO had failed to properly manage ‘preventive and protective measures’ in the block and failed to provide and/or maintain adequate and clearly indicated emergency routes and exits that lead to a place of safety. The notice added Lewisham Homes had not established an appropriate emergency plan or ensured the block and its facilities were in good repair.

The fact that the landlord was served with an enforcement notice may seem surprising given that fire safety in high-rises has had an incredibly high profile over the past three years. This was due to the prominent coverage during an ongoing investigation into a fire that claimed six lives after it spread much more quickly than expected through 12-storey Lakanal House, in London’s Southwark in July 2009.

An investigation by Inside Housing has revealed, however, that Lewisham Homes is far from alone in attracting the attention of the fire brigade. On average, in fact, at least one social landlord a week has been issued with an enforcement notice by the fire brigade in England over the past six months. The vast majority of these were in London. The LFB confirmed it carried out an audit of 1,642 tower blocks in 2011/12 and that in 66 cases - 4 per cent - it issued an enforcement notice.

What, then, is going wrong?

Today, the only clue that the Marine Tower tragedy ever occurred are the freshly painted light-blue corridors and new dark-blue doors on its 16th floor.

A spokesperson for Lewisham Homes says it is unable to provide detail about the work that has been carried out because of the ongoing police and fire service investigation.

Emmanuel Onotota, who lives in the flat directly below the one formerly occupied by Ms Clarke, says however, that there have been major changes to the block over the past year. He was at home with his wife and daughter when the fire broke out.

‘It was like a war zone,’ he says quietly. ‘When I opened the front door there was smoke all over the corridor. I saw the caretaker. He said there was a fire upstairs and to come out or stay in the flat [with the door shut].’

Coughing and spluttering through the smoke, Mr Onotota fled the flat with his family. ‘It was when we came down that we saw the gravity of what had happened,’ he adds. ‘People downstairs were saying they were screaming for help [from the 16th floor].’

During the court case it emerged that the doors to both Ms Clarke’s and Ms Alagaratnam’s flats had been open, meaning there was little to prevent the smoke spreading.

Mr Onotota said he had since spoken to another family who were rescued from the 16th floor by firefighters. They had opened their front door after smelling smoke, he states, but struggled to close it again because of the force of the blaze. He fears this might explain why the door to Ms Alagaratnam’s flat was left ajar.

Since the fire, however, Lewisham Homes has carried out a number of works to Mr Onotota’s property. He has been given a new front door, for starters. The new door has a hinge at the top to make sure it closes automatically - something his previous door did not have, he says. New flooring was put down in his kitchen.

‘I think it was fire proofing,’ he states. Improvement work was also carried out in the family’s bathroom.

Mr Onotota says he was unaware that an enforcement notice had been issued on the block. But he is clear about why he was told work was necessary in his flat. ‘They made it safer,’ he says. ‘The council has changed everything. They have made it safe now.’

Council response

A spokesperson for Lewisham Homes says it extends its ‘deepest sympathy to Mrs Alagaratnam and Mrs Tharmalingam’s family’.

‘The safety of all our residents is our top priority,’ she adds. ‘We carry out regular fire safety checks to all our housing and promote fire safety advice to our residents.

‘We were in receipt of an enforcement notice from the London Fire Brigade following the fire at Marine Tower in February and fully complied with the notice by the set deadline.’

Lewisham Homes’ April newsletter, available from a distribution box attached to the wall at the entrance to Marine Tower, says it has been ‘working with LFB, the council and other social landlords to make sure our fire safety approach complies with the law and best practice’.

It says it is launching a new fire safety policy in all its blocks, which will require residents to remove items from shared areas, such as corridors, if they pose a fire safety risk and will see it replace ‘all front entrance doors to make sure they are fire safe’.

As mentioned, Lewisham Homes is far from alone in receiving enforcement notices about its properties. In total, between the beginning of September 2011 and the start of March this year social landlords in England were handed at least 35 enforcement notices. Twenty-nine of these were in London - a rate of more than one a week.

Hammersmith & Fulham Council has received five notices since December - each for separate blocks of flats - at a rate of more than one a month.
Two of the notices, on Churchward House and Norland House, state the council has failed to review the blocks’ fire risk assessment and failed ‘in the effective management of preventive and protective measures’. In all five blocks it was criticised for failing to provide or maintain adequate and clearly indicated emergency routes or exits leading to a place of safety.

A spokesperson for the council said it had taken its stock back in-house from its ALMO a year ago.

‘Unfortunately, during this process, we have encountered a number of historic issues,’ he adds. ‘The vast majority of these concerns have been rectified.’ The local authority has set aside £1.7 million in this year’s budget to finance work identified in fire risk assessments, he states.

Severe criticism

Housing association London & Quadrant has received five enforcement notices on its properties since July 2011. On 9 September 2011 it was criticised for failing to create a ‘suitable and sufficient’ fire risk assessment at Siedle House, Woolwich Common, and failing to provide or maintain adequate emergency exits. It received a notice on flats 1 to 4 Hither Green Lane, Lewisham, in February. That said it had failed ‘to take general fire precautions to ensure the safety of persons on the premises’ and failed to create a suitable risk assessment.

A spokesperson states that resident safety is its ‘top priority’ and that ‘we will always evaluate the fire risk assessment for a property where a notice is served and will make changes if required’.

Gallions Housing Association received a single enforcement notice for Blewbury House, Thamesmead, in February. It was told it had failed to make a suitable risk assessment, failed to provide or maintain suitable exits and failed to manage preventive and protective measures.

In this case a spokesperson confirms the notice revealed worrying details about the performance of one of its contractors.

‘We were served a notice because some non-compliant fire-rated polycarbonate glazing was found in one of our refurbished tower blocks,’ she says. ‘This was installed in error by a contractor. What this has brought to light is the issue of poor contractor performance in certain cases. As a result we have put in place a more robust quality-checking process to avoid similar problems in the future.’

So what does the fire brigade make of social landlords’ performance? A spokesperson for the LFB points out that it has carried out an audit of 4,648 residential premises in 2011/12 and that in 160 cases - 3.4 per cent - it issued an enforcement notice. This compares with an overall average of 5 per cent of audits resulting in enforcement notices based on all premises visited.

‘I do not believe we have any issues with any particular social housing provider - in fact, we do some excellent work with a number of landlords and are always looking to support social landlords,’ he adds.

Despite this there are clearly some common themes that have emerged from the notices that have been issued - including the importance of maintaining fire risk assessments and maintaining adequate emergency signs and exits.

The tragic deaths of Ms Alagaratnam and Ms Tharmalingam were clearly caused by the callous, thoughtless actions of one individual. But they also serve as a reminder to social landlords about why it is vitally important that they put fire safety right at the top of their agendas.

London fire brigade audits 2011/12

Care homes746223%
Purpose built blocks of flats (mopre than four storeys high)1,642664%
Houses converted to flats529458%
Other sleeping accommodation (including blocks of three floors and under)985273%
All premises13,2296945%

Read More

The full story of the Marine Tower fireThe full story of the Marine Tower fire

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