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Barking Riverside fire - Sunday 9 June 2019

Samuel Garside raises vital questions about the safety of low-rise housing

Statement from Councillor Darren Rodwell, Leader of the Council:

The blaze that gripped Grenfell Tower in 2017 killing 80 people and injuring 70 others was meant to change our approach to fire safety. Two years later, the fire at Samuel Garside raises crucial questions about whether we are putting profits before people in low-rise blocks.

Samuel Garside House is typical of many new developments popping up in our towns and cities. Consisting of 4 blocks of 4-storey flats, it is a mixture of privately-owned, part-leased and housing association flats with wooden-cladded balconies. The fire gutted 8 flats and damaged others, forcing 47 families to flee. A 4-year old girl told me afterwards how she screamed as she watched the flames rising above her. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the mental scars will be there for years.

Just like Grenfell, residents of Samuel Garside raised their concerns about the safety of their block with the owners two years before. They were told it had been treated with fire retardant material and had passed all regulations. In fact, this wasn’t the case. In any case, the regulations are silent about wooden balconies despite experts warning they can accelerate the spread of fire. 

Unlike Grenfell, our response was swift and decisive. Within 2 hours we had set up a rest centre, everyone was found a bed for the night with food and clothing and we posted videos on social media letting everyone know what was happening.

The very next day we were back at the scene of the fire alongside our emergency response team. In the first week alone, I spent 50 hours on location sorting out clothes and signposting residents alongside the British Red Cross. The council wrote to every resident letting them know what was happening. Others ensured basic needs were met such as food, medicine, welfare support, counselling and medicine, as well as creche and play facilities. Hotels were booked and payments made in advance. We even set up a Crowdfunder page to help those who had lost everything.

Some people called it a success. No one had been hurt and we thought the worse was behind us. However, as Day 10 arrived it became clear residents were at the end of their tether. They didn’t know what was going on or how they were going to cope in a hotel for the next 3 months. The council convened a meeting of housing providers who agreed to provide alternative accommodation locally. It took a huge effort, including an appeal to the Secretary of State at MHCLG before the insurers agreed to extend the cover of the cost of temporary housing until Samuel Garside was in a fit state for them to return.

As August arrived, a sense of relief turned into cynicism. The building’s insurers threatened to pull the plug forcing residents to return. It didn’t help that they had been asked to return to homes that lacked an independent fire risk assessment. A structural survey had been carried out after the fire, but the families were angry that the developer and managing agents were acting as judge and jury over the building’s safety.

There were reasons to be concerned. Large cracks had appeared, and questions were being raised. The legal duty to assess whether a building is safe belongs to the building owner. Despite this, we had to use our enforcement powers to serve a notice of entry in order to be able to gain access.

We appointed a consultant surveyor to carry out a Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) inspection at a cost to the council. Three flats with glass balconies had to be made safe. Worse, 21 fire doors which had been installed were not self-closing and did not meet fire safety standards. This time, the insurers were quicker to extend the cover keeping residents in their temporary accommodation until the outcome of the HHSR inspection was released.

Some of the residents decided to appoint a solicitor who now demanded a Type 4 Fire Risk Assessment - the highest level of fire risk assessment. Otherwise known as a destructive survey, it allows walls and cavities to be excavated to establish whether a fire can spread. However, the council had no power to intervene – this was down to residents now dispersed in various hotels and temporary accommodation.

Months after the fire, the building still resembles a building site. Following receipt of the HHSRS fire assessment, the most serious hazards have been remedied but other hazards remain which the fire brigade says are mitigated by a 24/7 waking watch. If it’s been a bitter pill for residents to swallow, it’s been a costly one for the council which has had to foot the bill for a large part of the inspections not to mention the coordination of the post-fire response.

One of the challenges with modern day blocks is the sheer number of parties that run and own them. In the case of Samuel Garside, it’s at least half a dozen including, Bellway (the developer), Adriatic (the owner); HomeGround (the managing agent), who appointed RMG; and NHBC (building control), and Southern Housing Association.

Local authorities have powers to act against owners of hazardous premises. We can issue a multitude of notices, from simple awareness to demolition orders. We can also demand disclosure of documents and enter premises under warrant and demand surveys be undertaken. We can also undertake emergency remedial work ourselves to render a building safe.

Despite these powers, this has not stopped residents in Samuel Garside House being baffled by the myriad of organisations that have a stake in their homes, contact centres that offer little or no information, or failing to hear from developers who simply lack the ability to communicate.

The powers we can exercise come under the Housing Act and Environment Protection Act, but we lack the power to instruct building owners to conduct destructive surveys.

The government needs to give local authorities the powers to intervene and protect communities. We need to consider who is responsible for resident’s safety after building consent has been signed off. Who regulates the materials being used in buildings below 18 metres? Who has the power to instruct the private sector to carry out safety inspections where flammable materials have been used or the integrity of a building has been changed? Who pays (or recharges) for inspections? Who looks beyond the communal areas the Fire Brigade cannot reach to inspect them? And who should oversee the post-incident recovery and consider the displacement and resettlement of residents and the support that should be offered to them.

The private sector shouldn’t be allowed to get away with treating the management of post-fire incidents as someone else’s problem. Developers may have passed building control and gained planning consent, but they are the ones making the profit. They must retain ongoing obligations throughout the life of a building.

It’s time the private sector lived up to its responsibilities. Last year, Bellway made a profit of £313m which begs the question, are we building for profits or people?

Two years after Grenfell, we breathed a sigh of relief as the blue light services left the scene of Samuel Garside House, but in reality, the work had only just begun.

Housing Health and Safety Rating System

When residents raised concerns around the safety of the blocks at Samuel Garside, we paid for an expert independent inspector to carry out a Housing Health and Safety Rating System assessment (HHSRS).

The HHSRS assesses a building’s safety by classifying hazards and risks as urgent (Category 1) or less serious (Category 2).

We received the final version of the report on Friday, 18 October.

Please see a summary of the HHSRS report (PDF, 200KB)

How many homes were affected by the fire?

79 flats in total were affected, as the electricity supply had to be switched off in some nearby homes. 10 flats were completely destroyed and 43 had varying levels of damage caused by the fire.

Who owns the block?

This is not a council block, it is owned by Adriatic Land who are the landlord. Residential Management Group (RMG) act on behalf of Adriatic Land as the managing agent for the block. Some flats have private tenants and some have Southern Housing Association tenants. There were no council tenants in the building.

Who built the block?

The block was built six years ago by Bellway Homes.

Who signed off building control on the block?

Bellway Homes did not use the council's building control service and instead appointed an Approved Inspector (NHBC) to inspect the block to confirm it met with building regulations.