Independent review into Barking fire demands full transparency for tenants and leaseholders on landlord duties
Cladding. Building safety. Fire regulations. Three connected topics that have continued to dominate UK headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to the Grenfell tragedy in 2017.
Yet despite the media noise and political debate about building safety over the last three years in particular, hundreds of thousands of people continue to feel unsafe in their homes every single night. Their questions haven’t been answered. Their concerns haven’t been addressed.
Some of those people live in Samuel Garside House, a residental block of flats towards the south of the London borough of Barking and Dagenham. And in June 2019, their worst fears became a reality when a fire ripped through their entire block, forcing everyone to flee to safety. Due to the nature of the timber cladding that covered their homes, the fire was able to engulf the whole block in just six minutes.
Quick thinking and bravery from the residents and emergency services meant that miraculously, no one was injured. But 79 homes had to be evacuated. Eight of those homes were severely damaged and a further 39 could not be occupied until repairs were completed several months on.
Many residents found themselves homeless in the immediate aftermath, and some families lost their treasured pets. Lives were turned upside down, families were moved by insurers from one hotel to another and it was only when the council intervened that more suitable, longer term accommodation was found until residents could return home. To this day, the fire has had a lasting impact on the local community.
On the day of the fire and in the days and weeks afterwards, Barking and Dagenham Council established emergency response arrangements as part of its duties under the Civil Contingencies Act. Yet several months after the incident, work was still being done by the council to ensure that the families affected could return to some sense of normality. This was despite the fact the block is not owned or managed by the council, and as such, its legal powers to intervene are severely limited.
The costs to the council, including hundreds of hours of officer time, can never be reclaimed. And the impact the fire has had on the residents of Samuel Garside House, who desperately needed help from the various agencies that managed the block, can never fully be appreciated. This is why the council commissioned an independent review, which is a call to action to the Government to ensure a situation like this never happens again.
Today (22 January), Sir Steve Bullock, Chair of the Housing & Finance Institute, formerly elected Mayor of Lewisham and Executive Housing Lead for London Councils, launches the conclusions of his review in a special report.
Commissioned in February 2020, Sir Steve Bullock has been supported in his work on the review by Cllr Diarmaid Ward, Executive Member for Housing and Development at Islington Council, who provided support in a personal capacity. They have spent the last 11 months navigating various COVID-19 restrictions to engage with a range of individuals and organisations involved in the Samuel Garside fire, as well as those affected by similar fires in other areas, to gather evidence of all of the issues and limitations facing local authorities when handling such emergencies.
Information was gathered from residents, elected members, council officers, London Fire Brigade staff, representatives from local and regional voluntary and community sector organisations, as well as from representatives from the various agencies involved in the ownership and management of the building.
These agencies include Bellway (the developer), Adriatic Land (the building owner) Homeground and RMG (the management companies), Southern Housing (who own 32 of the homes), and Barking Riverside Limited (the land owner).
Today, the report makes seven recommendations which can be summarised into four key areas:
- Local Authorities should have the power to declare a ‘Local Housing Emergency’ situation for an initial 30 days during which they can take all necessary actions, including to reclaim costs incurred from the responsible building owners;
- Freeholders of residential buildings should lodge a ‘Statement of Ownership’ with the Land Registry setting out the organisations which hold leases and subleases down to, but not including, leases for individual properties and indicating the ultimate ownership of those organisations;
- Subject to the final provisions of the Building Safety Bill when enacted, local authorities should have enhanced enforcement powers for buildings below 18 metres which match those of the Building Safety Regulator for buildings over 18 metres;
- All residents should receive an annual statement of responsibilities for their home and the building of which it is part.
The recommendations also call for relevant organisations to review their plans for dealing with emergencies to take into account the heightened concerns of residents in relation to cladding and fire safety generally, including the way they communicate with residents and involve them in the management of the building; and for planning authorities to include a requirement for all of these arrangements as part of the S106 agreement for all new multi-unit developments.
Today, Barking and Dagenham Council is calling on the Government to implement these recommendations.
Sir Steve Bullock, said: “The Samuel Garside fire happened at a time when the Grenfell tragedy was still fresh in people’s minds so it was understandably traumatic for everyone involved. This was exacerbated by the confusion that ensued over responsibilities, because of the complex ownership and management of the building. This meant that after the immediate emergency, there was no visible body in charge for the resident - and the council, despite having no legal powers to act, was forced to step into that role.
“A huge amount of work remains to be done across the country to ensure that all buildings are safe and people feel safe in them. We need to ensure those who build them bear the cost, not those who rent or buy them in good faith. I hope this report will bring about genuine change.”
Cllr Darren Rodwell, Leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, who commissioned the independent review, said: “While our focus on the day of the fire was working with the emergency services to get those residents to safety and ensure they had somewhere to sleep that night, it soon became clear that we had to act over and above our duties to get answers for our residents.
“Our council is often the fourth emergency service in a crisis and on this occasion, we were the only organisation able to provide overall coordination and leadership. This just isn’t sustainable weeks and months after an incident, unless we have the resources and powers to act. The response to the fire from our local community was overwhelming, but we cannot rely on goodwill alone to get us through an incident like that again – the Government need to listen to these recommendations and reform legislation.”
Sutton Council, who experienced a similar fire in September 2019 in which 150 people had to be evacuated from a four-storey block in Worcester Park, contributed to the review by providing a written submission detailing their own experiences.
Leader of Sutton Council, Cllr Ruth Dombey, said: “I’m really pleased we’ve had the chance to contribute to this important review. The Richmond House fire at Worcester Park had a life-changing impact on the residents. The response in the aftermath often left them feeling bewildered and lost. I am proud that the practical, caring approach Sutton Council took in standing by the side of residents made a big difference to them.
“Too often the interests of developers, landlords and other interested parties tend to focus on reputational damage limitation and minimising costs. There should be a clear responsibility for all interested parties to cooperate with two overriding aims: looking after the residents and learning lessons to prevent and better respond to future incidents.”
The Samuel Garside fire review report, which also had support from London Councils, the cross-party group representing all 33 local authorities in the capital, will be presented to Barking and Dagenham Council’s Cabinet for their formal endorsement on 19 January.
Subject to Cabinet endorsement, Leader of the Council, Cllr Darren Rodwell will work with his Cabinet Members in lobbying Government to implement the recommendations. A copy of the report has already been circulated to local Government stakeholders including Hackney Council and Sutton Council, as well as Samuel Garside House residents.
At Barking and Dagenham Council’s full Assembly meeting on 27 January, a motion will be brought from Cllr Cameron Geddes, the council’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Social Housing, to propose the Council signs up to the End our Cladding Scandal Campaign, a grassroots campaign asking Government to fund remediation works for buildings found to have unsafe cladding and other safety defects.