Kurt Barling, Professor of Journalism and former BBC presenter, uses research and knowledge gained from his investigation into the Lakanal House fire in 2009 to shed light on the circumstances of the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy. Whoever is ultimately held responsible for this horrific event, all the evidence points to the fact that fire safety issues in tower blocks have been systematically neglected for years.
Grenfell was no accident. It is a colossal scandal.
Meeting Rafael Cervi shortly after the Lakanal fire in July 2009 was a deeply emotional experience. I could barely contain the tears as he recounted watching helplessly while pleading to go back into the building to save his wife and two children who perished in the fire that engulfed their Camberwell block of flats. He had rushed home from work after getting panicked phone calls from his wife Diana. The unprecedented rapid spread of the blaze meant firefighters failed to reach them in time, along with Mbet Udoaka’s wife and newborn baby and Catherine Hickman. The fire behaved in unpredictable ways moving across floors and through internal cavities to hamper the firefighting and rescue tasks. Their stories fuelled my basic journalistic urge to ensure their trauma would never be knowingly repeated.
The young fashion designer Catherine had spent precious minutes on the phone with the fire service operator asking what she should do as the flames and smoke began to overwhelm her. These were replayed at the inquest and more tears were shed. She was told to stay put to be rescued. Her fire escape route from her flat would have taken her to safety. Neither she nor the fire service and firefighters knew the escape balcony existed; a crucial fire-safety feature overlooked by landlord, residents and fire service alike. A culture of fire-risk-complacency had taken hold at Lakanal House and those six deaths demonstrated urgent lessons needed learning.
It became one of the most challenging stories of my career. Beyond all those terrorism, war zone and youth violence stories I had covered, it was a story that I felt I had a responsibility to pursue tooth and nail because I reasoned my journalism could genuinely save lives in the future.
I got to know the families, local authorities, safety experts, government officials and activists who all had a stake in fire safety and discovered that not only were Tower Blocks complex but so were the regulations and relationships to ensure they were safe to live in. The research document Investigation into Lakanal House that I prepared for the University Research Excellence Framework in 2014 identified a key long-term narrative from some of the material I had broadcast into the public domain between 2009-2013 when the Lakanal inquest concluded.
A Tower Block is a complex building as well as community structure. It houses whole neighbourhoods. Some are large enough to accommodate several streets worth of residents at ground level. In the event of a fire, evacuation and rescue needs proper safety procedures to do it safely.
The voluminous evidence presented to the 2013 Lakanal inquest into the six deaths, as a result of that fire, made it abundantly clear that the refurbishment of Lakanal House over many years had fundamentally compromised the fire safety of the 14 storey building.
The core principle of keeping the integrity of a High Rise safe in a fire, is that each individual flat should be able to contain fire from within for 60 minutes. This is called compartmentalization. This failed atrociously at Lakanal and there was no doubt in the minds of fire experts I repeatedly interviewed like Ronnie King, Arnold Tarling and Sam Webb, that periodic refurbishments had introduced key structural changes and new flammable building materials which substantially weakened the fire safety aspects of these buildings.
We discovered that in some cases only 5% of blocks in a borough had complied with the law.
Lakanal House was a colossal warning. Firefighters at the time said they had never seen anything like it before, nor would they want to see it again. Many suffered afterwards from PTSD. The abundant evidence from that fire showed that the building regulations were deeply flawed. Indeed one of the key recommendations from the Coroner Francis Kirkham in 2013 was that part B of the building regulations needed urgent review.
I can remember the argument in court when John Hendy QC (for the families) argued it was well-nigh unforgiveable to add flammable materials to the external envelope of a building which would make the building more vulnerable to rapid fire spread from outside the dwellings, not inside. Well, four years on and the government department responsible – Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) – is still apparently reviewing them. Procedures that would undoubtedly have saved lives at Grenfell have not been implemented.
Another of the recommendations from Justice Kirkham suggested that inadequate standards were employed in drafting Fire Risk Assesments (FRA), which must as a matter of law be undertaken on each high-rise block, residential or commercial, on a regular basis, but particularly after a refurbishment or structural changes take place. This is like a building MOT and warns landlords if parts of the building or maintenance regime need to be put right to minimize the risks of fire spreading and ultimately to preserve life.
Back in 2009 I broadcast a report after myself and colleague Ed Davey carried out a Freedom of Information request into how many of London’s 32 boroughs had carried out FRAs on their tower blocks.
The results sparked genuine public outrage when we discovered that in some cases only 5% of blocks in a borough had complied with the law. In other words 95% of council tenants were living in high rises with no or poor up-to-date safety checks.
This was a disgrace then and it is scandalous to hear that the last FRA on Grenfell was conducted in 2015 before the refurbishments, which may prove to have caused the rapid spread of the fire. Interestingly I have seen a 2013 solicitor’s letter from Kensington & Chelsea lawyers threatening the author of the Grenfell Action Group blog with action for allegations he was publishing about the sub-standard response to resident questions and concerns. All I would say about this is that there is a pattern of public authorities trying to intimidate residents who choose public forums to discuss their concerns. This breeds mistrust, which does not help a fire safety culture, but it does minimize scrutiny of social landlords or local authority’s responsibilities.
The advice on whether to stay put or flee fire in your block when your own home is ‘safe’, is laden with ambiguity in Tower Blocks. The reality on the ground is residents are often given contradictory advice, as was Catherine Hickman which cost her her life at Lakanal. A lot of those families who chose to ignore the advice at Grenfell saved themselves. When a building, let alone an individual flat, cannot withstand fire for 60 minutes this advice is monumentally foolish. I heard this foolish argument made many times during my research into Lakanal, foolish because it didn’t take account of the evidence.
No easy answers
Grenfell reiterates the lesson of Lakanal that firefighters are often attending fires with both hands tied behind their backs, when the working assumption is that they have 60 minutes to locate the fire and put it out. Well that is proving time and again to be a deeply and fatally flawed premise. The recommendation from Frances Kirkham was more clarity was urgently needed. The official response from the incumbent Minister Eric Pickles was that the local Fire Commander at an incident should make that judgment. But how can they, if the fire takes less than 60 minutes to engulf a major part of a building and they do not have the means of communicating that advice on the ground to residents?
Lakanal House has a sister block and a fire in that block shortly after the Lakanal fire led to every resident self-evacuating. One resident told me this week; they simply don’t trust the advice from the council or the London Fire Brigade. In other words it is now common sense at ground level for residents to get out and not stay put. Saving lives in a fire requires a culture built on trust.
There is no doubt that fire safety equipment and sprinklers halt the spread of fire. In the case of Grenfell the last FRA in 2015 found faulty fire equipment in many places and residents complained. Sprinklers are now standard in new developments and they can be retrofitted to older blocks. It is a complex construction task but can be done quite affordably. The Lakanal coroner asked that this be looked at sympathetically. Still we have no traction from the DCLG on this issue when it comes to our older social housing Tower Block stock across the country.
Let’s be blunt, there are no easy answers, but the Lakanal House fire and the debates that emerged from it, including a Baroness Jenny Jones led London Assembly inquiry into fire risks in timber framed buildings, sought out reasoned evidenced responses. A public environment which has seen cuts to local authority staffing, LFB fire-fighting capabilities and prevention programmes and social landlords turning to the private sector to manage complex buildings in poorer communities have all played a part in making High Rise living more vulnerable than when those buildings were originally completed. It may be difficult but it’s not rocket science.
The result is a damning indictment of our approach to government; singular complacency in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Lakanal House was a dire warning. The trauma suffered by the families was a warning. The inquest in 2013 and prosecution of Southwark Council in 2017 were all warnings. The recommendations were a call to action. But none were heeded sufficiently, because those in government have seemingly chosen not to prioritise the fire safety issue with firm changes on the ground. Despite their protestations to the contrary, the tragic evidence at Grenfell calls that seriously into question.
I want to make one final point here on the politics of housing. Since the end of World War II, social housing has always been a deeply political issue. Providing adequate shelter for the more vulnerable or less affluent members of a rich society is a measure of our values in civil society. If we believe people need social housing, it should be safe housing. For those who will try to make party-political-points-scoring mileage in their response to this tragedy, glass houses and stones come to mind. Social landlords across the country come in all political persuasions as they did across the 32 London Boroughs we found wanting in 2009. The worst offenders were often those with the most social housing. The authorities with the greatest burden had the poorest residents. Think about it, all parties have failed on this fire safety issue.
The residents of Tower Blocks need the rule of law to be upheld and for the law and regulations to maintain a robust fire safety regime to be reviewed and amended if need be and then rigorously enforced. No one in political life is innocent in this catastrophe.
The result is a damning indictment of our approach to government; singular complacency in the face of overwhelming evidence. The time for talking is over and the time for real concerted action, listening to the experts, needs to start right now.
Rafael Cervi who moved back to his native Brazil and started a new family was lucky in as much as he has found happiness to heal some of that desperate trauma of loss. Not everyone was so fortunate. My personal regret is that all my efforts, as a journalist, did not reach far enough to save those many lives at Grenfell. Ultimately, we fail those who perish if we repeat the avoidable mistakes and lessons learned from the past.
Professor Kurt Barling broadcast and wrote over a hundred reports for the BBC during his Lakanal House Investigations for BBC London News between 2009-2013.