Lime Legal

Living in fear

Published 22 October 2023

A recent blaze in a tower block in South London has brought the issue of fire safety to the forefront and exposed the perilous state of many residential estates. Robin Stares investigates

Fran Heron gazes out of her window on the 17th floor of a 21-storey tower block in Camden, North London. Her voice brimming with fear, she describes the smoke that had come into her building after a small fire had broken out when a discarded cigarette ignited a pile of rubbish left near the entrance.

It was a fairly small incident. But Fran, tenant activist and chair of the Ampthill Square Tenant and Residents Association, is right to be worried. Almost two months later a blaze only a few miles away at a tower block in Camberwell claimed the lives of six residents and injured at least 20 others.

A faulty television ignited a fire on the ninth floor of Lakanal House causing fire and smoke to rip through the building to the eleventh floor where the six victims were later found.

The cause of the Camberwell fire – why it spread and how some residents were able to escape the 12-storey building while others were confined to their deaths – is still being investigated.

The outcome could have enormous nationwide implications for the future of tower blocks, with everything from building maintenance and design to fire safety procedures being scrutinised.

The BBC recently reported that there are 102 residential blocks in the capital alone that are of a higher risk than Lakanal House.Local councils, arm’s-length management organisations (ALMOs) and private landlords in other parts of the country are also coming under the spotlight.

Fran Heron says: ‘I saw the pictures in the paper and, oh God – there are some very frightened people in tower blocks now.’

Her block still bears the scars of the incident. Steel fencing cordons off the wood panelling outside the main block entrance.

‘The smoke was trapped in the building, so it affected a lot of floors, particularly the top floors, as smoke rises. Residents have been emotionally affected by it. Children have nightmares.’

‘There are 102 tower blocks in London that are of higher fire risk than Lakanal House, where six residents recently lost their lives in a blaze’

According to fire regulations, a tower block should contain the spread of fire for an hour, allowing time for the emergency services to arrive and evacuate the building.

In the case of Fran’s block, Oxenholme, the only staircase out of the building filled with smoke. Residents were unaware of the risk because there was no alarm system in the stairwell.

Oxenholme was built in the mid-1960s. Tower blocks constructed before 1992 have no statutory requirement to have fire or smoke alarms in communal areas such as hallways, staircases and landings.

Fran says: ‘One of the things you never think of is that you should stay put, which goes against your basic instinct, which is to get the hell out.

‘There are smoke alarms in every flat, but there isn’t a smoke alarm in the communal areas, so you don’t necessarily know that there is a fire, and it’s difficult – if not impossible at times – to obey what the fire brigade would want you to do, because you don’t know.’

Local newspapers reported that the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority had told Camden council that there had been an ‘inadequate review of fire risk assessment by the responsible person’, ‘no emergency plan’ and ‘inadequate maintenance of fire doors, emergency escape lighting and ventilation grills’ in Oxenholme.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2015, all non-domestic premises must be regularly assessed for their fire risk, with a ‘competent/responsible person’ appointed to undertake fire training in each premises.

Bob Smytherman, chairman of the Federation for Private Residents Association (FPRA), says current legislation is confusing – and there is no nationally agreed framework for assessments of fire risks.

‘If a fire is coming up the stairs there is no way out, unless you jump over the balcony. That’s all right if you’re young but my husband is 83’

He is a tenant in a block of privately owned flats in Worthing, West Sussex. A risk assessment in their tower block raised doubts about fire extinguishers in communal areas, and the installation of emergency lighting.

‘We manage our own block – all the directors are volunteers and yet there doesn’t seem to be any clear advice for volunteer directors like us on what we should or shouldn’t be doing.

‘These are very difficult decisions. We think we’re fairly good, but we’re not saying that we get everything right.

‘One of the other problems is that our local authority, West Sussex, has cut the budget for safety checks for older people. The impact of losing these checks is potentially devastating.’

Steve Burrows, deputy district commander of Worthing and Adur fire service disputes that checks have been axed. ‘We are targeting higher risk areas in Worthing, but we aren’t cutting back. If people want a free fire safety check, we will be happy to go to them,’ he says.‘It’s one of our top priorities to educate the public in regards to fire safety.’

Beverley Weaver is chair of the Foredown Estate Residents Association in Brighton.

The estate is made up of five and six-storey blocks. There hasn’t been a fire on the estate for five years, but she still has concerns about residents’ safety.

She pointed out damage to fire doors, the absence of fire exit signs, and refuse left in hallways and under stairwells.

One Parker Court resident and pensioner said she had never been told what to do in the event of a fire: ‘They haven’t even got smoke alarms here, but when we originally had the fire (in 2014), we were told to get downstairs, but we couldn’t because the smoke was rising.’

She adds: ‘If you get a fire that’s coming up from the staircase, there’s no way you can get out that way, it has to be over the balconies. It’s all right if you’re young and sprightly, but my husband is 83, and I couldn’t do it. We just get out and hope for the best.’

For Beverley, it’s a desperate situation: ‘Something has to be done; I wouldn’t want to see people die.’

‘I’ve been putting pressure on the council for years for fire safety assessments. But low rise blocks aren’t a priority. I don’t think councils should be saying that they don’t have any money – they should find the money.

She adds: ‘I’m not saying you should have smoke detectors and sprinklers, but they could have something. Fire spreads quick. People always try and rescue somebody. It’s your natural instinct.’