CamdenNewJournal

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Chalcots evacuation: Independent review slammed for ‘shifting blame from Camden Council to fire brigade’

Camden Council accused of "throwing the London Fire Brigade under the bus"

28 June, 2018 — By William McLennan

Author Marian Harrington delivered the report to Cllr Georgia Gould on Monday

A REVIEW of the evacuation of the Chalcots estate has been criticised for seeking to shift the blame from Camden Council to London Fire Brigade.

A much-anticipated report into the emergency operation was released on Monday, just over a year after 3,000 people were ordered to leave their homes at a moment’s notice.

Residents had hoped the review – commissioned by the Town Hall, but led by an independent expert – would validate their complaints, but many are angered that it did not take a more critical tone.

Green councillor Sian Berry, chair of the London Assembly housing committee, said: “I’m really cross that they have ended up suggesting that it’s the fire brigade that was too harsh.”

The review, chaired by social care expert Marian Harrington, probed the decision to evacuate, made in the early evening of June 23 last year. It led to chaotic scenes as council officers struggled to find accommodation for hundreds of families who left their homes carrying suitcases stuffed full of vital possessions.

Around 80 people spent the night on inflatable mattresses on the floor of Swiss Cottage leisure centre. Others stayed awake through the night.

Test results received late on June 21 had found that cladding on the blocks contained the same flammable material that helped spread flames at Grenfell Tower, where 72 people had died a week earlier. An inspection by London Fire Brigade (LFB) the next day found a range of internal faults, and led to the threat of legal action if Camden did not “voluntarily” evacuate the blocks, the report says.

It adds that council officers “tried to negotiate” with the LFB to allow the operation to begin the following morning in a “more dignified and organised” fashion, but says it refused to budge.

The review also points to council officers’ reports of “difficulties in dealing with the senior LFB officer” who gave the advice to evacuate.

The report adds: “They felt he did not seem to wish to negotiate any mitigations or allow the council any time to put emergency repairs in place.

“He is said to have repeatedly insisted that all the work needed to take place during the evening of June 23 – clearly an impractical requirement.”

The senior fire officer, who has since retired, did not give evidence to the review. The New Journal has been unable to contact him.

The report reveals in full detail for the first time the safety failings at the estate identified by LFB. The 23-point list was handed to Camden on a hand-written note.

Many of the faults related to inadequate doors which would not stop fire spreading. This had first been raised by a fire risk assessment (FRA) of the blocks in 2012.

Cllr Berry said it was shocking that the review did not consider whether Camden Council could have acted sooner to prevent the evacuation and instead focused on the LFB’s refusal to negotiate.

She said she had urged the council to review previous risk assessments in the days before the evacuation.

“If they had got those documents out in that week when they knew there was a potential issue with the cladding, then they would have been prepared for the fire brigade to go in. They were in denial and then they spent all day trying to get out of it,” she said.

Leader of Camden Tories Councillor Oliver Cooper said: “It’s irresponsible for Camden to throw the fire brigade under the bus when the council singularly failed to remedy any of the safety failings it had identified and failed to make any preparations in the event that the fire brigade uncovered those failings.”

Urgent works carried out on June 23 to Blashford, the smaller of the five towers, including removing obstacles from hallways and installing “self-closing mechanisms” on doors, meant that residents were able to remain in their homes. Belsize Lib Dem councillor Luisa Porritt said it was “unfortunate” that the senior LFB officer was “unavailable to contribute to the report and shed further light on this, given the importance of their role”.

Anthony Royle, chairman of Bray Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, who attended a meeting on Monday when Ms Harrington formally handed the report to council leader Georgia Gould, said that the fire brigade had been used as a “scapegoat” but felt that its role on the night deserved greater scrutiny.

“The fire service has never had to answer in the court of public opinion,” he said.

The report also says that LFB should consider the impact of evacuation on vulnerable residents before forcing landlords to act.

It says that by acting voluntarily, Camden avoided being served with an Article 31 notice by the LFB, which would have meant everyone had to leave.

Instead, while the majority were forced out, some of the most vulnerable were able to remain in their homes.

A third of households with people aged over 65 did not leave, the report says, as did others, with unwell people receiving “end-of-life care in their homes”.

“For all these people any move would have been dangerous, certainly a more imminent risk than the risk of a fire in the block,” the report says.

It adds: “The LFB made a decision which fundamentally affected the lives of thousands of individuals and committed the council to expenditure running into millions of pounds. It would seem appropriate for the LFB to consider the risks to individuals in being evacuated, particularly vulnerable people and balance this against their fire risk.”

The LFB is to review the reports’ findings. A spokesman said: “Working closely with all housing providers so that they understand their responsibilities under fire safety law is important.”

A council spokesman said that fire brigade’s inspection, unlike previous risk assessments, had been carried out with the knowledge that the buildings’ exterior was wrapped in a flammable material.

The spokesman said: “As we’ve said, Grenfell changed everything. We inspected the Chalcots with the LFB and evacuated the build ing on their advice. We then immediately undertook the work they informed us needed completion before being able to advise reoccupation.

Residents ‘stigmatised’

FAMILIES trying urgently to find accommodation after being told to leave their homes were rejected by landlords because they came from the Chalcots estate, while others fell victim to scammers posting fraudulent adverts, the independent review has found.

“Some landlords withdrew offers when they discovered those seeking accommodation were from the Chalcots estate,” the report says. “This inevitably left residents feeling further stigmatised.”

It was also reported that “some rentals offered online turned out to be fictitious, so that some residents lost deposits and had to be reimbursed by the council.”

Camden Council booked 270 hotel rooms on the first night, but, rather than offer a group booking discount or a reduced rate due to the nature of the emergency, prices went up due to the increased demand. Residents were offered £200 per night, per room.

‘Get out now’ ultimatum had no legal authority

Residents were incorrectly told they would be forced from their homes during the evacuation of the Chalcots estate, an independent review has found.

Camden Council had “no legal authority to require that people were evacuated”, but a letter sent to residents did not “explicitly state whether the evacuation was voluntary or compulsory”.

Many households were told they had no choice in the matter, helping to spread panic and chaos on the night the emergency operation began.

The review says: “The fundamental lack of clarity about any requirement to evacuate is a serious failing.” It adds: “This may have marked the start of a lack of trust between the council and some residents, who felt they were deliberately not told the whole truth.”

Dorney resident Mandy Gay said their treatment was “unforgivable”.

“One Camden official said we’d get forcibly removed and we’ve done nothing but pay rent and live somewhere we thought was safe,” she added. Anthony Royle, chair of Bray Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, said: “It was an utter feeling of panic and felt like we had no choice, we had to move out.”

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