A legal wave of pain is heading Southwark Council’s way, warns Hannah Mansell. And it could easily hit other London councils too.
It is seven years since the fatal fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, which claimed the lives of three young women and three children. The first legal case arising from the tragedy was concluded at the start of March this year. Southwark Council pleaded guilty to four offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order.
Crucially, the legal case centred not on the fire itself, but on the accountability to risk that existed in the building prior to the fire. The focus was on the building defects that sat quietly in the background, setting the scene for the deadly firestorm that erupted that summer’s afternoon in 2009.
These defects included serious breaches of fire compartmentation throughout the structure, the corridors and staircases in the building. There were no intumescent strips and smoke seals in fire doors that would have prevented the spread of fire and smoke, and no fire risk assessment existed for the building.
The council's subsequent £570,000 fine, which included £300,000 court costs, was very substantial, but actually much lower than it could have been. The judge specified that the fine was reduced by almost half because of the early guilty plea and other mitigating features. Legal experts have also pointed out that, had current health and safety law applied to such cases, the fine could have been in the millions.
Nonetheless, Southwark Council was found to be knowingly taking huge risks with public safety, and received a very severe penalty for that. And I suspect this is just the start of the legal tidal wave of pain heading Southwark's way. Given the likelihood of private action by the families involved, let alone the cost of repairs to date, the cost of this fire is almost certainly going to reach seven or eight figures.
More worryingly, newly published research by BWF-Certifire indicates that other councils could easily find themselves in the same position.
Last year, the BWF-Certifire scheme made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to each of the 32 London councils. We asked how many residential blocks over six storeys the council owned, and for the date of the last fire risk assessment. The results were shared with the enforcing authority, London Fire Brigade.
Only 15 responses were received. Of the 15 full responses, we counted a total housing stock of 1,025 residential blocks six storeys in height or above. All had a fire risk assessment, and 90% of those assessments had last been updated in the previous couple of years.
So far so good, you might assume. But the frequency of a fire risk assessment is determined by a number of factors including a risk rating, the age of building and the number of storeys. The fire risk assessment is a living document, which cannot remain valid for an unlimited length of time. It needs to be reviewed regularly – indeed current local government guidance goes as far to say that for blocks with higher risk and blocks over four storeys in height, an annual review might be more appropriate, with a new fire risk assessment every three years. For the highest risk premises, an annual fire risk assessment might be appropriate.
Our FOI research revealed that there were 102 high rise residential properties in London that were fire risk assessed prior to 2014. Two councils responded that they had a number of buildings that had last been assessed in 2010 and 2011, over five years ago. This is very worrying.
So we went to have a look. Our own onsite inspections to these buildings revealed many visible breaches of fire safety. I personally visited several of these blocks and found non fire-rated front doors to some individual flats, a lack of emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes, broken fire rated glass, wedged-open fire doors, poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation, no smoke seals in fire doors, rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas, and no information displayed on the specific fire plan of the building.
We’re not the only ones to have raised the alarm on this. Just a year after the Lakanal House fire, an undercover BBC news report exposed widespread lack of fire risk assessments and broken fire compartmentation in the capital’s high rise residential buildings.
Had everything been managed properly, the fire compartmentation of Lakanal House should have contained the fire in one place, enabling the implementation of the ‘stay put’ fire plan.
Such a plan is often implemented where it’s not easy or practical to run a quick or safe evacuation, so it’s found in a variety of residential, commercial, healthcare and sleeping accommodation.
Complete and unbroken passive fire compartmentation, including effective fire doors, is absolutely critical in buildings that have a stay put fire plan. They should enable users of the building to seek refuge from fire and smoke, as well as creating a safe and protected route for the fire services to tackle the source of the blaze. But in reality, and especially in existing rented housing stock, this is just ignored.
The heart-breaking outcomes of the Lakanal House fire and this prosecution must make us all wake up. This will be the theme yet again of Fire Door Safety Week – our work is far from done. It’s time for a massive reawakening of accountability in those directly responsible for the fire safety of their residents.
Hannah Mansell is technical manager of BWF-Certifire, chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum, trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and spokesperson for the national safety and awareness campaign Fire Door Safety Week (25 September – 1 October 2017).