LBWF and fire safety in its housing stock: Goddarts House sheltered housing in Walthamstow, a new low which shames the council

Following on from recent discussion of fire hazards in LBWF housing provision, this post presents a further case study, which is certainly the most disturbing yet.

Goddarts House in Hoe Street, Walthamstow, is sheltered accommodation and consists of 27 flats, with the ‘occupancy types’ officially described as ‘Elderly, Hearing Impairment, Mental Health, Sight Impairment, [and] Wheelchair Users’.

Unsurprising, as the body legally responsible for Goddarts, LBWF has always classed the property as ‘high risk’, which means it ‘must’ be fire risk assessed at least once a year.

Given these circumstances, many people will probably assume that fire safety at Goddarts is and always has been exemplary.

Regrettably, however, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

A good place to start is with the Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) of Goddarts that was carried out by LBWF’s agent Ridge and Partners LLB in late May 2018.

For amongst other things, this listed the following ‘significant findings’:

 

  • Some surface finishes did not have adequate resistance to surface spread of flames
  • Some visible electrical installations were not in good condition
  • Circulation/office areas were not free of unnecessary fire loads
  • The rubbish/refuse/recycling paladins were located too close to the building
  • The refuse chutes were inadequately maintained and without adequate fire resistance
  • The building was not adequately compartmentalised for the purpose of containing smoke and flame (‘Waltham Forest Housing operate a stay put policy for the property which, it is understood has been agreed with the London Fire Brigade. [W]e are aware that the London Fire Brigade have subsequently expressed concern that the compartmentation may not achieve the 60 minute separation required to support a stay put approach’)
  • Fire separation within the roof space was inadequate
  • Some flat fire doors had inadequate fire resistance and ironmongery
  • Some electrical/service and cupboard doors had inadequate fire resistance and ironmongery/signage
  •  Multiple communal fire doors had inadequate fire resistance and ironmongery/signage
  • There was no effective emergency plan for the premises which was appropriately communicated to building users (‘The “Fire Action” notice was noted to be located in a position which would not be regularly viewed by residents’).
  • There were no regular fire drills in relation to the communal areas
  • In terms of fire procedures and training, ‘special risk groups(e.g. poor mobility, young, deaf, blind, visitors or children with disability)’ were not considered
  • Fire extinguishers were not adequately maintained (‘It is not clear if the date reference on the “Maintenance” sticker refers to the year or day?’)
  • Fire blankets were insufficient in number and inadequately maintained
  • The fire alarm system was not properly serviced, maintained, and regularly tested
  • The ‘travel distances’ for escape were ‘too long’, and not within ‘acceptable limits’.

 

Overall, Ridge concluded, the risk at Goddarts was the second highest category of three, ‘moderate’, meaning that ‘Essential action must be made to reduce the risk…[and] implemented within a defined time period’.

This is pretty shocking stuff in itself. A group of vulnerable residents apparently had been left to live with fire hazards which were present and significant. They deserved the best possible protection, but weren’t getting it.

Nevertheless, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Consider, first, the dating of the three most recent FRAs:

 

FRA Date assessed Date approved Valid between
2015-16 4 September 2015 5 October 2015 4 September 2015 and 3 September 2016
2017-18 20 March 2017 22 March 2017 20 March 2017 and 20 March 2018
2018-19 31 May 2018 22 June 2018 31 May 2018 and 31 May 2019

 

As already mentioned, LBWF policy is that priority buildings ‘must’ be fire risk assessed at least every year. Unsurprisingly, Ridge concurs (‘Reviews should be undertaken in line with the Fire Policy. This means the soonest of: expiry of this assessment’s validity period; when a fire occurs; or when there is a change to or within the building’).

Yet, this unambiguous and obligatory commitment notwithstanding, it appears that no valid FRA was in place first between 4 September 2016 and 20 March 2017, and then between 21 March 2018 and 31 May 2018, a total of 11 months out of the 36 in question, or nearly a third.

Next there is the issue of what the two earlier FRAs discovered.

On both occasions, Ridge’s overall risk rating for Goddarts was the top category, ‘High’, meaning that ‘Considerable resources might have to be allocated to reduce the risk’ and ‘Improvements should be undertaken urgently’.

It is astounding that Goddarts residents were left living in such high-risk situation for two successive FRA cycles.

However, the incidence of hazards being left unaddressed in reality was more pronounced than even this suggests.

Each annual FRA consists of largely standardised questions, which are either answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

The table below takes the questions answered ‘No’ in the 2015 Goddarts FRA and looks at what transpired when they were asked again in the 2017 and 2018:

 

Date of assessment: 04/09/15 Date of assessment: 20/03/17 Date of assessment: 31/05/18
Control of Sources of Ignition
Is the building’s fixed wiring installation checked at appropriate periods by a competent person? No No Yes
Are visible electrical installations in good condition? No No No
Are cooking facilities properly controlled? No Yes Yes
Is the lightning protection system adequately maintained? No No Yes
Are other heat sources properly controlled? No N/A Yes
Are heating systems appropriate and adequately maintained? No No Yes
Control of Sources of Fuel
Do surface finishes have adequate resistance to surface spread of flame? No Yes No
Are there any high levels of external fire load close to the building? Yes Yes Yes
Are refuse chutes adequately maintained and with adequate fire resistance? No No No
Compartmentalisation
Are the facilities for smoke control in good condition and regularly serviced? No Yes Yes
Is the building adequately compartmentalised for the purpose of containing smoke and flame? No No No
Does fire separation and security between the communal area and the roof space appear adequate No No Yes
Do flat fire doors provide adequate fire resistance and appropriate ironmongery? No No No
       
Do electrical/service cupboard doors have adequate fire resistance and appropriate ironmongery/signage? No No No
       
Do communal fire doors have adequate fire resistance and appropriate ironmongery/signage? No No No
Measures to Assist the Fire Service
Does the Fire Service information box contain sufficient documentation / information? (eg, Building plans, PEEPs and/or office keys)” No No Yes
Fire Procedures and Training
Is there an effective emergency plan for the premises which is appropriately communicated to building users? No No No
 Is a competent person appointed to manage fire safety? No Yes Yes
Have staff had adequate training? No No Yes
Are fire log books and records suitable and sufficient? No No Yes
2.8 General
Is the property free from any other significant fire issues? No Yes No

 

What emerges is that of the 21 hazards that were identified as needing attention (indeed ‘urgent’ attention) in September 2015, 15 had not been definitively resolved nineteen months later, and eight – involving electrical installations, external fire loads, refuse chutes, compartmentalisation, fire doors, and the building’s emergency plan – persisted in the same unsatisfactory condition right through to the end of May 2018.

In a nutshell, Ridge repeatedly identified hazards, but in a number of cases, and despite the need for urgent remediation, LBWF failed to act upon the company’s advice.

What makes this inaction all the more lamentable is the fact that, throughout the period, a Goddarts House resident, Roy Sutton, repeatedly brought the building’s fire safety shortcomings to the attention of not only LBWF but also his MP, Stella Creasy.

Indeed, so concerned was Mr. Sutton that in September 2018 he commissioned a trained fire door expert to examine his own flat, an exercise that fully confirmed what he had been saying all along:

Screenshot 2019-08-05 at 11.15.59

 

Subsequently, Mr. Sutton circulated these findings, but even then, little satisfactory action seemed to follow.

For Mr. Sutton personally, however, one thing did change, and that was he became a marked man, labelled a ‘trouble maker’, and subject to harassment, a story which was picked up by James Cracknell in the Waltham Forest Echo (‘Tenant faces eviction after raising fire safety fears’, no.44, November 2018).

When discussing the borough’s housing stock, LBWF councillors and senior officers have emphasised again and again that the safety of residents is their prime consideration. Speaking at a recent Dignity Month event, the Cabinet portfolio holder for housing, Cllr. Louise Mitchell, a one-time ‘Evaluation officer, Compassion in Dying’, saw fit to go even further, asserting that ‘“the principles of dignity, compassion and respect remain the most important factors in our everyday work”’.

Yet the facts rehearsed here reveal such claims to be mere hot air.

The charitable explanation is that LBWF has taken its eye off the ball, diverted by the excitement of cavorting with big property developers, planning the Borough of Culture jamboree, and so on.

But is there ever a charitable explanation when it comes, as in this case, to leaving the vulnerable exposed to substantial fire risks?

For the great majority, not least those espousing ‘the principles of dignity, compassion and respect’, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’.

All of which puts LBWF very firmly in the dock.

POSTSCRIPT

LBWF’s current Fire Safety Policy states with regard to FRAs:

‘The [FRA] Report is to remain confidential between the appointed Consultant and Waltham Forest Housing, and may not be disclosed in part or in full to any resident, Residents Organisation or to other third parties without the specific written approval of Waltham Forest Housing’.

 Perhaps better than anything else, that says it all.

Related Posts

LBWF and fire hazards in its housing stock: the appalling case of Northwood Tower in Walthamstow (1)

LBWF and fire hazards in its housing stock: the appalling case of Northwood Tower in Walthamstow (2)

LBWF and fire hazards in its housing stock: the appalling case of Northwood Tower in Walthamstow (3)

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