Learning the lessons of Grenfell…or maybe not: LBWF’s 2017-18 flat entrance door update programme at Northwood Tower, Goddarts House, and other sheltered housing blocks

From November 2017 to April 2018, LBWF, via its repair and maintenance agent Osborne, employed a company called Exterior Plas Ltd. to upgrade 217 flat entrance doors (FEDs) at what it called five ‘key sites’ – Walthamstow’s 21 floor Northwood Tower, and four sheltered housing blocks, Boothby Court, Goddarts House, Holmcroft House, and Lime Court.

The promise to residents was that in future they would be more secure from the danger of fire than ever before, since while the Building Regulations stipulated that FEDs be at least FD30 (i.e. providing 30 minutes protection), those being installed were FD60 (i.e. providing 60 minutes protection), and moreover, as Divisional Director, Housing Services, Maureen McEleney, reported to the Audit and Governance Committee, were ‘certified’ as such.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, this being Waltham Forest, the answer is quite a lot.

Indeed, as the following paragraphs demonstrate, what emerges is a sequence of events replete with some very familiar LBWF failings – flawed procurement, inadequate supervision and monitoring of contracts, prevarication and obstruction when confronted with unwelcome truths, and, overarching everything, insufficient care for tenants, even those most likely to suffer in the case of a fire.

To set the scene, it is necessary to return to the years immediately after the Grenfell disaster of 14 June 2017, and summarise some of the information about the role of FEDs in fire safety that afterwards emerged.

In March 2018, police investigators announced that, as part of their enquiries, they had subjected a FED taken intact from the Grenfell debris to a fire test, and found that, though supposedly guaranteed to provide 30 minutes of protection, it failed in half that time.

The FED had been produced by a company called Manse Masterdor Ltd., and was described as a ‘composite’, that is made of glass reinforced plastic (GRP).

Two months later, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) wrote to all local authorities, and advised that ‘Landlords or building owners should replace flat entrance doorsets if they suspect they do not meet the fire or smoke resistance performance in the Building Regulations guidance’, adding that those which had installed six named ‘models’ of Manse Masterdor FD30 FEDs must register them with the National Fire Chiefs Council and ‘consider how quickly these doors should be replaced’.

Thereafter, further troubling evidence continued to surface.

In October 2018, an expert witness, Dr. Barbara Lane of Ove Arup and Partners, told the Grenfell Inquiry that, in her view, many of the FEDs installed at the tower, including those described as ‘Masterdor Suredor’, were non-compliant, and as result ‘contributed significantly to the spread of smoke, and fire, to the lobbies’, a ‘failure’ which in turn ‘materially affected the ability and/or willingness of occupants to escape independently through this space to the stair’.

Meanwhile, an Expert Panel appointed by MHCLG organised fire tests on a broad range of FEDs, including those made by Manse Masterdor Ltd.’s successor company, Masterdor Ltd (see end note), and in February 2019 publicly stated that ‘there was a performance issue with GRP composite 30 minute fire doors across the market’ [emphasis added].

So much for the national background. What about events in Waltham Forest, and in particular the implementation of the 2017-18 FED upgrade programme?

Initially, and quite understandably, many locals felt that the new FEDs were a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, as described in previous posts (see links below), one Goddarts’ resident, Roy Sutton, soon voiced doubts, prompting the local press, principally the Waltham Forest Echo, to publish their own related investigations.

Over time, unease focused on two fundamental questions. First, were the newly upgraded FEDs really FD60? And second, could it be guaranteed that they had not been made by any of the manufacturers that MHCLG viewed as problematic, particularly of course Manse Masterdor Ltd. and Masterdor Ltd.?

As regards the first question, LBWF’s initial public statements, to repeat, were adamant that the FEDs were FD60. In fact, when responding to the Waltham Forest Echo in November 2018, Cabinet portfolio holder for housing, Councillor Louise Mitchell, could not have been more categorical, stating of the Goddarts FEDs: ‘“The doors are rated as fire resistant up to sixty minutes, which is above the regulation standard of thirty minutes”’.

However, over the course of 2019, the truth began to slip out. A Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) of Northwood in the summer found that though the FEDs therein were ‘inspected and found to be FD60…as per the stickers on the doors and via confirmation from LBWF’, the latter had tested ‘a sample door sets [sic]…and confirmed, at the time of writing that the tested door set had met current requirements to meets [sic] FD30 standards’, with the same point reiterated almost word for word a few weeks afterwards in a FRA for Goddarts.

And then, in mid-October, LBWF sent Mr. Sutton a much fuller admission:

‘The Specification relating to…FEDs…installed to Goddarts House in 2017, stated that the FEDs offered 60 Minutes Fire Protection…Head Building Services [sic] has explained there had been a test carried out to a FED in Goddarts House based on the specification required when installed. Preliminary results indicate that the FEDs offer 34, not 60 Minutes Fire Safety. Final confirmation is awaited before this is discussed more widely with residents. You will be aware the Building Regulations require a Fire Safety barrier of 30 minutes’.

Seven months later, after a good deal of petitioning, LBWF finally released the details of the FED tests into the public domain, and there were some surprises.

Fire testing was a standard procedure, and involved subjecting specimen FEDs to very high temperatures in a controlled environment so as to time when they failed.

However, though a number of British firms and trade organisations (for example, BM Trada) possessed the required expertise, LBWF, its maintenance agent – now Morgan Sindall – and Exterior Plas Ltd. on this occasion had arranged for the testing to be carried out by Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants, an accredited provider, certainly, but based in faraway Dubai.

Moreover, it emerged that the specimen FEDs had been tested not once but twice, first at the beginning of June, and then at the beginning of November.

Nevertheless, these matters aside, on the face of it, the results were clear cut. None of the doors tested came close to being FD60: in the June test, a single FED had failed at 34 minutes, while in the November test, a pair of FEDs only lasted 31 minutes and 45 minutes respectively.

Thus, LBWF’s earlier insistence that the FEDs offered an hour’s worth of protection was revealed to be baseless.

Turning to the issue of who made the doors installed in the update programme, the sequence of events followed a similar pattern, with initial avowals later qualified, then abandoned.

At a June 2018 Audit and Governance Committee meeting, well after the upgrade programme had been completed, a senior officer acknowledged the news about suspect FEDs that was coming out of the Grenfell investigations, but roundly declared that ‘we have reviewed our records and the door type in question was not installed as part of any of our programmed works since 2012’.

Two months later, a journalist used the Freedom of Information Act to ask LBWF for the number of FEDs made by Manse Masterdor Ltd. or Masterdor Ltd. in its properties, and was told ‘we…currently do not hold this information’.

In October 2019, however, LBWF began to modify its story. Again questioned under the Freedom of Information Act, it now admitted that there were ‘approx 78…Manse Type Front Doors’ at LBWF properties, though it was still a little vague as to their precise whereabouts, noting only that they were at ‘different locations across the borough’.

When the fire test reports were released, they reinforced this change of direction. Astonishingly, the name of the company that had assembled the specimens chosen for testing was nowhere stated. Nevertheless, in the appendices, which detailed the constituent components, there were clues, not least the fact that the door frames were said to be ‘manufactured’ by ‘Suredor’ – a Manse Masterdor Ltd. and Masterdor Ltd. brand name – and the door panels made of GRP, exactly the same as at Grenfell.

In September 2020, and responding to a further question under the Freedom of Information Act, LBWF came clean.  All 217 FEDs installed in the upgrade programme of 2017-18, it stated, had been manufactured by Masterdor Ltd..

A few weeks later, the final part of the jigsaw fell into place.

Scrutiny of Masterdor Ltd. catalogues, and information in the fire test reports, revealed that the FEDs installed in the 2017-18 update programme were FD30 variants of a model called Erewash, coded SG08.

And the significance of this is that when, as already noted, in May 2018 MHCLG had warned about six named ‘models’ of Manse Masterdor FD30 FEDs, SG08’s were included.

The unpalatable truth, therefore, is that the FED ‘model’ which LBWF had installed at Northwood and the other four sites was precisely one of those that MHCLG deemed suspect.

So much for the past, what about the present?

Faced with the unravelling of both key elements in its original stance, LBWF unsurprisingly nowadays emphasises a commitment to remediation. All the suspect FEDs are being stripped out and replaced, at a cost of at minimum £500,000. In parallel, LBWF apparently is ‘seeking redress under the Consumer Rights Act 2015’, presumably because of mis-selling, though by whom remains unclear.

Challenged as to whether any misdemeanours have been reported to the police, a senior LBWF officer recently responded, somewhat cryptically, ‘not directly’.

No doubt LBWF hopes that, because of its actions, the past will be forgotten, and everyone will move on.

However, whether or not this will happen is a moot point, because there are several important issues that remain opaque.

First, aspects of the FED tests in Dubai seem puzzling.

To begin with, comparing the tested FEDs to examples that were installed reveals that their ironmongery – their handles, hinges, screws and so on – in part differed, suggesting either that they had been modified after removal from on site or that they came from another programme.

Second, on reflection, it is surely odd that, though the tested FEDs were supposed to be identical, and the testing process itself remained unchanged, failure times varied in each of the three cases, and once by an extraordinary 14 minutes.

Third, it is doubtful that the Dubai tests anyway were as significant as LBWF was prone to suggest.

In its public statements, LBWF implied that what had emerged from the testing was sufficient to give the installed FEDs a clean bill of health – see, for example, the response to Mr. Sutton of mid-October 2019, already referred to.

However, the reality was different. For as Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants took care to emphasise, its findings applied only to the samples that it had been supplied with, and could not be extrapolated any further. So while the three tested FEDs might be FD30, whether the same could be said of those in the upgrade programme as a whole was unknown.

Presumably, the lack of certainty about the installed FEDs was a big part of the reason why, from late 2019 onwards, LBWF decided to completely replace them. After all, why get rid of something relatively new if you are fully confident that it is legally compliant? What’s for sure though is that LBWF has avoided commenting on such matters, something that is in itself telling.

Finally, the way that the FED update programme was managed also deserves further scrutiny.

The big mystery is why none of the parties involved – LBWF, Osborne, Masterdor Ltd.  and Exterior Plas Ltd. – apparently noticed that anything was wrong until many months after their collaboration had ended.

The charitable answer is that there was a ‘misunderstanding’ somewhere down the line.

But even if this is the case, why LBWF officers, who after all ultimately held the purse strings, for so long failed to raise objections, perplexes. To the lay person, FD60 and FD30 FEDs may look the same, but the former usually cost about twice as much as the latter, and this surely would have shown up in even the most basic financial monitoring data.

Significantly, some related evidence, recently made public, also puts LBWF in the dock.

Asked under the Freedom of Information Act to divulge what it knew about the FEDs in the update programme when initially purchasing them, LBWF produced a fire test which had been commissioned by LB Plastics Ltd. from International Fire Consultants Ltd. (IFC) in August 2014.

Both LB Plastics Ltd. and IFC were respected providers, and the FEDs tested were said to be GRP FD60s, with a profile generally resembling those produced by Masterdor Ltd..

However, again, there were some surprises.

The FEDs had failed at 29 and 57 minutes respectively, though in a note IFC appeared to advise that this could be prevented by using ‘additional intumescent protection’ around areas of weakness.

But more striking was the fact that while the FEDs in the IFC test featured two small glass windows, those later installed for LBWF by Exterior Plas Ltd. did not.

And so it appears that, when LBWF embarked on its update programme in 2017, it did so on the basis of a fire test document which had only very limited relevance.

In conclusion, the saga described is almost a perfect case study of how not to proceed with the implementation of improved fire safety measures.

It’s important to stress, too, that it has imposed significant costs.

First and foremost, large numbers of residents were left for between two and three years with the entirely wrong impression that their FEDs gave them one hour’s worth of protection, and this in a situation, it is important to remember, where LBWF and London Fire Brigade advice was that in a conflagration, they should stay put.

Second, what occurred inevitably wasted significant sums of public money, money that, in an age of austerity, could have been put to much better use.

LBWF purchased and installed 217 FEDs that it then had to replace; the general administrative charges involved must be at least double what they should have been; while officer time is presently being spent on litigation.

Perhaps LBWF will recoup some of the money expended, perhaps not.

Has LBWF learnt the lessons of Grenfell?

It is too early to judge.

But if what has already emerged from the continuing Inquiry – the crucial importance of accountability and transparency, a holistic approach to fire safety, unimpeachable purchasing decisions, rigorous monitoring of contracts and contractors, and so on – is the standard, it would seem that LBWF has a long way to go.

 

End note:

In November 2014, Manse Masterdor Ltd. changed its name to Litchfield Investments Ltd., and started working through a Company Voluntary Agreement. Concurrently, Manse Masterdor Ltd. sold its trade and trading assets to the Synseal Group, and the latter then set up Masterdor Ltd. as a free-standing subsidiary to take on the business of manufacturing doors. Manse Masterdor was dissolved in December 2018, and Masterdor Ltd. went into administration in March 2019, as did the Synseal Group.

Related Posts

LBWF and fire safety at Northwood Tower: yet more jiggery-pokery?

Fire safety at LBWF’s Northwood Tower in Walthamstow: a further chapter in a long-running and dismal story

Goddarts House sheltered housing in Walthamstow: new facts, new controversy

The Goddarts House fire safety fiasco: an update

Fireproofing flat entrance doors at Goddarts sheltered housing in Walthamstow: another LBWF fiasco, which has left vulnerable residents in danger, and will cost a great deal of public money to rectify

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

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

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 (1)

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