LBWF’s claim that it followed ‘technical advice’ over fire safety at Northwood Tower and four sheltered housing blocks is revealed as questionable, even a falsehood

Many will no doubt assume that, with litigation involving a supplier and an internal fraud inquiry both ongoing, plus some damaging headlines in the press, LBWF currently would be treating fire safety in its social housing estate transparently and with the utmost care.

But, regrettably, this seems not to be the case, as the following paragraphs illustrate.

On 3 December 2020, I made a statement to full Council about the fire worthiness of 217 flat entrance doors (FEDs) at Northwood Tower, Goddarts House, and three other sheltered housing blocks.

When installed in 2017-18, LBWF had insisted that the FEDs gave sixty minutes of protection.

By contrast, when specialists rigorously tested sample specimens of the same FEDs in 2019, two out of three failed in roughly half that time.

The question that needed answering, I insisted, was how such an appalling situation possibly could have come about.

A few weeks later, I wrote to LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom and Cabinet portfolio holder for housing Cllr. Louise Mitchell to reiterate the same concerns.

On 14 January 2021, Darren Welsh, Deputy Strategic Director, Resident Services responded by e-mail on the latter’s behalf (they apparently are too grand to communicate with mere residents such as myself).

Mr. Welsh predictably adopted a reassuring tone, and underlined that when it came to the testing and installation of FEDs, LBWF had proceeded strictly ‘in line with published government guidance and the Council’s technical advice’. 

His comment seemed intriguing. It was to be expected that LBWF would claim to follow government guidance. But the phrase ‘the Council’s technical advice’ suggested it had gone the extra mile by consulting experts – better still, since LBWF had long since disbanded its own architecture and civil engineering department, what by definition were likely to be outside experts, independent voices.

Accordingly, the next day I used the Freedom of Information Act to ask for copies of what Mr. Welsh was referring to, and attached his e-mail so that there could be no doubt as to the words used.

On 12 February, LBWF forwarded an answer.  As to ‘government guidance’, it attached the Building Regulations Approved Document B, which anyway is in the public domain. But as to ‘the Council’s technical advice’, there was no mention at all.

So I asked for ‘a review’, the next stage in LBWF’s Freedom of Information procedure, explaining as follows: ‘In…my request, I asked for “copies of ‘the published government guidance and the Council’s technical advice’”…You have sent me the “‘published government guidance’”, but (without explanation) not “‘the Council’s technical advice’”. If you are withholding the latter, please will you state under what paragraphs of the legislation. If you are not withholding the latter, please will you forward it forthwith, and state why you did not do so previously’.

On 26 March 2021, LBWF’s Director of Governance and Law, Mark Hynes, answered in an e-mailed letter which ran to five and a half pages. 

His inquiries had not been easy, he explained, because ‘The Officer who wrote the email that you have quoted from has unfortunately left the Council and so it was necessary to consult with the relevant third-party supplier to determine what was meant by the Officer’s reference to “the Council’s technical advice”’. 

The ‘relevant third-party supplier’, Mr. Hynes continued, had replied by advising that there was a further government document that should have been released to me, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s memo. ‘Advice on the testing and classification of Fire Doorsets’, and this he now provided.

However, the real bombshell came when Mr. Hynes turned to the matter of ‘the Council’s technical advice’, because he found this to be untraceable. 

As he explained:  

‘we do not hold any independent technical guidance that relates to your enquiry…It appears that the Council Officer’s response to you which stated “the Council’s technical advice” is incorrect. The Council does not hold a record to this effect and therefore the same cannot be provided to you’.

So, in short, while in January 2021, Mr. Welsh’s e-mail had confidently referred to ‘the Council’s technical advice’, when, a mere couple of months later, Mr. Hynes investigated, he found no evidence of any such thing.

What on earth is going here?

It appears that two issues need urgent clarification.

The first is about who at the Town Hall actually wrote the e-mail of 14 January 2021 which initially mentioned ‘the Council’s technical advice’.

Looking closely at the e-mail shows that it was posted from the LBWF account Darren.Welsh@walthamforest.gov.uk; ended ‘Yours sincerely, Daren Welsh BA (Hons) CIHCM Deputy Strategic Director, Resident Services’; and no other officer was mentioned.

That seems cut and dried.

But recent statements by Mr. Hynes have introduced a note of confusion.

On 26 March 2021, to reiterate, he told me that ‘The Officer who wrote the email that you have quoted from has unfortunately left the Council’, and as a result, I not unreasonably concluded that it was Mr. Welsh who had departed.

But to be certain, a few days ago, I checked with Mr. Hynes and to my surprise he replied: ‘I can assure you that Darren Welsh is still employed by the authority’.

It’s a puzzle.

However, on reflection, and taking Mr. Hynes at his word, it seems reasonable to deduce that:

(a) though the e-mail appeared to be from Mr. Welsh himself, it was in fact composed and sent out by someone else; and

(b) though his name features so prominently, Mr. Welsh presently cannot explain some of the e-mail’s contents, which is why Mr. Hynes found it necessary to ‘consult with the relevant third-party supplier’.

To put it mildly, this is all rather odd, and perhaps makes sense only as a clumsy attempt to keep Mr. Welsh out of the firing line. 

The second issue follows on. As has been seen, Mr. Hynes claims he now cannot find any trace of ‘the Council’s technical advice’. 

The obvious question is: why not?

There are three possibilities.

The first possibility is that the advice was only ever given verbally, but this seems unlikely, both because of the importance of the subject, and the fact that if true, surely either Mr. Welsh or Mr. Hynes immediately would have noted as much, and left it at that. 

The second possibility is that the advice was in writing, but then sometime between January and March 2021 it disappeared, presumably because deleted.

This might have occurred because of an accident or an overzealous routine procedure. But it is also conceivable that it was deliberate, the action of someone who knew the expert advice had not been followed, say, feared bad publicity if this percolated into the public domain, and so acted to foil later disclosure.

The third possibility is that ‘the Council’s technical advice’ never existed in the first place, and was a figment of someone’s imagination. Perhaps Mr. Hynes is gesturing in this direction when he writes ‘It appears that the Council Officer’s response to you which stated “the Council’s technical advice” is incorrect’, though his words are somewhat opaque.

Needless to say, if an officer has been caught out embellishing the truth about something as serious as residents’ fire safety, that would damage LBWF’s reputation and credibility, and might well be a disciplinary matter.

It will be interesting to see what further digging uncovers.

To conclude, at one level, the story recounted is amusing, a Punch and Judy show.

Yet beyond the buffoonery, there are also important insight into LBWF’s internal culture and decision-making.

For one thing, the events described confirm that, despite a robust reprimand from the Information Commissioner’s Office last year (see link), LBWF’s treatment of those who use the Freedom of Information Act continues to be unsatisfactory.

Indeed, that LBWF, without any explanation, just completely ignored half of my initial Freedom of Information Act request, and has never apologised, well illustrates the prevailing ethos.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that by acting in this way, LBWF has wasted a lot of time and effort, not least that expended by Mr. Hynes and his team in dealing with my review.

But more important still is what emerges about LBWF’s attitude to fire safety.

It is astonishing that something as simple as finding out whether LBWF did or did not take decisions based upon technical advice has proved so difficult.

However, this is symptomatic of a wider malaise.

In the last few years, LBWF has woken up to the fact that there are widespread fire safety issues across its social housing estate. For example, a recent report records 13,709 necessary remedial actions, 9,896 or 72 per cent ‘high’ or ‘medium’ priority, with about a fifth classified as related to ‘door repairs/renewal’.

Worse still, from a PR point of view there is no-one to blame but the current administration under Cllr. Clare Coghill.

In this situation, LBWF’s response is essentially a familiar one – obstruct critics, and relentlessly focus attention on the glorious achievements which are promised for the future.

As previous posts have also concluded, the prime lessons of Grenfell – that every decision about fire safety must be taken with transparency and accountability – remain unlearnt.

Related Posts

Statement submitted to tonight’s full Council meeting on the fire safety scandal in Waltham Forest

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

LBWF and its Freedom of Information Act failings: now the Information Commissioner’s Office directly intervenes UPDATED

LBWF’s press, communications, and PR operation: less about providing information, more about ‘controlling the narrative’

Mark Hynes, LBWF Director of Governance and Law, receives a second successive rebuke from the Information Commissioner’s Office: what’s going on?

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