The Goddarts House fire safety fiasco: an update

Previous posts have looked at the controversy over flat entrance doors (FEDs) at Goddarts House sheltered housing in Walthamstow, particularly the issue of whether or not they offer sufficient resistance in the event of a fire, and what follows is an update.

Regular readers will remember that when LBWF, though its repairs and maintenance contractor, Osborne, replaced the FEDs at Goddarts in late 2017, it was purported to be an upgrade.

FEDs are classified as either FD30 or FD60, the numerals denoting how many minutes of fire protection are guaranteed.

The new doors at Goddarts, LBWF and Osborne agreed, were FD60s, offering 30 minutes more protection that their predecessors.

Subsequently, LBWF continued to parrot the same line. Thus, when she was questioned by the Waltham Forest Echo in November 2018, Cabinet portfolio holder for Housing, Cllr. Louise Mitchell, was absolutely adamant, insisting:‘“The doors are rated as fire resistant up to sixty minutes, which is above the regulation standard of thirty minutes. We conduct regular inspections of all our properties to make sure that tenants are kept safe.”’

However, in 2019, LBWF’s certainty began to crumble. It was revealed that the Goddarts FEDs lacked certification, leading the annual Fire Risk Assessment report to advise: ‘check with building owner as to the standard of door fitted’. Next, more and more evidence emerged which suggested that the FEDs were in all probability only FD30, if that. Worse, it also became clear that Osborne had installed the same or similar FEDs at four other council housing facilities in Waltham Forest, with the total numbering 217 in all. Indeed, the scale of the problem was such that LBWF had reportedly started ‘implementing a £500K programme for inspecting replacing [sic] FEDs’, while at the same time ‘considering options to recoup [the] costs’ of those found to be ‘non-compliant’.

More recently, there have been two noteworthy developments.

First, LBWF now states that it commissioned two fire tests on the Osborne installed Goddarts FEDs, one in June 2019, and one a couple of months later. But what’s interesting is that, when questioned under the Freedom of Information Act, LBWF has refused to divulge the results of these tests to anyone, whether Goddarts resident or not, and moreover has done so in a way that appears evasive.

Initially, LBWF justified itself by arguing: ‘Once the final stage test has been agreed, the council will consult residents of Goddarts House on the outcome of the testing, and agree with residents how test outcomes will be shared more widely including non residents’.

However, when this was challenged, on the basis that it was unsupported in terms of the clauses in the Act, LBWF changed its tune, explaining that ‘the information is being withheld under Section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Information intended for future publication’.

Needless to say, the impression that emerges hardly inspires much confidence. Amongst other things, it is unclear why the result of a fire test should be ‘agreed’; who is actually involved in this ‘agreeing’; and why if the sensibilities of Goddarts residents are really being so solicitously respected, they still have not been informed about the outcome of the first fire test, which, after all, happened way back in June 2019.

The second development is equally disconcerting.

As has been noted, when LBWF decided to replace the FEDs at Goddarts and elsewhere in late 2017, it was Osborne that actually did the work.

LBWF and Osborne have since parted company, as their contractual relationship was always time-bound, and has expired.

However, at an Audit and Governance Committee meeting in September 2019, it was noted that one of the top two items on LBWF’s strategic risk register was a financial dispute with Osborne ‘leading to substantial claims’; that notice of final accounts had been issued, along with a payless notice (‘a notice a payer under a construction contract can issue in order to pay less than the payee (the contractor or subcontractor) has applied for’); and that counsel had been engaged ‘to adjudicate and carry forward legal action’.

And quite clearly, LBWF consider this to be a rather sensitive issue, because in a paper on the agenda at the following Audit and Governance Committee meeting, while it is noted that ‘Financial dispute with repairs and maintenance contractor leading to substantial claims’ fall ‘outside of the Councils risk tolerance levels as the residual risk score remains high’, everything else about the dispute is ‘withheld’.

Of course, since LBWF employed Osborne to carry out a wide array of work, borough wide, this dispute may have nothing to do with Goddarts or even FEDs.

But misgivings remain.

LBWF appears to have genuinely believed that the FEDs being installed by Osborne were FD60s, but has subsequently found itself lumbered with at best FD30s, in other words an inferior and – crucially – cheaper product. By its own account, the cost of putting this matter right will be at least £500,000. That might be grounds for litigation, though Osborne will no doubt have its own story to tell.

However, none of this should obscure some obvious questions about why LBWF got into this mess in the first place.

Who signed off Osborne’s work?

Why was it that LBWF repeatedly and publicly insisted that the FEDs at Goddarts were FD60 when there was really no solid justification for this at all?

What explains the resistance to revealing the fire tests?

And perhaps most important of all, how can it be that, over such an important issue, transparency continues to be so conspicuous by its absence?

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