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

From August 2017 onwards, the Waltham Forest Echo journalist Michelle Edwards has repeatedly warned about the perilous state of fire safety measures at Walthamstow’s 21 floor Northwood Tower.

Shocked by these revelations, this blog, too, has looked at Northwood, in particular scrutinising the Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) reports between 2014 and 2018, and supported Ms. Edwards’ judgement that (a) the overall fire risk at the block has remained unacceptably high, and (b) exactly the same failings have been noted, again and again, casting doubt on LBWF’s appetite for effective remedial work (see references below).

A newly released FRA report, completed by LBWF’s agent S3 Environmental and finalised in August 2019, offers a chance to explore whether, more recently, Northwood’s situation has been improving.

At first sight, the news appears to be good. S3 Environmental’s report documents 23 issues that need fixing (one high priority, 16 medium priority, and six low priority), and concludes that the overall fire risk at Northwood is ‘medium’ – unarguably a contrast with the 2018 FRA, which identified 65 action points, and assessed the overall fire risk as ‘substantial’.

However, whether the scale and character of change in truth has been as dramatic as these figures suggest is open to question.

It is worth remarking, to begin with, that prior to 2019, LBWF used the well-regarded Ridge and Partners LLP for FRA work, so S3 Environmental is very much a newcomer.

Moreover, as noted in previous posts, in some respects S3 Environmental seems to be an odd choice to appoint, a small and relatively impecunious company from near Manchester, that was only incorporated in 2016, and appears to specialise in asbestos management rather than fire safety work.

So whether S3 Environmental has the equivalent experience and accreditation that Ridge can offer is a pertinent question, and one that has been put to LBWF Chief Executive Martin Esom, as yet without satisfactory response.

Adding to the sense of unease, from its break with Ridge onwards, LBWF has, without explanation, redacted the names of both those who carry out FRA reports on the ground, and those who then check them back in the office, so it is impossible to ascertain whether any of those involved are suitably qualified.

Turning to the 2019 Northwood FRA report itself, the first thing that stands out is S3 Environmental’s frank admission that its work was circumscribed.

Thus, in the box where the company had to declare ‘areas of the building to which access was not available’, its answer was surprisingly lengthy: ‘No access to all flats. No access to the premise’s information box located externally. No access to the ground floor site office. No access to the ground floor rooms. No access to the ground floor care takers office. No access to the 18th and 8th floor riser as they have been screwed shut. No access to loft void. No access to all externally accessed rooms. No access to the UKPN substation to the ground floor’.

In addition, and somewhat embarrassingly, S3 Environmental was unable to specify exactly how many residents lived in Northwood or how often supervisory staff attended; and when required to name ‘Person managing fire safety in premises’, and state ‘Fire loss experience (since last FRA)’, could only answer ‘Unknown’.

As to the issues that needed addressing, most stemmed from a lack of care and oversight. Some doors were found to have damaged frames or faulty self-closing devices. Elsewhere, the problem was that, during block wide redecoration, the intumescent strips around the doors had been covered with paint, reducing their effectiveness in preventing smoke and fire penetration.

The sloppiness extended to record-keeping. According to S3 Environmental, Northwood had ‘benefitted from a fire stopping programme recently undertaken by Spicers, a BMTRADA certified installer’, which sounded impressive. Yet it remained unknown whether the riser panels in the ground floor lobby were fire rated, or the electronically controlled final exit doors out of the block were fitted with a fail-safe capability ‘in the event of a power failure or fire alarm’, both elementary matters that should have been sorted out long before.

However, the major revelation concerned the block’s flat entrance doors (FEDs). In September 2017, Northwood residents had been told: ‘Waltham Forest Housing has made the decision to upgrade all FED’s [sic] in Northwood Tower from 30 minute fire rated doors, which are currently in place, to a 60 minute fire rated door’.

Yet when S3 Environmental looked forensically at a sample of three flats (the established methodology), it first noted that their FEDs were ‘FD60 composite doors, as per the stickers on the doors and via confirmation from LBWF’ but then added ‘LBWF have had a sample door sets [sic] tested and confirmed, at the time of writing that the tested door set had met current requirements to meets [sic] FD30 standards. However, the following doors were observed to offer notional protection and should be replaced; Flats [numbers redacted]’.

Read today, this paragraph, though garbled, is shocking in every way. For nearly two years, Northwood tenants had been seriously misled about the robustness of their FEDs, a crucial component of their personal safety, especially reprehensible given that, in the event of fire, they were advised to ‘stay put’.

For its part, LBWF had paid for and installed a product that was not what it seemed, and because FD60 FEDs cost three times FD30s, thereby wasted public money.

And even though the tested door sets allegedly met ‘current requirements’, S3 Environmental had so little faith in their resistance to fire that, where in place, it recommended they should be removed.

So much for the Northwood FRA of August 2019. What has happened subsequently?

A recently released document lists 32 actions planned for Northwood, including the replacement of all existing FEDs – those that LBWF previously had claimed, first, were FD60, and then, after fire testing, at least satisfied ‘current requirements to meets [sic] FD30 standards’ – with, guess what? Yes, ‘FD30S self-closing fire doors and frame sets’ (the ‘S’ referring to smoke proofing), presumably real ones this time. Seven of the actions so far have been completed. It also appears that LBWF has commissioned two further FRAs at the block in short order, a Type 2, and a Type 4, the latter involving ‘intrusive’ exploration of the numerous voids both inside and outside the flats.

As to how it came to be that LBWF purchased FEDs that it claimed were FD60 but turned out to be FD30, and then apparently not even that, little more has been said. Again, Mr. Esom has been questioned about this matter, but has yet to respond.

Further updates will appear here if and when he does.

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)

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

The London Fire Brigade and fire safety at LBWF’s Goddarts House, Walthamstow, sheltered housing: the anatomy of a shambles

The Goddarts House fire safety fiasco: an update

Private Eye on fire safety at Goddarts House sheltered housing complex, Walthamstow

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