Social housing residents of Samuel Garside House have complained that they are ‘being forced back’ into the fire hit property ‘before safety assessments’ and ‘despite safety fears’.
In June, residents in the same estate as the fire, which destroyed 20 flats, claimed prior concerns over fire safety ‘have been ignored’. The fire at the Barking Riverside Estate saw one six storey block catch fire, with 20 homes destroyed and 10 others damaged, and two people treated for smoke inhalation; 100 firefighters and 15 appliances attended.
An investigation of other blocks after the fire by LBC found ‘faulty fire doors, broken smoke alarms and combustible cladding’, with Bellway having been ‘in talks’ with the government on building regulations and fire protection laws, adding that fire protection measures inside the building ‘received all regulatory approvals’ and ‘ensured occupants were safely evacuated’.
Residents claimed fire safety concerns ‘were downplayed’ by Bellway a month prior to the fire, with Peter Mason, chair of the Barking Reach residents’ association, stating that in early May he contacted Bellway to ‘ask for the fire risk to be investigated’ after BBC Watchdog’s investigation into other Bellway Homes properties. Then, according to reports, developer Bellway had been reported to have carried out ‘remedial fire safety work’ a few weeks before the fire, and also dropped its stay put policy.
Most recently, residents of a neighbouring block raised concerns over fire risk assessments ‘as they face having to move back’ in. Many believed the block is ‘unsafe’, and have outlined issues with fire safety and structural reports. Now, The Guardian has reported that social housing residents have said they are ‘being forced to move back’, having been evacuated to hotels or temporary accommodation.
The social housing landlord, Southern Housing Group, recently informed residents they will ‘no longer receive financial support’ to stay in alternative accommodation, and ‘must return to their flats’. Leaseholders will ‘continue to receive’ financial support for the alternative accommodation until September, with social housing residents arguing they were being ‘forced to move back in’ before the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (LBBD) had carried out safety assessments.
These were due to start on 21 August and be completed by 29 August, with wooden cladding in its totality to take ‘several months’ to be removed. A report in June recommended that existing cladding be sprayed with fire retardant, but ‘this has yet to happen’, with experts having previously warned that wooden balconies could ‘accelerate fire spread’ as well.
Mr Mason said the move was ‘disgraceful’, adding: ‘We will be contacting Southern Housing urgently to protest. Although they’ve partially removed some decorative portion of the cladding, the vast majority of it remains. If a balcony caught fire, it would spread rapidly from flat to flat. I don’t think they have removed the danger.’
Shaun Murphy, senior solicitor at Edwards Duthie Shamash, represents several residents, and added: ‘We are very concerned about the decision of Southern Housing Group to withdraw financial support for the residents. All this has happened prior to the completion of safety reports due at the end of the month, to be undertaken by [LBBD].
‘There is also the outstanding issue of the recommendation of existing cladding still not having been sprayed with adequate fire retardant. All of this has been ignored by Southern Housing Group in forcing residents to go back into Samuel Garside House now.’
Dame Margaret Hodge commented: ‘It is not right that social housing tenants of Samuel Garside House are forced to return to the block whilst private tenants and leaseholders have until September. These families and individuals deserve equal treatment. I urge Southern Housing to reconsider. Their tenants must be allowed to stay in their temporary accommodation until further repair works and the next fire safety assessments are completed.’
An LBBD spokesperson stated: ‘Residents are understandably concerned about returning home and, despite our limited powers to intervene as this is not a council block, they have asked if we can assess the block’s safety. We have appointed an independent HHSRS [housing health and safety rating system] assessor to determine whether there are any category 1 or 2 hazards and this assessment is due to start on 21 August.’
In response, Chris Harris, customer services director of Southern Housing Group, noted: ‘Our priority is always the safety and wellbeing of our residents. From the moment the fire was reported, Southern Housing Group has worked with [LBBD], the London fire service and other stakeholders to ensure that the people affected could return to their homes and normality as soon as possible.
‘None of the properties occupied by Southern Housing Group’s residents were directly damaged by the fire and so they are not being inspected by LBBD. Indeed, the properties were deemed safe for the return of residents by LFS’s fire safety engineer shortly after the fire was extinguished and residents started to return from the afternoon of Tuesday 11 June.
‘At no time has there been any suggestion from the London fire service, the council or independent fire safety inspectors that it is unsafe to for Southern Housing Residents to return home.’