Barking fire

THE REVIEW into the June 2019 fire at Samuel Garside House raised ‘vital questions’ over who was responsible for the failures leading to the fire, which forced evacuations of ‘scores’ of residents.

In June 2019, the fire at the Barking Riverside Estate destroyed 20 flats in one six storey block, with 10 homes damaged and two people treated for smoke inhalation; 100 firefighters and 15 appliances attended. An investigation of other blocks post fire found ‘faulty fire doors, broken smoke alarms and combustible cladding’, while original developer Bellway said fire protection measures inside ‘received all regulatory approvals’ and ‘ensured occupants were safely evacuated’.

Residents claimed fire safety concerns ‘were downplayed’ by Bellway a month prior, with Peter Mason, chair of the Barking Reach residents’ association, stating that in early May 2019 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, Bellway carried out ‘remedial fire safety work’ a few weeks before the fire, and dropped its stay put policy.

Residents of a neighbouring block raised concerns over fire risk assessments ‘as they face[d] having to move back’ in, because many believed the block was ‘unsafe’. That August, social housing residents were ‘forced to move back’, having been evacuated to temporary accommodation, with social housing landlord Southern Housing Group (SHG) stating they would ‘no longer receive financial support’ and ‘must return’.

Leaseholders ‘continue[d] to receive’ financial support for alternative accommodation until September 2019, with residents arguing they were being ‘forced to move back in’ before the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (LBBD) had carried out safety assessments. Total removal of wooden cladding was set to take ‘several months’, after a report recommended it be sprayed with fire retardant, with experts having previously warned such balconies could ‘accelerate fire spread’.

In October 2019 residents were told to return after funding ended, with building management company Residential Management Group (RMG) stating that the building was ‘completely safe for residents to return’ to. A spokesperson said that ‘two investigations, including a... risk assessment, didn’t identify anything that should prevent re-occupation. A number of mitigating measures and remedial works have already been implemented’.

The building had a 24 hour waking watch, while LBBD’s health and safety investigation found ‘no Category 1 hazards remaining’ on site that ‘would have prevented re-occupation’, though it highlighted ‘ongoing safety concerns’, including that openings ‘allowing for the potential of fire to spread upwards’ remained, while ‘no evidence was provided to confirm external wooden timbers were ‘non-combustible’, so LBBD assumed the timbers ‘remain a significant risk to the spread of fire’.

It spent £100,000 ‘supporting neighbours’ and on that independent report, but this did not include 40 staff ‘working on the response full-time in the two weeks immediately after’. Leader Darren Rodwell called for local authorities to be given ‘more power to regulate private house building’, such as ordering destructive testing and regulating materials used in buildings below 18m.

He also ‘questioned wider housing policy, including whether profits are being put before people in low-rise housing’, and added further details on the inspection, including that fire doors ‘weren’t self-closing, possibly letting flames spread if they weren’t closed manually’. HomeGround, representing owners Adriatic Land, stated the doors were ‘only temporary’ after being damaged by fire crews, and new doors were ‘now in place’.

Mr Rodwell also called for putting the ‘onus’ on companies to ensure buildings are safe ‘throughout their life span’, adding: ‘The private sector shouldn’t be allowed to get away with treating the management of post-fire incidents as someone else’s problem. Developers may have passed building control and gained planning consent, but they are the ones making the profit.’

A Bellway spokesman said at the time that the building’s fire safety measures ‘ensured the safe evacuation of residents’, and that it had commissioned an independent fire safety review, as well as pledging to work with the council, residents and the building owner ‘to come up with a permanent design solution’. A planning application to remove the wooden balconies was with the council, but at the time ‘there [wasn’t] enough information to move it forward’.

Barking and Dagenham Post has now reported on an LBBD commissioned review of the fire, which raised ‘vital questions’ over who was responsible during the aftermath. Authors Sir Steve Bullock and Diarmaid Ward stated that beyond ‘difficulties’ in the days after, there were also ‘differences of view’ about where responsibility for displaced residents lay.

The fire was ‘alleged’ to have started via a barbecue on a balcony, and eight fire damaged apartments needed to be rebuilt, while 12 were affected by water or damage to front doors. Another 27 ‘escaped damage’ but were unable to be lived in until communal works were completed, with ‘rapid’ spread ‘fuelled’ by ‘external treatment’, despite the balconies having ‘complied with regulations at the time’.

Residents were given assurances about what would happen to the timber in a fire, but this ‘proved to be inaccurate’, one stating that ‘we will never recover from what happened. The fear that we could have lost our lives will haunt us always’. The review added that ‘anyone would be terrified to see their homes go up in flames as quickly as Samuel Garside House did’, but increased fire awareness post Grenfell increased the impact ‘many times over’.

Prevention work before the fire and the damage ‘would inevitably make a return to the building a matter of considerable trepidation’, while the building’s ‘complex’ ownership made it ‘difficult’ for residents to know who to go to for help. After completion in 2014, 32 flats were sold to SHG, which still manages and rents them, while Bellway sold the others, and the head lease was sold to Adriatic – owned by Bellway at the time, but later sold.

Bellway told the review it ‘had no legal duty to repair’ the building, with management undertaken by HomeGround and RMG undertaking ‘day-to-day’ management. A resident stated that these ‘layers of management’ made it ‘difficult to get in touch with someone responsible for safety’ as a result. A total of 64 households out of 67 displaced remained in temporary accommodation 11 days after the fire, with one resident in June 2020 still paying a service charge despite living in another area.

Residents of the flats that suffered ‘catastrophic’ damage were advised they could return within 24 weeks, with others given ‘shorter time frames’, but a year later ‘some had still not been able to return home due to balcony replacement work’. Without LBBD intervention, residents faced ‘an uncertain future’ in hotels paying for their own accommodation, though ‘they were not prepared to return’ until ‘it was safe’, with some not returning until March 2020.

Both Adriatic and HomeGround argued certain stakeholders were ‘unduly focused on seeking to fix blame’, and made ‘uninformed comments’ about safety before assessments, and that ‘this led to an increased atmosphere of distrust and division […] this atmosphere made it increasingly difficult to persuade the insurers to continue to fund ongoing costs’.

Issues including the timber removal, a ‘lack’ of a repairs timetable ‘including when households could return’ and a ‘lack of help’ finding accommodation beyond hotels concerned residents, with those in SHG homes worried the building still had timber balconies ‘when they went back’. SHG’s immediate response to the fire was said to have been ‘professional and helpful’, but its long term response ‘should have been much better’.

Stress and anxiety ‘was made worse by a lack of effective communications’ from Adriatic and HomeGround, and both acknowledged that ‘in some cases, communications could have been clearer and more responsive’. LBBD was ‘praised as the only organisation able to provide coordination and leadership even though this went beyond its legal duty’, with the £100,000 spent not ‘recoverable’.

The review called for local authorities to be granted powers to declare local housing emergencies, with 30 days of costs able to ‘be reclaimed from building owners’. Beyond LBBD, ‘no other’ stakeholders ‘took responsibility’ to manage a meeting on 10 June, where Bellway stated the timber was fire retardant. A resident said the developer should have offered ‘more help’, as should RMG and HomeGround, calling each ‘unhelpful and not at all sympathetic’.

RMG said it sent 14 texts to residents as well as an information pack, insurance FAQs and a safety measures message, while HomeGround’s insurance team called and emailed 20 leaseholders whose flats were damaged, while others were called by insurance brokers Gallagher. Despite this, the report said ‘it is clear [that] residents nevertheless felt confused and unsupported’, with a 13 June letter from LBBD voicing concerns about the management’s handling of the recovery operation.

Adriatic and HomeGround ‘pointed to their limited ability to help’, and that ‘the only income the landlord receives from leaseholders is ground rent’, while RMG said such fires mean there is ‘usually no specific role’ for agents until homes are ‘reinstated and re-occupied’. Its role was to ‘assist’ Adriatic in ‘repair and maintenance duties’, and the recovery effort ‘is usually led by insurers’, while under housing legislation it ‘would expect the council to be the first port of call’.

Bellway, at the time of the fire, had no ‘proprietary’ interest in the building nor any management role, and pointed to London Fire Brigade’s view that the fire ‘resulted from a naked flame igniting flammable materials on a balcony when the instructions for safe use of balconies made clear there should be no naked flames’.

It added that the main fabric ‘performed properly in resisting the fire’, with the review praising the company for ‘quickly deciding’ to replace the balconies, but noting that there were ‘difficulties and delays’. The review recommended housing providers review emergency plans and communications with residents, while freeholders should lodge a statement of ownership with the Land Registry, while councils should have ‘greater’ enforcement powers for buildings below 18m.

Mr Rodwell welcomed the review for ‘shining a light’ on the fire’s aftermath, adding: ‘The fire had a huge impact on the people who live there. Sir Steve’s report captures their voices and the experiences they had of being displaced by the fire and with struggling to access basic services.

‘The council had to pull out all the stops to step in and find alternative accommodation, deal with insurers and ultimately inspect homes to ensure residents could return safely to them, and we did this without any additional resources or funding. Samuel Garside House is typical of modern housing developments up and down the country with a confusing mixture of owners and agents. This raises vital questions about who takes responsibility in the aftermath of an event like a fire.

‘Subject to approval by cabinet of the recommendations in the report, I look forward to working with my colleagues to secure changes in the law which strengthen the rights of tenants and leaseholders and give local authorities the powers they need.’

SHG’s director of buildings Suzanne Horsley welcomed the report recommendations, adding: ‘We are pleased the report recognises the work of our dedicated colleagues in supporting our residents, both immediately following the incident and ongoing. We fully recognise how difficult the decision to return to homes in Barking Riverside has been for some, even with the LFB’s assurance that it was safe to do so.

‘We have continued to work closely with our residents to reassure them and support their individual needs. This includes offers of permanent alternative accommodation for anyone who did not wish to return for any reason.’

RMG and HomeGround supported the review and ‘are considering the findings’, while Bellway was ‘reviewing’ it and preparing a response.

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