IoS investigation: Revealed - the menace of UK's firetrap tower blocks

Building repairs have destroyed many safety features

Hundreds of thousands people living in high-rise flats around the UK face lethal fire risks because building work in ageing tower blocks has undermined the main safeguard designed to stop fires spreading out of control. Experts fear the safety flaws are not being properly investigated because of serious failings in the way buildings are inspected.

A leading fire-safety consultant warned of growing concern about safety standards and checks on similar blocks, saying confusion about the issue "could cost people's lives".

A fire in a south London tower block which killed six people, including three children, in 2009 revealed that refurbishment work carried out on the building had undermined its principal fire-protection system. A small fire in a faulty TV set on the ninth floor spread through several floors and along corridors, trapping many of the 84 families living there.

An inquest this week into the fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell will hear how work carried out by builders allowed flames to spread to the fifth, seventh and 10th floors. Its speed and unpredictability surprised experienced firefighters who had told residents they were safer in their flats than being evacuated. Firefighters were hampered by smoke in the building's single stairwell and a lack of layout plans. By the time they had the blaze under control, some 17 people needed hospital treatment for burns and smoke inhalation. The six who died were Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her two children, Thais, six, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and Catherine Hickman, 31.

A police-led investigation into the fire found that work carried out on the building destroyed its "compartment" protection: barriers designed to make sure any fire is contained in a single flat long enough for firefighters to put it out. Investigators found that firewalls designed to stop smoke and flames from spreading had been cut to allow pipes and duct work; ceiling and floor spaces lacked protection measures and vital flameproof materials had been removed.

Fire chiefs began a nationwide inspection of tower blocks, which revealed similar flaws. Nationally it is estimated there are 4,000 to 5,000 blocks of flats that are similar in age and construction to Lakanal House. In Birmingham, faults were found in more than 200 blocks. However, The Independent on Sunday has learned that many more fire threats still exist more than three years after the south London fire because of serious failings in the way buildings are assessed for dangers.

Many of the problems stem from the Decent Homes initiative, a well-intentioned Labour government scheme to improve social housing which greatly increased the dangers to residents. Refurbishments which improved the living conditions of tens of thousands of residents also made the dangers of fires spreading uncontrolled throughout flats worse. Workmen who were unaware of the safety implications of the work they were doing removed firewalls or modified them in ways that would allow fires to spread.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many assessments of at-risk buildings are carried out by inadequately qualified inspectors. Safety experts also warn that cutbacks in the fire service mean too few of the checks are being audited by experienced inspectors. Some landlords' fire-risk assessments "aren't worth the paper they are written on", one safety authority said yesterday.

The shadow fire minister Chris Williamson warned that "cutbacks in fire and rescue services will load more risks on the general public. I shudder to think to what the consequences of such cuts will be. It will be a matter of life and death – literally."

This week's inquest will hear that London Fire Control staff gave standard "stay put in your flat" advice to several residents on the higher floors who called for help. They insist the advice was given honestly and in the best interests of the residents based on the assumption normal protections would contain the fire long enough for them to deal with it.

While a subsequent investigation found that the repairs on the 50-year-old flats breached defences designed into the building by architects, the Crown Prosecution Service concluded last May there was insufficient evidence to convict any individual, company or council official of manslaughter.

Nevertheless, the tragedy led to safety reviews of similar high-rises across the country. "It isn't an exaggeration to say that tower block safety wasn't really on our radar before then," one experienced fire inspector said last week. "Prior to Camberwell, we had never had a major incident and few, if any, audits to check fire safety were carried out." Last year, more than 3,000 safety audits were carried out on tower blocks in England. The initial checks revealed hundreds of blocks where safety had been similarly compromised.

Fire chiefs insist many landlords, including local councils and housing associations, moved fast to rectify the worst problems, but privately they estimated only between a third and a half of all tower blocks had been correctly assessed. Many questioned the competence of those carrying out the assessments.

David Sibert, fire adviser to the Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) said: "The quality of too many fire-risk assessments remains poor. Too often they are carried out by people who lack appropriate knowledge. To do it properly it is necessary to get into the hidden parts of a building, behind walls and into ceiling spaces."

Since 2006, landlords are legally responsible for risk assessments, which should be checked by the fire service. A 2011 survey of housing professionals found only one in four thought they had carried out "suitable and sufficient" assessments. In the absence of government regulations, the fragmented fire prevention industry has been slow to agree competence benchmarks, publishing them only last October.

Ian Gough, a fire safety consultant and a former senior fire safety officer in Northamptonshire, said: "I don't think the Government at the time realised the full implications of the shift of some of the work that fire and rescue services used to do on to the private sector. It was naive to believe that the person responsible for the building would either be able to do it themselves, or know how to employ people to do it. The Government took few steps to prepare for it and so created an industry that is totally unregulated."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence