Hackney residents remain worried about fire safety, despite recent action by Hackney Homes, the council’s arms-length management organisation, to improve escape and alarm facilities in the last few months.
Concern was first sparked following a fire in a South London council block last year. At twenty past four in the afternoon of Friday 3 July 2009, a television set caught fire on the ninth floor.
A couple of hours later six people were dead, including a three week old baby girl who died with her mother sheltering in an 11th floor bathroom.
The devastating blaze at Lakanal House in Camberwell prompted a flurry of fire safety checks by local authorities as councils scrambled to ensure they were up to date.
More than seventy fire risk assessments were carried out in Hackney in the three months following the fire. Three blocks were found to be at high risk.
One theory being explored by investigators in south London is that is that plastic uPVC windows may have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire in Camberwell.
One Frampton Park resident said that if there was any suspicion uPVC windows had contributed to the Camberwell fire, “it makes sense to use wood”. “Because you are enclosed you do get that feeling of if there was a fire what would I do?” she said.
It has also been alleged that that there was no fire risk assessment in place at the time of the fire and that work carried out to the block in 2007 compromised the building’s safety.
Without a thorough, up to date fire risk assessment there is no way of knowing whether a building’s evacuation procedures are appropriate or how it will be affected by fire.
Since the Citizen reported on Hackney’s three high risk blocks, Hackney Homes have looked again at their fire risk assessments for twenty high rise flats where major work has been carried out.
A spokesperson said that, since November, communal fire doors, additional escape hatches, emergency lighting and fire alarm systems have all been installed.
Local resident, Angela Martin, who has lived on the Frampton Park Estate for almost forty years said, “They’ve only just in the last couple of weeks put a fire door on the stairs because of the fire in south London but I often think ‘would I have to jump out of the window if there was a fire?’ You do always have that feeling.”
The investigation into what happened in south London is ongoing and it is not yet clear whether the windows at Lakanal House were plastic or metal.
But architects and housing experts have already speculated that molten material may have fallen from the flats above, spreading the fire downwards, and that replacement plastic frames “melted the whole façade”.
Sam Webb, who has worked on risk assessment for social housing since the deadly 1968 collapse of Ronin Point in Newham, said, “All the facades and window frames were replaced with flammable uPVC which melts in fire, releasing toxic fumes. It was undoubtedly a major cause of the fire spread.”
Bill Solman, a retired architect who worked on Lakanal House installing timber window frames in 1959, said he thinks “plastic windows were the problem.”
He told the BBC: “The blocks went through building control procedures before they were built – so why would this awful thing happen? The windows were the main cause of the surface flame spread.”
Cheaper maintenance costs and better durability led many councils, including Hackney, to replace original wooden frames in tower blocks with uPVC double glazing.
Hackney Homes have installed over 11,000 UPVC double glazed windows and say that tenants are overwhelmingly happy with them – reporting 80-90% satisfaction.
“Hackney Homes has explored other options including wood, however the lifespan of these products is half that of uPVC while the cost is double”, a spokesperson said.
Neighbouring Camden Council told the Citizen that it does not install uPVC windows but uses sustainably sourced timber and thermal break metal products, taking into account “both environmental and value for money considerations”.
Sir Ken Knight, the government’s chief fire adviser, has described the Lakanal blaze as a “wake-up call” for local authorities, owners and landlords; a national register of all tower blocks and their fire safety checks is being set up in its wake.
And with local authorities and social landlords now rushing to ensure their blocks are safe and every potential risk – from fire exits to window types – coming under intense scrutiny, residents living in high rise blocks are seeing some change for the better.
However, those who have already lost their homes or loved ones will rightly ask why it took such a tragedy for such action to be taken. It remains to be seen whether Hackney Homes will review their use of uPVC windows.
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