Lessons to learn from Grenfell

Martin Goodsell looks at how the council has handled plans to redevelop a Leytonstone housing estate

Fred Wigg Tower

Fred Wigg Tower in Leytonstone, part of the Montague Road Estate

There are worrying echoes of the approach taken to the renovation of Grenfell Tower in the stance Waltham Forest Council has adopted towards the 15-storey Fred Wigg and John Walsh tower blocks in Montague Road, Leytonstone.

One key lesson from Grenfell is that effective external scrutiny of improvement plans is essential. An assurance that a particular arrangement meets the fire regulations is not enough. Firstly, the regulations have fallen behind the times. Secondly, effective external scrutiny requires consistent openness.

Tenants at Grenfell were at least told what was planned; it was to be zinc clad. However, they were not told when, later on, the zinc was substituted by the more combustible aluminium. The position is worse in Leytonstone, with tower tenants not being told anything so far about the new cladding planned on their buildings.

Grenfell also demonstrated again how ‘improvement’ works can leave residents more at risk from fire than they were before. The conclusion from the fatal Lakanal House fire in 2009 found that the blocks were relatively safe, but improvements had increased the fire risk.

So whenever a landlord plans major changes to a tower block, it is especially important that the plans are open to effective external scrutiny. There are dangers other than from new cladding too; for instance fire risks rise when a building’s internal fire breaks are weakened if, say, the walls between flats are made less fire resistant. The council here has so far refused to reveal what it asked of bidders for the contract to revamp Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers, nevermind what the three bidders have proposed.

As well as information, residents need a real voice. In Grenfell, tenants had complained for years about various problems. They were fobbed off. For instance, after arguing the new gas pipes were a fire risk, they were promised a protective cover, which never arrived.
Fred Wigg and John Walsh tenants too have experience of changes to their homes being enforced, rather than negotiated. Ascham Homes, the now defunct arms-length management organisation for Waltham Forest’s social housing stock, announced two years ago without consultation that they would remove balcony doors. It took an order from a High Court judge to ensure the council consulted residents.

Now, after taking its housing stock back under direct control, the council has an opportunity to show it is behaving differently by waiting for the Grenfell inquiry findings and then listening to a residents’ vote on the options for improvement.

Clearly the council must consider costs in tackling the borough’s severe housing problems, but the the option for redeveloping the towers costs five times as much as refurbishment and produces a third fewer council homes. The council’s justification referred to the benefits of “very high quality” design and carefully unspecified “positive benefits to the local neighbourhood”.

It all sounds a bit like Kensington and Chelsea; documents now revealed suggested the council was more keen to make the ‘improved’ Grenfell Tower appear attractive to richer neighbours than to prioritise tenants’ interests.