Tower residents’ fire safety fears

Michelle Edwards demands answers as concerns grow following Grenfell fire disaster

Northwood Tower

Northwood Tower in Marlowe Road, Walthamstow

In June local authorities across the country scrambled to check whether tower blocks did not contain cladding similar to that which burned rapidly on Grenfell Tower.

It was later revealed the Kensington building’s landlords saved £293,000 by downgrading the cladding material, with the manufacturers of the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the Grenfell cladding asked to supply an alternative that was £2 cheaper per square metre.

Council tenants like me have never felt so unsafe. Naturally, following Grenfell I contacted Waltham Forest Council to ascertain whether they had sent off any cladding samples for fire safety tests. A statement in response said that no Waltham Forest-owned blocks had been identified as using ACM and that none were on the list of more than 600 around the country suspected of having combustible material. Council leader Clare Coghill was also quoted on the council’s website saying safety “is always our main concern”.

I’m not sure residents would agree, particularly those based at the Fred Wigg Tower in Montague Road, Leytonstone. Back in 2011, a fire in a maisonette on the 13th and 14th floors of the block resulted in fire crews rescuing 24 people. A further 80 were evacuated. A year after the fire, a survey by the now-defunct social justice campaign group Newham Montoring Project (NMP) found most residents were still struggling with the consequences of the fire and were critical of the way the council had handled the situation. Of the respondents, 64 percent said they had been asked to pay rent on their flats while living in temporary accommodation, and 47 per cent said they had problems with their smoke alarms, including concerns that some did not work.

The incident at Montague Road happened when the council’s housing stock was managed by an external firm, Ascham Homes (AH), but financial challenges were said to have led to housing being taken back under direct council control in 2015. Both the Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers are now due to be refurbished by the council.

In Walthamstow another council tower block, Northwood Tower, is the only part of the Marlowe Road Estate which is not being redeveloped. The tower is 21 storeys tall, contains 99 homes, and was built in 1970. Its occupants have repeatedly raised the issue of fire safety with the council, only to be ignored.

As recently as April of this year, Northwood resident Lesley Pearce led complaints about rubbish left piled up next to the recycling bins at the entrance to the block and across the estate, a defective fire door, and wooden hoardings which encase all escape routes. The mangled minutes of the Marlowe Road Estate steering group meeting don’t reflect the complete disinterest when those concerns were put forward. Apparently, the London Fire Brigade deem the block safe and that’s that.

In the aftermath of Grenfell, the steering group meeting on 15th June was packed. For almost an hour of the standard two-hour meeting, frustration boiled over. Shouting prevailed. Swearing pierced the air and hands were waved on the matter of fire safety. Mothers brought their young children and when speaking pointed at them to plead with the council to spare their lives. In a bid to stop the fury, the council promised a separate meeting with the residents of Northwood Tower.

To keep abreast of the situation, on 30th June I sent an email to the interim Marlowe Road Estate regeneration programme manager to ask whether she had secured a date and when the meeting would be held. In response, she told me the council “is currently working in collaboration with a number of internal departments to ensure a meeting is held with residents at Northwood Tower”. By chance, I bumped into a resident of the block a few days later and was briefed that the fire safety meeting had already taken place, with just two days’ notice. It had taken place on the same date as the email I’d received, and I believe it was a deliberate attempt to keep me out of the meeting. I constantly badger the council on points of law, which they hate.

By all accounts, the fire safety meeting mirrored that of the tense steering group meeting two weeks earlier. Seven days later, Northwood suffered a small fire. London Fire Brigade had it under control in ten minutes, but residents became petrified of being the next Grenfell. They organised their own private meeting, and an estate walkabout. Lengthy notes were taken of 12 unresolved fire safety concerns wooden hoardings, no communal fire alarm, fears over the controversial ‘stay put’ advice in the event of a blaze, wooden-topped stairs, and the council’s refusal to confirm use of fire resistant paint for new works to be carried out. Residents claim these grievances have been submitted on an ongoing basis.

One issue yet be raised is how the emergency services would fight a more serious fire in Northwood Tower. Currently, firefighters can gain access to the back of the block using a key, but building works and hoardings have removed all the free space for them to bring trucks near to the front of the building.

There are no other recorded fires at Northwood in the past five years. London Fire Brigade say they have attended three special call-outs (includes things like flooding, gaining entry etc) and completed 32 home fire safety visits.

We are now nearly a year into the Marlowe Road gentrification works. According to the design and access statement dated May 2015 and submitted with the planning application that was granted approval at the end of that year: “Ground floor level of these buildings, entrances to the main circulation cores will be celebrated with timber cladding around the front doors.” I’m no construction expert, but timber is wood, right? Do we really want this around entrances? When I put this to Countryside, the developer, they were having no suggestion of a change. They barked at me about “working to the agreed planning permission”.

Just as I thought it couldn’t get any worse, an anonymous Northwood Tower tenant sent me a copy of a letter dated 5th July 2017 and headed: “Consultation regarding CCTV upgrades, renewal and new CCTV.” According to the letter, the council consulted with residents through housing forums about community safety in 2016. Having identified “faulty or outdated” equipment, they now proposed to increase weekly rent payments by £2.59. Leaseholders will be hit with a £250 one-off payment. For 99 residents, that’s £13,333. Smacks to me of an underhanded attempt at raising revenue from an already financially-stretched community.

Northwood is a block which used to be plagued by prostitution and serious drug dealing. Some of its occupants are so poor they often ask local businesses for food and phone credit to get by. As a matter of urgency, the council needs to listen to them.

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