Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

All along the watchtower

Columnist Michelle Edwards questions if fire wardens are an effective solution to lingering safety risks

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Northwood Tower (credit: James Cracknell)
By Michelle Edwards 23 October 2021

Last month, advertiser-funded broadcaster Channel 4 aired Grenfell: The Untold Story and, as usually happens after I think about the tragedy, my mind immediately turned to a tower closer to home. The powerful documentary uses never-seen-before footage originally shot by filmmaker Constantine Gras while working on a promotional film about the tower, commissioned by its landlord, Kensington and Chelsea TMO. It was then 2015, two years before tragedy struck and the same year a £9.7 million refurbishment began covering the building in now-infamous cladding.

Regardless of his promotional brief, what Constantine ended up capturing is a historical record of residents’ frustrations with the refurbishment and the unwillingness to listen among those in charge. Knowing what we now know, watching the corporate buck-passing from local councillors, former Conservative MP Victoria Borwick and representatives from the TMO is stirring stuff. "We were fighting for our lives," as one tenant put it, "but we didn’t know that yet."

I first wrote in the Echo about the concerns of people living in Northwood Tower - a 21-storey block and the only part of Marlowe Road Estate not being redeveloped - just two months later. As recently as April that year, a complaint about fire safety raised at a meeting of the estate’s steering group had been dismissed by the council with what felt like complete disinterest but, at a meeting the day after Grenfell, residents’ frustration boiled over. Seemingly out of nowhere, the council instructed its contractor Osborne to carry out an “external works programme” on Northwood Tower, which would include new windows and front doors. In recent years, Waltham Forest Matters blogger Nick Tiratsoo has reported extensively on the 217 new doors and the confusion and, it seems, misinformation over how fire-proof they actually are. Four years later, and despite the work done, it’s clear the building is still at risk, given it has its own “waking watch”.

Waking watch wardens constantly patrol Northwood Tower, as well as 13 other council-owned buildings around the borough. First introduced last year, they are trained to detect fires, raise the alarm and manage evacuations in buildings that still pose a fire risk and will remain in place until the council has finished work to make each building safe. An FOI I submitted to the council shows that, in addition to these 14 buildings, there are also three managed by social housing providers - Goodwood Apartments in Chingford and Lingfield and West Central Apartments, both in Walthamstow - that still requires a waking watch, plus, presumably, an unknown number of privately rented blocks. According to the Government’s website, each warden costs anywhere from £12 to £30 an hour and the FOI reveals the council has so far paid £1,316,644, excluding tax, for this service.

The waking watch is an interesting stop-gap for an urgent problem and, on 17th June this year, a near-miss incident at Northwood Tower may have put it to the test. A small fire broke out in a kitchen on the eighth floor, where Mother S, as I will call her to protect her anonymity, lives with her four children. While the family relaxed in front of the TV, a plastic takeaway box melted away on a back hob which was thought to have been switched off. Had the dog not run into the passageway and started barking, nobody would have known and, by then, thick black smoke had engulfed the kitchen and was steadily making its way through the passageway. S scooped up her kids and ran outside.

When I speak to residents about the events of that day, what I’m left with is a picture of absolute chaos and questions about how effective the watch proved to be. S did recount seeing a warden raise the alarm as she left her flat but, when her fire alarm remained silent, she still felt the need to knock on her neighbours’ doors herself. Another resident told me she was woken from her regular after-school nap that day by the repeated ringing of her mobile: a friend in another block had seen the smoke and screamed at her to get out. Weeks after the event, others claimed they were unaware a fire had even occurred.

This is not the first time I’ve heard suggestions from Northwood Tower residents that the waking watch is not an effective solution to the dangers still posed by the building. At a cost to the public of more than £58,000 a month, after tax, it’s a bitter - and costly - pill to swallow.

The council’s cabinet member for housing, Louise Mitchell, insists it has “received no complaints” about the events of 17th June and “have no reason to believe” the concerns I relayed to them second-hand.

Regarding the fire, she added: "Four wardens were on call at the time. London Fire Brigade attended the incident within four minutes, while the building was still being evacuated, and assessed the situation as non-life threatening. They deemed the Tower safe to return to while it was in the process of being cleared.

"If residents wish to make a complaint it will be fully investigated by both the council and their employers. Furthermore, we work closely with residents and the LFB with regards to fire safety."

For what it's worth, the LFB didn't wish to comment and the incident is not featured on the list of fires recorded on their website. For now, the building remains intact.