Fire safety flaws at borough tower blocks

Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers in Montague Road, Leytonstone
Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers in Montague Road, Leytonstone, are two of the most dangerous buildings in the borough

James Cracknell investigates the risk to Waltham Forest residents, two years after Grenfell

Almost half of council-owned tower blocks in Waltham Forest are deemed by inspectors to pose a “substantial” fire risk to residents, the Echo has learned.

Two years on from the Grenfell Tower disaster, Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) reveal nine out of 22 tall buildings in the borough were given the most serious safety rating – meaning “improvements should be undertaken urgently”. Twelve other tower blocks carry “moderate” risk while just one, a new building opened last year, was said to be “tolerable”.

The FRAs for buildings owned by Waltham Forest Council that are six storeys or higher were obtained under Freedom of Information laws. The documents, all compiled in 2018, list hundreds of identified fire risks of various kinds, from cluttered corridors to faulty doors and damaged electrical wires. Some of the older buildings also have historic design faults that fail to comply with modern standards. None were said to have combustible cladding, however, which was a major factor at Grenfell.

One of the most at-risk buildings in the borough is 13-storey St George’s Court in Wood Street, Walthamstow, which had 91 faults relating to fire risk listed in its FRA. Inspectors found flat doors “were not compliant to the 30-minute fire standard” and that communal doors did not have adequate fire resistance, with “excessive gaps”, “missing intumescent strips” and self-closing devices that “do not operate correctly”. There was also no effective emergency plan.

Twelve-storey St David Court in Parkstone Road, Walthamstow, was found to have 86 fire risk issues, including non-compliant fire doors and inadequate compartmentalisation, for containing fire.

Rayner Tower in Albany Road, Leyton, was reported to have 88 problems. A key finding was that at least four residents “were not aware of basic fire procedures”. Fire doors were found with damaged frames and lock systems. There was no effective emergency plan, evidence of smokers using prohibited communal areas, and a faulty smoke detector in the hallway.

Also in Albany Road, Burrell Tower had 44 faults. They included “unsecured bin areas containing combustible materials” and a bin chute “located within the escape route” of the building. Inspectors recommended that “further investigation be undertaken to establish if the stairwell entrances can be reconfigured in order to avoid the refuse system”.

Another tower block at substantial risk is St Nicholas Court in Highams Park. In its FRA, 77 fire safety issues were listed, including “unacceptable combustible materials found in communal areas” of the 13-storey tower.

St Patrick’s Court in Woodford Green had 85 faults, including non-compliant fire doors, riser cupboards filled with combustible materials, and “insufficient fire stopping to exposed services”.

The three most dangerous buildings in the borough, according to FRAs compiled last summer, were Northwood Tower in Marlowe Road, Walthamstow, and the twin Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers in Montague Road, Leytonstone.

Shortly following the disaster at Grenfell, Marlowe Road Estate resident and Echo contributor Michelle Edwards raised concerns about fire safety at Northwood Tower, the borough’s tallest building. This month she returned to find little progress has been made, saying that it was “inconceivable” that 106 fire risk issues were still unresolved.

Fred Wigg and John Walsh towers – used as missile launch pads during the London 2012 Olympic Games – had been slated for demolition by the council as part of the redevelopment of Montague Road Estate. This was postponed in 2018, however, with the council citing rising cost projections and uncertainty over the ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry. While many long-term residents have moved out, the estate is increasingly used as temporary accommodation.

In FRAs for the two towers, 118 fire risk issues were found at Fred Wigg and 104 at John Walsh. As well as having many of the common problems found across the borough’s other tall buildings, both towers suffer from design faults – having been built under weaker fire regulations in the 1960s.

In one key excerpt, the amount of time it takes for residents to access their nearest fire escape is criticised. The FRAs state: “There is only a single exit from the building for flats 1-9, and the remainder of the building does not meet current standards… further guidance is required to formulate a suitable fire management strategy for means of escape.

“There was no evidence of any fire management strategy in the building at the time of the assessment… travel distances to final exits are too long.”

The council pledged in November 2017 to install sprinkler systems in all of its tall buildings and sheltered housing blocks, setting aside £500,000 to complete this work. To date, four have been fully installed.

Councillor Louise Mitchell, cabinet member for housing, said: “All of the council’s buildings over seven storeys, as well as our sheltered housing schemes, houses in multiple occupation, and hostels, undergo thorough fire risk assessments annually.

“All council residential buildings have been constructed in accordance with the prevailing building control regulations and managed in compliance with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, and we are developing our approach to implement the recommendations of the Hackitt Review following the Grenfell fire tragedy, expected to become law in 2020.

“Despite no additional government funding, the council is exceeding regulatory requirements and installing sprinklers across all our blocks over six storeys. We take into account the number of residents, the number of vulnerable residents, and the number of floors among other considerations when prioritising this work. Our sheltered housing schemes are classified as the top priority.

“There are currently six installations in progress. “We work hard with partners including the London Fire Brigade to check our residential blocks provide comfortable, safe roofs over all our residents’ heads. The safety of our tenants is the top priority and we do all we can to ensure it.”

Separate to the Echo‘s investigation into Waltham Forest’s tower blocks, last month it was revealed by the London Assembly that fire safety standards were lacking at 34 borough care homes. London Fire Brigade (LFB) audits carried out following Grenfell show major problems at more than 500 care homes across the capital – with Waltham Forest’s record being the third worst of all boroughs. Jennette Arnold, London Assembly member for Waltham Forest, said: “It is very concerning that some of the most vulnerable members of our community are being put at risk in this way.”