Returning to Northwood Tower

Northwood Tower is the tallest building in Walthamstow
Northwood Tower is the tallest building in Walthamstow

Marlowe Road Estate resident Michelle Edwards goes back to investigate safety fears raised post-Grenfell

Just before 1am on 14th June 2017, a fire broke out in the kitchen of a fourth floor flat at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington, west London.

A series of failings including the building’s external cladding – installed on the tower during a £9million refurbishment – is thought to have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire which claimed the lives of 72 people.

In the emotional aftermath, I wrote for the Echo about the fire safety fears of residents at the 21- storey Northwood Tower, which is a dominant local landmark on the Marlowe Road Estate. Determined to prevent another Grenfell on my own doorstep, I promised to stick with the story until Waltham Forest Council had made the tower safe.

In autumn 2017 the council announced it was installing sprinklers in all 61 of its ‘high priority’ housing blocks across the borough. Would it prove a turning point? Well, with the second anniversary of Grenfell now upon us, I decided to revisit Northwood Tower to find out what’s happened since.

Hearing residents’ voices, it’s clear they are still being ignored. Disrepair and poor workmanship under the ‘external works programme’ carried out by former council contractor Osborne were frequently flagged up. The refurbishment included new windows, but condensation pours down the inside and excessive force is necessary to pull them shut.

Two families were experiencing a leak in their kitchen roof, which they’ve stopped reporting after being fobbed off by contractors – outsourcing helps the council evade accountability.

Fire risk assessments for the building show there are 65 remedial actions and 41 control measures outstanding, including “damaged electrical cabling” and “an unacceptable quantity of combustible items found in the communal areas”. While broadly ‘compliant’, the building is not adequately compartmentalised for the purpose of containing smoke and flame, rendering the infamous ‘stay put’ evacuation policy of little use if a fire broke out.

Post-Grenfell, such reports are inconceivable. As reported by the Echo earlier this month, despite the fanfare of the council’s announcement two years ago, Northwood Tower is still without sprinklers. The council says the programme is being “prioritised according to need” but sprinklers will not be installed until 2023/24.

It is doubtful Northwood residents now paying more this year than last to live in a death-trap will be convinced. I think the last word should go to the Grenfell Action Group, who fatefully predicted their building’s own future: “Only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

Waltham Forest Council’s response to concerns about fire safety in borough tower blocks can be read here.