THE LAKANAL FIRE – 10 YEARS ON: Southwark was fined £270,000 for Lakanal and paid costs of £300,000, but has spent in excess of £62 Million on fire safety works

Katherine Johnston (28 June, 2019)

Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman gave a statement criticising the fire brigade too

30456Harriet Harman MP

Lakanal was more than a tragedy; it was a serious failing of duty. Six people died that day in Camberwell, including a 20-day-old baby.

It is believed all of them could have been saved if they had been given the right advice to get out and stay out, rather than stay put; if they had known the right escape routes out the block; and if the building’s materials not been made less safe by the council’s own refurbishments.

Lakanal House was the worst tower block fire the country had ever seen, until two years ago when on another hot, summer’s afternoon, a deadly fire swept through a high-rise block of council flats in Kensington and Chelsea.

Seventy-two people lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower inferno, with countless more injured, bereaved and traumatised by the blaze that rapidly took hold of its external cladding.

It was not just a question of why it had happened – but how such a devastating high-rise fire could have happened again.

Just months beforehand, in February the same year, Southwark Council pleaded guilty to fire safety breaches in court after charged were brought forward by London Fire Brigade over the Lakanal House blaze.

But lessons first heard at the inquest in 2013 were never implemented at national level, leaving thousands of residents living, unbeknownst to them, in death trap homes.

After the inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to the council, London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

Among more than 40 recommendations, she said more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear guidance on how to react if a fire breaks out and whether circumstances change – for example is smoke starts coming in.  She also recommended that layouts should be given to emergency workers.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether work can reduce existing fire protection, and consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

But despite publishing a response committing to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority, no review came.

Lakanal inquest jurors had been told there was no realistic prospection of any prosecution for manslaughter against Southwark Council or any company.

However, in 2017, charges against the council were successfully brought by the London Fire Brigade and, just months before Grenfell, Southwark pleaded guilty to the breaches.

Cllr Stephanie Cryan, then housing cabinet member at Tooley Street, now under Labour control, said: “We took the decision to plead guilty to all four counts of breach of fire safety regulations associated with the Lakanal building on the July 2 2009, the day before the fire.

“This is because, as an authority, we fully accept responsibility for the fire safety of all our council homes.

“The fact remains that the council did not have a Fire Risk Assessment for Lakanal in place on this date.

“Without this record, we can never categorically decide on the fire safety of the building before the fire happened.

She added “Since then, we have spent £62m on our fire risk assessment programme and associated fire safety works for all of our council housing in the borough.”

At sentencing, Southwark was fined £270,000 and told to pay costs of £300,000 for the failings.

Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman gave a statement criticising the fire brigade too, saying: “Those who ignored the Fire Brigade’s instructions to stay put escaped with their lives.

“Those who accepted the instructions to stay in their flat died.”

Since then, residents on Peckham’s Ledbury Estate discovered their block may never had received the strengthening work needed in the wake of safety concerns after the Ronan Point tower block collapse in Newham in 1968 – leaving them vulnerable to collapse if there was a gas explosion.

The towers will now be fully refurbished, with residents saying the decision to save them and not demolition was ‘admirable’.

And tenants and leaseholders at Elephant and Castle’s two Arch Street blocks have, only this year, been forced to evacuate after its cladding was found by fire safety inspectors to be a death trap after an investigation by housing association L&Q. The blocks were only built in 2011.

Shortly after the Lakanal inquest concluded, six years ago, the News’ editor wrote of the findings: “The responsibility for ensuring that thousands of households are safe needs to be put in the hands of people who know what they are doing – not a bunch of bureaucrats who are unaware of what their job is. Many did not even turn up to training sessions…

“The shocking truth is, had Lakanal not have happened we wouldn’t have ever known that these procedures and safety measures were not being carried out.

“How many more authorities are failing in these areas and risking the lives for their tenants and what else is there of which we are unaware?”

Although great strides have been made by the council, when it comes to all buildings across Southwark and the rest of London, horrifyingly, it’s a question we still can’t answer.


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