Page last updated at 18:07 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 19:07 UK

Council 'made death tower unsafe'

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

Council 'made death tower unsafe'

The flatmate of a victim of the Lakanal House tower block fire has told how flames that gutted their neighbouring flat in 1995 were safely contained.

It suggests the tower block in Camberwell, south London, was at the time fire safe - before a major refurbishment was carried out by Southwark Council in 1997.

In July this year six people died in Lakanal House when fire spread from flat to flat with speed that shocked experts.

But Andrew Aveling, a musician who shared a flat with fashion designer Catherine Hickman, who died in July's fire, has told how a similar fire 14 years ago was contained in the next-door property.

'Intense fire'

He said of the 1995 blaze: "I was surprised my flat had not caught fire - it was all contained in the flat which was alight.

"That flat was completely gutted - it was an intense fire and everything was melted.

Andrew Abeling

"The firefighters could not put it out, they had to wait for it to burn out. But it did not travel."

But when Lakanal House caught fire again in 2009, it was a different story.

Although the flames started on a completely different floor to Mr Aveling's flat, his property was soon engulfed, killing his 31-year-old flatmate in 20 minutes.

Between the two fires PVC windows and cladding were installed in 2007.

Mr Aveling said: "The council replaced the wooden frames, which would have taken a lot longer to burn through.

"These were replaced with [plastic] frames - they melted and flames were able to get through."

'Complex investigation'

A retired architect who worked on the building of Lakanal House and a social housing expert have both told BBC London they believe the PVC frames were a probable cause of rapid fire spread in July.

Bill Solman, who, as an architect, helped build Lakanal House in 1959, installing timber window frames, said: "Timber has limitations, but it's better than plastic which melts. Plastic gives off cyanide fumes and burns fiercely."

The BBC has now highlighted the following missed chances to have saved lives in Lakanal House:
A 2000 parliamentary report warning about dangers from plastic external cladding being ignored
Southwark Council knowing Lakanal House was a fire risk but not taking proper measures
Southwark Council failing to carry out a legally required fire risk assessment that could have warned of the danger
London Fire Brigade telling people to stay in their flats because they believed properties would offer an hour's fire protection - they provided 20 minutes

Of the 2009 Lakanal fire, he said: "I began to look at the evidence and think plastic windows were the problem.

"The blocks went through building control procedures before they were built - so why would this awful thing happen?

"The windows were the main cause of the surface flame spread."

A Southwark Council spokesperson said: "There was a fire more than 10 years ago at Lakanal in which no-one died.

"We are as anxious as everyone to find out why the fire in July this year spread as it did."

The spokesperson said a "complex police investigation into all aspects of that fire is ongoing".

After Southwark Council completed the 2007 work it failed to carry out a legally-required fire risk assessment which could have highlighted the problems.

When the UK's tower blocks were first built they almost all had wooden window frames.

But cheaper maintenance costs means many councils, including Southwark, replaced them with PVC frames.

'Cheap option'

Tony Bird, an independent expert in social housing who works as a consultant for housing associations and councils, said of the plastic frames: "You can see in the film [of the Lakanal fire] how it melted.

"It weakens the whole facade."

Mr Bird said the containment of the 1995 fire illustrated that subsequent council works had made the building more dangerous.

He said: "It would mean that the introduction of a new facade a couple of years ago increased the danger.

"The fire in July did spread - what changed? It had a new facade."

Mr Bird warned the practice of using what he called an "experimental material" to save money was widespread among UK councils.

He said: "Until things like this terrible fire happen I don't think fire safety is on the agenda when they are choosing windows.

"They go for the cheap option - anything other than PVC is rejected."

But Philip Law, of the British Plastics Federation, a body which represents plastic manufacturers, insisted PVC is safe in fires and said it has a higher combustion temperature than wood.

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