Page last updated at 01:05 GMT, Friday, 26 March 2010

Council cost-cutting 'risked lives' after flats fire

Lakanal House in Camberwell on fire (pic: Christian Landles)
The speed at which fire spread in Lakanal House shocked experts

Nine months after a London tower block fire killed six people, Southwark Council has announced all its high-rise stock will be expertly risk-assessed for the first time.

Ed Davey reports how the authority spent almost a year using housing officers without sufficient training as a cheap alternative to surveyors - resulting in what one expert called an "unforgivable risk" to residents.

On Wednesday, Southwark Council announced it would pay independent experts £192,000 to re-check every tower block in the borough - buildings that were initially assessed by housing officers.

The Lib Dem-Conservative run council had previously assured the BBC that risk assessments by its housing officers were sufficient.

In July 2009, in the weeks after the Lakanal House fire, councils across London had scrambled to ensure the safety of their own buildings.

The ill-fated tower block was unlawful because it had no valid fire risk assessment - and BBC London then revealed 300 other high-rises were in the same position.

Putting housing officers in charge of fire risk assessments shows a complete lack of fire safety understanding
Arnold Tarling, fire surveyor

Every council in London used external consultants or in-house experts to carry out checks, except one - Southwark Council had sent 132 housing officers for one day's training by the London Fire Brigade [LFB].

These officers were dispatched to carry out detailed checks on aging buildings six storeys or higher.

But the LFB did not think they were qualified for the job.

An email from a top LFB official, leaked to BBC London, said: "Our course information clearly states the course is designed to provide the knowledge to undertake assessments in simple premises.

"The course is not designed to equip attendees to carry out assessments in complex structures where a clear level of expertise is required."

An official LFB statement confirmed: "London Fire Brigade does not approve housing officers to carry out fire risk assessments."

'Money-saving tactic'

The training cost £17,160 - a fraction of the six-figure sum external experts would have charged.

It came in the same year Southwark paid corporate manslaughter lawyers Burton Copeland £500,000 to defend their reputation over Lakanal.

Arnold Tarling, a surveyor with 22 years' experience in fire risk, said of the decision: "The only people capable of undertaking fire risk assessments are those with expertise.

Councillor Ian Wingfield and Emily Twinch
Councillor Wingfield has presented a petition to Number 10 on the issue

"Local authorities are always trying to save money by cheapest possible option - but putting housing officers in charge of fire risk assessments shows a complete lack of fire safety understanding."

One such housing officer judged Southwark's Columbia Point tower block "low risk".

In September 2009, independent experts Turner and Townsend inspected the building at the council's behest.

BBC London has seen the second report, which raised 40 faults and concluded: "Considerable resources may have to be allocated to reduce the risk.

"If the building is unoccupied, it should not be occupied until risk has been reduced. If the building is occupied, urgent implementation of recommendations is required."

The council waited until March 2010 before commissioning assessments of all remaining tower blocks in the borough.

Mr Tarling said: "It's unforgiveable Southwark Council waited nine months before a proper fire risk assessment on these buildings.

"The residents remained at risk."

'Neither cheap nor easy'

Southwark Councillor Ian Wingfield (Labour), said: "It's welcome, if belated. People can rest easier knowing assessments are finally being undertaken by the right people."

The council has now earmarked £19m to rectify any problems highlighted by the new assessments.

Mr Wingfield said the council was only acting because it feared the preliminary findings of the Lakanal investigation, due in June.

He added: "It [the election] goes into the mix as well."

A Southwark Council spokesman said: "We were given no reason to suspect that the training was not adequate.

"We believe our approach places us well ahead of most landlords in the identification of fire safety issues in buildings.

"It is neither cheap nor easy, but we take fire safety extremely seriously and will not cut corners when it comes to making sure our blocks meet the highest possible standards of fire safety."

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