Blaming the London Fire Brigade for the deaths of the remaining 71 occupants, plus a previous evacuee who subsequently died, is wrong on three accounts.
First, although the cladding had rendered it redundant from the moment it was applied to the building, the ‘stay put’ policy was still in place when the fire broke out, and for good reason. Fire and Rescue Services in England attended 169,588 fires in the year ending December 2017. Including those from the Grenfell Tower fire, there were 321 fire-related fatalities in that time, which is one death for every 528 fires. Fires break out every day in London’s tower blocks, and nearly all of them are contained by the compartmentation designed into the fire-safety system of the building until the fire brigade arrives and puts them out. The ‘stay put’ policy is based on these facts, not on retrospective intuition of what should have been done.
Second, all the residents that lived on the 10th floor of Grenfell Tower and below escaped the fire. Those above had greater difficulty escaping not — presumably — because they all started trying to leave the tower at a later time than those below, but because of the greater difficulty they had in descending through the smoke and heat for the longer time it took to reach safety. As a result, 17 people died on the 11th to 16th floors; and 53 people died on the 17th floor and above, of which 15 moved upward, away from the smoke and flames, to the 23rd floor, where a total of 28 people died. A further 2 people died in hospital after having evacuated Grenfell Tower.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that if the fire-safety advice was to leave the building immediately far fewer residents would have died. But there are good reasons why it is standard procedure. When a fire breaks out in a residential block, the stairwell is not there for residents to escape by but for firefighters to get access to the dry risers on each landing, attach the fire hoses and put the fire out as quickly as possible from within the building. The presence of residents on stairwells is, as best, likely to inhibit the ability of firefighters to get to the fire. Moreover, the opening of numerous fire doors at the same time by evacuating residents can create a chimney effect that will spread the fire quicker. At worst, the mass evacuation of residents will lead to a crush liable to endanger residents’ safety. We shouldn’t forget that the largest loss of civilian life in a single incident in Britain during World War II was a result not of a bomb but of a crush on the stairway to the Bethnal Green tube station in March 1943, when 173 lives were lost.
The public inquiry will hopefully establish why the emergency lights in the stairwell didn’t turn on; why the newly-installed smoke detectors and extractors in the lobbies didn’t function, reducing visibility for both residents and firefighters to zero and eventually making them impassable; why the newly-installed lifts failed to operate, inhibiting firefighters’ ability to establish a bridgehead in the lobbies and reducing the time firefighters could conduct their search and rescue attempts; why fire sprinklers had not been retro-fitted to the 23-storey tower against the advice of the Lakanal House fire coroner and the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group; and why the firefighters, as residents had warned, had difficulty gaining access to the newly developed land around Grenfell Tower.
Given the total undermining of the fire-safety system of Grenfell Tower by the application of the cladding system, on top of the litany of failures already existing within that system, the Grenfell Tower fire presented the London Fire Brigade with a situation unprecedented in the UK, and whose threat to residents even the deaths of 6 residents in the Lakanal House fire had only intimated. Dr. Barbara Lane, a Chartered Fire Engineer who was commissioned by the Grenfell inquiry to produce a report on the fire, is as unequivocal about where the blame for this lies as the Inquiry is in pointing its finger at the London Fire Brigade: ‘In my opinion, it is not acceptable to expect the fire brigade to mitigate for combustible external wall construction in high rise residential buildings.’
And third, blaming the failures of the London Fire Brigade to react to the unprecedented ferocity of the Grenfell Tower fire against the procedures which – if the fire-safety system had not been so completely compromised – would have been correct, unfairly portions the responsibility for the deaths. 223 residents escaped the fire, of which 65 were rescued by firefighters who entered the building above the fire, against procedure and often without breathing apparatus, putting their own lives at risk. Those residents who stayed put and died did so not only because of initial advice from the London Fire Brigade that was following standard evacuation procedure, but because the fire-safety procedures the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation installed on every landing of the tower just three months before the fire clearly instructed them to do so. In summarising her findings Dr. Lane writes: ‘It is important to note here that this evidence was not available to decision makers or residents on the night.’ It was, however, available to others.
From blaming the deaths from the Grenfell Tower fire on the London Fire Brigade it’s only a small step to blaming the residents for not leaving the burning building quickly enough, as if the fire safety procedures of a tower block being made redundant in half an hour is something both residents and firefighters should be expected to face and respond to with all the benefit of hindsight. As ASH laid out in our report on the fire two years ago, and which nothing emerging from the Inquiry has contradicted, responsibility for the deaths of 72 people in the Grenfell Tower fire lies in varying degrees with the private contractors and consultants responsible for the design, manufacture, application and approval of the flammable and badly-fitted cladding system; with the Tenant Management Organisation responsible for the fire-safety of the block, for overseeing its refurbishment, and for retaining the ‘stay put’ policy which that refurbishment had rendered redundant; with the Kensington and Chelsea council responsible for setting the budget that determined the selection of the cheaper materials employed in the refurbishment, that repeatedly ignored the residents’ fears and warnings about the fire safety of the building, and that had received 43 Enforcement Notices on its other properties from the London Fire Brigade in the three years prior to the Grenfell Tower fire; with the civil servants and politicians responsible for sitting on recommendations to review fire safety following the Lakanal House fire against the expert advice of the coroner’s investigation, the London Fire Brigade and the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group; with the Government ministers responsible for initiating the estate regeneration programme that is subjecting the housing stock of London councils such as Grenfell Tower to the demands of market forces intent on realising the potential value uplift in the land they stand on at the expense of the homes and safety of residents; and, finally, with the successive governments, Conservative, Coalition and Labour, responsible for privatising the process through which compliance with building regulations is approved, which has resulted in the safety of residents effectively being put out to competitive tender between private consultants, as it was for Grenfell Tower.
Ignoring this long chain of responsibility that leads directly back to the government to instead blame the women and men of the London Fire Brigade who put their lives at risk to rescue as many residents as possible from the inferno is not only a disgraceful sleight on their bravery and efforts, but stinks of another government cover-up in the legacy of Orgreave and Hillsborough.
Architects for Social Housing
We asked Norwich City council how they financed the Goldsmith Street development, given that the last planning application from April 2017 was for 37 of the 105 dwellings to be for social rent. Since planning approval is dependent upon the financial viability of the scheme, how does a council turn 68 homes for market sale into social rent? The council refused to answer, but a bit of digging into the Norwich Regeneration Company, the council-owned development, management and lettings commercial vehicle, suggested some of the ways.
Of the 172 properties on the Norwich Regeneration Company's next 'flagship' development, Rayne Park, only 57 will be 'affordable'; and with an undisclosed breakdown of what constitutes that half of these could be for shared ownership, with the remaining 115 properties for market sale. So it's likely that these are cross-subsidising the 105 homes for social rent on Goldsmith Street. Across the two sites that would be something like 115 for market sale, 28 for shared ownership, 27 for affordable rent and 105 for social rent. That's still 38% for social rent, which is far better than we ever get in the London estate demolition schemes for which the rest of the Neave Brown Award nominees have been nominated.
However, following the privatisation of housing provision by Norwich City council, the Norwich Regeneration Company has introduced new conditions for would-be tenants, the first of which is that they are not claiming benefits. Moreover, Norwich City council also refused to reveal what happened to the previous residents of the 16 bungalows, 10 council flats, 2 wardens houses, and an unspecified number of homes from the Alderman Clarke House care home that they demolished to clear the land for the Goldsmith Street development.
In its wider context, Goldsmith Street is ahead of the blueprints for social cleansing provided by the disastrous Colville estate redevelopment, where Bridport House, which contains most of the small amount of homes for social rent that have been built so far, has been evacuated of tenants because of fears for their safety; or the Brentford Lock West Keelson Gardens development, whose 25 per cent homes for London Affordable Rent, which on average is 60% higher than social rent, somehow qualifies it for the Neave Brown Award. But as a privatised model of social housing cross-subsidised by market-sale properties and built on demolished council homes, it is a long way from providing a solution to the housing needs of the UK.
Architects for Social Housing
So, after four years of studiously ignoring our work, the AJ finally deigns to mention ASH's design alternatives to the demolition of Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace. And you even quote the figures on how many new dwellings we could build without demolishing a single existing home on the estate.
What you don't mention is that, contrary to the lies of Lambeth council drawing on commissioned reports by PRP Architects and Airey Miller quantity surveyors that are an object lesson in professional malpractice, ASH's entire proposal for the construction of 242 new builds, of which at least half would be for social rent, plus the refurbishing of the existing 476 homes up to Decent Homes Standard plus, would cost £97 million, repayable over 25 years; while Lambeth council's proposal for the demolition of the entire estate and the building of 1,530 new properties, of which half will be for market sale, and resulting in a total loss of 340 homes for social rent, will cost over £570 million, repayable over 60 years.
It's a shame you couldn't reproduce our masterplan for Central Hill estate in your article, and have instead used an image by PRP, a practice responsible for the disastrous estate regenerations of Myatt's Field North, Orchard Village and Portobello Square (something the AJ has failed to cover); but should you ever wish to publish our proposals, or our report on the Costs of Estate Regeneration (link below), you know where to find us.
Architects for Social Housing
According to the Greater London Authority planing report of 4 May 2011, the original Colville estate comprised 338 homes for social rent and 100 leaseholder properties, a total of 438 dwellings. These were all demolished by Hackney council and replaced with 884 dwellings, of which 297 are for social rent, 111 listed as 'intermediate' - which most likely means for shared ownership - and 476 for market sale. This constitutes an affordable housing provision of 46%, of which 33% was for social rent.
To qualify for GLA grant funding, therefore, Hackney council included the redevelopment of Bridport House, which lies across the road from the Colville estate. This block of 20 dwellings comprised 14 for social rent and 6 leaseholder properties. These were all demolished and replaced by 41 homes, all for social rent. This provided the initial homes for the council tenants decanted in phases from their demolished homes on the Colville estate, but it also increased the proportion of affordable housing on the combined scheme, with a total of 338 (297 + 41) homes for social rent (36% of the total, not 42% as your article inaccurately reports) and 48% affordable housing.
In total, therefore, 352 homes for social rent were demolished (338 on the Colville estate, 14 in Bridport House), and 338 were built (297 on Colville, 41 in Bridport), a net gain of 0 homes for the housing tenure type most in demand in London, and most certainly in the Borough of Hackney, were 12,100 households are on the housing waiting list, and 2,700 people are homeless and living in temporary accommodation.
In addition, 106 leaseholders (100 on Colville, 6 in Bridport) lost their homes, and were presumably offered a shared ownership deal on one of the 111 shared ownership properties built on the Colville estate. I don't know how much Hackney council offered them in compensation, but leaseholders on the Woodberry Down estate were offered around £220,000 for a 2-bedroom home. In comparison, a 2-bedroom property on the redeveloped Colville estate is currently on sale for £665,000. The minimum required 25% share in this will cost the former leaseholder £166,250, plus around £1,150 month in rent. And until they own the property outright they'll only be an assured tenant, though with responsibility for 100% of the maintenance on the building. I don't know if there are any shared ownership properties in the Hoxton Press buildings or whether these are strictly for millionaires, but a 2-bedroom property in the towers is on sale for £825,000.
Without further digging for information that is not readily available on either the GLA planning application or Hackney council's website, we can't say how many millions of pounds of public money has been allocated to this 'regeneration' scheme, but it has not added one home for social rent to Hackney's housing stock; it has turned 111 leaseholders into tenants; and it has been used to subsidise the construction of 476 homes for market sale that will be purchased by households earning up to £90,000/year and therefore available for Help to Buy - a further public subsidy of private property; by Buy to Let landlords who will rent them out on London's private rental market; or simply by Buy to Leave investors speculating on London's property market.
What we can say, however, is that the Colville estate redevelopment does not 'stack up', as this article says, either socially or financially; that it is most definitely not a 'model for estate redevelopment' for anyone other than architects, developers, landlords and investors; and that, far from showing 'how a cross-subsidy, mixed-tenure model of estate regeneration can be sensitively developed', it reveals, once again, that London's estate regeneration programme is a vehicle for transferring public funds, public assets and public land into private profit
Architects for Social Housing
Lets start with the retention and refurbishment of the concrete structures that are still standing, rather than their demolition and replacement with vanity projects. Starting with the architectural press, a culture change needs to take place which shifts the emphasis from the self-congratulatory stand-alone object-building to one which puts its environment and people first.