After the fire: What the 2019 housing blaze in Barking revealed about powers and responsibilities

After the fire: What the 2019 housing blaze in Barking revealed about powers and responsibilities

It was a Sunday afternoon in June 2019, almost two years after the horrors of Grenfell Tower, when fire took hold of the six-storey, 79-dwelling Samuel Garside House in Barking, resulting in eight homes being severely damaged, another 39 rendered unfit for occupation, and around 60 east Londoners fleeing the building they lived in and seeing their homes burn before their eyes.

There were no fatalities or serious injuries, but for many of those affected the loss and trauma remain lasting and profound. The same can be said of the implications of the blaze, not only for fire safety in the capital but also for how people most grievously affected by such events are helped and cared for afterwards.

The London Fire Brigade’s view is that the use of a naked flame ignited flammable materials on a wooden balcony. Flames then tore through other balconies on the same side of the building. A report for the LFB found that a combination of the timber and plastic mesh used for the balconies made them highly combustible – far more so than they should have been.

But it is the aftermath of the fire, rather than its causes and any search for blame, that is the focus of a review commissioned by Barking & Dagenham Council that was formally published on Friday, drawing strongly on the experiences of some of the block’s residents.

Compiled by Sir Steve Bullock, the former Mayor of Lewisham and London Councils lead on housing, and Islington’s executive member for housing Diarmaid Ward, the review makes seven recommendations. These cover how organisations that own or manage homes in London and elsewhere should look again at how they communicate with the people who live in them and suggest additional powers and resources for local authorities.

Informing the recommendations is the untangling of a web of different companies with different past and present roles in the Samuel Garside story, the very complexity of which paints an unsettling larger picture.

Who was supposed to look after those east Londoners standing on the streets straight after the event? Whose responsibility was it later on, during a period in which concerns about the fire safety of buildings were likely to be heightened by the unfolding revelations of the Grenfell Inquiry? How would residents assure themselves it was safe to return to their homes once repaired?

Although Samuel Garside House, a new property in the 10,800-home Barking Riverside development, wasn’t owned by the council, it was the council’s job to provide an emergency response. The review says it made a good job of this and did more than it was strictly required to. An immediate task was to find hotel rooms for those evacuated. But the council’s efforts also entailed finding out exactly who had responsibility for the building itself.

The opacity of the ownership and management situation became fully apparent: the freeholder is Barking Riverside Limited (a company in which, incidentally, the Greater London Authority has had an interest since 2012); the developer was Bellway; after the block’s completion in 2014, 32 of its flats were sold to Southern Housing housing association, which continues to run and let them; the head lease ended up being owned by a company called Adriatic Land, but the block was managed as an asset by a company called HomeGround, which appointed another company, Pinnacle, to manage the day-to-day running of the building before replacing Pinnacle with Residential Management Group (RMG).

The residents are a mixture of housing association and private tenants and owner-occupier leaseholders. Who should they be turning to for answers about their situations and for support? Those complicated ownership and management structures have become quite normal in the past ten years or more, Bullock explained at the launch of the review. “Looking at what happened after the fire, it was very clear to us that that was problematic,” he said.

He noted that the current government White Paper on social housing emphasises the need for residents to have structures that enable them to engage with their landlords, and believes such arrangements should be made for any kind of residential building with many housing units in it. “There was no way for an individual resident at Samuel Garside House, prior to the fire, to make their voice heard in a collective way. It could only be done individually.”

Correcting that would be of benefit to residents of many buildings right across the city, Bullock and Ward think. Recommendations in the review complementing this goal include a building’s freeholders lodging a “statement of ownership” with the Land Registry setting out leasing and subleasing arrangements, and residents receiving clear information each year about emergency contacts, insurance cover and their own responsibilities. Clarity and transparency are seen as key and could be made a requirement under future Section 106 planning agreements with councils.

Barking & Dagenham leader Darren Rodwell, who was at the review launch too, stressed a need for people to know that “their local authority is on their side” when disasters such as fires befall them and that councils get the additional powers and resources he thinks are needed to make sure private owners fulfil their responsibilities to residents. He’s also written about this issue for On London. His council is out of pocket and won’t be reimbursed. Like the review’s authors, the thinks the Samuel Garside fire has revealed cracks in the system of powers and responsibilities that ought to be closed up.

Rodwell described being at a meeting of residents shortly after the fire with representatives of companies involved with Samuel Garside house, one of whom “admitted they knew that the wood hadn’t been treated” but no one would accept responsibility for that. “They kept blaming each other,” Rodwell said. The review says residents said they had been “given assurances about how the timber would perform in the event of a fire, which proved to be inaccurate”.

The review recommends that local authorities “should have enhanced enforcement powers for buildings below 18 metres [such as Samuel Garside House] to match those for buildings above that height, subject to the final provisions of the Building Safety Bill when it becomes law. The forthcoming Act is a response to the failings so cruelly exposed by Grenfell. Comparisons with Samuel Garside house can only be made up to a point, but some of the inadequacies that have emerged are far too similar for comfort.

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