“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.
In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How couldy this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?
In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)
Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.
On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.
One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.
The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.
The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.
The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.
However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.
Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.
A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.
An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.
The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.
The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.
Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.
Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.
A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.
Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.
Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.
This time 72 people died.
But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.
After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the 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.
She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat. She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.
The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) 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 refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.
The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.
Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.
Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse? Will it happen again?
Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?
Some say we need another way of living…