This last Friday, August 11th, we had the opportunity of a very interesting and informative meeting at the Shipley headquarters of Incommunities – Bradford’s main social housing provider. As the pictures to the left show, their building sits right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, as indeed do the three tower blocks of the Crosley Wood estate, Bingley, which we were there to discuss.
“We” were myself (Steve Bottoms), Paul Barrett (community development director at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre), and Jenni Mynard – a resident at Crosley Wood who is the subject of our short film High Rise Damp, and of a blog post I wrote more recently, following the Grenfell tower disaster in London.
This meeting with the Chief Executive of Incommunities, Geraldine Howley, OBE, came about after I wrote to her – and to various members of the housing association’s board – with DVD copies of the film and a link to the blog. I am very grateful to Geraldine, and to her colleague Adrienne Reid (Assistant Chief Executive for Neighbourhood Services) for taking the time to speak with us, in the interests of building dialogue and understanding. Indeed, we were given considerably more than the hour initially timetabled, which was great.
I will confess to some disappointment on discovering that Geraldine (I hope it’s OK to use first names) had not had time to watch our short film. She had been told about it, she said. That is, of course, perfectly reasonable: Chief Executives of large organisations are extremely busy people who often need to work from summaries rather than first-hand sources. My disappointment lies simply in the fact that, while Geraldine had clearly been briefed on Jenni’s case (and had a number of documents about it in front of her), she had not had the opportunity to consider Jenni’s story from her own point of view – as a tenant, as a parent, and as a citizen. That story is, I think, indicative of many people’s experiences, but it’s a perspective we don’t often hear.
That point aside, though, the meeting was a productive one, which I’m going to try to summarise my thoughts about in three, inter-linked posts. This first one (below) will look at fire safety questions, post-Grenfell. Part 2 will look at architectural problems and costs, and Part 3 at questions of shared responsibility.
Part 1. Fire safety
Although our film was not discussed, it became clear that my previous blog post had caused some concern at Incommunities — not least because of my use of a photo of the burning Grenfell tower at the start of the blog, underneath the title “Life in a Bradford tower block”. (I promised to look at this again, but on reflection I’m going to leave it as is: I do think it’s clear from the first paragraph that the image is of the London fire: there is no suggestion that one had taken place in Bradford.) There was also mention of inaccuracies in the blog, which I have promised to amend if they are pointed out to me – since I am genuinely concerned to be as accurate as possible.
One important correction that was discussed during the meeting was the suggestion at the end of my blog (based on comments from Jenni), that the central fire alarm system in the Crosley Wood flats was disabled a few years ago — leaving residents to rely upon individual smoke alarms, and their own judgement about whether to call the fire brigade, rather than on any centralised response. Adrienne pointed out that the central alarm system is, in fact, still operable. If triggered, for example, vents are opened at the top of the buildings to help release smoke. It is only the sounders in the blocks themselves (e.g. the red bell in the picture below) that have been silenced, in order to avoid alarming residents into rushing for the stairwells…
This is in line with of the current Stay Put Policy for tower block fires, as agreed with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. The idea is that it is generally safer for residents to stay put in their flats during a fire than to be seeking to escape down the single, narrow stairwells that exist in blocks like those at Crosley Wood — just as firemen might be seeking to come up. While that might sound dangerous to the uninitiated (surely you need to escape a fire?), these flats are all designed as self-contained concrete boxes (concrete walls, ceilings, floors). And concrete is of course fireproof. Provided that doors are kept properly closed, it should be a good hour before a fire can escape from the flat it starts in (or get into flats from communal areas, if that’s where it starts). Within that hour, the Stay Put Policy assumes, the fire service should have been able to respond and extinguish the fire.
This all makes a lot of sense, of course. The reason that this policy did not work at Grenfell tower was, of course, the flammable exterior cladding on the building, that allowed the fire to spread with alarming speed. Incommunities checked very swiftly, post-Grenfell, that their Bradford blocks do not use the same cladding that had cost so many lives in London. But they have also commissioned fully independent fire safety assessors (from Savills) to conduct a review of all their properties, starting later this week (from August 18th).
This is all good news. One note of caution, though, is that the independent assessment will apparently be conducted on a block-by-block basis, rather than flat-by-flat. That’s understandable, given that Incommunities has over 1200 flats in 30 tower blocks around the city. Yet our own, cursory examination of two different, neighbouring flats at Crosley Wood — accompanied by an off-duty fire officer whose advice was given in an unofficial capacity — suggested that there may also be fire safety issues on a flat by flat basis.
Take for example this kitchen door, which is as closed in the picture on the left as it ever gets: it simply doesn’t fit the door-frame. As such, it compromises the principle that a kitchen (the most likely place for a fire to start) can be left to burn for around 20 minutes before it spreads to other parts of the flat (and beyond the flat after 60 minutes). The tenant in question states that, in the twenty years she has lived in this flat, this door has never shut properly.
The same tenant does have a proper closing device on the front door of the flat… another important fire safety measure (below).
… but contrast that with the next picture, showing the inside of her neighbours’ front door. This one has no such closing device, and they don’t recall there ever being one in the 12 years they’ve lived there.
Notice in these pictures, also, the trunking adjacent to the ceiling, carrying various pieces of wiring. Because these flats have concrete ceilings and floors, wiring can’t be hidden within the walls as it would be in most homes, so has to be carried externally. That’s fine, from a safety point of view, if the trunking is metal (i.e. fireproof), but our fire officer pointed out several places in these flats where plastic trunking had been retrofit… as in the image below (where another wire has been casually taped to the trunking).
Apparently, such plastic trunking has proven very dangerous in fire situations, because it melts quickly in the heat, leaving wiring hanging down as a trip hazard for residents and firemen alike. And then there’s this:
Our fireman couldn’t be certain about this, but he said it appeared that this metal trunking — which carries wiring out of the flat into the corridor to connect with the mains trunk to the left — has been taken through the concrete wall. If so, this may compromise the integrity of the flat’s “concrete box”. The same might also be true of various bits of retrofit drilling we saw, like this (although this particular hole is so small it’s hard to imagine there’s a problem?):
I should emphasise the caution with which all these notes are made. Our fireman stressed that he is not a safety inspector. But what did seem clear is that years of rather patch-and-mend maintenance have left different flats with various different degrees of compromise on the ideal concrete box scenario. Isn’t this something that needs looking at flat by flat?
I also want to gently query the disabling of the alarm sounders, previously mentioned. Because while this makes good sense from an operational/managerial point of view (maximising the likelihood that people will “stay put” in event of fire; minimising the chances of panicked people running for the stairwells), it is rather less reassuring from the point of view of individual tenants, who are – in effect – being left deliberately under-informed about fires in their own blocks. This might help reduce risk, but it does not reduce anxiety: if you can see smoke billowing up from downstairs, for example, but no alarm is going off, what do you do – other than panic? Raise the alarm yourself? (Our fire officer said that, yes, if in doubt, always ring 999.) Jenni notes that her 12-year-old son Dylan, as a consequence of having seen fire engines outside their block on fairly regular occasions throughout his childhood, can become extremely distressed at any hint of fire in the building (this was true even before Grenfell).
I’m certainly not suggesting that the Stay Put Policy is wrong, but I suppose I am saying (just as I alluded to regarding our film) that we need to think carefully about people as well as policies. It seems clear, based on conversations with Jenni and her neighbours, that there is a better job of communication to be done with tenants around these issues, so as to minimise the potential for confusion and anxiety in situations of uncertainty. This means more than just putting safety notices in the mail (though that’s important too). When we took our volunteer fire officer to visit the flats, Jenni and her neighbours seemed considerably reassured simply by the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with him, about what they should and should not be concerned about…