Socialist Worker

Camberwell fire: Tragedy reveals state of housing for poor

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2159

Lakanal House: The scale of the devastation caused by the fire.  (Pic:» Guy Smallman )

Lakanal House: The scale of the devastation caused by the fire. (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

Helen Udoaka and her three week old daughter, Michelle; Catherine Hickman; Dayana Francisquini and her three year old son Filipe and six year old daughter Thais are all dead. They died because they were poor.

They were killed as fire raged through Lakanal House, a grim council-owned tower block in Camberwell, south London, last Friday.

Residents of the estate told Socialist Worker of their shock at the loss of life, but they also told of their anger.

They recalled people attempting to make ropes out of sheets to escape – before realising that wouldn’t work – and frantic phone calls to relatives, friends and neighbours from those trapped inside.

Carol said, “There is no proper fire escape, just a stairwell down the centre of the building next to the lift. It means it is easy to get trapped on one side of a fire. I have told anyone who will listen to me, including the council, to close the place down.”

Another resident said, “There was only one fire-escape and it was filled with smoke. Some of the fire doors don’t work because they’re broken.

“We’ve always known these tower blocks aren’t safe. There are loads exactly the same near here and nothing has been done about it.”


Jane lives in Marie Curie House, an identical block nearby. She said, “We have been issued smoke alarms but they didn’t work.”

There were no fire alarms in the communal areas of Lakanal House.

The centre of the fire was on the ninth floor – the upper limit of

the fire brigade’s ladders – but it spread quickly, both up and down, and sideways through the block.

That meant firefighters were trying to tackle blazes above and below them, and standard procedures for dealing with such a fire did not apply.

Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said, “In buildings such as this one you should be safe for an hour before fire jumps from floor to floor. That wasn’t the case… We need to know why the fire spread so quickly.”

One of those involved in the investigation into the fire told Socialist Worker, “The fire started on the ninth floor and our teams set up on the seventh.

“But dripping plastic started a fire on the fifth and they had to move lower down.

“The plastic in the windows is more flammable and toxic than wooden ones. It allowed the fire to spread both ways.”

The uPVC windows were installed in 2007 as part of an “upgrade” of the estate. There are other reasons why the fire was so deadly.

Residents say that rubbish chutes in the building are often blocked and that when the lifts break down rubbish bags are left in the corridors, making the two foot-wide routes to the stairwell impassable.

The single escape route became filled with smoke as did the corridors.

A member of the tenants association told Socialist Worker that the council had cut the number of cleaning inspections on the estate from once a month to once every six weeks.

Residents said that complaints to the council were met with little response.

“Everyone knew the problems,” said David.

“Every time we complained, they told us they had taken our concerns on board, but nothing ever happened.”

London Fire Brigade assistant commissioner Nick Collins said, “My personal view is that a sprinkler system would have made a difference and could have saved lives.

“I do not believe there have been any deaths anywhere in the world in premises where a sprinkler system has been fitted.”

Lakanal House was built in 1957 when, as the council helpfully point out, it fulfilled the fire regulations “of the time”.

It was built in the “scissor” style, where “up-going” flats interlock with “down-going” neighbours. The reason for design was to cram more flats into the space without having to build any more storeys.

If the tower block had been a large hotel, rather than social housing for poor people, more modern fire regulations would apply.

Like countless others around the country, the Sceaux Estate has suffered cuts in budgets and maintenance.

The drive to privatise services and renovations has been a disaster – and in this case, perhaps a deadly one.

The deaths in Lakanal House raise serious questions:

  • How many blocks in Britain have only one staircase running through their centre and no other means of escape in the event of fire?
  • How safe are uPVC windows in the event of fire?
  • Why is there no legal requirement to fit sprinkler systems and communal fire alarms in all social housing?
  • Has the contracting out of housing and housing maintenance reduced the quality of inspections, and if so, why is the government committed to continuing the policy?
  • Why are there tougher fire regulations for hotels and office blocks than for people’s homes?

It is unclear what started the fire in Camberwell.

But it is already becoming clear that six people are dead because of the state of working class housing.

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Article information

Tue 7 Jul 2009, 18:50 BST
Issue No. 2159
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