Southwark council could have prevented the deaths of six people if it had done a proper fire safety check. That was the damning verdict of an inquest jury into a south London fire last week.
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 —all died because they were poor.
They were killed as fire raged through Lakanal House, a council-owned tower block in Camberwell, south London, in 2009.
The jury found that Southwark Council was responsible for a “serious failure” over materials used in the flats.
The council’s building design services should have checked the fire safety of flat 79 in October 2006 after the owner carried out modifications, including removing an internal wall.
The council never carried out this check. Catherine Hickman lived in flat 79.
Panels fitted to the outside of the whole block under the bedroom windows in a 2006/07 refurbishment were not fire resistant.
As Socialist Worker reported in 2009, when the blaze started those panels melted and helped it to spread to floors above and below. So firefighters found they were putting out fires above and below them.
A series of alterations and cost cutting measures had led to both the building being made less safe and to no attempt to investigate the level of fire safety.
This meant that areas that should have held a fire for at least an hour did not. Advice to residents to stay inside their flats proved deadly.
The crown prosecution service (CPS) investigation found that the council was aware that the tower block posed a fire risk and did not try to make the building safe.
Yet in May last year the CPS decided not to prosecute.
There were no fire alarms in the communal areas of Lakanal House.
Shockingly there are no legal requirements to fit sprinkler systems and communal fire alarms in social housing.
Even when there were risk assessments there were problems. People assessing fire risk in high rise buildings had just one day’s training.
Privatisation of council services has led to a run down of services. Cuts are about to make the situation worse.
Andy Dark, FBU assistant general secretary said, “Peckham fire station, the closest one to Lakanal House, is set to lose a fire engine if the mayor of London imposes his cuts.
“Southwark is due to lose one third of its appliances and one quarter of its fire stations.”
Last week 20 fire engines and around 120 firefighters attended a fire at the Cuming Museum and Newington Library in Southwark.
Of the 16 fire stations involved in putting out the fire four are due to close—Southwark, New Cross, Clapham and Clerkenwell. Southwark council has apologised for its failings over Lakanal House.