Samuel Garside House fire review prompts questions over responsibility
- Credit: @mobee_me /PA Wire
"Vital questions" over who is responsible in the aftermath of an emergency have been raised by a review into the fire at Samuel Garside House.
The probe into the weeks following the blaze at the block of flats in De Pass Gardens, Barking, has yet to be published but has appeared in cabinet papers.
There were no fatalities, but scores of families were evacuated and spent months in temporary accommodation following the fire on June 9, 2019.
One resident told the review: "We will never recover from what happened. The fear that we could have lost our lives will haunt us always."
The authors state that beyond the "difficulties" in the days following the fire, there were "differences of view" about where responsibility for displaced residents lies.
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On the day of the fire all that was known was it was alleged to have started from a barbecue on a balcony.
Eight fire-damaged flats had to be rebuilt, while 12 were affected by water or damage to front doors.
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Another 27 escaped damage but could not be lived in until communal works were completed.
Its rapid spread was fuelled by the building's "external treatment" even though the timber balconies complied with regulations at the time, the report says.
Residents told the review they had been given assurances before the blaze about what would happen to the timber in the event of a fire, but this "proved to be inaccurate".
The council commissioned report notes "anyone would be terrified to see their homes go up in flames as quickly as Samuel Garside House did". But awareness raised by the Grenfell Tower fire increased the impact "many times over".
The authors, former leader of Lewisham Council Sir Steve Bullock and Diarmaid Ward, note fire prevention safety work before the fire and the blaze itself "would inevitably make a return to the building a matter of considerable trepidation".
The "complex" ownership of Samuel Garside House also meant residents found it "difficult" to know who to go to for help.
When completed in 2014, 32 of the flats were sold to Southern Housing which continues to manage and rent them.
The rest were sold by Bellway Homes. The head lease was later transferred to Adriatic Land which at that time was owned by Bellway, but later sold.
Bellway told the review, which focused on the response to the fire and its aftermath, it had no legal duty to repair the building after the fire.
The building's management was carried out on Adriatic Land's behalf by HomeGround, which then appointed Pinnacle to carry out the day-to-day management.
Before the fire, HomeGround replaced Pinnacle with Residential Management Group (RMG).
One resident spoken to during the review said the layers of management made it difficult to get in touch with someone responsible for safety.
Eleven days after the fire, a total of 64 out of 67 households remained in temporary accommodation.
One resident told the review in June, 2020, they were still paying the service charge at Samuel Garside House despite being in accommodation in Canning Town.
The residents of the eight flats that suffered "catastrophic" damage were advised they would be able to return within 24 weeks while others were advised of shorter time frames.
However, a year later some had still not been able to return home due to balcony replacement work.
The report notes, without council intervention, residents faced "an uncertain future" in hotels with few personal belongings, miles from their schools and GPs, and paid for at their own expense.
But at the same time they were not prepared to return to Samuel Garside House until they felt it was safe. Some didn't return until March last year.
Adriatic and HomeGround argued a number of stakeholders involved in the aftermath of the fire were "unduly focused on seeking to fix blame" and making "uninformed comments" about safety before assessments were completed.
"This led to an increased atmosphere of distrust and division. This atmosphere made it increasingly difficult to persuade the insurers to continue to fund ongoing costs," they told the review.
The wooden panels' removal, a lack of a repair works timetable, including when households could return, and a lack of help finding accommodation other than hotels were three issues which concerned residents.
Those in leasehold flats and others owned by Southern Housing were worried the building still had balconies with wooden panelling when they went back.
Southern Housing's immediate response to the fire is described as professional and helpful, but its long term response "should have been much better".
The report adds the stress and anxiety felt by residents was made worse by a lack of effective communications from the owners and managing agents.
Adriatic and HomeGround acknowledge "in some cases, communications could have been clearer and more responsive".
Barking and Dagenham Council is praised as the only organisation able to provide coordination and leadership even though this went beyond its legal duty.
The council spent £100,000 dealing with the fire's aftermath, none of which is recoverable.
The review recommends local authorities be granted powers to declare a local housing emergency where costs up to 30 days can be reclaimed from building owners.
It notes that, besides the council, no other stakeholders took responsibility to manage a meeting on June 10 during which a Bellway representative stated the timber was fire retardant.
One resident said there should have been more help from Bellway, RMG and HomeGround, alleging each were "unhelpful and not at all sympathetic".
RMG reported it sent 14 texts to residents, an information pack, insurance FAQs and a message on safety measures.
HomeGround’s insurance team also telephoned and emailed 20 leaseholders whose flats were damaged. Others were telephoned by the insurance brokers, Gallagher.
The report states "it is clear... residents nevertheless felt confused and unsupported".
In a letter dated June 13, the council voiced its concern about the way the building’s management handled the recovery operation.
But Adriatic and HomeGround pointed to their limited ability to help, pointing out that the only income the landlord receives from leaseholders is ground rent.
RMG told the review that after a fire in a residential building there is usually no specific role for the managing agent until the property has been reinstated and re-occupied.
They state their role was to assist Adriatic to perform repair and maintenance duties. They said the recovery effort is usually led by insurers.
Under housing legislation, RMG said it would expect the council to be the first port of call.
At the time of the fire, Bellway had no "proprietary" interest in the building and no role in its management.
Bellway pointed to London Fire Brigade's view that the fire resulted from a naked flame igniting flammable materials on a balcony when the instructions for safe use of balconies made clear there should be no naked flames.
The firm noted the main fabric of the building performed properly in resisting the fire.
The review praises Bellway for quickly deciding to replace the wooden balconies, but notes there were "difficulties and delays".
Among its recommendations, the review calls on housing providers to review emergency plans and communication with residents. Freeholders should also lodge a statement of ownership with the Land Registry.
Councils should also have greater enforcement powers for buildings below 18 metres, which would match those of a building safety regulator, legislation for which is going through Parliament.
Barking and Dagenham Council leader, Cllr Darren Rodwell, welcomed the review for shining a light on the fire's aftermath.
He said: "The fire had a huge impact on the people who live there. Sir Steve’s report captures their voices and the experiences they had of being displaced by the fire and with struggling to access basic services.
“The council had to pull out all the stops to step in and find alternative accommodation, deal with insurers and ultimately inspect homes to ensure residents could return safely to them, and we did this without any additional resources or funding.
“Samuel Garside House is typical of modern housing developments up and down the country with a confusing mixture of owners and agents. This raises vital questions about who takes responsibility in the aftermath of an event like a fire.
“Subject to approval by cabinet of the recommendations in the report, I look forward to working with my colleagues to secure changes in the law which strengthen the rights of tenants and leaseholders and give local authorities the powers they need.”
Suzanne Horsley, director of buildings at Southern Housing Group, also welcomed the report and recommendations.
"We are pleased the report recognises the work of our dedicated colleagues in supporting our residents, both immediately following the incident and ongoing.
"We fully recognise how difficult the decision to return to homes in Barking Riverside has been for some, even with the LFB’s assurance that it was safe to do so.
"We have continued to work closely with our residents to reassure them and support their individual needs. This includes offers of permanent alternative accommodation for anyone who did not wish to return for any reason.”
In separate statements, RMG and HomeGround said they supported the review and are considering the findings.
Bellway is reviewing the report and preparing a response.