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Fire tears through Barking flats - cladding off now!
Quality, permanent rehousing now!
Pete Mason, chair of Barking Reach Residents' Association and East London Socialist Party member
On Sunday 9 June - almost two years to the day after the Grenfell Tower disaster - a fire ripped through a block of flats on the Barking Riverside estate. Fortunately all the residents managed to escape.
But this blaze should never have happened. Grenfell was a stark warning that the drive for profit in the housing sector is putting people's lives at risk. How many more people's lives have to be destroyed before real action is taken against housing criminals?
Industry journal Inside Housing reports it has seen emails stating the wooden cladding on these buildings was "Class D" fire-resistant - more combustible than the "Class B" government guidance requires.
The company managing the building at the time apparently knew this two weeks after the Grenfell disaster in 2017.
Bellway Homes, which built the blocks, stated on the afternoon of 10 June that this claim is false - because, by government regulations, no fire retardant was needed at all! "There is no legal requirement to build out of non-combustible materials" for buildings less than 18 metres, Bellway Homes' regional chairman Ian Gorst told us. "The cladding is not fire retardant."
Bellway finally arrived on the estate this afternoon, and stated it will now carry out a survey of the estate and remove dangerous elements 'if necessary'! What more proof does it need than this fire? Remove the cladding now!
When we in the Barking Reach Residents' Association asked Bellway to come to the estate just one month ago, after BBC Watchdog exposed failings in its construction, Bellway refused. It took a tragedy of this scale to bring it here.
Most other buildings on the estate also have this evidently combustible material on them. How long will people be expected to live in these potential death traps?
Since Grenfell, the residents' association has raised questions about the wooden material used on the balconies and to clad buildings on the estate.
As recently as May this year, Bellway was trying to allay "any fear you may have over the safety and construction of your Bellway home" in an email to the residents association.
This was after it faced scrutiny over dangerous materials and building methods at another development in West Lothian.
The residents' association was verbally told that the materials used in the buildings would not ignite for 30 minutes in a fire, yet the building was consumed by flames by the time the fire brigade arrived around five minutes after being alerted.
An angry and emotional meeting of residents from the 80 flats affected by was held by the council the next morning, Monday 10 June.
In the view of residents, the private landlord - Adriatic Land, not present - collects its lucrative ground rent without taking sufficient responsibility for maintaining the property, leading to this terrible fire.
Still-shaken residents had many questions for the representatives of private firm Residential Management Group, which manages the properties.
There were also many questions for Bellway, which failed to send any representative until the afternoon.
Amid shouts of "jail them" and "shame on you" there was an overwhelming feeling that if this fire had taken place in the middle of the night the outcome could have been much more tragic.
Residents banged on neighbours' doors to alert them of the rapidly growing fire which spread across one side of the building.
Questions were raised about the fire alarm, which residents say was too faint to really hear, and in any case didn't start until the fire had engulfed one side of the building.
The flames rose and spread up six floors through the entirely wooden balconies, which acted similarly to the cladding in the Grenfell disaster.
There are also suspicions that the ventilation system didn't work, so corridors filled with smoke, making it harder for residents to evacuate. All of these questions have to be answered.
The owners handed management of the building to Residential Management Group last October. This was a move to prevent self-management of the building by the residents, as supported by the tenacious work of the residents' association.
Residential Management Group immediately initiated a review of the fire safety in the building, which clearly was not up to scratch because it introduced a night-time fire warden.
But it would appear from the fire that the firm's measures merely scratched the surface of the problem. The blame for this lies ultimately with the landlord.
Already, practical donations have been piling in. Showing the huge sympathy of local people, baby clothes, books and prams were given to those who needed them. More donations were arriving as the meeting got underway.
Many residents left their flats with only the clothes on their backs. Many more will want to donate too.
The community will have to ensure that there is democratic control of these generous donations by organised residents to ensure they make it to those who need them.
Over the past two years, questions have arisen about how much of the millions raised for Grenfell survivors actually made it to them. We must make sure this does not happen here.
Residents' feelings on the immediate issues were loud and clear at the meeting. Take the cladding down now!
While understandably people wanted to get to their flats as soon as possible, equally there was no faith they were safe to return to. This fear can only be eased by removing the wooden material.
Between the landowners, the builders, managing agents and housing associations, residents are fed up of each "stakeholder" passing the buck on problems with the property. It can't be allowed to happen this time.
Residents feel Bellway has never been a fast mover on criticisms or concerns. The neighbouring block, clad with the same material, is heated by a temporary outside unit, run on diesel, which sits near the building! This is because the heating and hot water is inadequate and has been since it was built - a battle the residents' association has been constantly pushing for action on. Imagine the fierce heat of a burning building on the side of that temporary unit full of diesel fuel, like an unexploded bomb!
Understandably, residents don't want to take Bellway's word that the properties are safe. They deserve to see the fire safety information now, we have demanded it, and have been promised it immediately.
The whole validity of Bellway's safety assurances is in question, and an independent fire safety check must take place to alleviate fears, once the cladding is removed.
For the time being, residents are staying in hotels. But some already know they will never be able to return to their homes. They should be rehoused in like-for-like properties.
There are many new builds going up on the estate. After relevant safety checks and removal of any cladding, displaced residents should be offered homes in these.
If decent homes can't be found for the displaced families, the council should look to requisition empty homes to ensure residents can stay in the local area.
No resident, in particular those displaced, should have to pay service charge for fire damage of course - in fact they should instead be credited. But if residents feel it is necessary, they may decide to use their collective strength, as in other housing campaigns, by withholding rent and service charge to build pressure under the slogan: "no safety, no rent, no service charge!" This undoubtedly will be a point of discussion.
If construction work and fire checks don't happen immediately, it will be more proof of the incompetence of the many private companies getting rich from these homes.
Adriatic has had two years since Grenfell to sort out the cladding, and has failed. Adriatic should forfeit its ownership of the block.
After paying to make good all the properties, along with Bellway, Adriatic should be made to relinquish the block to the residents for democratic self-management.
If implemented across the estate, this would open the way for fragmented services to be unified and run by the council, which is at least an elected body, unlike RMG or Adriatic.
Council leader Darren Rodwell may complain, but this tragedy is also down to the policies of privatisation pursued by the council - the entire estate is privately owned.
Barking and Dagenham's Labour council should have been acting in the interests of residents in the last two years, not landlords and investors.
They should have demanded the testing and removal of dangerous material from our homes, but Rodwell told us that he was held back by government restrictions and private ownership. This only underlines that Labour councilsí policy of privatisation is the wrong path.
Rodwell and local Labour MP Margret Hodge have found time to attack Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his anti-austerity politics, but have not done enough to defend the right of residents to safe housing.
Almost exactly two years after Grenfell, those residents are still fighting for justice. Potentially deadly cladding remains on over 150 buildings, and the process of removal has been extremely slow.
We must build a fight for affordable, decent and safe housing for all. The residents' association is meeting to launch a campaign on fire safety on the estate this week. I will be arguing that we campaign for:
- Quality, permanent rehousing of all affected residents
- Remove all cladding and balconies immediately
- Release and re-do the fire safety assessment
- Confiscate the blocks from Adriatic to ensure residentsí safety, and place them in the hands of democratically elected residentsí organisations
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 10 June 2019 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.