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From The Socialist newspaper, 26 August 2009

How safe are our houses?

ON 3 July this year, a devastating fire swept through Lakanal House in Camberwell in south London. This horrifying incident, which left six people dead, highlighted the poor state of housing locally.

Southwark Socialist Party

Far from this being a one-off accident, Southwark council admit that Lakanal house is one of 200 high rise blocks in the district with only single-exit escapes, and there are about 4,500 similar properties with six or more storeys.

According to a recent investigation: "There are no communal fire alarms or sprinkler systems in the building, which was built in 1959." The central stairwell, the only exit, immediately filled up with thick black smoke after the fire started.

In 1999, Southwark council scheduled the building for demolition but later decided not to demolish it due to lack of funding, playing with ordinary people's lives. Shockingly, according to the BBC, Southwark council was aware in 2000 that 13 buildings presented a risk of rapid fire spread including Lakanal House and the neighbouring Marie Curie House.

Many residents now refuse to return to Lakanal House and Southwark council has announced they will demolish the building, although the funding for it may not be available!

Other blocks?

In addition this raises many more questions; what will replace the building if anything? What about the 200 other blocks in the area that are similarly constructed, are they safe? Why have the other 12 blocks, identified in 2000 as a fire risk, not been scheduled for demolition as well? Where will residents be re-homed and what will the state of these homes be?

Southwark council leader Nick Stanton, a Liberal Democrat, says the main obstacle is government funding for house building. So the biggest question raised by this fire is the state of housing in Britain. At present 4.5 million people are on the social housing waiting list in Britain. There were 40,000 repossessions of privately owned houses in 2008.

In the third quarter of 2008, new public housing orders went down by 36% and private housing orders fell by 62%. Housing that does get built is often substandard. A Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment audit in 2007 found that 88% of new housing in eastern England wasn't good enough and 26% should never have been built.

The government's plans for house building will see only 8,600 'affordable' homes created nationally, and 22,400 overall. This is clearly just a drop in the ocean!

Much of the 1 billion pledged to kick-start house building will go to housing associations (HAs); the government's preferred owner of social housing. The boards that run HAs are mostly unelected, and HAs tend to be run as a business instead of as a public service.

At the same time 49,000 construction workers have been made redundant in the first three months of 2009 due to the recession and job cuts are predicted to reach 450,000 in England, with 23% of London's construction workforce likely to be shed by 2012.

Under the insanity of capitalism workers who could build houses that are desperately needed are left to languish on the dole!

We demand a public house building programme to create jobs and provide homes for those who need them. Such homes must pass the most up-to-date fire safety requirements, and more power should be given to democratically elected tenants associations. Many complaints were made to the council by tenants over the fire safety of Lakanal House but they were unheeded.

According to the investigation the Fire Brigade did all they could, but the facilities at their disposal were inadequate. The ladders could not reach beyond the 9th floor. Their job was made much harder by the layout of the building and the lack of fire safety within the blocks.

Far from ensuring the Fire Brigade is properly and safely equipped to deal with fires, Greater London Authority councillor Brian Coleman and Mayor Boris Johnson are planning cuts in the London Fire Brigade! These will include cutting wages for attending training courses and cutting down the number of firefighters on fire engines.

When the banks fail the government coughs up billions to bail them out but when people's lives are destroyed, apparently no money is available. The money spent is woefully inadequate and is often used to feather the nests of private construction companies and housing associations while the need of ordinary people continues broadly unchanged.

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