You know I work in social housing in London, and that we own lots of homes in the Notting Hill/North Kensington area. Last week there was a terrible fire in a 27 floor tower block – Grenfell Tower – in our heartland.
Everyone in the UK will know about this appalling incident as dozens of people have died and several more have sustained atrocious injuries.
There is no way that tower blocks or any residential building should be unsafe and a major fire risk. We have strict building regulations and fire safety requirements. Every year I get complaints from residents who have to move their bikes from corridors and we even ban pictures on the hallway walls due to the fire risk this theoretically creates. In other words we are vigilant and observant in relation to health and safety issues, especially fire, and we do our utmost to prevent fires because they can be devastating and fatal.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the block go up in flames on the TV. At the same time local Notting Hill Housing residents were emailing and tweeting about the disaster. Once the fire was extinguished – some 24 hours after it started – everyone in the block was homeless and it was clear than many people had perished in their homes. Such was the desperation of one woman, that she dropped her baby from the window of her 10th floor flat; others tried to making parachutes so they could jump to safety. One man lost five members of his close family. Just the saddest, most terrible, devastating incident during my long career in social housing.
Notting Hill had three flats in the block, purchased specifically to house homeless families temporarily. We have heard from four individuals who survived. The others eight are missing.
I also have a friend, who used to work at Notting Hill, and previously at Servite Housing. Her 12 year old niece was lost in the fire, although her Mum was at work and her father managed to escape. Supported by many friends and family she is still searching, praying, holding vigils and hoping that Jessica will yet be found.
We are a close community and many of my staff live in the area or have friends and family there. Many others are also affected. 20 or so of our resident families, along with many others, were evacuated from the area due to concerns about the stability of the building adding more uncertainty, grief and dislocation to an already deeply hurt community. We have offered 27 homes that are available now for people to move into but it is too early for many who have lost so much. They will want to remain in the community halls, sleeping communally, until they know more about what has happened to their families. It is shocking and just desperate, and our teams are affected and reeling too. Like the fire service, the police, the Red Cross, the churches and the community they are doing all they can to mitigate the disaster. It has taken its toll on us all.
I am angry that we, I, my association and the council did not do better for these poor people. They took the flats, made them home, and then died in their beds, or as they tried to escape the black smoke and fierce flames.
I am angry that our building standards, fire safety approaches and technical specifications failed to keep people safe – these were avoidable deaths. I am involved, as a Board member of the National House Building Council in the raising of building standards in the UK. At work I meet the fire service regularly and take a strong interest in doing all we can to prevent fires and keep our homes and residents safe. The standards we offer in rented homes, especially to more vulnerable and low income families need to be higher than those we set for ourselves. So we have carbon monoxide alarms, regular fire drills, widespread information, checks and more checks. Yet we failed to protect those families.
I want us to reconsider how we build and repair our high rise properties. I want us to see higher standards for building and maintenance and I want the fire service and other local authorities to have skilled staff to lead, fight for excellence and to protect the public. I want us to learn from these needless deaths and to get it right for those we house and care for.
We have 4000 homes in the Notting Hill area which means 4000 families who saw the disaster, heard the cries for help, smelt the horrible stink of the billowing black smoke, who were frightened, traumatised and saddened beyond words. Many people, including the tenants – often poor and dispossessed themselves, many of them fasting as part of Ramadan – have moved heaven and earth to help their friends and neighbours, giving time, money, food and clothing to help those burnt out of house and home. My daughter Esme who works for the Council has been involved in helping the affected children and their families.
My teams of staff were superb. They have worked long days to help all those who have been evacuated. They have used their spare time to volunteer, to distribute food, to help organise and to support those who are now without anything at all. It has been hard on them. Working in conditions like this – with hundreds sleeping in makeshift beds on the floor of churches and community centres – is most unusual for us in an advanced economy. We all feel responsible for what has happened. All of us feel a terrible sense of guilt. But this does not mean anyone is specifically to blame – much as it is human nature to blame someone for causing these deaths. The inquiry will determine this, as will the police investigation, but I think we have all tried our very best, but we let our residents down. I will carry this one with me for the rest of my life.