Two weeks ago, I watched a nightmare unfold as a huge fire engulfed the tower block in Aldgate where I am a leaseholder. Along with the rest of the City, I watched thick black smoke billowing out of the building, evoking the terrible memories and collective trauma of the Grenfell tragedy. Chunks of glass panelling crashed 100 feet onto Whitechapel High Street. 20 fire engines and 125 firefighters rushed to the scene to fight the blaze.
I received messages from my neighbours on WhatsApp. “The building is on fire. Get out. Everyone get out the building now.” Videos of the fire were already all over Twitter, but no fire alarms went off. The only reason some people left the building was because neighbours knocked on their door. Residents were being sent links from Twitter – that’s how they found out the building was on fire. A woman was trapped in the blaze and had to be rescued by the fire crew. It’s a miracle that nobody was harmed.
One of my neighbours told me how she was pushed down the fire escape as they fled the building. Another neighbour who lives below the flat that first caught fire had her entire flat flooded with the water from the fire hoses, which soaked through to the flats below. All of her possessions are ruined. Insurance will cover the building repairs, but it will not replace her belongings – she has lost everything.
The other residents and I have been fighting with the housing association and freeholder for years to make the building fire safe. As the building doesn’t have Grenfell-style cladding, our concerns were minimised and dismissed. Many other Londoners live in flats that are unsafe, with faulty safety equipment like sprinklers and fire doors. According to the London Fire Brigade, 1,149 buildings in London require emergency measures such as waking watches due to fire safety defects, the cost of which are passed on to residents.
The fire safety issues in my building have been known about since August 2020. After Grenfell, it was identified that the timbers on the balconies were flammable and dangerous, but nothing has been done to address this. Instead, the housing association and freeholder have argued with each other about who should pay for the remediation costs. All the while, the residents have been denied access to the developer who is meant to be responsible for the repairs, and our safety concerns have been consistently ignored.
Our building applied for the Tories’ Building Safety Fund to cover the repairs of the costs but was rejected as the fund is aimed at the removal of cladding costs and does not cover the costs of all fire safety remediation works for buildings of any height. This is a gaping hole in the scheme that the Tories have not addressed. As the fire in my building shows, cladding is only one of many fire safety risks that must be addressed. Missing fire breaks, defective insulation and other non-cladding issues make up at least half of the total of building safety work that must be done to keep residents safe.
The building safety bill, currently going through parliament, will introduce inadequate reforms. For example, extending the time limit for suing developers over building defects from six years to 30 years. This is when residents will have already shelled out possibly thousands in interim costs. In any event, we will only be able to sue if the developers did not comply with fire regulations at the time of building, which amounts to an unethical blanket immunity to most developers. Extraordinarily, freeholders have claimed that having to pay for the repairs would breach their ‘human rights’ when their negligence has endangered our lives.
The fire in my building and the stress and strain on all our mental health it has caused didn’t need to happen. It has been three years since the Grenfell public inquiry, which called for desperately needed legal reforms, but the Tories have failed to introduce a single recommendation. Their incompetence and lack of urgency means the building safety crisis is likely to continue for years to come, and I fear many others will have go through the pain and suffering of a fire in their building until things change.
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