Councillor warned about escape routes from Grenfell Tower in 2009, inquiry hears

The scene of the fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London (Carl Court/PA)
The scene of the fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London (Carl Court/PA) (PA Archive)
18:25pm, Wed 12 May 2021
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A worried councillor had tried to raise concerns about how people might escape from a fire at the Grenfell Tower after a fatal blaze in a different housing block in 2009, a public inquiry has heard.

Local councillor Judith Blakeman outlined her fears in an email to Robert Black who was the chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) from 2009 to December 2017 and to director of housing Laura Johnson a day after a fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, on July 3 2009 in which six people died.

In the email Ms Blakeman spoke of her fears that people who are trying to flee in a fire may face a “dead end” and she invites both officials to join her on a trip to the top floor of Grenfell Tower in west London to see the problem for themselves.

I would invite you to accompany me up to the top floor (of Grenfell Tower) to see how difficult it would be to get out of this block in the event of an emergency

In an email addressed to Mr Black and Ms Johnson, she states: “In light of the tragic fire yesterday in Camberwell I would be grateful if we can have a risk assessment and report on the means of escape in the event of fire covering all the tower blocks in TMO’s ownership within the borough.

“At Grenfell Tower, for example, because of the council offices on the lower floors, getting out of this building by the stairs is extremely difficult and one can end up at a dead end.

“I would invite you to accompany me up to the top floor to see how difficult it would be to get out of this block in the event of an emergency.”

A fire at the Grenfell Tower block in west London in June 2017 claimed 72 lives.

Ms Johnson told the inquiry, which is examining the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the fire, that she did not remember getting the email.

The council was the owner and landlord of Grenfell Tower.

The TMO was the organisation appointed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to run its entire council housing stock.

Ms Johnson was the RBKC’s director of housing when the Grenfell Tower fire took place.

She worked for RBKC from February 2009 until September 2017.

The Grenfell Tower(Jonathan Brady/PA) (PA Wire)

Ms Johnson’s response to Ms Blakeman was that a working party would be carrying out a review of the fire risk assessments of the communal areas of the council blocks.

Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the Inquiry asked: “In light of Ms Blakeman’s email did you specifically direct anyone at the TMO to undertake a risk assessment of the means of escape in TMO-managed tower blocks?”

Ms Johnson said she “did not remember”.

On whether she took up the offer to go with Ms Blakeman to the top floor of Grenfell Tower, Ms Johnson told the hearing: “I don’t believe I did.”

When asked why, Ms Johnson added: “I don’t know.”

Mr Millett said: “A serious and fatal fire had happened two days beforehand.

“She (Ms Blakeman) has identified a specific risky building and, even without the benefit of hindsight, why would you not have thought to yourself ‘here is a councillor with a building in her ward which she is concerned about, I better have a look at it myself’.”

Ms Johnson added: “I’m afraid I really don’t remember this email from 2009 and do not remember my thought process on how I responded to councillor Blakeman, all I can see is what is written here.”

She believed she would have spoken to Mr Black and Janice Wray, the TMO’s health and safety manager, about it but added “clearly here I haven’t taken up her offer of taking a trip to the top floor of Grenfell Tower”.

Ms Johnson was asked if it was fair to say that from the time of the Lakanal House fire that she was personally aware that concerns had been expressed about the adequacy of escape routes from Grenfell Tower.

Ms Johnson replied: “I am aware that it was raised in this particular email but I don’t remember being continually aware of it throughout my time as director of housing at RBKC.”

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) issued a deficiency notice relating to Grenfell Tower in November 2016, after an inspection of the building that month, which was to be complied with by May 2017.

Ms Johnson noted that two flat entrances were identified as not self-closing and accepted she did not appreciate that maintenance was an issue.

She said the TMO sought to rectify these matters.

The inquiry heard that many doors which should have been self-closing and needed repair, replacement or adjustment but Ms Johnson said that cost was not her greatest concern.

She said cost was “always a consideration” as the  budget had  considerable shortfalls and responsibilities but “there was never dispute at RBKC about paying for any measures that were required for health and safety.”

Ms Johnson wanted to push the installation of door closers to become a five year instead of a three-year programme with no inspections.

On what was her  view on the LFB’s clear advice on the need to maintain and inspect self-closing devices,  Ms Johnson said: “I don’t remember exactly what my views were in March 2017 but all I can say is I was clearly in error.

“I accepted the fact that we needed a door closer programme and that one should be put in place.

“I wanted to do that with the full understanding of the legal advice required in order to gain access particularly to leaseholder doors but what I really wanted to understand was whether statutorily we needed to do an inspection programme.”

The hearing was adjourned to Thursday.

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