Friday, July 10, 2009

John Denham's Response

On Monday my colleague Cllr Ian Wingfield and I wrote to John Denham MP, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, asking him to order a public inquiry into the fatal fire at Lakanal House a week ago.
Today we received his reply in which he assured us that he has not ruled out a full public inquiry into the fire. In his letter John Denham wrote that he is “keeping an open mind about the need for a public inquiry and can assure you I have not ruled this out as an option”.
The minister’s remarks follow similar calls for a public inquiry from Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman and the Fire Brigades Union and a unanimous motion from Southwark’s Council Assembly calling for a public inquiry on Wednesday.

The Secretary of State also wrote that he has issued national guidance on a new dedicated web page on the CLG website, including advice for residents, tenants and landlords, and details of local authorities’ and registered social landlords’ duties under the law.
So an encouraging response to our request.
The photo shows me laying flowers on behalf of the Labour Group at Lakanal on Wednesday.

Ondine Road House Conversions

Last night when I was talking to residents in Ondine Road, several raised with me their concerns that a number of properties in the road were being converted into three flats. At a Camberwell Community Council Planning meeting about 18 months ago I spoke against such a development and fortunately the planning committee threw out the application on the basis that the proposed room sizes were too small.

Unfortunately the applicants appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and were granted planning permission there. This has set a precedent in the road, and there are now a number of such developments taking place. Residents are rightly concerned that a road of single family houses is being turned into a road of flats and the essential character of the area is being changed.

There is always a tension between the need to make more homes in London and the need to preserve the character of an area. There also comes a point where a road reaches 'saturation point' and the area and amenities cannot take any more people or their cars! Therefore, the fact that a precedent has been set in Ondine Road does not mean that every other application will always succeed. The impact of any proposed development on the character and amenity of an area will always have to be considered.

But this development in Ondine Road does highlight one of the frustrations of being a local councillor. For good reasons an application was refused by elected councillors who know and understand an area well. For unknown reasons an unelected official in Bristol granted the application on appeal. Surely there must be grounds for saying that developments up to a certain level should have no right of appeal - so that there remains proper and accountable local control over the planning process.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Lakanal and Marie Curie Residents Meetings

Last night I popped into meetings for residents of Lakanal and Marie Curie following Friday's fire. Marie Curie is identical in design and structure to Lakanal, so the residents of that building are naturally anxious to know whether their block is safe.

The Lakanal meeting was packed and very emotional. People are clearly still traumatised about the events of Friday, and with no idea when they may be able to return to their homes or reclaim their possessions tempers were running fairly high. It was disappointing that the meeting was being held in a hall which was not big enough for the numbers who attended, and it was difficult to hear some of the questions and answers at times. There are many questions that need to be answered and I felt that many of the residents needed an urgent face-to-face interview with council officers, rather than trying to make themselves heard in a public meeting.

One of the questions which troubles me is whether we should be housing young families and older people above a certain level in tower blocks. The fact that three of the Lakanal victims were children raises a question over how easy it is to organise a family's escape from a fire.

I walked with Harriet Harman to the Marie Curie residents meeting which had been moved to the Town Hall. Reports from the meeting suggest that the fire service is still at something of a loss to explain why the fire spread as it did through Lakanal. The advice being given to residents of Marie Curie was to stay in their flats in the event of a fire and move to the balcony for rescue. But this is exactly the same advice that was being given to residents of Lakanal on Friday.

So some very serious and very worrying questions remain. I hope that the fire service and Council act with real urgency to address those questions - in hours and days rather than in weeks and months.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Fire at Lakanal House

Friday night's fire at Lakanal House on the Sceaux Gardens Estate has left us all shocked and deeply saddened. It is hard to comprehend that six people lost their lives in this fire in the heart of Camberwell, just behind the Town Hall.

I had visited the block on a number of occasions and recall it well. There was a security entrance system on each side of the landings and the communal areas had a fairly claustrophobic feeling. But this is not uncommon in many blocks of a similar age in the borough - so I can't imagine that it contributed in any way to the tragedy.
There are clearly lessons which need to be learned from these awful events, and I hope that there will be some things that can be done sooner rather than later. For example, fire drills in our council blocks might offer some reassurance to residents and give them vital information about what they should do in a fire. Can we introduce sprinkler systems to our blocks which only have limited emergency exits? Should we install US style fire escapes on buildings?

Council Assembly will be meeting on Wednesday evening where I imagine that many of these issues will be raised. I know that many people on the estate and living in similar blocks are very worried at the present time, so we must act to reassure them as quickly as we can.