‘Difficult and chaotic’: Council defends Chalcots evacuation after criticism in new report

Towers on the Chalcots Estate

Towers on the Chalcots Estate. Photograph: Wikicommons

The leader of Camden Council has defended its decision last year to evacuate the Chalcots Estate – after an independent review criticised the lack of communication with residents, some of whom were left “extremely traumatised”.

Cllr Georgia Gould (Kentish Town, Lab) said she accepts “most of the report”, but explained that the council was acting on advice from the London Fire Brigade.

The evacuation was carried out on 23 June 2017, just a week after the Grenfell Tower blaze, after concerns were raised about the fire safety of the buildings.

It was one of the largest operations of its kind in the UK since World War II, affecting over 2,000 people.

At a cabinet meeting on 25 July, Cllr Gould presented the council’s response to the Independent Review of the evacuation.

She said: “We accept most of the report. It is an important piece of work which will inform emergency planning in Camden going forward.

“The evacuation was an incredibly difficult and chaotic process, especially given the lack of notice.

“We were aware of the enormous disruption it would cause to our residents. It was something we absolutely did not want to do, but were acting on the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) advice.”

Lead reviewer Marian Harrington, former Director of Adult Services for Westminster, emphasised that her report was not intended to apportion blame, but to be read as a learning experience for the council.

She said: “Moving people can be really risky. A future suggestion to think about is where a risk assessment could be taken where the risks of moving people were assessed alongside the risks of staying put.

“Frail people, or those with pre-existing mental health condition on the estate who we spoke to, were extremely traumatised by moving.”

Councillors at the cabinet meeting spoke of the taxing circumstances in which the evacuation took place and their efforts to support residents through the process, some of whom rarely left the Chalcots Estate.

The review, published in June 2018, also details contention between the council and the London Fire Brigade over the wisdom of a mandatory evacuation of the estate.

It describes the London Fire Brigade as concerned enough about the state of the Chalcots’ fireproofing to the point of wanting to immediately evacuate all but one of the blocks on the estate, and unwilling to negotiate with council officers a planned evacuation over the weekend.

‘Stay put’ advice was judged to be inappropriate by the London Fire Brigade, with holes drilled into doors and potential problem with gas risers making it impossible to guarantee that a fire would not spread.

Harrington states in her review that the communication of the terms of the evacuation to residents was unclear, with a lack of clarity and consistency in a letter delivered to residents about whether or not the council could require people to leave their homes.

She also comments that there is evidence that some council staff did not understand the evacuation was strictly voluntary, and failed to explain this situation consistently to residents.

Camden Council Leader Georgia Gould. Photograph: Camden Council

Cllr Gould said: “Proceeding with a voluntary evacuation meant we could work with the residents, rather than a mandatory evacuation which would have meant closing down the blocks straight away.

“It was an ongoing emergency situation. Our letter was clear that it was unsafe for people to remain in their homes.

“We have committed to further review to find out what happened to allow the blocks to reach the position that they had to be evacuated.

“That is also why we have a new Director of Resident Safety [Keith Scott], the first position of its kind in the country, to try to guarantee the continuing process of safety.”

Jessica Gibbons, Camden Council’s Director of Community Services, pointed out that new safety strategies were now in place as a result of lessons learned from the evacuation, saying: “The new procedures are working. At a recent fire in Highgate, adult social care colleagues were brought in who could quickly identify what needs there were in terms of finding alternative accommodation.”

The senior London Fire Brigade officer on site during the evacuation is singled out in the review. In its commentary on the decision to evacuate, it states: “[Council officers] felt he did not seem to wish to negotiate any mitigations or allow the council any time to put emergency repairs in place.

“He is said to have repeatedly insisted that all the work needed to take place during the evening of 23 June – clearly an impractical requirement – or an Article 31 notice would be served, which would require complete evacuation.

“This officer was not made available to this review by the LFB as he has now retired.”

Bob O’Toole, chair of the Chalcots Estate’s Burnham Tower Tenants and Residents Association (TRA), who was also present at the meeting, said afterwards: “I think things have been learned from what happened. I think the response from the council to the report was positive and they have already started to work on changes to the way things are done.

“As far as I am concerned the LFB’s decision was the wrong one, and the Council tried to not have to make the decision to evacuate residents late on a Friday night. The media didn’t help either.

“We are still feeling the after effects. As well as living on a building site, there is still lots more work to come yet with the windows and curtain wall to be replaced.”

In response to questioning from Cllr Angela Mason (Lab, Cantelowes), Cabinet Member for Best Start in Life, on what the London Fire Brigade’s response to the Review has been, Harrington stated: “I have not gotten a response. Their head officer who I was in contact with was open, honest and helpful, but he was not there on the night. The person who was has now retired.”

Harrington added that the review was submitted to the London Fire Brigade coinciding with the opening of the the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, which could have contributed to their delayed response.

Cllr Gould emphasised that Camden Council have a “very good working relationship” with the London Fire Brigade.

The report also addresses rumours that the council had planned an evacuation in advance. Residents had raised the issue that journalists had discussed a possible evacuation with them days before it occurred.

Harrington said: “I found no evidence of Camden Council having made a decision to evacuate prior to the night itself. Most of the problems on the night would not have happened if Camden Council had had more time to plan an evacuation.

“The review was not to apportion blame but to help the council learn. I hope this report will help to assist them further in that process.”