Guest columnist: Chalcots report raised more questions than answers

Chalcots Estate in Camden, London, where residents were evacuated over fire safety fears. Picture: P

Chalcots Estate in Camden, London, where residents were evacuated over fire safety fears. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

On the evening of June 23, 2017 I received a knock on the door.

Upon opening the door I was greeted by two Camden Council staff members.

I was informed I had to leave my property due to fire safety concerns. When I asked for some more information I was abruptly told “we have no further information”. I made it clear I wouldn’t be leaving in the middle of the night without further information. It was at this point one of the two council workers said “We’ve been told to say the police will be called if you refuse to leave”.

There was a reluctance about the way the member of staff said this and it was clear this was an order that came from higher up, to be used in instances where residents refused to leave.

I chose to reside in my property. The next day I received multiple knocks on my door from Camden Council staff. They had now changed their approach and informed me I was allowed to remain in my home. At this point there was a security guard posted on each floor of the building 24 hours a day as well as regular patrol and security at the front entrance alongside Camden Council staff. The building felt safer than ever!

Unfortunately it meant enduring occasional drilling at unsociable hours, constantly being asked who you were as you entered and left the building, being escorted to your flat by security every time you entered and continuous knocks on your door attempting to convince you to leave your property. At times this became incredibly forceful. On a couple of occasions Council staff held the lift open with the help of security as I attempted to go up to my flat because I had not registered my details at the Library as someone looking for

In truth I was one of the lucky ones. The behaviour I endured whilst remaining in my flat for the month during the evacuation was nothing compared to those who spent nights on an air bed at the Leisure Centre followed by the uncertainty of not knowing which hotel you would be moved to and in some cases being moved from hotel to hotel due to lack of availability.

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Like many, I was happy to hear there would be an Independent review of the Chalcots Evacuation and was hopeful it would provide residents with a degree of understanding and insight into the problems faced, as well as some much needed closure. Upon finally reading part 1 of Marrian Harrington’s review of the evacuation I almost felt like I had more questions than answers.

The first thing noticed was the decision to omit any mention of Camden Council staff informing residents on the night of the evacuation that police would be called if they refused to leave.

Marian Harrington was aware of this issue as residents relayed this to her during the information gathering process, via the methods mentioned in her terms of reference. I myself emailed my account to the requested email address as well as sending a physical copy to the necessary postal address. As there were various accounts from residents of these threats of police action occurring it led me to wonder why this had not been included and addressed in part 1 of the review, whether believed or not.

Part 1 of the review covered the evacuation process and why the council decided to evacuate the building so abruptly. The reason given for this was the discovery of various fire safety concerns which led to one Senior London Fire Brigade Officer insisting the evacuation had to take place immediately or an article 31 prohibition notice would be sought and issued.

Within the review it was explained that the senior LFB Officer was very difficult and refused to provide any leeway in terms of the timescale in which this evacuation had to take place. The review paints the picture that the LFB Officer insisted the evacuation had to take place that night (the evening of Friday, June 23, 2017).

Curiously the mentioned LFB Officer was unavailable for comment due to retirement.

Why someone is unavailable for comment due to retirement is questionable as many whom are retired are able to contribute evidence to reviews or police investigations via witness statements and other means, retirement alone is not a feasible explanation for being unavailable for comment.

The final point relates to Cllr Georgia Gould’s decision to announce the evacuation to the media via a press conference before informing the residents. This was vaguely touched on within part 1 of the review. It was deemed that the modern information age we live in was the cause of information being leaked to the media and residents becoming aware of the evacuation via news reports.

Whether information was leaked before Cllr Gould’s decision to speak to the press is one thing, however it wasn’t until Cllr Gould called a press conference and confirmed the news that we began to see news reports of the evacuation. This announcement by the councillor led to press rushing outside Taplow tower block to cover the evacuation to the embarrassment of the residents, all of which avoidable had Cllr Gould not made that decision to announce the evacuation to the press at that moment.

Whether information had been leaked or not is a matter out of the councillor’s control however it remained Cllr Gould’s decision to prioritise calling a press conference for the media as opposed to calling an emergency meeting to inform residents of the evacuation.

I believe many residents are relieved action has been taken by Camden Council to rectify the errors and issues within the building but the manner of the evacuation is where many feel disappointed.

Part 1 of the review was supposed to be an opportunity to learn from mistakes made. It was important the council did not use the review as a pass the blame or excuse making exercise. The review was an opportunity for Camden Council to afford residents the honesty and transparency they were neglected during the evacuation process, a chance to say this is what we did wrong, this is what we’ve learnt and this is what we will put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Whether Camden Council have achieved this remains to be seen.

• Full name and address of columnist has been verified by Ham&High.