Chalcots - Five Years On: Council admits deleting whistleblower emails

Chalcots estate Burnham block in foreground

Whistle-blower emails sent to Camden Council officers by a worker on the 2008 Chalcots refurbishment were deleted, the authority has admitted - Credit: Charles Thomson

Camden Council deleted emails from a whistleblower who raised serious concerns during the refurbishment of the Chalcots estate.

The man, who worked on the project, told officials in 2008 that he had evidence supporting some of his claims.

But the Ham&High has learned the emails were deleted – and Camden will not say whether they were ever investigated.

Nine years later, on June 23, 2017 – after the Grenfell Tower disaster – more than 2,000 residents were evacuated after a fire inspection concluded the estate's tower blocks were too dangerous to live in.

It found “serious defects”, including flammable cladding and inadequate fire doors and fire stopping.

The result was Britain's largest evacuation since World War Two, with 636 households temporarily displaced.

On the fifth anniversary of the evacuation, the council was poised this week to finally begin a public inquiry into the safety failings.

But the Ham&High has learned that a large amount of evidence has likely already been destroyed.

Chalcots Estate in Swiss Cottage, Camden

The Chalcots estate, in Swiss Cottage, was evacuated on June 23, 2017, after serious fire safety defects were discovered - Credit: Charles Thomson

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Deleted

In 2008, a man who worked on the project sent a string of emails to councillors, council officers and some residents, making serious allegations which cannot be published for legal reasons.

The Ham&High used Freedom of Information laws to ask Camden for copies of all emails sent to the council by the whistleblower.

But Camden replied saying it had no emails at all from the whistleblower.

“This is because we do not retain emails indefinitely,” the council said.

“Our email policy means that emails over seven years old are deleted from our system – and email accounts are also deleted six months after someone leaves the council.”

If this policy was followed then not only the whistleblower's emails but all other emails sent contemporaneously about the project have already been destroyed, meaning they cannot be scrutinised by the future inquiry.

It also means that despite having experienced the Chalcots incident, in which serious problems were uncovered more than seven years after the fact, Camden has continued to operate a policy of deleting emails after seven years.

Asked why this policy had not been changed, the council did not answer.

Chalcots Bray block tenant representative Nigel Rumble

Nigel Rumble, elected tenants' representative for Bray block, said he was 'shocked and appalled' by the Ham&High's discoveries - Credit: Polly Hancock

Concerns

Nigel Rumble, elected representative for Bray block – and a Conservative candidate in this year's local elections – said he was “shocked and appalled”.

“It’s like living in a draconian red state where we have no accountability,” he said, calling the policy “extraordinary”.

Hasan Shah, representative for Burnham block, added: “I never knew they would delete emails. Why would they be getting rid of evidence?”

Without the contemporaneous emails, he said, he feared the inquiry would just be "a bit of a show".

Mr Shah said he was also concerned because since 2017, residents have thought they were protecting their interests by ensuring all concerns about their homes were recorded in emails.

“Does that mean they are soon going to start deleting those?” he said.

Public Inquiry

Immediately after the evacuation, Labour leader Cllr Georgia Gould committed to a public inquiry into the safety issues.

But the council received legal advice that it should not hold that inquiry until it had exhausted legal efforts to recoup money from contractors.

Cllr Gould told the Ham&High this week: “We are now in the very final stages of concluding the legal proceedings.”

She said the outcome would be made public “any day now”.

Cllr Georgia Gould. Picture: Camden Council

Camden's Labour council leader Georgia Gould said the results of a legal action over the Chalcots estate would be made public 'any day now', allowing the authority to finally proceed with a promised public inquiry - Credit: Camden Council

Then, she added: “I will be able to keep my promise to appoint an independent person to do the second part of the review.

“I am clear that the chair will be completely independent and free to speak to whoever they wish to, including officers, members and residents.

“Given the period of time that has passed, this may of course include those who have subsequently left the council, including those who are no longer councillors and a number of key officers who have since retired.”

But the council refused to say whether officers who had since left had signed non-disclosure agreements, or whether the inquiry would be able to compel them to answer questions.

It also would not say whether the emails of relevant officers who left the council since the evacuation have been preserved as evidence for the inquiry, or have still been deleted after six months.

“We couldn’t have got this far in the process without the support and patience of our Chalcots residents and I am personally incredibly grateful for their help so far,” said Cllr Gould.

Full statement of Camden Council leader Georgia Gould:

“It has been five years since we had to evacuate people from their homes in the Chalcots. It was an incredibly difficult time for those living there and I promised to do everything I could to support people as we worked to make their homes safe.

“From the very beginning I promised to deliver a new higher level of safety for the residents living in the blocks. I also promised to be completely transparent and open with everyone about what happened and why it happened. That is why within hours of the evacuation I committed publicly to an independent review.

“At the time, our immediate priority was to make people safe and that is what we did first. Once we knew the blocks were safe we started work with safety experts and residents to design the cladding system and windows needed as a long term solution.

“The next step was to commission both our independent review into what happened and begin our legal action against the original contractors who designed and delivered the cladding. We care deeply about what residents have been through at the Chalcots, that is why we have done everything we can to work in the open and keep our promises.

“We started the first part of the independent review process in December 2017 and published it in June 2018. The legal advice was that we need to complete our legal case before undertaking part two of the review.

“We couldn’t have got this far in the process without the support and patience of our Chalcots residents and I am personally incredibly grateful for their help so far. We are now in the very final stages of concluding the legal proceedings. I know people understand that cases like this are complicated and take time but we are preparing to share the outcome of the case any day now. This means that I will now be able to keep my promise to appoint an independent person to do the second part of the review.

“The second part of the review will look at the refurbishment of the buildings, by the PFI company, and their management. I am clear that the chair will be completely independent and free to speak to whoever they wish to, including officers, members and residents. Given the period of time that has passed this may of course include those who have subsequently left the council including those who are no longer councillors and a number of key officers who have since retired. The independent chair will publish the report in full once it is completed.”