A Labour MP has accused a London landlord of “sitting on their hands” after he repeatedly raised concerns about the building’s safety defects months before a fire engulfed the block in flames yesterday according to Inside Housing.

Correspondence between Octavia Housing and Barry Gardiner, seen by Inside Housing, shows the MP for Brent North highlighting fire safety concerns as far back as April 2023.

Mr Gardiner said he “repeatedly warned” the 5,000-home landlord, which was recently downgraded by the Regulator of Social Housing, about the risk to the block in Elm Road, Wembley.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) responded to the blaze with 20 fire engines and around 125 firefighters in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Two of the brigade’s 32-metre turntable ladders were used as water towers to help extinguish the fire.

The LFB explained: “Half of the external side of the building and all of the roof and four external balconies were damaged by fire. Residents started to evacuate in line with the building’s evacuation strategy and were assisted by firefighters upon arrival.”

A source familiar with the block told Inside Housing that they believe timber frames may have been used in the construction of the lower height blocks, and that the building originally had a stay put order in place but this was changed to a simultaneous evacuation plan due to the concerns with the cladding.

Octavia confirmed timber is used in part of the blocks and that the evacuation policy was changed in 2019 in line with updated government guidelines at the time.

Stay put has a long history in the UK. Ever since the first guidance for blocks of flats in 1962 established the requirements of ‘compartmentation’ (the principle that a building should restrict the spread of fire to a single compartment), the idea that residents are safer staying inside flats that are not affected by fire than trying to leave the building has had a dominant place in the UK’s built environment.
“Stay put had become an article of faith and to depart from it was unthinkable.” So said Sir Martin Moore-Bick, chair of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, in his report covering the events of the night of the fire, in October 2019.

In the more than four years since those words were published, that faith has not been shaken quite as much as one might have expected. In fact, it remains at the heart of official government guidance and the go-to fire strategy for most of the UK’s residential high rises.

The LFB explained that its investigation team is at the scene and will remain there in the coming days to identify the cause of the fire. Initial reports can confirm that cladding was involved in the blaze.
Five adjoining blocks were also evacuated as a precaution, and all residents were accounted for following the evacuation and there were no reports of any injuries.

Mr Gardiner said: “Our worst fears have happened. The nightmare that residents have been living with has become a reality.”

“Octavia Housing, who manage the block, were repeatedly warned this could happen. Yet they sat on their hands and did nothing. This will be traumatic for all the residents who live in Elm Road.”

“Six years on from Grenfell, three years on from being advised the cladding was unsafe, Octavia has done nothing to remove the cladding or even make any attempt to advise residents trapped in their small flats when the work would commence or who would pay for it.
The MP also pointed out that on 2 November last year he called an urgent meeting with the landlord’s chief executive Sandra Skeete, after failing to get a response to numerous letters.

He added: “Octavia responded to me in December and said they were unable to share any information on the fire safety reports on the advice of their solicitors.”

A spokesperson for Octavia Housing said: “Petworth Court has a fire risk assessment, which has been shared with the London Fire Brigade, who we have been working with since last August to manage the building.

“The building has some external cladding in its construction, and we are working with the developer and our insurer to get this removed. There is a plan in place to address this which includes ongoing negotiations with the developer and our insurer as part of an arbitration process.

“Ensuring residents are safe in our homes is our primary concern and therefore completing these works is a priority. The safety of residents is paramount and the needs of those with vulnerabilities have been prioritised.”

The correspondence seen by Inside Housing identifies Vistry as the developer, which alongside the insurer is in discussions about where liability lies for the remedial work.

A Vistry spokesperson said: “We can’t comment on the specific details. However, we have been working with the building owner and will continue to do so to help ensure works are completed on site as necessary. We are continuing to engage with all parties as a matter of urgency to put in place the appropriate arrangements.”

Octavia said it has been working with Brent Council and other agencies to support residents, and those unable to return to the block have been provided with overnight hotel accommodation.

The LFB says it will remain at the scene in the coming days as investigations continue, and its community engagement team is also still at the scene and giving advice to residents.