Islington Council’s fire safety training under the spotlight as councillors vent anger over lack of communication

Entrance to Godfrey House. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Staff training on what to do if there is an emergency in council homes will be put under the spotlight in Islington – after councillors complained that they were not made aware of issues raised in a fire enforcement notice for a local tower block.

Islington’s housing scrutiny committee will be looking at steps taken to ensure people know what to do if there is a fire.

It will also get more regular updates about fire safety after councillors were alerted to fire brigade concerns over training and safety at a 21-storey tower block off Old Street after a fire in April this year.

A fire enforcement notice was served on the council after London Fire Brigade discovered a catalogue of concerns when they inspected Godfrey House on Bath Street in April.

The blaze was contained and no-one was hurt.

However, the council’s executive member for housing and development Diarmaid Ward told the housing scrutiny committee he was unaware of the enforcement notice until it was highlighted by the Citizen.

Cllr Ward said: “I did not have any note of this.”

Scrutiny member Phil Graham (Lab, Bunhill), who raised the issue with him at the committee meeting, told colleagues he was upset to learn about the notice at Godfrey House, which is in his ward, only when he was contacted by the Citizen.

The 24 June notice highlighted concerns about training, stating: “Fire safety training for the concierge has not been monitored.”

In a detailed letter sent to the council and obtained by the Citizen under Freedom of Information rules, inspectors warned it to “provide your staff with adequate safety training”.

They said: “At the time of the audit your employees had not been provided with adequate safety training. It had been found that employees had not been given adequate safety training on keeping escape routes clear and sharing vital information with emergency services.”

The notice was issued after fire experts inspected the building in the wake of the accidental fire in April in a split-level flat on the 16th and 17th floors.

Since then the council has been working to put the issues highlighted right, but the committee heard it had not fully communicated with residents.

It has been given an extended deadline until January by the London Fire Brigade to allow it to remove asbestos that was found during some of the compartmentation and fire-stopping work.

Cllr Graham said: “We need to be doing better on this,  for our residents and ourselves.  This is basic, basic stuff, training people in fire safety, how to keep an escape route clear. We should know this is in our back pocket already.”

He added: “When I’m getting told that concerns include inadequate knowledge by staff of what to do in the emergency plan and the employees did not have adequate safety training and have not been given appropriate training on keeping escape routes clear and sharing information with emergency services, that’s  basic. We need to do better. I drove past Grenfell the other day and it still sends shivers down my spine.”

Seventy-two people died at Grenfell Tower when combustible cladding caught fire and spread rapidly.

Cllr Graham added: “The thought that we have got staff who have not been trained in fire safety terrifies me.”

He asked: “How many of our staff across the borough have not been trained, and if not, why not?”

Cllr Ward said he would look into it to ensure that “if there are issues, [the council will] rectify them as quickly as possible”.

Maxine Holdsworth, the corporate director of housing, said: “It’s absolutely true to say they found on their visit there was material in the concierge office and a lack of understanding.

“We do train staff, we trained staff, all of our caretakers and concierge are trained in fire safety. But clearly that had not gone in as it should have done and we weren’t able to demonstrate that to the fire brigade on the day, so we have already improved that and changed that.”

Cllr Graham said ward councillors should be told about serious issues like this in their wards. He said the chair of the tenants’ and residents’ association was also in the dark about the enforcement notice.

“This is something that we are failing on, and we can’t be failing on something as vital as this, post-Grenfell,” he added.

“We’re the ones who could be held to account if we have another disaster and I do not want this to be our legacy. We need to do better.”

Holdsworth told the committee: “We got it wrong on the communications. We should have been much clearer in notifying you and residents about the work that was taking place after we received the fire notice for Godfrey House.”

She said work had been ongoing after the enforcement notice.

“We didn’t get it right on this occasion. We were taking the action but we weren’t telling people that we were taking the action in the way that we should have done,” she said.

Committee chair Michael O’Sullivan  said: “We should look at training immediately.”

He said there should also be update on the council’s investigation into fire safety in 2017, after the fatal fire in west London, and the work done in the years since.

Holdsworth said: “I’d go further than that and suggest I think we should be giving six-monthly reports to housing scrutiny on our progress on fire safety works because we’ve got a big programme of work going on at the moment.”

Scrutiny committee members were invited to attend the homes and estates safety board.

Holdsworth said: “In the light of these events I want to give greater prominence to fire safety notices and our progress on fire safety notices at these meetings.”

The council also has regular meetings with London Fire Brigade. It also has a  tall buildings group, which was set up following the Grenfell Tower fire and looks at the council’s regulatory responsibilities and responsibilities as a landlord.