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Neverending storeys

After dramatic evacuation of residents, man who has returned to his flat in the Taplow tower tells of chaos at the Chalcots estate

20 July, 2017 — By John Gulliver

Residents were evacuated from their Taplow tower homes at the Chalcots estate three weeks ago

EVERY day it seems something happens that is related to the Grenfell disaster.

Late Monday evening a reader rings to tells me how he had returned to his flat in the Taplow tower – all tenants had been evacuated by order of the council and fire service three weeks earlier – to discover workmen had removed the security grille of his front door – and left it open.

“I was utterly amazed – it had been left open for at least two hours I discovered – and anyone could have got in,” he told me, his voice high but controlled.

“All the tenants now have to collect their mail in the Hampstead sorting office, and I had just popped in – if I hadn’t it would have simply been open to anyone.”

He speaks fast and clear. His mother was among the first to move into the block in 1969, and he had bought the family flat as a “leaseholder”.

In many ways he is typical of the families in the Chalcots estate – hundreds have been moved to hotels but scores have returned, unable to live in hotel rooms, happier at home despite the inevitable chaos in the block caused by builders working virtually day and night repairing faults caused by shoddy workmanship in a privately financed refurbishment scheme 10 years ago.

Chaos – it seems to be everywhere, according to my informant.

Why wasn’t there an alarm system? He told me how he had noticed smoke in the stairwell three years ago on his way to work in the early hours but no alarm had gone off. “It’s ridiculous,” he said.

“Imagine, I had to rush out and ring for help – and it turned out there was a fire in one of the flats!

“I have asked for an alarm system – asked but what was the point? Nothing gets done. I’ve seen furniture left in the only escape staircase, blocking it up, and I’ve complained to the council, but nothing gets done, there is no maintenance, it is awful.” His litany of woes pour out.

Underlying his anger, perhaps, is the fact that he is a leaseholder, and his flat, at the moment, is pretty worthless – devalued, possibly, by tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pounds. Who would want to buy a flat in a “fire risk” block like Taplow?

“When I complained to a council official he just shrugged – and said that’s what the ‘property market’ is like.” It was the way he was dismissed that annoys him.

His calmness gives way to rising anger at this point. “Look what the council have done! They’ve made a mess of this block, they failed to maintain it, now we have to pay for it. Look at the repercussions of what happened the moment they rushed into a decision to force people out. Now, none of it makes sense – if it is so dangerous to live here why are they allowing families to come back? Either their lives are at risk – or they aren’t.”

Earlier, I got happier news from my contact Ivor Grealey, who told me the story of how a “safety inspector” had visited his 19th-floor studio flat on Friday and ordered new repairs to his flat – the day after my column appeared on Thursday.

Last week I had sent an email to the council’s chief executive Mike Cooke pointing out that a senior “supervisor” he had sent previously to arrange repairs for shoddy workmanship had, apparently, overlooked other major faults in Mr Grealey’s home. But the new “inspector”, presumably sent by Mr Cooke, was quite different – he tut-tutted, and promised a new kitchen window frame along with repairs to his old gas fire site, which had been left with a “hole in the wall” after the fire had been removed. Mr Grealey had covered it with tin foil.

Finally, last week, a slot in BBC Radio Four’s World at One pulled off a radio scoop – a dramatic seven- or eight-minute reading by the actor Sam West of a firefighter’s description of the inferno, sent to a fire service Facebook account. After the listener hears how he was ordered to go to the 23rd floor and then at a floor below faced the agonising decision – go ahead and possibly help a family upstairs or take a couple downstairs whom he knows he can probably save!

I couldn’t help but feel weepy – was I the only one?

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