BY ZOE JEWELL, EDITOR
Residents of 16 flats in a long-term housing co-operative in central Brixton are to be forced from their homes following a surprise fire inspection.
Members of the Carlton Mansions Housing Co-operative (CMHC), founded in 1979, have been told to leave the 122-year-old building immediately, after a fire report advised the building was unsafe. The council demanded “residents vacate the building as a priority.
But residents have hit back at the council saying the fire risk assessment states it “is subjective and for guidance only.” They say they were told on the phone prior to the visit that it “would be advisory only.”
Shocked cooperative members met with The Bugle last week. One member who has lived in Carlton Mansions for 29 years said: “How can anyone decamp so quickly when they’re a long-term resident? You’ve got everything registered at that address, you’re in London so storage space is at a premium. How is it actually practically possible?” Another member spoke of the severe emotional stress caused by the council’s actions and has now been referred to the Mental Health Team as a result.
A spokesperson from Lambeth Housing department said: “the council is obliged to ensure its buildings meet relevant health and safety regulations regardless of their age. The council has a duty of care to residents and we cannot ignore such a clear recommendation from a fire risk assessment.”
Ward councillor Rachel Heywood said: “I have to be clear that we cannot allow anybody to continue to live in a building…that has been judged to be ‘intolerable’ in terms of fire risk. So soon after the inquest into Lakanal House…we are only too aware of the responsibility of local authorities to ensure the safety of citizens to the greatest possible degree.
“We are doing everything we can to support them. This includes the possibility of temporarily rehousing everybody into a single building”, she said. CMHC had not been informed of this possibility when asked by The Bugle.
The fire risk assessment identifies lack of ‘compartmentalisation’ – to stop a fire spreading from flat to flat – as one problem in the mansion blocks.
The Co-operative has offered to do all it can to fulfil safety standards but the council states this will not be enough. CMHC also pointed out that the floors are solid timber and that the walls between the flats are thick brick. The building has never been damaged by fire. CMHC is now seeking independent advice.
The Co-op started life 32 years ago on a temporary agreement with the council as short life housing. A member said: “This was an experiment in using what would be considered small amounts of money to make a place habitable, rather than totally refurbishing a place.”
“It was done on the self-help basis which means that the people who were going to live there did most of the work themselves.” At one stage, the Co-operative gave the council 50% of allocation to people on the housing list.
The short life arrangements have allowed for historic buildings in Brixton to be maintained. One member said: “When we put our heating on it keeps the buildings warm…We’ve kept the heritage and then they can sell it off.”
The Co-operative was also responsible for the painting of the Nuclear Dawn mural, now a celebrated Brixton landmark.
More recently, the residents and council came to an informal agreement that the co-op would stay on site until Carlton Mansions is needed for the Somerleyton Rd redevelopment in a few years’ time.
The housing co-operative has had a long-standing role in the community and has been heavily involved in consultations on the Somerleyton Road development, which the council says “will be developed in partnership with the local community.” A Carlton Mansions resident said: “The Co-op does not want to hold up this important scheme. The ‘Co-operative Council’ is now trying to get rid of a community that lives on the site. Is this how ‘partnership’ in Lambeth Co-op Council works?”
Deborah Bestwick, director of the Oval House Theatre, which hopes to move to a new building on the site said: “This situation is a blow to the process (as well as a horrible blow to the co-op members) because some of the residents were contributing to the thinking about the development of Somerleyton Rd, and they are, after all, the only residents living within the project boundary. “
Cllr Heywood said: “we have been meeting with the co-operative regularly…and offering every chance for a dialogue. I very much hope that they will continue to play an active role in discussions about the redevelopment of the site.”
If the Co-operative leaves, the building will be left empty for roughly two years. The council spokesperson said: “once the building is vacated it will need to be secured. We will not be using live-in guardians due to the recommendations of the Fire Risk Assessment.”
Talks are continuing with the council but Lambeth has said: “We will be taking whatever legal action is best suited to the circumstances. The Co-op will be formally advised of this in due course.”