fire safety

11 May 23

Camden Council has been fined £500,000 after its failure to address serious fire defects in one of its properties for four years led to the “unnecessary” and “terrifying” death of a 35-year-old woman.

Magdalena Fink died at 31 Daleham Gardens on 21 November 2017, after a fire that started in the basement ripped through the communal staircase in just 15 minutes, trapping her inside her first floor flat. 

A risk assessment in January 2013 and a further assessment in May 2017 had identified serious risks in the block, including combustible wooden cladding on the internal staircase and a lack of proper fire doors on flat entrances. 

But despite the 2013 risk assessment – which gave the building a ’high’ fire safety grading – saying the issues should be addressed within a year, work had not even started by the time of the blaze four years later.

Camden Council, which manages more than 30,000 homes throughout the north London borough, pleaded guilty to two fire safety offences relating to the blaze in March and was sentenced at Westminster Magistrates’ Court today. 

The court was read emails which showed residents raised safety concerns before the fire – even in the days leading up to blaze – with complaints from one saying the building was “not fit for purpose”.

In response, a council officer had said the authority had “a very small team” of two fire safety officers covering the whole borough, “which makes it very difficult for us to manage”.  

Today, District Judge John McGarva imposed a £500,000 fine, which was reduced figure due to the council’s guilty plea and the fact that it is a public authority, meaning a higher fine would have an impact on services.

Camden Council will also pay the London Fire Brigade, which brought the prosecution, £41,000 in legal costs.

Mr McGarva said: “This can only be described as a heartbreaking case. Ms Fink was 35 years old and had most of her life ahead of her and died unnecessarily.

“Her fellow tenants were put through terrible turmoil, which was also unnecessary, and the terror they felt and that Ms Fink must have felt is impossible for me to imagine.”

He added that the 11-flat property “clearly wasn’t fit for purpose” due to the combustible panels in the stairwell, a lack of adequate fire alarms and insufficient ‘compartmentation’ (the ability to prevent fire spreading from flat to flat) contributing to the blaze.  

“The risks were identified in the 2013 and 2017 risk assessments and tenants were pressing for action,” he said. 

Earlier, the court heard how the flats in the property, which has four storeys including a basement, opened directly onto a single communal staircase, which was the only means of escape.

This staircase was fully clad in combustible timber panels, which were identified as in need of removal in both risk assessments. 

The fire was discovered in the morning of 21 November at around 1.45am by resident Tanya Ley, who lived in the basement flat, and was alerted by a smoke alarm sounding in the corridor. 

When she opened her front door, she was confronted by fire but managed to escape with her two grandchildren, aged eight and 12, through a side window. 

After ensuring the children were safe, she then returned to the building and raised the alarm by pressing the external buzzers to flats and shouting fire. 

Mr McGarva said that were it not for Ms Ley’s “heroic” actions, “the outcome may have been very much worse”. There were 19 people in the building at the time of the fire, including a 14-month-old baby. 

The court heard today that Ms Fink, who lived in Flat 9 on the first floor, had a short phone conversation with a pastor in Germany at 1.58am, where she told him there was fire and smoke in her flat. She stopped responding at 1.59am. 

Firefighters had arrived at 1.56am to find the staircase in the building seriously compromised by fire, with its walls and ceiling fully involved in the blaze. Ms Fink’s body was not recovered from the building until 3.03am. 

The investigation into the cause of the fire was not conclusive, but found the most probable cause of the initial fire to be arson. No suspect has ever been found.

The court heard that Camden Council’s risk assessment, which was carried out by an external consultant in January 2013, gave the building a “high” risk rating. 

It found that the flat entrance doors were not fire doors – with large visible gaps and no self-closing devices. It also said cupboards in communal areas should be cleared and enclosed with fire-resisting materials. 

It had also said that the timber cladding in communal areas of the brick-built property should be removed and replaced, and gave a one-year timescale to fix all of these issues. 

But a further risk assessment in May 2017 showed that all of the issues persisted. 

The court also heard that Camden Council had agreed in December 2012 to fit integrated fire alarm systems in 740 street properties it owned which were believed to have higher levels of fire safety risk – 31 Daleham Gardens was one of these properties. But the work had not been done by the time of the fire, with the building still reliant on battery operated smoke alarms. 

Saba Naqshbandi, appearing for the London Fire Brigade, said: “The risks in this case did eventuate and the defendant’s breaches caused the death of Ms Fink.”

She pushed for the judge to make a finding of “higher culpability” in sentencing, which would indicate a systemic failure by the local authority. 

But appearing for Camden Council, Mark Balysz KC argued against this and called the offences ‘medium’ culpability.  

He began by offering the council’s apologies to residents of the building – a number of whom attended the court hearing – and Ms Fink’s family. 

In mitigation, he pointed to financial restraints on the borough, which he said had been subject to severe financial cuts from central government, limiting its ability to invest in its housing stock.

This included the Conservative government’s 2016 social housing rent cut, which reduced Camden Council’s expected budget for investment by £165m. 

Mr Balysz said Daleham Gardens was one of around 2,000 street properties and 3,200 blocks in total that required fire risk assessment. 

He said the council “does not have the resource or the funding to carry out all the works immediately” and must instead follow a “risk-based approach” where work is prioritised through a planned programme. 

Work to improve the fire safety of Daleham Gardens had been procured from contractor Vinci Group in September 2017, but had not started by the time of the fire. 

Mr Balysz said the delays were exacerbated by the evacuation of around 3,000 residents from the Chalcots Estate in Camden in the weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, following the discovery of similar cladding to that which had caused the blaze. 

He said that effort diverted contractors and council officers and had it not happened, the works to Daleham Gardens “may very well” have taken place before the fire. 

Discussing the failure to fit fire alarms in the property, Mr Balysz said that after the need for ‘Grade A LD2 alarms’ (an interlinked fire alarm with detection in escape routes and high-risk areas such as kitchens and lounges) was identified in December 2012 for the 740 properties, Camden Council worked with consultancy Savills on the practicality of installing them. 

Due to a fear of false alarms, weekly testing requirements and the difficulty of maintaining them across so many properties, the borough instead decided to make efforts to improve compartmentation in the buildings. 

This approach was endorsed by the London Fire Brigade, which said in March 2013 that battery-operated smoke alarms in these properties would be acceptable as an “emergency interim measure” while this work was carried out. 

Calling on the court to impose a lower fine than the £2.4m suggested by the prosecutor, Mr Balysz said: “Any fine imposed takes away from the very people this local authority is meant to be protecting. 

“The punishment is this: me standing before this court, making these comments which will be reported. The punishment is that this local authority, answerable to its residents through the electoral system has publicly failed – although not without trying.”

Speaking to Inside Housing outside the court, former residents of 31 Daleham Gardens said they had been “let down” by Camden Council after the fire. 

The mother of the two children who escaped the blaze said the council had not even helped replace the clothes they had lost in the fire and she had to go shopping in the days afterwards to give them clothes to wear.

She added that she had not been told about the court case against the borough until she had seen reports in the press. 

In his comments, Mr McGarva praised the residents, saying they had shown “great dignity” during the process. 

A Camden Council spokesperson said: “Our deep sympathies remain with the family and friends of Magdalena Fink, who tragically lost her life in this incident. We are also deeply sorry for the impact this incident has had on the residents who were living at Daleham Gardens at the time.

“When this incident occurred, Daleham Gardens did not meet the high standards of fire safety which Camden Council is committed to achieving across its housing. We are truly sorry this was the case.

“Camden has made a clear and public commitment to achieving the highest standard of resident safety, and since 2017 we have invested significantly in improving safety across our housing. 

“Our comprehensive programme of fire safety works includes key practical measures – ensuring our homes have appropriate fire doors, emergency lighting, fire alarms and fire-stopping. Camden Council has a dedicated and resilient fire safety team and has set up new forums for residents and the London Fire Brigade to raise safety concerns and issues. We have publicly committed to resident safety through our fire and building safety charter, which guides our approach on resident safety.” 

Link to original article

Thank you for reading

Need to discuss your issue? Confidential Call: 0208 088 0788 now.

Or fill in our contact form here.

Keep up with the latest from Landlord Licensing & Defence…

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel to find all our videos on Regulations, RRO, HMOs and much more! 

Join our private Facebook Group where you’ll find a support network of other landlords and experts as well as case studies and how to avoid council fines.

Follow us on Social Media for the latest in Property and Licensing…

Follow us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}