The tower block refugees: Chaotic scenes as poor residents flee death trap high-rises to bag mattresses on a leisure centre floor – as up to 14,000 people across the country face evacuation

Up to 14,000 people across the country are facing evacuation from their homes after tower blocks failed fire safety tests.

So far, 34 high-rise buildings in cities including London, Manchester, Portsmouth and Plymouth have been identified as potential deathtraps requiring urgent action.

But that figure is expected to rise as tests continue following the Grenfell Tower disaster, which left at least 79 dead.

Already, 4,000 residents in Camden, North London, have been forced to abandon their homes without warning. Some 650 households were evacuated from the Chalcots Estate with less than an hour’s notice on Friday following a meeting between council officials and the London Fire Brigade.

Many families were forced to spend the night at the nearby Swiss Cottage leisure centre on airbeds amid what displaced resident described as ‘chaotic’ scenes.

And with other tower blocks now found to have been refurbished with the same combustible cladding as Grenfell, similar evacuations are expected elsewhere.

With Theresa May facing demands to declare a civil emergency last night, it was estimated the nationwide cost of housing residents while council-owned towers are made safe will hit tens of millions. Camden Council spent £500,000 on hotel rooms for just a single night, and another £100,000 on food and drink.

As safety fears widened on a day of chaos and confusion:

  • Birmingham’s council leader urged the Government to intervene with emergency funds, warning that people ‘up and down the country are going to bed afraid’;
  • Camden residents refusing to evacuate were threatened with removal by police;
  • Others were promised temporary flats in a development workmen said was ‘still a building site’;
  • It emerged Grenfell could have been prevented had fire safety rules in England been as tough as in Scotland;
  • One of the nation’s leading businessmen, who is behind a Grenfell fundraising initiative, said the ‘chaotic’ response to the disaster had led to a ‘breakdown of trust’ between politicians and people.

Birmingham council leader John Clancy said ‘we have to do what it takes’ to ensure the safety of the city’s 213 tower blocks.

‘This is a national emergency,’ he said. ‘The Government needs to accept it’s a national emergency and it needs to focus on this. As each day has gone by since this crisis started, there has been less clarity.’

Not all blocks found to have dangerous cladding similar to that used on Grenfell will need to be evacuated. The Prime Minister said it was possible for some councils to take ‘mitigating action’ enabling residents to stay put. But speaking in Liverpool yesterday, Mrs May said the Government would ensure councils take ‘immediate action’ over the failed tests, adding: ‘Absolutely our first priority is people’s safety.’

Camden Council said people from 83 households refused to leave on Friday night – and yesterday, despite the threat of legal action, 50 were still vowing to stay in their homes.

Steve Pirolli, 49, a lorry driver who lives on the fourth floor of Taplow Tower with his partner and her two daughters, said: ‘They put up the cladding around us so surely they can take it down around us?’

Some residents described being awoken by council staff in the early hours and warned that police would remove them if they didn’t leave.

Lauren Mitchell, 30, who has lived in one of the towers since she was two weeks old, said: ‘There was a knock at the door at 2am. It was a council official in an orange jacket.

‘He said if you don’t come out, the police will come and remove you.’

Along with her mother and stepfather, she spent the night in a nearby leisure centre.

Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said: ‘There are various legal routes that Camden Council could explore to require people to leave their homes – however, we really don’t want to do this.’

Panels of cladding were removed from the five towers on the Chalcots Estate on Wednesday and sent off for lab tests. Camden hired the same firm that refurbished Grenfell Tower and the results revealed the cladding was highly combustible.

Ms Gould said: ‘Originally our plan was to remove the cladding and that residents could stay in their homes while this was done. We had lined up a contractor to do the work.

‘But the fire service was not happy with the insulation around the gas pipes in the buildings and how the pipes are joined. They also said there were issues with some of the fire doors being made out of unsatisfactory material.’

Miss Gould said the council was attempting to rehouse all its displaced residents, with many spending Friday night in hotels.

‘We think the work will take four to six weeks. We have also been looking at student halls accommodation and we want to get people into 100 new flats by Monday.’

Asked about the ‘new flats’, an aide said they were in a new development two miles away.

But a Mail on Sunday reporter who visited the site was told by a builder: ‘It doesn’t seem likely to me that they will be in by Monday – the place is still a building site. These aren’t due to be ready until later this year.’

Meanwhile, the council faced criticism for failing to publish the contents of a fire risk assessments carried out on the towers in the Chalcots Estate 18 months ago. Sian Berry, an opposition councillor and Green Party member, said: ‘Issues inside the building should already have been dealt with by Camden.’

 

Last night, experts suggested the Grenfell Tower tragedy could have been prevented had fire safety rules in England been as tough as in Scotland.

Current building regulations for England, Wales and Northern Ireland are said to be ‘ambiguous’ when it comes to cladding facades and insulation on the walls of high-rises.

But rules north of the border are far simpler and state clearly that all external wall cladding on high-rise domestic buildings should be ‘constructed of non-combustible material’ .

Meanwhile the chairman of recruitment giant Reed, who is spearheading a campaign to raise millions of pounds for victims, said the lack of quick and decisive action following Grenfell had led to a ‘breakdown of trust’ between politicians and local people.

James Reed, 54, who has lived in the Kensington area with his family for years and can see the Tower from his house, said people like him had stepped into the breach to ensure that victims got the help they needed.

‘I think they will remain angry and suspicious of officialdom for some time to come,’ he said.

Additional reporting: Michael Powell, Padraic Flanagan, Charlotte Wace and Sanchez Manning

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