Authorities in Camden were working to convince dozens of families to leave their homes on Saturday after they refused to evacuate, despite concerns the tower blocks were at risk of a Grenfell-type blaze.
More than 80 households – including elderly people and others with disabilities and vulnerabilities – refused to leave the blocks on the Chalcots estate; home to almost 4,000 people.
While some had changed their minds by Saturday morning and were joining the exodus, Camden council is now considering options about what to do with those who refuse to leave.
“We are saying now to people that they really do need to leave and, if they do not, then we will have to take advice form the fire service about what to do next,” said Georgia Gould, the leader of Camden council.
Prime minister Theresa May said on Saturday: “For those Camden blocks, it wasn’t just a question of the cladding; there were a number of issues that came together that meant that the fire service were concerned about those blocks and the action was taken by the local authority.”
She added: “We are making sure that the authority has the ability to do what is necessary to ensure people have somewhere to stay and that the work is done so that those tower blocks will become safe for them to return to in the future.”
Social workers, members of the fire service and other staff had been stationed overnight at the blocks to support people who would not leave their homes, even as others grabbed belongings and went elsewhere.
While residents came and went at a local community centre on Saturday morning, where they were being registered, the blocks themselves were quiet as a trickle of people returned and were escorted in to be given 30 minutes to take any extra belongings out.
Among those leaving Dorney, one of the towers, was a heavily pregnant resident, Solange Tomas, who had come back with members of her family after evacuating on Friday.
“We heard about things when we turned on the news and decided that it was better to be safe, so we left,” she said. “Everything is packed now and ready to go, so we are going up to register with the community centre and see what happens next.”
While Tomas was calm, there was anger from other residents about what they saw as inadequate arrangements by the council for rehousing people.
Another Dorney resident, 67-year-old Arnoldo Diaz, said he had been told that the evacuation was not yet mandatory, so he would be staying put until it was.
“We decided not to go as we have nowhere to go to. We are from South America and have no family here and no friends [in the UK]. The council is saying they don’t have accommodation for everyone. They are looking for it, but what is the point of leaving? Where will we stay?
He said he was not worried about the risk of a fire in the building, as there had been one in 2012 that did not spread. Diaz added that he was confused about why the matter had become so pressing eight years after the building’s refurbishment. “Do they really worry or want to be seen doing something?”
Like Grenfell, many of the residents of the Chalcots estate are poorer working class families.
Artan Moallim, originally from Somalia but living in one of the towers on the estate for 15 years, said that his wife had been told that the family had to evacuate at 2am on Saturday.
“I was working at the time because I’m a bus driver and have only come back this morning,” said Moallim, as he held the hand of his two-year-old daughter outside the community centre where they had registered.
Clutching an official form in his hand, he said that they had been told to expect a call some time on Saturday to inform them about they they will be accommodated. His wife had spent the night in the tower with their three girls.
“I have barely slept since the Grenfell fire and it was made worse when we heard about the connections between this place and there. It’s difficult to live here as it its. We are in a one bedroom flat on the sixteenth floor. Imagine that.
“Why did the council leave things so late here? When they knew that there could be a problem why didn’t they work to make alternative arrangements for people to live if it came to this?”
Another Chalcots resident, who gave his name as James and said he had been living on the estate for 10 years, said: “I asked the council where I was going to stay and a woman told me to hang on. But then, when she came back half an hour later, the plan seemed to have changed.
“I’m going to have to embarrass myself now by going to stay at my mum’s,” he added, as he waited by a bus stop with a suitcase.
Temporary accommodation being provided by the council includes two rest centres, hotels and student halls of resident. Work to finish 100 new flats, which had been due to be finished in the coming weeks, has been brought forward and they will now be ready by midweek.
As the efforts to evacuate people in Camden continued on Saturday morning, it was announced that 27 towers in 15 areas had failed fire safety tests. The Department for Communities and Local Government said that Portsmouth, Manchester and Plymouth were among the areas where buildings were found to be unsafe, as well as the London boroughs of Brent, Hounslow and Camden.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Gould said the last thing she had wanted to do was to disturb residents at such short notice on a Friday night. “I have been with them all night and people are distressed, angry and scared. It’s such a difficult decision.
“But I said to fire services: ‘Is there anything I can do to make this block safe tonight?’ I offered to pay for fire services to be stationed outside those blocks just so we could have a couple of days to get the works done. But the message was [that there was] nothing to do to make blocks safe that night.”
Fire safety inspections in the wake of the Grenfell disaster revealed major concerns about the cladding on the five buildings, as well as over insulation around gas piping. “All we care about is getting people to safety. The cost we can deal with later,” Gould said.
“The work to make the blocks safe is expected to take three to four weeks. An operation of this scale, at such pace, is not without issues and problems along the way, but we had to do this, we have to act on fire service advice.”
Gould said the council was looking at putting people in student halls and opening up newly built social housing with hopes that, by Monday, accommodation for 50% of the tenants will have been found within the borough of Camden.
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