Earlier this week Harlow made national news when people in the town woke up to see the sky full of smoke, as a warehouse burnt. Less well known was the industrial fire’s proximity to a temporary accommodation site, and the experience of the families living inside.
At 5.22am on Tuesday 26 April 2022, Essex Fire & Rescue were called to a fire in an industrial building on River Way in Harlow.
A large plume of smoke could be seen over the town and 70 firefighters were in attendance, with a presence at the site for nearly 36 hours.
The blaze damaged 60 percent of the factory building and caused the roof to partially collapse. The cause is so far speculated to have been accidental, and an investigation is ongoing.
The warehouse is a little under 300 meters away from Templefield House – a block of 172 flats which house a combination of offenders and ex-offenders, recovering and active drug addicts, and families who would otherwise be homeless.
Located amongst an eclectic mix of industrial architecture and ancient ruins, Templefield House is a former office building repurposed for temporary accommodation in 2017 – after changes to the planning system in 2013 by former Conservative Minister for Planning Nick Bowles made it easier for developers to bypass planning permission for such projects. It is one of 9 such sites in Harlow.
Like other office buildings on the site its windows are tinted black. The only thing setting it apart from its neighbours is a children’s play area – a wooden climbing frame with a small slide – in the carpark.
Ash falling from the sky
One resident who has lived in Templefield House for five years described the day of the fire. In the morning he took his eldest children to school. He reasoned they’d be safer there than in the flat.
‘Taking the kids to school there were big bits of ash falling from the sky.’ He says that he thought to himself: ‘That could hit us, that could still be hot.’
Sometime after he left, the residents inside the house were told they had to remain indoors with their windows shut, while those who had left the building were not allowed back in.
Police: ‘pipes might explode’ – but residents weren’t evacuated
‘The police closed it off because they were worried the gas pipes underneath were going to explode. I asked a police officer if everyone had been evacuated, he didn’t answer. I later found out that people could stay in their flat, but if they left, they couldn’t come back. Now, if it was that bad, why wasn’t everyone evacuated?’
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He said it was lucky it was a sunny day so he and his child could stay in the park. However, being locked out of his home at short notice with no alternative and little money was challenging in other ways.
The resident is on antibiotics to treat a chest infection. He and his children have all had chest infections – his youngest was in hospital for over a week with bronchitis shortly after their birth, and throughout the interview they were coughing. Doctors have refused to confirm that his and his children’s poor health is due to mould. However, to the question: ‘Can mould and damp affect my health?’ the NHS website responds with, ‘Yes, if you have damp and mould in your home, you’re more likely to have respiratory problems.’
Unable to get home
‘I couldn’t get my medication. My child had to stay in a dirty nappy all day, because I didn’t have money to go and buy nappies. I had no way of changing my child and it was horrible because I was thinking they could end up with rashes, and I can’t do anything for them.
I had a couple of quid to get drinks, but that was it. My child was complaining that they were hungry so I was rubbing pennies together to go, what can we do? We can get a bag of crisps. They didn’t really want it but that’s all that was available.’
The resident told me that he understood why he wasn’t able to return to the house but wondered why other residents were able to remain inside, ‘To sit there with a fire not knowing if it’s going to spread is quite scary.’ He said that he fears another, more dangerous fire – a diesel fuel supplier is located directly behind Templefield House.
The resident asked for his identity to be protected as he fears repercussion for speaking about the conditions of Templefield House.