Late in the evening of Sunday 29th May 2022 a fire broke out on Kitchener Road and spread along a row of terraced houses through the roof space. It turned out to have been caused by a cannabis farm in one of the houses. It was being grown on an industrial scale and neighbours had reported a constant buzzing noise from six generators within the chimney. Another neighbour had regularly seen a van pull up late at night and large sacks (of probably the latest crop of cannabis) being taken from the house. But the main clue was the very strong smell of cannabis surrounding the house. Even the teachers in the school opposite complained about it.
The first person to notice the smoke was fifteen year old Sky Casabona when she got out of a car with her dad, Paul. Paul called the fire services and then went knocking on doors getting people out of the houses. He was joined by another neighbour, John Lucken. They tried to force the door where the fire started but it wouldn’t budge. It was later found to have multiple bolts all around the frame. They then forced their way into the House of Multiple Occupancy (HMO) next door but were eventually beaten back by the intensity of the fire and smoke. One man was extracted by the fire service from the HMO in an unconscious state. Another person living in that house said the unconscious man had been drunk and so didn’t respond to the furore outside. Fortunately he recovered in hospital and no one died. The neighbours put that down to the bravery and quick thinking of Paul, John and Sky.
By the time the eighteen fire engines arrived ten minutes after the emergency call, the raging fire had spread through five houses and the roof caved in on two of them. It took hours for the fire services to get the fire under control.
The local press and radio covered the fire. Kitchener Road is in my Division and I knew the local people because I’d been working with them, as their County Councillor, to help with traffic calming. The next morning I phoned up one of the residents, Margaret Gardner, to find out if everyone was alright and if there was anything I could do to help. That was where my involvement with the fire began.
I was asked to make a formal complaint to the police about how they had responded to one young man, Rich Cottee, living in the HMO. He was an ex-prisoner who had been housed away from all his friends and family and had nowhere to go. He’d walked the streets until the manager in an all-night McDonalds, on seeing Rich shaking with shock, had taken pity on him and given him a free coffee. Rich went back to his burned out home but the police had very little sympathy for him. Neighbours gave him breakfast the next day. He was eventually given emergency housing by Ipswich Borough Council three days later. When I put in a formal complaint to the police I got no response.
The neighbours on Kitchener Road were so proud of Paul, John and Sky that they banded together and bought beautifully engraved glass plaques thanking them for their bravery. Margaret Gardner organised a presentation ceremony at Norbridge Social Club on Saturday 23rd July. The Club gave them a room for free. I was asked to say a few words and present the awards. I was also asked to contact the press because the residents wanted recognition for the ‘heroes of the fire’. Paul Geater from Ipswich Star came to the event and took photos. The story was published the next day.
BBC Radio Suffolk organised to meet us a few days later on Wednesday 27th July. By that time the mood among residents had started to shift from celebrating the heroes of the fire, to blaming the police for not doing sufficient investigations after receiving numerous complaints from neighbours. We’d been told that police had followed all procedures and the evidence hadn’t reached the threshold required for a forced entry. Paul Casabona said it was the police’s duty to find evidence, which I had to agree with. At that interview I raised the point that if they had followed all procedures laid down then the procedures weren’t good enough. The interview was held on the pavement opposite the badly fire damaged houses. The coverage was aired at 7am the following morning, 28th July, on BBC Radio Suffolk.
Paul Geater rang me up later on the Wednesday, I guess because he’d been advised to by Radio Suffolk. My views were reflected in an article that appeared in the Ipswich Star the next day, also on the 28th July. We made front page and page two on that occasion.
Residents had asked me to arrange for Tim Passmore to come over and listen to their story. They wanted to complain about the police’s lack of interest in investigating the suspected cannabis farm after so many complaints, which had resulted in a terrible fire destroying five homes. I happen to know Tim because I’m on the Police & Crime Panel at Suffolk County Council. The Panel holds Tim Passmore to account for the police’s actions. So I contacted Tim and he readily agreed to meet residents on the street as soon as he was able to. This happened on Thursday 4th August. Residents wanted the press to be there again so I contacted Ipswich Star and BBC Radio Suffolk. Both attended the meeting. People who’d lost their homes to the fire and one of the heroes, Paul Casabona, came along. Feeling ran high.
Afterwards Tim Passmore sat down with residents and drank a cup of tea. He listened to their stories. I made the point that the police should be required to do a fire risk assessment, if possible with help from the fire service, if they have the slightest suspicion that a property holds a cannabis farm. This is apparently the third fire in a cannabis farm in a residential street in Ipswich in the last twelve months. Cannabis farms shouldn’t be treated as the same level of fire risk as the home of a drug dealer. Tim understood the cynicism with which the residents viewed the police and that this issue alone needs to be fixed. He went off promising to get back to me with statement on what he was doing about the situation.
The interview was aired on BBC Radio Suffolk the next morning at 7am on Friday 5th August. They interviewed a police officer live on air, who said that they were progressing with making an arrest over the cannabis farm but it was taking a long time as they needed to collaborate with other agencies. Personal interviews with the police were offered to all individuals made homeless or otherwise caught up in the fire. The officer said one person had been seen the previous evening. The story made the front page again in the Ipswich Star on Friday 5th August.
I continue to keep in touch with residents. I hope now that they have been able to express their justifiable anger and frustration with the police that emotions will start to calm down. I also hope that the police will have learned a useful lesson about the potential damage to lives and property that can be caused by a fire from a cannabis farm. I hope that Tim Passmore recommends that the police adopt risk assessments whenever there’s the slightest suspicion that a residential property is being used to grow cannabis. Tim also needs to find a way of improving the police’s standing within the community. The residents of Kitchener Road still resent paying for the police through their Council Tax but the police not protecting them from the fire hazard of a cannabis farm in their street.
Cllr Debbie Richards, Conservative County Councillor for St Margaret's and Westgate Division.