English councils are accusing Government Ministers of breaking their promise to ensure money would be found for fire safety works to high-rise blocks of flats after the Grenfell Tower fire.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in June, Ministers repeatedly stated that the priority was making tower blocks safe places to live and that landlords should proceed with essential works. This was taken to mean that financial help would be available to pay for a variety of safety works, chosen in conjunction with residents’ wishes.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has urged the Chancellor to allocate £1billion in the budget to pay for retrofitting sprinklers in all council high-rise blocks. His intervention has been supported by Simon Rooks, council member of the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association, who said insufficient action has been taken so far.
“What we urgently need are special measures to retrofit sprinklers into existing properties. The government can help by offering clearer guidance and financial support to local councils and building owners. Retrofitting sprinklers is cost effective and practical – building managers need to find the right supplier now and take action today,” urged Mr Rooks.
A similar message was given by Alan Brinson, executive director of campaign group the European Fire Sprinkler Network, who said that sprinklers could significantly reduce fire deaths. “Nothing compares to them in saving lives,” he said. A recent study of 677 fires where sprinklers were activated found they controlled or extinguished the fire in 99 per cent of cases.
The installation of fire sprinkler systems and the replacement of external cladding have emerged as the favoured responses of social landlords and tenants, but council leaders are complaining that Ministers are “washing their hands” of their responsibilities, leaving them with multi-million pound bills that will drain their budgets and leave little money for other essential and planned works to their housing stock.
Over 30 local authorities are understood to have formally written asking for financial assistance but the new Housing Minister, Alok Sharma, has already refused requests from a number of councils. In total the bill for replacing flammable cladding and retrofitting sprinklers is likely to run into many hundreds of millions of pounds.
Among those councils seeking help Nottingham wants to install sprinklers inside flats and communal areas in 13 towers at a cost of £6.2m, Croydon has started work on retrofitting sprinklers to 26 tower blocks costing £10m, while Wandsworth plans to spend up to £30m on sprinklers in 100 tower blocks. All the councils say they have been advised to carry out the works by their local fire brigades.
In Salford, the city council has borrowed £25m to fund works to remove potentially flammable cladding from nine tower blocks and councillors have accused the Government of “failing to live up to its responsibility”.
Southwark has estimated their bill for installing sprinklers in its tower blocks could be as high as £100m, but that figure would be dwarfed by the bill for works at Birmingham City Council, the country’s largest council landlord with up to 213 tower blocks.
Southwark council leader, Peter John, said: “Fire safety is a national issue and the financial burden for these works must not fall on already stretched councils.” Southwark in south London is the location of Lakanal House, where six people died from a fire in a council owned tower block in July 2009.
Sharma reportedly told Croydon Council that the works they outlined are the council’s responsibility as a landlord, while telling Wandsworth that any support given will not include general improvement and enhancements to buildings. This is believed to be a reference to sprinklers.
The Government appears determined not to fund or allow additional borrowing for any improvements that go beyond essential safety works. The crunch appears to be over what is considered essential, with sprinklers proving to be a key issue. The Department for Communities and Local Government argues that an appropriate level of fire safety can be achieved without the need to retrofit sprinklers and fitting them is a matter for landlords to consider for themselves.
However, housing bosses have pointed to the words of Dany Cotton, the commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, who said retrofitting sprinklers in tower blocks “can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice-to-have, this is something that must happen”.
Ms Cotton has called for all high-rise flats to be fitted with sprinklers. “I think Grenfell should be a turning point. I support retrofitting – for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing. If retrofitting isn’t one of the recommendations of the Grenfell Tower inquiry then I will be so very disappointed.”
In 2007, sprinklers were made compulsory in all new-build high rises over 30 metres in height but this requirement was not applied retroactively so did not apply to Grenfell Tower, which was built in 1974 and then subject to a major refurbishment which completed two years ago.