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High-rises: fire safety is put on ice

Pariament told of failure to retrofit tower blocks with sprinklers

24 January, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Karen Buck: ‘My council has suspended work on retrofitting because of a lack of clarity about rights of access’

THE flagship housing policy to retrofit sprinklers into all Westminster tower blocks following the Grenfell Tower fire disaster has been put on ice.

Karen Buck, Labour MP for Westminster North, told the House of Commons the council’s commitment to make safe 15 high-rise buildings over 30 metres tall had been paused because of legal disputes and a “lack of clarity” from the government about funding.

She said the council was struggling to “access” homes in its own blocks because of private owners of flats sold-off under Right to Buy.

Homes had often been flipped for profit to a complex web of overseas investors and corporate landlords compounding the problem.

Ms Buck told the health secretary on Monday that decisions to install sprinklers were now being made based on costs rather than safety, adding: “My council has suspended work on retrofitting because of a lack of clarity about rights of access.”

Ms Buck the following day raised the issue again in a debate about Grenfell Inquiry’s phase 1 report, ­warning recommendations from the coroner’s report in the Lakanal House 2009 Camberwell fire disaster were being ignored.

She said: “There are 15 high-rise social housing tower blocks in my cons­tituency. Those blocks contain within them at least a third – sometimes a half or even more – properties that have been sold under the right to buy.

“Some of those properties are now in the hands of management companies or corporate landlords, and some of them are owned by overseas companies. Some of them are privately tenanted and some of them are owned; some of them are still owned by those who had the original right to buy.

Nickie Aiken

“Almost all of them have different leases. So there is massive complexity there and at the moment the legislative framework simply does not allow local authorities to go ahead, even if they wish to and have put the money aside to do so, with carrying out the necessary works to retrofit sprinklers… So even the local authorities that are willing are not able to go ahead with that work.”

In 2018 the council agreed to “100 per cent installation of sprinklers in tall buildings, including those owned by leaseholders”.

In April last year the council began its first installation at Glastonbury House, Pimlico, and Glarus Court, Marylebone, with contacts worth £1.64million. These two blocks of homes, all council-owned, were considered a “higher risk” than other towers because they had sheltered care flats.

Nickie Aiken, the former leader of Westminster Council, now MP for Cities of London and Westminster, told the debate: “We also have confusion about being able to go in, as the local authority, to check the fire safety of homes that have become privately owned under the right to buy. There has to be legislation that takes that into consideration and gives local authorities powers to go in and look at the fire safety of all tenures, not just social-rented but also shared-ownership.

“As we move on to more shared-ownership schemes, to house more people across central London in particular, there will be an ongoing issue. So I ask the government to act and I back what the Hon Lady [Ms Buck] says.”

The council quietly launched a survey of Westminster residents about the future of sprinkler retrofitting last November. It said: “We agree with London Fire Brigade, alongside many other local authorities, that sprinklers are important and one of the best ways to stop a fire… However, we ack­nowledge it’s important to be pragmatic and take time to plan this work. We do not want to rush installations or escalate leaseholder costs.”

In a statement Andrew Smith, council cabinet member for housing services, added: “We’re committed to installing sprinklers where appropriate in high-rise properties. We are working with tenants and leaseholders to install more. Further government funding would help.”

On Ms Buck’s original question, housing secretary Robert Jenrick said he would respond about the rights of access.

“With respect to cost the position today, as it has been throughout, is that this remediation work is the responsibility of building owners,” he said.

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