Councils facing multi-million pound bills seek government support for fire safety improvements

Randall House in Tower Hamlets. Pic. Sam Corner

By Lucinda Diamond and Sam Corner

Local boroughs are facing multi million pound bills for fire safety improvements in high-rise buildings in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy with no immediate prospect of Government help, inquiries by Eastlondonlines have revealed.

Although the Government has indicated there will be money available,  councils are uncertain as to how cash will be distributed. It has also been revealed all London boroughs will have to prove that they have no other means of funding the improvement.

All local authorities are also awaiting the results of the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy, which may also lead to further safety expenditure.

During the Autumn budget statement last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond said: “If any local authority cannot access funding to pay for essential fire safety work, they should contact us immediately.”

Philip Hammond. Pic. Chatham House

It not clear however, how much money, if any, has been set aside as Hammond did not provide a figure. The Department of Communities and Local Government were contacted to provide one but failed to respond.

The Mayors of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, Philip Glanville and John Biggs both recently revealed that they had approached the Government for additional funding for fire safety but were turned down. Croydon has also asked for a contribution to the £10m they have set aside. Conservative group leaders Councillor Tim Pollard told ELL: “Croydon will have to put forward its case and explain why it cannot resource this vital work itself” after speaking with MP Marcus Jones, a minister for local government.

It is also unclear whether the Conservative government classifies sprinklers as essential following Hammond’s previous comments in June. He said sprinklers “may not always be the best technical way of ensuring fire safety.” Although on September 29 it was revealed that parliament will be undergoing a £118 million fire safety upgrade that will include sprinklers.

A regulation introduced in 2007 requires all newly built tower blocks to have sprinkler systems installed. However, there remains a severe lack of this fire prevention measure across the ELL boroughs.

Currently, there are a total of eight high-rise blocks deemed unfit for purpose in Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets Mayor Biggs announced in his budget last Wednesday that £4.5million will be invested to remove external cladding from two tower blocks in Limehouse but that it will cost an further £20 million to install sprinklers in all blocks

Similarly, Lewisham Council identified three tower blocks that had failed regulation tests and revealed at a cabinet meeting that an estimated £17.5million would be needed to retrofit sprinklers in high rise buildings and hostels. However, the cabinet report shows that Lewisham Homes have put aside just £500,000 for sprinkler installation.

In Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Theresa May said that Lewisham council had claimed that fitting sprinklers pose a safety risk, as they “can cut through fire compartmentalisation.”

Lewisham have also identified buildings with ACM cladding – similar to the kind used on Grenfell Tower – and have made it a “priority at this stage to remove the cladding as quickly and safely as possible” by December 8.

The Hackney Citizen revealed in June that only two of the borough’s 181 tower blocks have sprinklers, yet Mayor Glanville said: “Councils have approached the Government and so far have all been turned down for any funding. It shouldn’t be about individual authorities being forced to beg for additional resources.”

ELL reported on Hackney being the first and only borough to release 1,800 FRA’s (Fire Risk Assessments). Read it here.

Mayor Biggs revealed in his budget that he has not been given additional funding to retrofit sprinklers into tower blocks.

Fire sprinkler. Pic. HomeSpot HQ

At a Tower Hamlets council meeting last week, the council called on the Mayor to write to the Prime Minister, “demanding that the government properly fund fire safety works across the UK, for example sprinklers, and accept that its disastrous programme of deregulation and cost cutting is putting lives at risk.”

Croydon Council cabinet members have also approached the government to contribute to the £10 million they have set aside to install sprinklers across 25 tower blocks in the borough. They were the first borough to actively  begin taking action.

Councillor Alison Butler, the deputy leader of Croydon council told ELL: “Croydon Council maintains that sprinklers are essential and this is supported by the London Fire Brigade.

“We will be approaching the Government for assistance with our bill for installing sprinklers but given that in his letter to us of September 29 2017, Alok Sharma MP told us that the works we wanted to do to retrofit sprinklers were ‘additional rather than essential’, Mr Hammond’s words mean little.”

This week, Labour presented a petition with over 100,000 signatures to the Treasury which called for the government to provide £1 billion for fire sprinklers across the UK. Hackney residents have done the same, achieving 1,654 signatures.

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