By councillor Paul White, Wandsworth Labour housing speaker
The fire at Grenfell Tower last summer was a tragedy. It took the lives of so many people and seemed to emphasise the lack of care being shown by some councils to their residents.
With such a tragedy, a response was needed to protect residents against this, or anything like it, from happening again.
Wandsworth council set aside £30m to fit sprinklers in council blocks over 10 storeys tall, along with replacing the cladding on two of its buildings.
The cladding on these buildings failed fire safety checks. Until the cladding is removed, fire marshals will be in these blocks 24 hours a day, making regular inspections of communal areas.
Wandsworth Labour backed these steps. We believe the costs of these measures should be met by the government as they are ultimately being imposed to protect citizens.
Frustratingly, the government has refused, even though Teresa May had stated “money would be no object” after the Grenfell disaster.
There’s another piece of unwelcome news: the cost of replacing the cladding has nearly doubled.
A council report says: “Recent and highly volatile market forces affecting the provision of materials and labour associated with such recladding works subsequent to the Grenfell House fire, have resulted in costs substantially increasing on site with estimated costs now in the region of £9.9m [up from £5.5m].”
It is disgraceful that some people are seeking to make excessive profits from the tragedy.
These rising costs create a further burden on the council and mean essential housing investment elsewhere will be impacted. This again highlights the unfairness that central Government is refusing to pay a penny towards this fire safety work.
If the government won’t pay, who will foot the bill? For tenants, the cost of sprinklers will come out of the rent account they all pay into. Leaseholders will be presented with a bill, likely to be £3,000 to £4,000. Some Putney and Battersea based leaseholders say sprinklers are not a priority for them – as their blocks have updated fire safety adaptations, dual staircases, good fire doors and no cladding.
They also point to statistics that suggest that in fact the possibility of fire in their home is low and they are quite prepared to live with such a low risk.
They also object to the council marching into their home that they have bought, to make alterations to their home, when they and haven’t consented.
In last September’s Housing Committee Wandsworth Labour put down three amendments, which were agreed. They will form the core of our approach to the fire safety improvements if we take control of the council in May:
1. Any decision will be reviewed in light of the interim Grenfell report in the spring
2. Priority will be given to the most vulnerable blocks in the programme
3. There must be consultation with the residents
Where residents want sprinklers installed, we should accelerate the programme; where there is significant resistance, we should stop and listen.
This should mean proper, meaningful consultation with the residents. We believe that nothing should be decided in those blocks where there is unease, until real dialogue has taken place and been tested. Decisions on sprinklers should be made on a block by block basis.
There are legal hurdles to clear before any sprinklers can be installed. The council wants to clarify the legal position that would mean presenting the case for implementation to a “First Tier Tribunal”, the decision will not be known until late 2018.
This will have the advantage of being after the interim report of the Grenfell enquiry and so the council can take this into account before any action is taken. As our first amendment made clear, we are determined to learn the right lessons from the Grenfell disaster.
We want to start by listening to local people. We await the enquiry’s full report and will take its recommendations into account when designing the council’s fire safety strategy.