Central government are back-tracking on their pledge to do everything in their power, regardless of cost, to protect residents living in high-rise blocks following the tragic and avoidable Grenfell Tower fire, in which at least 80 people lost their lives. According to a recent report in The Guardian, government is refusing to release funds to councils to improve the fire safety in dozens of residential tower blocks.
Housing minister, Alok Sharma, has already declined Nottingham city council’s request for funding assistance to install sprinklers inside flats and communal areas in 13 towers at a cost of £6.2m. Sharma told the council: “The fire safety measures you outline are additional rather than essential.”
The Conservative-run Westminster council has also had a funding request knocked back to install sprinklers across the borough. Housing minister, Sharma, also told the London borough of Croydon, which wants to spend £10m on retrofitting sprinklers to 25 tall residential blocks: “It is the landlord’s responsibility to ensure that people are safe.”
The government’s pledge to improve fire safety in residential council tower blocks following the Grenfell tragedy is already in question, with no funding likely to be forthcoming for the retrofitting of fire sprinklers.
Jane Urquart, the cabinet member for housing at Nottingham city council, said: “The government said a lot of things after the tragedy about money not being an object to ensuring safety. Now councils like ours, which have faced huge cuts over the last few years, are being told to dig into our pockets. The consequence of the government not paying is that other repairs to our housing stock won’t happen.”
At the Conservative Party conference last week, when pressed on the funding issue for the retrofitting of sprinklers in council tower blocks, Theresa May said “There’s a number of issues that can improve the safety of tower blocks. It is not just one answer.”
The government appears determined not to fund or allow additional borrowing for any improvements that go beyond essential safety works in council-owned residential tower blocks. This is despite advice from local fire brigades and Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, who has vehemently supported the retrofitting of sprinklers in tower blocks, stating they “can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice-to-have”.
The government’s stance that sprinklers are a non-essential is unfathomable. Since 2007, fire sprinklers are a legal requirement for fire safety in all newly built high-rises over 30 meters tall. Fire safety experts are calling for retrofitting to go ahead.
The evidence that fire sprinklers save lives is heavily documented. A recent study by the European Fire Safety Alliance on the efficiency and effectiveness of sprinkler systems in the UK concluded that sprinkler systems are very effective and they contain, control or extinguish the fire in 99 per cent of cases. The study also concluded that sprinklers reduce the damage to residential properties by as much as 75 per cent.
The same study used this example to illustrate the devastating cost of fire in a building without sprinklers:
“A fire broke out in the A&E department of Sandwell and District Hospital in West Bromwich with the fire and smoke spreading rapidly and large sections of the hospital evacuated, including operating theatres which were in use at the time. Some patients were transported in emergency vehicles so that their treatment could continue at other hospitals nearby. The fire was particularly severe and caused £11 million of damage.
“The A&E was completely rebuilt at a cost of £18m. As a result of the lessons learned from the fire, sprinkler provision was provided as part of the rebuild programme.”
The case for the retrofitting of sprinklers is clear. This is not only in their effectiveness to save lives, but also in their capacity to significantly reduce the amount of damage fire causes to buildings. The retrofitting of sprinklers is a cost-effective investment. So, do we have a government that is washing their hands of responsibility?