A recent BBC news report highlighted that councils and housing associations have identified that at least £600 million of expenditure is required as a direct result of fire safety reviews for high-rise social housing following the tragic Grenfell Tower fire.
According to the BBC report, this figure is a considerable underestimate and put the cost for resolving the fire safety issues in council high-rise blocks nearer to £1 billion. Many social housing landlords are still calculating budgets for safety works prompted by the fire in North Kensington last June.
Yet six months on from the horrific Grenfell fire, it’s still unclear who will foot the bill for the fire safety improvements required in many high-rise social housing blocks.
Salford Mayor, Paul Dennett, also the chair of the Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force, is adamant the government should pay, saying “This is an industrial crisis. I believe it’s a failure of regulations and I believe it’s a failure of government to regulate the industry, and I do genuinely believe the government should pay for this and take responsibility for it.”
For decades now, tower blocks in the UK have relied on passive fire safety systems with design features, such as compartmentation to prevent possible fires from spreading. In 2007, sprinklers were made compulsory in new-build high rises over 30 metres tall in England, but no measures were taken to enforce retrofitting in older properties.
Following the death of six people in the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009, a coroner recommended that the government should encourage housing providers to retrofit sprinkler systems. Since the Grenfell fire, ministers have been widely criticised for sitting on these recommendations.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, councils and housing associations have received compelling advice from fire safety experts to retrofit sprinklers in all of their high-rise towers. But, many are delaying retrofitting, saying central government must agree to pay before they commission the work.
The confusion over what should happen to high rise blocks fitted with dangerous cladding is also a cause for concern. There seems to be very little direction from government who are hiding under the cloak of the official Inquiry of the Grenfell disaster.
While an interim report is expected from the Inquiry leader, Dame Judith Hackitt, by the end of the year, a full decision on essential fire safety measures, and whether or not that includes sprinklers, won’t be likely until the final recommendations are published in spring 2018.
Who will pay for the work required to make social high-rise housing safe remains to be seen. The evidence supporting fire sprinklers as a cost-effective solution for saving lives and reducing fire damage is indisputable. It seems ludicrous that we are having this debate yet again.
Letting local councils foot the bill for decades of under-investment in our social housing system isn’t the answer. High-rise fire safety needs a central solution by way of regulation, and it requires a commitment from government for funding.