Questions to the Housing Department on fire safety

I sent these questions to the Housing Department of Wandsworth Council this morning…

It would be extremely useful to have a briefing, perhaps in the form of a Q&A, on the current situation re our housing stock: I find it very frustrating to have to tell residents who are raising concerns that I only know what I have picked up through the mainstream media, particularly but not only about Wandsworth blocks failing the fire safety tests. I have emailed the Cabinet Member but received no answers or indeed acknowledgment.

In particular I have been asked:

Which two blocks have failed the tests (I presume Castlemaine is one of them)?

The Council told residents last week: “If you live in a high rise property you are not at more risk of a fire starting, living in a flat is not more dangerous than living in a house” (i.e. if you live in a house or by implication low/medium rise you are no safer than if you live in a tower block). Why is the Council only putting sprinklers in blocks of 10 or more storeys when those living in other types of property are just as much at risk of fire – is it just to save money? (One resident specifically asked about the fire in Turin Street in Bethnal Green on Saturday – why does the Council not intend to put sprinklers in properties like that?)

In particular (this is my question, not that of a resident), what technical evidence has been used to determine that residents living on the ground floor of a 10-storey block are more in need of a sprinkler than those living on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block? (An alternative approach, if the above advice on the risks of high rise versus other properties was indeed misleading, would be to install sprinklers in all flats above say 5 storeys no matter how high the block in question.) Can this evidence be made public?

Will the cost of the sprinklers be recharged to leaseholders? (A couple of leaseholders in high rise have said that although they realise there is no meaningful fire risk they are concerned about the value of their flat. Actually they were prepared to pay if necessary – less affluent leaseholders may not be in that position – but obviously would not object if the costs of installing what one called ‘cosmetic’ sprinklers to shore up their investment were taken away from Council tenants rather than them having to foot the bill themselves. I am sure that commercial companies owning dozens or hundreds of flats for rent across the Council’s housing stock would like similar assurances of a major public subsidy to their profit margins and asset base.)

When sprinklers malfunction (say through inadvertent overheating, freezing, mechanical damage, corrosion or manufacturing defects – the equivalent of setting the smoke alarm off by burning the toast), causing water damage, will the Council be responsible for putting the damage right or will it fall on tenants and leaseholders who may or may not be able to afford contents insurance?

How much will the exercise cost? How much would it cost to provide fire extinguishers for 6,400 flats? Which other HRA (Housing Revenue Account) schemes will be cancelled to pay for it? (It has been suggested to me that the HRA will just ‘borrow’ the money so no other schemes will be affected. However, I and I am sure many residents are sceptical that in effect there is a ‘magic money tree’ – indeed the Prime Minister herself has made this very point. It seems unlikely that the Council or the HRA can run up debt without placing an eventual burden on the next generation who will have to pay it back or service it, inevitably at the expense of services and/or investment projects. Of course if the sprinklers really can be installed without affecting any other schemes now or in the future then why stop at 10 storeys?)

What account was taken of the very different construction methods used in different high rise blocks across the Borough, with very different approaches to fire safety and therefore presumably very different potential risks? (Again, my question, not a resident’s.)

What consultation was done with residents, notably tenants, to make sure that they agreed that this was the best use of their rent money accrued in the HRA, given the Council’s previous assurances on safety?

Does the Council have legal powers to force tenants out of their homes unilaterally, without their consent or any consultation, as seems to be happening in Camden? Would there be any circumstances in which the Council would exercise any such powers? (One elderly resident has expressed fear that she is going to be removed from her flat and made to sleep in a B&B or on a mattress – she is also worried about what would happen to her dogs.)

There is something of an impression developing that the Council has succumbed to a badly thought out knee-jerk response. The announcement has obviously and inevitably created (in my view unnecessary) fears among residents in blocks below 10 storeys in my Ward who have been told by the Council that they are in just as much risk of fire as the higher blocks but are not going to get the sprinklers. I am sure this impression is exaggerated but answers to the above and other questions would go a long way to damping down the sense of chaos.

Grenfell House

As all of our hearts go out to the community of Grenfell House in Kensington & Chelsea (K&C) after the tragedy last week, the sense of public anger against the agencies that ‘allowed’ the accident to happen is entirely proper. Some aspects of the way the building was managed, and the response with which the events were met, need very careful scrutiny.

Nonetheless I find I have some concerns which, if they have any substance, may suggest we need to be very careful about how we interpret the tragedy and, more importantly, how we reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

West Hill Ward in Wandsworth, which I have represented since 1994, has a large number of tower blocks of 8 storeys or more (though none quite as high as Grenfell House – I think 14 floors is the largest, in Keevil Drive), some of which have suffered flat fires in recent times. The Ward has the very first social housing tower blocks in London, on the Ackroydon Estate. I also had a period chairing the Housing Committee on the Council, in which period we had the fire at Chillingford House in Tooting which could be seen from as far away as the Town Hall and which required the whole building to be evacuated for two days. The good news for residents is that on every occasion the building has done its job in isolating the fire to the flat in question or one or two neighbours.

However, there are two related issues which have not received a great deal of comment as yet. Ironically they stem from a desire to shift the power for taking decisions away from elected representatives and the mechanisms of government and towards empowering service users to take their own decisions about how those services are delivered and to what degree.

The first issue stems from one of the challenges of mixed tenure within most of our tower blocks. There are several categories of resident. There are Council tenants, placed by the Council and living in flats still owned and maintained by the Council. Then there are various groups of leaseholders. There are some of the original residents who bought their property under right-to-buy and are still living there. By the nature of things these residents are sometimes not particularly wealthy. There are owner-occupiers who have bought the lease from the original leaseholders or perhaps a subsequent owner and who live in the property themselves. And there are absentee landlords, maybe the original lessees who have moved away, maybe people who have bought the flat as an investment, maybe large property companies, who let the flat out to sub-tenants who can afford the rental values.

Let’s say that major works are being done which cost £10,000 per flat; there is an option to include a non-statutory improvement, let us say sprinklers, at an extra cost of £5,000 per flat.

For Council tenants it’s not all that much of an issue, as they would not have to find £10,000 or £15,000 up front. Their share would be taken from the central pool of housing money, the Housing Revenue Account, which consists of all the rents across the Borough plus some of the routine service charge payments from leaseholders and various grants from central government. In effect the tenants have already paid for the major works through their rents in the period since the last set of major works, typically 15 or 20 years previously. For them, therefore, the direct financial difference between a programme costing £10,000 or £15,000 per flat is extremely small.

For leaseholders it is very different. They must find the £10,000 or £15,000 directly. The Council may give them a year to pay (in instalments), they may be able to add the sum to their mortgages, but they have to find the cash quite quickly. And if the sprinklers are included they have to find an extra £5,000 pretty much straight away.

For the owner-occupiers this may be attractive – generally speaking those who can afford to buy a lease these days can also afford, and indeed would expect, to pay significant major work bills and would of course get the direct benefit of the improvement. For original leaseholders, however, the need to find an extra £5,000 may represent an enormous extra burden. As for the absentee landlords, in my experience when it comes to improvements like entrycall systems, from which by definition they will not benefit in their day-to-day lives and which rarely enhance the property value by as much as the cost incurred, they are often less than keen to support the added expenditure. Indeed, given the way many of the leases are worded leaseholders are specifically excluded from having to pay for anything which is deemed an ‘improvement’ rather than a ‘repair’.

So who should decide whether the sprinklers go in? If it is a ballot of residents then there is a significant likelihood that leaseholders will baulk at the proposals, notably in blocks where a high proportion of the flats are sublet by absentee landlords. Alternatively, should such decisions be taken away from the residents and once more imposed by the Council or its agency? And if so then who pays? If it could be shown in law that the introduction of non-statutory sprinklers constituted an ‘improvement’ then the whole cost might fall to the Housing Revenue Account – i.e. a huge transfer of wealth from Council tenants to private leaseholders (including property companies) – or it would fall at least in part on hard pressed original right-to-buy leaseholders?

The second issue concerns governance. In my Ward most of the housing estates are managed in-house by the Council. If residents have a difficulty they can raise it with me, I can raise it on their behalf and, to be fair to Council officers, I generally get effective action taken quickly by our excellent officer team. However, if proper action should not be forthcoming I can escalate the issue through the Council knowing that the buck stops with our officers.

However, I also have two estates, the Wimbledon Park and the Ackroydon East, where affairs are managed not by the Council but by a Tenant Management Organisation (TMO – in the case of Wimbledon Park it is called the Co-Op). In the mid-1990s residents were given the option of taking over some or most of their services from the Council (the Co-Op is actually rather older than that). As it happens both of the ones in my Ward are good and I am certainly not aware of residents in those two estates wanting to change things. However, although as a Ward Councillor I have good relations with both management organisations, inevitably I and Council officers do not have the same powers to challenge and correct any instances of poor service, or to take high-level decisions when those have been delegated to the TMOs. The collapse of the Alton Estate TMO in Roehampton cost the Housing Revenue Account hundreds of thousands of pounds. Checking the standard of service delivery in these effectively unaccountable organisations, including around safety, is obviously much more difficult for the local authority than when it is providing or managing the services directly.

As I understand it the residents of K&C’s housing estates voted to leave K&C Council and set up their own TMO, which was duly established in April 1996. The TMO has a management board of 15 people, of whom 8 are residents, four appointed by K&C Council and three independent. (The website currently shows 13 members, with apparent vacancies among the Council and independent members. Two of the three council-appointed members are councillors). It has largely been praised by officialdom, receiving three stars (out of a possible four) from the old Audit Commission before such external scrutiny was abolished by the Coalition government while its long-standing chair received the MBE for her services in 2012.

So the responsibility for the management of the nearly 10,000 Council properties in K&C lies not with the Council but with the TMO, with its built-in majority of residents. At present K&C Council seems to control just two of the 13 places.

The intention in setting up such organisations – free schools are another example – is a reasonable one, on the surface. It is based on the assumption that users of a service will always know better than the mere ‘professionals’ who have been trained to deliver it as to what is wanted and needed by the people concerned. People do often feel that they are not being listened to by the powers that be and this appears to be a way of breaking that cycle. However, it does mean that the elected representatives and their agencies have far less opportunity actually to intervene in practices that may be ineffective or, in the worst case, dangerous. The abolition of the Audit Commission, which cast an external eye over such matters, was a criminal act by Sir Eric Pickles and his colleagues and leaves us all in a more vulnerable position.

Grenfell House is being portrayed as a failure of officialdom, from the Central Government down through K&C Council, to take sufficient care of and concern for those in its charge. Yet the evidence suggests that maybe the opposite was the case – when locally elected, accountable representatives were in effect removed from responsibility for and powers over service provision, many of the mechanisms to protect residents were removed at the same time. The war on local government which has been waged by all parties of government for so long was bound to have casualties. We must do all we can to make sure that the difficult balance between professional expertise and service users’ desires does not swing too far in either direction.