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.

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