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Government is told to pay up on fire safety

Council chief says promises made after Grenfell Tower disaster are being broken

18 August, 2017 — By Koos Couvée

Braithwaite House in Finsbury, where dangerous cladding was removed last month

TOWN Hall chief Richard Watts this week launched a furious attack on the government, accusing it of rowing back on promises to fund fire safety measures in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Cash-strapped Islington Council, who are considering installing sprinkler systems in all of their high-rise blocks, fear the government’s review of building regulations, launched following the deadly blaze at the tower block in North Kensington, could cost the Town Hall tens of millions of pounds and lead to cuts in other home improvement work if it concludes that there should be wholesale changes to buildings to improve safety.

The council has already removed dangerous cladding at Braithwaite House, a tower block in Finsbury, and is installing additional fire safety measures in towers across the borough.

The changes are being funded out of the ring-fenced housing revenue account (HRA) – at a time when this budget has already taken a severe hit from the 1 per cent reduction in social rents imposed by the Cameron government in 2015.

“Councils across the country are livid about the government letting us down with this,” Cllr Watts said. “They were quite clear in the immediate aftermath [of Grenfell], making promises that government would pay, and they are now running away from that.

“The government has left councils in a mess. It’s a national problem and if they have failed [in setting proper] building regulations, the government should step up, put its hands in its pockets and pay for it.”

The government this week said that where works are essential to ensure the fire safety of a building, “current restrictions on the use of financial resources will not prevent them going ahead”. This offers “some hope” of extending council borrowing limits to pay for works but “promises precisely zero”, Cllr Watts added.

Spa Green manager Thomas Cooper holding up an image showing the works he fears are dangerous

But while Islington has been scrambling to improve fire safety in tower blocks, it was this week accused of ignoring an estate manager’s fire safety concerns over works done six years ago – until he walked into Upper Street fire station and got the London Fire Brigade to spur the council into action.

Thomas Cooper, manager at Spa Green estate in Clerkenwell, said his fears over lack of fire-stopping insulation between hot water pipes installed in kitchens had fallen on deaf ears even after the Grenfell fire. During a blaze on the estate in March, smoke had filled the flat above it as it ran up through the holes around the pipes, he said, raising questions about the building’s compartmentation – its ability to contain fire within a flat.

The piping work was not flagged up in the council’s fire risk assessment because this only covers communal areas of the building.

But David Sibert, the Fire Brigades Union’s national fire safety advisor and a former firefighter, told the Tribune internal works would have to be checked by the council.

A photo of the works at Sa Green, showing big gaps between pipes

He added: “The kitchen is a very common place for fire to start, and smoke can travel through the smallest of holes. If [there are holes] the flats above are at serious risk of being filled with smoke, that needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.”

Opposition councillor Caroline Russell accused the Town Hall of being “careless”.

London Fire Brigade sent an enforcement officer to check the works and this week flagged them up with Islington Council.

Islington’s housing chief Cllr Diarmaid Ward said: “We want to work with Mr Cooper and our paramount concerns are that things are as safe as possible.

“We have issued him with any fire risk assessments and they will be issued in future to estate managers as a matter of course. We are going to carry out a comprehensive review of Spa Green. It does need to be looked at as a matter of urgency.”


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