Leeds City Council's 'adverse' situation after post-Grenfell fire safety cash denied

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“Adverse” financial implications face Leeds City Council after the Government rejected its plea for help with funding a multi-million-pound upgrade to fire safety measures in high-rise homes after the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Following the tragedy which claimed the lives of 72 people, the authority identified £32m would be needed to fit sprinkler systems across its 116 social and sheltered housing blocks.

The remains of Grenfell Tower. Credit: PA.

The remains of Grenfell Tower. Credit: PA.

Ahead of the first anniversary tomorrow, the council has revealed that the Government declined to pay anything towards its request for the full amount because it deemed the measures “non-essential”.

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Following the blaze which tore through the 24-storey block in Kensington, west London, on June 14 last year, it was revealed that sprinklers were not fitted during its renovation in 2016. In the aftermath of the disaster - which is currently the subject a public inquiry - a report by a committee which investigated fire safety referenced the Chief Fire Officers Association, which said in 2013 that sprinklers have almost eliminated fire deaths wherever they are installed.

The London Assembly report, which was released in March, also recommended that sprinklers should be required by law in new blocks of flats higher than six storeys.

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Two days after the disaster, then Communities and Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid claimed that the Government would “do whatever it takes” to improve measures in tower blocks - but in October, Chancellor Philip Hammond said it would only pay for council fire safety work as a “last resort”.

Coun Debra Coupar.

Coun Debra Coupar.

Leeds City Council currently proposes to fit sprinklers to 37 high-rise blocks deemed to be of “higher risk” because of their height, the number of staircases, whether they are sheltered homes or not, findings of Fire Risk Assessments, and a previous history of fires.

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A new report by Phillip Charlton, Investment Strategy Manager of Property and Contracts at the council, reads: “We wrote to the Government in January 2018 to request funding to support the increased costs in our fire safety programme, particularly in relation to sprinklers.

“This was declined, as the installation of sprinklers was considered non-essential.

“There will therefore likely be an adverse effect on other parts of our investment plan, as we divert more funding to the fire safety programme.”

In the past five years, around £17m has been spent on fire safety works in social housing high-rises and sheltered properties in Leeds under a Fire Safety Concordat agreement with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. This included the installation of fire safety doors, “fire-stopping and compartmentation works”, and a programme to introduce water suppressant systems, referred to more often as sprinklers.

In the wake of the disaster, the council’s programme was “reviewed and strengthened” to include the installation of sprinkler systems to more high-rise blocks than initially planned.

The council’s Executive Board last November approved the spending of £10m on the 37 higher-risk blocks. The authority has spent £2.2m on fire safety in the last 12 months. A further £22m would be required to fund the installation of sprinkler systems to all 116 of the council’s high-rise blocks in the city, which do already meet national guidance.

Executive member for communities Coun Debra Coupar stressed that no Leeds council blocks were identified as at risk in the same way as Grenfell, and the additional programme is being provided “as an extra reassurance to tenants”.

“We are confident that with the measures already in place, fires are not able to spread in our blocks, and our work to install sprinklers will provide additional protection, particularly for vulnerable individuals in flats.”

Government response

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “Since the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, we have taken steps to ensure the immediate safety of all high rise buildings.

“We are going to fully fund the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding by councils and housing associations, estimated at £400 million.”

He added the Government’s “advice is clear”: for existing buildings, it is for the owner to decide whether to retro-fit sprinklers.

“As Dame Judith Hackitt points out in her report, no single fire safety measure - including sprinklers - can be seen as a panacea.”

The department wrote to all councils in 2013 asking them to consider a coroner’s suggestion that they consider retro-fitting sprinklers in existing high-rises.