Rachel Reeves: You can't put a price on safety '“ act now after Grenfell tragedy

EVERYONE'S heart will go out to those families left grieving by the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower and I pray that no other community is ever forced to endure their unimaginable pain.

Saturday, 24th June 2017, 4:20 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:46 am
The charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

I have been reassured that all 23 of the 116 high-rise blocks in Leeds where cladding was installed – including three cladded blocks in my Leeds West constituency – are safe and involve different systems to those at Grenfell Tower.

However, it is still deeply worrying that up to 600 high rises across England do have similar cladding to the west London block where at least 79 people died.

The events of this month must have struck dread into anyone living in a tower block in Leeds and across the country. That is why I urgently pressed Theresa May twice in 24 hours on exactly what the Government is doing to guarantee people are safe and to ensure the horrendous events at Grenfell Tower are never repeated.

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During the Queen’s Speech debate on Wednesday, I called on the Government to provide sprinkler systems in all the blocks in Leeds that do not have them. I raised the issue again on Thursday as the Prime Minister spoke about the investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.

The Government must provide extra funds to local authorities so everyone in high-rises in Leeds and elsewhere is properly protected against the risk of fire. That could mean installing sprinkler systems, alarms, new insulation, additional staircases and other measures.

We cannot have a postcode lottery where some flats are protected and others are not. So, the Government must release money and set out a strict timetable for any recommended safety work to be carried as soon as possible.

Of the 116 high-rise blocks in Leeds, 26 are in my constituency of Leeds West. Eight blocks of sheltered housing in the city have been earmarked for sprinkler systems. Five already have the systems and sprinklers are on the way for the others.

But it would cost a further £30m to fit sprinklers to protect every high-rise flat in Leeds. I want Theresa May to provide that money urgently. It could make the difference between life and death – although I hope we will never find out.

It is important to stress that not one block in Leeds has any of the Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) type of cladding systems similar to the one at Grenfell Towers.

But no one is complacent. The council is working with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service and contractors to carry out further safety checks to every tower block in the city.

Social housing is a vital part of the fabric of our society. We desperately need more affordable homes, but we need to make sure they are safe.

It is also paramount that local authorities are given more powers to enforce similar regulations in privately owned tower blocks. There should not be different levels of scrutiny for council and privately owned properties. Student accommodation must also be properly protected.

Just after I became MP for Leeds West seven years ago, I surveyed local council high-rises and found many residents were unhappy. Often, the lifts did not work and there were complaints about uncleared rubbish, anti-social behaviour and the failure to carry out repairs swiftly.

I campaigned for the blocks to be taken back under the control of Leeds City Council and I am glad that happened. It is a change that has undoubtedly improved the situation for tenants.

However, the council’s work has been made harder due to relentless budget cuts under the Tories. Since 2010, the Tories have cut Leeds City Council’s core funding by £214m.

Despite those cuts, the council is working hard to reassure people in high rises. The council is desperate to do more but simply does not have the money. Theresa May could solve that by releasing the £30m needed to install sprinklers.

Without Government action, retro-fitting sprinklers and installing other safety features could take decades. That’s an appalling prospect and I will fight to get these safety measures in place as quickly as possible.

The council is communicating with tenants and providing regular updates. I am also listening to people and trying to address their concerns.

But the most pressing need is to make sure everyone in a Leeds high rise is safe. That means we need the Government to free up the money now for fire safety measures.

Any recommendations made in the months ahead or as a result of the promised public inquiry must be implemented in full by the Government.

Crucially, the Government must provide the funds and a clear timetable to introduce any required sprinklers systems, alarms and other safety measures to give people the certainty they need.

As the tragic events at Grenfell Tower showed, you cannot put a price on people’s safety. The Government must act now.

Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West.