Outrage as tower block families billed for fire safety systems
Leaseholders hit out at £4,000 fee for fitting post-Grenfell sprinklers
A Tory-run council plans to charge tower block residents up to £4,000 to fit sprinklers aimed at preventing a repeat of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The move has provoked anger among residents in Wandsworth, south London. Non-payment and legal action are among the options being considered by some of the more than 1,000 leaseholders, who met last week to form a groupto oppose the plans.
Hammersmith and Fulham, a neighbouring council, is paying for sprinklers for its tenants and leaseholders.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Thursday that the Grenfell tragedy should force the government to fund the fitting of sprinklers to all council and housing association high-rise blocks. He launched a campaign to push the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to commit in the budget to the £1bn needed.
Wandsworth council has already committed to retro-fit sprinklers in all blocks of at least 10 storeys in the borough. There are 99 such blocks, consisting of more than 6,400 flats; 1,315 are residents who own the lease, while 1,043 leaseholders live elsewhere.
Some £30m from the council’s housing revenue funds have been earmarked for the fitting, along with the replacement in two blocks of cladding of the type that have been blamed for spreading the fire at Grenfell.
However, some residents remain unconvinced of the need for the sprinklers – describing them as a public relations exercise by Tory councillors who have watched their colleagues in Kensington and Chelsea being ripped to political shreds – while others who welcome plans for the installation are angered at the cost.
“We were pleased when they announced they were going to install them because we believed it was the right thing to do, but there was no mention made at that point of leaseholders having to pay for it,” said Chloe Lewis, who lives in one of the blocks with her partner and two young children.
“We contacted the council and were told: ‘yes, you will have to pay.’ Even though they are owners of their flats. A lot of people will struggle with this cost, which comes on top of service charges and other costs in a lot of cases.
“We happen to live in a council that makes a virtue of having one of the lowest council tax rates in the country and, while most of the people living in tower blocks are far from being wealthy, this is a borough where there are a lot of very wealthy residents. Surely there is a more equitable way of funding a cost like this, especially if it is an essential safety measure.”
Aside from the sprinklers, Lewis said she was concerned the council had yet to implement fire safety improvements recommended by consultants last year – including upgrading the fire resistance for electrical cupboard doors and fitting self-closing mechanisms on communal doors.
A report for the council by Brian Reilly, its director of housing, appeared to recognise the sensitive nature of the levy, stating: “As these costs (approximately £3,000 to £4,000) will be imposed on leaseholders with relatively short notice, it is recommended that, with respect to the cost of the sprinkler systems only, existing repayment arrangements for resident leaseholders be extended from 10 months to 48 months.
Anything beyond 48 months may draw criticism from other leaseholders, he added.
Ravi Govindia, the leader of Wandsworth council, said: “The safety of our tenants and leaseholders is paramount and we have approached the government regarding funding, and remain in discussions. Installing sprinklers in blocks of over 10 storeys is one of a range of additional fire safety measures we have been exploring since the summer, and although we check that all our properties remain compliant with current legislation, we of course await the recommendations of the Grenfell inquiry for further instruction.”
The Grenfell Tower blaze is believed to have spread via its external cladding.