Out­rage as tower block fam­i­lies billed for fire safety sys­tems

Lease­hold­ers hit out at £4,000 fee for fit­ting post-Gren­fell sprin­klers

The Observer - - NEWS - By Ben Quinn

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.

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