No sprinklers in 96% of London high-rise council blocks, research finds

Government has 'betrayed' social housing tenants, says Labour

Harriet Agerholm
Friday 23 November 2018 18:27
Firemen on a balcony outside one of the burned out flats at Lakanal House in London, following a fire that killed six people on 4 July 2009
Firemen on a balcony outside one of the burned out flats at Lakanal House in London, following a fire that killed six people on 4 July 2009

Nearly 18 months after the Grenfell Tower fire, 96 per cent of council tower blocks in London do not have sprinkler systems, according to research by the Labour Party.

Figures from local councils showed more than 800 high-rises in the capital did not have the fire protection method, leading the opposition party to say council tenants had been “betrayed” by the government.

In the aftermath of the inferno that killed 72 people, Theresa May vowed to “do whatever it takes to keep our people safe”.

Housing minister Kit Malthouse said the government had “taken steps to ensure the immediate safety of all high rise buildings”, pointing out sprinklers were only one of a host of possible measures that can protect a building’s occupants from fire.

Sprinklers were fitted in 32 of 837 blocks that rise higher than 98ft across the capital, figures provided by 29 of 33 councils showed. Nine of those with sprinklers had them before the blaze and 23 have had the systems fitted in the months since, according to the data seen by The Independent.

Since 2007, new blocks over 30 metres tall must be fitted with sprinklers, but the law does not apply retrospectively.

After the 2009 Lakanal House fire in Southwark that killed six people, a coroner recommended retrofitting sprinklers in existing high-rise residential buildings.

The National Fire Chiefs Council, the London Fire Brigade Commissioner, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service and the London Assembly, have also called for the systems to be retrofitted.

Calling on the government to set up a fire safety fund to help cash-strapped councils pay for the protection systems to be fitted, shadow housing minister Sarah Jones said she knew of 10 councils that had requested funding support specifically for sprinklers, but the government had refused.

Other councils had told the Croydon MP they had been discouraged from requesting funding after the government’s refusals of other councils were made public. Not a single council surveyed had been granted a funding application for sprinklers, she said.

“Councils and social housing tenants have been betrayed by this government who promised to do whatever it took after Grenfell to make tower blocks safe, and has since backtracked,” said Ms Jones.

“It’s simply contradictory for ministers to say that sprinklers aren’t essential in older buildings while requiring them for new buildings. It creates a two-tier system which disproportionately impacts social housing tenants.

“Why should certain people be entitled to safer housing than others?”

A London Fire Brigade spokesperson said: “Sprinklers save lives, reduce injury and protect property and we have long been urging the government to take action on sprinklers.

“We believe building owners should retrofit sprinklers in tower blocks, especially in the homes of those who would find it difficult to escape a fire such as those with mobility problems and we have also been calling for sprinklers to be mandatory in all new school builds and major refurbishments.

“They are the only fire safety system which detects a fire, suppresses a fire and raises the alarm.”

Mr Malthouse 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, like the type used on Grenfell Tower, on high rise buildings owned by councils and housing associations, estimated at £400m.

“Sprinklers can be effective, but they are one of many fire safety measures that can be adopted. If local authorities have concerns about the costs of essential fire safety measures, they should contact us to discuss their position and any flexibilities we can offer.”

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