Discussion about protection of tower block residents


Annual General Meeting 2017, Collingwood Hall, London E1

Discussion about measures to protect tower block residents from fire following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, west London on Wednesday

Guest speakers:

Rachel Blake (RB), Lead Councillor for Strategic Development, LBTH

Paul Davey (PD), Director of Business Transformation, Tower Hamlets Homes (THH)

John Tunney (JT), Director of Asset Management, THH

Also attended: John Biggs (JB), Mayor, LBTH

Rachel Blake

RB began by expressing her sorrow for the fire at Grenfell Tower and for the loss of life. She also expressed solidarity for the survivors. She asked us all to observe a minute’s silence for those who had died.

RB said that on the same night as the Grenfell Tower fire, there had been a small fire in Clare House in her ward. The residents of that building had seen the news about Grenfell Tower and some were afraid to return to their own homes.

RB noted the media’s apparent dearth of understanding of the community in Grenfell Tower, and of what had happened and why.

RB expressed concern for the safety of private tenants in tower blocks.

RB said that 2 years ago LBTH had undergone a cut in funding of £24 million over 4 years. She said this cut in funding should be reversed. RB also said the borough needed to campaign for stronger safety regulations.

RB said LBTH has sent letters to residents of all tower blocks in the borough. She said that THH would be touring the borough and knocking on doors. She also said that over the last weekend LBTH had carried out extra caretaking and safety work around the borough, such as clearing litter.

PD said that THH had updated the fire safety advice on their website. He also said THH would be touring the borough to meet people in various developments.

PD noted that fires in tower blocks are actually common occurrences – he said there are about 2 or 3 fires every week – but we do not yet know why the fire in Grenfell Tower was so catastrophic.

John Biggs

JB spoke next. He said his responsibility was to make sure that residents of LBTH were safe in their homes.

JB said the current LBTH Fire Risk Assessment was being re-drawn to make it more rigorous. The new version would address issues within individual flats as well as in common areas.

JB said there were also issues to consider for leaseholders, such as whether leaseholders needed an appropriate fire-resistant front door, and having leaseholders fit smoke alarms in their flats.

John Tunney

JT said LBTH was concerned that landlords in the borough should be up to date on fire risk protection.

JT said that THH had responsibility for 900 blocks, comprising around 20,000 flats.

JT recognised residents’ concerns with regard to cladding on tower blocks. He said that THH has applied cladding to 26 blocks in recent years; however, they used mineral wool instead of the material that was used on Grenfell Tower.

JT gave an example of the safety of THH’s cladding. He cited one block in Poplar HARCA that had an “intense” fire in 2013, but the fire had not spread in the block.

JT said that all social landlords should have done Fire Risk Assessments recently. He said all properties under THH management have had recent FRAs.

JT said that THH surveyors would be visiting tower blocks this week, together with housing officers, to check for obstructions and to check on people who have not had “Decent Homes” refurbishments done in their properties and therefore do not have smoke alarms.

JT said THH are working with the London Fire Brigade (LFB) on fire safety issues.

Emergency motion – Federation AGM 2017

Jane Hartley (JH) of Pauline House (London E1) had put forward the following motion, included with the agenda:

“T H Federation is shocked at the devastating fire in Grenfell Tower. We send the residents our condolences and solidarity. Post up collection points, fundraising links and where volunteers needed.

Call on TH Council and the mayor to draw up a list of all tower blocks in borough and to demand an independent fire safety assessment of each one starting with T H Homes tower blocks.

Look at possible impact of all renovations, eg cladding, insulation, doors and changes to services

Test the functioning of fire alarms, emergency lighting, fire doors and windows, fire extinguishers and the schedule of checks.

Any tower block with non fire resistant cladding to be immediately stripped.

Blocks to be decanted while remedial work is carried out at no cost to the residents.

Immediate costing of retro fitting each block with sprinklers as called for by the coroner after the Lackanal House fire in 2013 and other fire safety work. Plan of work to be completed within 2 years.

TRA’s, tenants and residents to be kept informed and consulted at every step.

Call on the London mayor to fund the London Fire Brigade, reinstate the cuts so that all tower blocks can be regularly inspected and to over see the retro fitting of sprinklers across the city.”

Questions and answers

JH asked THH for more information on their recent works, especially those works done on tower blocks.

JH said that LBTH should demand money from the government for every tower block to be retrofitted with sprinklers.

Robin (?) suggested an amendment to the emergency motion, to ask for prompt and full information on fire safety to be circulated to LBTH residents.

Robin said we did not need to wait for a public enquiry to report back to the nation – the council should be costing systems for fireproofing now.

Robin said that smoke alarms were needed in common areas of blocks, as well as in individual flats.

A woman asked if we should still be following the advice from London Fire Brigade to stay in our flat if fire breaks out.

A man asked for THH to engage more deeply and widely with THH tenants.

Elaine King said THH and LBTH should address the issue of multiple occupancy of flats, as a safety matter. She also noted that one tower block near her was full of “elderly and vulnerable” people and asked what measures were being taken to protect them.

Elaine said that THH were not carrying out sufficiently regular inspections of properties. She said such practical issues could be addressed now.

A man at the back said that residents of tower blocks needed to be informed, in the next few days, what cladding (if any) had been used on their building.

JB said LBTH would be happy to publish fire risk assessments for Tower Hamlets buildings.

JB noted that the government would be publishing an interim report on the Grenfell Tower disaster in a few months, long before the full enquiry findings are published.

JB said LBTH had not yet found any tower block in the borough that had been fitted with the same cladding as Grenfell Tower.

RB said that LBTH no longer have any formal leverage over housing associations – especially once the Tenants Services Authority (TSA) had closed in 2012.

JT said THH had been reviewing the feedback from the first letter they sent out to residents last week. He said THH would be circulating a second letter regarding cladding in the coming week.

Claire (LBTH) observed that current policy is never to house wheelchair users above the 6th floor in any new developments. She said measures for wheelchair users should be looked at more thoroughly.

Claire asked for a timetable for the forthcoming THH meetings. PD said THH were drawing up their timetable at the moment.

Chris (at the back of the room) suggested replicating an idea used in Brent – for our local MPs to call a general meeting for everyone who lives in a tower block in the borough. He said that this meeting should happen soon – in the next few weeks.

Chris said that councillors needed to make it clear that they would not wait for the final results of the public enquiry on Grenfell Tower before making improvements for fire safety and fitting sprinkler systems in tower blocks. He noted that the requirement for sprinkler systems to be fitted in blocks had come out of the fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009.

Mark asked JT if THH kept records of all the materials used in their works. JT said yes.

Mark noted that private companies did not seem to have circulated information on building materials to their residents.

One man read out a tweet from Croydon Council, saying that earlier this evening the council had decided to install sprinklers in their tower blocks.

The same man said that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower had also been used on two private blocks in Tower Hamlets – one on Commercial Road and one near Victoria Park.

Sister Christine said that this fire safety issue was a great opportunity for THH and other residential social landlords to assess their residents – who the residents are and what their needs are.

Sister Christine asked what fire safety measures were being taken for blocks of 5 storeys.

Sister Christine asked whether leaseholders would be “penalised” by having to pay for fire safety-related improvements.

One woman said that “compliance with building regulations” was not really sufficient to ensure safety, as we had seen with Grenfell Tower.

Man on the right said that LBTH needed to provide residents with a list of actions that the council would be taking following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

John (architect) lives on the 13th floor of a tower block refurbished by the same firm that fitted the cladding on Grenfell Tower. He asked LBTH to direct attention to the quality of the contractors they used, and to the type of contract – make sure the contractor has responsibility for the works and costs.

JB noted the points made above that the council need to know who is living in particular blocks as a matter of safety, and to review the London Fire Brigade’s fire safety advice.

Regarding fire prevention and safety measures, JB said LBTH would need to look at various options for fire safety – not just sprinklers.

Regarding building regulations, JB said that the council could not specify what materials and techniques contractors could use. He noted that deregulation of building control services meant that building control assessments were done by private agencies rather than the council. Builders could therefore choose building control officers who would be friendly to them.

Vibeke said that the council needed to look at providing residents with escape routes over the roof of their building, especially in buildings that only had 1 staircase.

Regarding sprinklers, Jane Hartley said the recommendation for sprinklers to be fitted in tower blocks was an official recommendation made following the Lakanal House fire – it was not a statement of opinion. She said the government should pay for this work to be done.

Phil Sedler (Federation Chair) asked JB if he was going to apply to the government for funding for fire safety refurbishments in tower blocks.

In response to the architect, JT said that THH were no longer using “design and build” contracts.

Phil Sedler asked Jane Hartley to put together a more lengthy proposal for the Federation to put to LBTH.

The meeting ended at 9.25pm.

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