Agenda item

Fire Safety in High Rise Tower Blocks

This agenda item provides an opportunity for Members to debate fire safety in high rise tower blocks.


The Mayor outlined the rules of procedure for the item, and introduced a panel of Officers who would be on hand to respond to any specific questions from members during the course of the debate. The panel included: Phil Porter (the Council’s Stategic Director, Community Wellbeing), Mark Davidson (Borough Commander, London Fire Brigade), Peter Gadsdon (the Council’s Director of Performance, Policy and Partnerships), Rohal Bhandari (the Council’s Team Leader of District and Commercial Services) and Alice Lester (the Council’s Head of Planning).


Councillor Farah (Lead Member for Housing and Welfare Reform) introduced the item and stated that the tragedy which occurred at Grenfell Tower on 14 June 2017 had been a wake-up call for all Councils. He said that it remained vitally important to consider what Brent should do next and that the debate would assist in ensuring that all options were explored. He emphasised that he had confidence in how Brent had responded to the tragedy and paid tribute to the support that the Council had provided to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in the aftermath of the fire. He outlined that he was proud that the Council had proposed to go above and beyond what was required on existing fire and safety regulations for its housing stock, to ensure that all residents felt re-assured and safe within the borough. He urged all Members present to contribute and stressed the importance of the debate being carried out in a calm and respectful manner.


Mark Davidson (Borough Commander, London Fire Brigade) gave an overview of the action that the London Fire Brigade (LFB) had taken since the fire and offered some specific detail on what LFB’s policies were with regards to tackling fires in high rise tower blocks. Members heard that, post-Grenfell, the Department of Local Government and Communities (DCLG) had asked all local authorities and social housing providers to provide detailed information about their residential tower blocks and to submit any identifiable cladding materials on these blocks for testing. He noted that LFB had established a taskforce for an inspection process of 380 identified high rise buildings London-wide and that any building which failed the Government’s test on cladding samples had been immediately prioritised. With regards to Brent, Members heard that, at the time of the meeting, two high rise buildings (Hornby Court in Willesden and Elizabeth House in Wembley) had failed these tests and had been inspected further by LFB.


Mr Davidson explained that LFB inspections of high rise buildings were focused on two key elements of building’s structure, these were: access for the emergency services and common parts (the building’s central shaft; staircase; wet or dry riser main pipe; and the means of escape). He noted that LFB were not involved in fire safety inspections within individual rooms but that they would check that fire risk assessments, a duty of the landlord, had been kept up-to-date. He mentioned that LFB aimed to inspect each high rise building at least once per year. Members also heard detail on the ‘stay put’ guidance which LFB gave to residents if a fire broke out in another part of their building. Mr Davidson outlined that, overall, this policy had been successful since it was first employed in the 1960s as long as the building had been built and maintained to an acceptable standard. He noted that the investigation into why the fire had spread so quickly at Grenfell was ongoing, but that the stay put guidance was likely to remain because LFB felt that this was usually the most effective means of keeping people safe.


The Mayor then opened the debate up to Members.


Councillor Ms Shaw (Deputy Leader of the Brent Conservative Group) referenced the Council’s recent meetings with residents of the Watling Gardens tower block in Mapesbury ward. She questioned what action the Council had been taking to re-assure residents in her ward, Brondesbury Park, and across the borough that all of the Council’s housing stock would be safe from this type of tragedy both now under BHP and when the management of the service was brought back in-house. She also questioned the future staffing arrangements of the housing service and how this would lead to improvements.


Phil Porter (the Council’s Strategic Director of Community Wellbeing) responded that the Council had plans to communicate with all BHP residents after the meeting, in order to give residents a broader picture of what action the Council had agreed to take. He said that a lot of important issues had been raised by residents at the Watling Gardens meeting and that the Council was also planning to hold drop-in sessions with residents at every one of its 37 high rise tower blocks. He outlined that Officers would be present at these drop-in sessions to log concerns and respond to all of them accordingly. He stated that improvements were already being made within BHP and that it had supported the Council’s previous investments on fire safety, but that the Council would not rest on its laurels and had continued to assess its fire safety procedures in conjunction with BHP.


Councillor Ezeajughi stated that since the Grenfell tragedy he had been in regular contact with the residents of two high rise buildings within his ward (Shackleton House and Amundsen House). He said that residents had raised concerns on: a lack of sprinklers within the buildings; a lack of awareness of the proper procedure to follow if there was a fire; and a lack of fire alarms installed. He said that the Council needed to re-assure residents on the steps it was taking to address fire safety issues across the borough. He also called on the Government to draw up a more stringent set of policies for enforcing fire safety regulations in high rise tower blocks and to provide the funding required to local authorities in order to keep their residents safe. He concluded that he believed that the installation of sprinklers in all high rise tower blocks was an immediate priority.


Councillor Long outlined that she was the Chair of the Council’s new Housing Scrutiny Committee and that one of the Committee’s first actions would be to set up a new task group on fire safety in the borough. She said that on the whole, high rise tower blocks were not dangerous buildings and highlighted to Members that deaths in tower block fires in Scotland were at their lowest level ever. However, she did also point out that there were still areas which could be addressed in the future such as making sure that all buildings were fitted with working smoke alarms and improved access for emergency vehicles to respond to incidents across the borough.


Councillor Chan stated that the UK had now experienced seven years of austerity in the Government’s management of public finances and questioned the extent to which cuts had negatively impacted on Brent’s emergency planning preparation and what the Council could do to mitigate against this. 


Councillor Stopp criticised the Conservative Group’s motion at the end of the agenda, which condemned the leader of the Labour Party for the politicisation of the Grenfell Tower fire. He outlined his belief that this issue had been politicised after the leadership of RBKC refused to resign in the immediate aftermath to the tragedy and because the state of the housing market highlighted how deeply divided the country had become under the Conservatives. He stated that the tragedy of Grenfell had made this divide clear and that this was the legacy of the Conservative Government. 


Councillor Colacicco asked the Borough Fire Commander when London would receive taller cranes and what his view was on the installation of sprinklers as a fire safety mechanism.


Councillor Shahzad said that all Councillors were concerned about the safety of the residents within their wards and that there were huge lessons to be learnt from the Grenfell tragedy. He thanked the Officers at Brent Council who had supported RBKC and highlighted the work which had been undertaken to ensure that all of the Brent’s high rise tower blocks were safe. He noted that the tests on cladding which took place at Watling Gardens had re-assured residents, but that there were other fire safety concerns raised by both himself and residents which needed to be addressed. He also outlined that he had launched an appeal in support of the victims of Grenfell and their families and urged all Members to contribute. 


Councillor Thomas said that he was concerned for tenants in the borough, as it was clear that the tenants at Grenfell had felt that RBKC had not listened to them in the years that proceeded the fire. He spoke about Brent Council being in the process of bringing BHP back in-house and questioned what structures would be in place so that tenants’ voices would be empowered to ensure that the Council would listen to their concerns.


Councillor McLeish also referenced the motion by the Conservative Group which condemned the Labour Party for the politicisation of the Grenfell Tower fire. He retorted that it was the Conservative Government that had relieved RBKC of its role in providing support for survivors of the tragedy because their response had been inadequate. He thanked Brent Council’s Chief Executive, Carolyn Downs, for her role in leading the coordination of humanitarian assistance from different boroughs across London. He explained that in 2013 an independent inquiry had found a number of fire safety problems with Grenfell Tower. He also mentioned that although the building was insured for £20million, a legal firm had estimated that the overall cost of the tragedy could reach £1billion. He concluded that this had become a political issue as taxpayers money was being used to pay for RBKC’s incompetence.


Councillor Duffy said that everyone had been shocked by the events at Grenfell. He commented that the fire had highlighted the poverty and neglect which were prominent on some housing estates. He said that RBKC’s leadership had had no choice but to step down, and also condemned the leadership of the London Borough of Camden. He said that, on the whole, Brent’s own response to the fire had been reasonable but that there were still lessons to be learnt on some of the fire risks which had been identified. He also said that the response from the Lead Member for Housing and Welfare should have been quicker. He also added that Senior Officers and the leadership of the Council had not fully addressed some of the issues raised by Members.


On the funding proposals within the report, Councillor Duffy questioned the financial implications for residents if the housing revenue borrowing cap was agreed to be increased, as proposed in recommendation 2.2. Conrad Hall (the Council’s Chief Finance Officer) explained that funding was presently ring-fenced between the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) and the Council’s General Fund. He noted that if the cap was not lifted and additional borrowing was undertaken from within the HRA, this would lead to a re-prioritisation of items within programmes for future capital works. He explained that if the cap was agreed to be raised, the interest costs would be met over time from HRA funds. Councillor Duffy criticised the funding proposal as it stood, and argued that it was tenants who would ultimately pay the price for the additional measures.  


Councillor S Choudhary praised Brent’s Officers who had assisted in response to the Grenfell Tower fire. He stated that the tragedy had demonstrated the clear need for a second escape route within every high rise building. He advocated the idea of a second staircase on the outside of the building, which he felt could assist in such a situation. He said that the Council had been restricted in many ways because of national planning laws and urged the leadership to ask the Government to address this issue nationally.


Councillor Kansagra (Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group) emphasised that it was important to be able to have a civilised debate in order to learn from the events of Grenfell Tower. He said that he hoped landlords in the borough would take note of the debate and that he was disappointed that there were not more landlords in attendance. He also stressed that Members were themselves corporate landlords, and it was vitally important for the Council to ensure that a tragedy like this was avoided in Brent. He stated that there were a number of questions to be asked which included: how to establish the optimum way to extinguish fires in high rise tower blocks given the limited reach of fire hoses; and whether the fire brigade had made any changes to its health and safety approval criteria to the cladding panels on the side of high rise buildings.     


Councillor Kelcher associated himself with the remarks made by fellow Labour Councillors which condemned the Conservative Group’s motion as part of agenda item number 16 on the agenda. He stated that the past seven years of the Government’s austerity measures had unpicked the social fabric of the country and this had been proved by RBKC ‘penny-pinching’ to save £5,000 on cheaper cladding rather than pay for non-flammable cladding to protect their residents. He stated that the Council should pursue best practice with regard to fire safety inspections. He questioned whether the Council had enough staff to be able to carry out proper fire safety inspections on all building development work, particularly in the light of the amount of private development within the borough. He also asked whether LFB had carried out an equipment audit at all of the local fire stations and additionally whether the fire service were engaged with distributing and educating people on working fire alarms. 


At this point of the debate, the Chair invited the Borough Fire Commander, Mark Davidson, to answer some of the points raised. Mr Davidson responded to Councillor Kelcher’s question on an equipment audit and outlined that in terms equipment, each station in the borough was located strategically and had been equipped to the same level and standards. He said that when LFB’s fire safety building inspections took place, this would be combined with a talk to residents on escape plans, smoke alarms and general guidance about safety in the home. He noted that LFB were currently working through inspections of their highest priority high rise buildings, and that they would then work down the list of buildings accordingly. He also explained to Members, in detail, LFB’s typical procedure for tackling a fire in a high rise building. He additionally mentioned that there was no such thing as a formal fire safety certificate, and it was Building Control teams who would formally sign off on the safety of buildings. With reference to Councillor S Choudhary’s point on a second escape route, Mr Davidson said that this tended not to be needed if buildings had a protected stairwell and that this would also ultimately be a planning issue rather than a fire brigade issue. He spoke about LFB’s review of aerial appliances in tackling fires and highlighted that fires tended to fought from inside the building. Members also heard that LFB had petitioned for the mandatory installation of domestic sprinkler systems for decades but there had been no political will to address this. He concluded on Councillor Chan’s question on whether Government cuts had affected the fire service and outlined that LFB had a minimum target of six minutes for the first engine to arrive at an incident after being called, and that this was achieved 90% of the time London-wide.


Councillor R Patel commented on the issue of sub-letting within Grenfell Tower, and how it had meant that the exact number of lives lost might never be known. He added that the tragedy highlighted the daily struggle of ordinary people and that the wellbeing of tenants in Council housing had not been high on the Conservative Party’s priority list. He called on the government to lift the 1% public sector pay cap and also for the government to suspend the leadership of RBKC by appointing an independent body to lead the Council until the local elections in May 2018. He concluded that London voters were increasingly turning against the Conservatives, which would make the capital a ‘no-go’ area for them in electoral terms.


Rohail Bhandari (the Council’s Team Manager, District and Commercial Services) responded to Councillor Kelcher’s question on the Council’s resources for fire safety inspections and stated that although Brent’s staffing levels in this area were largely unchanged since 2005, there remained an issue nationwide about recruiting more young people into building control jobs or jobs as surveyors. He emphasised that these jobs were subject to competition and that private sector organisations could often offer more attractive job packages than local authorities. He said that this had contributed to a difficulties in retaining staff.  


Councillor Mashari questioned whether the Council had responded to all concerns raised by Council tenants or if there was a backlog. She also asked whether the Council had reviewed its policies on both building control and planning and how these areas could be utilised to prevent a tragedy such as this in future. She also put forward that the Council’s Planning Committee should be a model for best practice, and actively scrutinise the fire and safety plans for developers and their planned developments going forward.


Councillor Kabir emphasised the need for the Council to ensure it enhanced the needs of residents with special needs, so that they had the maximum safety arrangements in place during emergencies.


Councillor Colwill (Leader of the Conservative Group) asked the Borough Fire Commander for an indication as to whether the fire was caused by a fridge explosion and why it had engulfed the building so quickly. Mark Davidson responded to this point directly and stated that as the police investigation was ongoing, he was not able to comment on this matter. Councillor Colwill also asked the Council’s Social Services Team to take on board that there were disabled people on the top floor of Grenfell Tower, and that this should never be the case in Brent’s high rise buildings.


Councillor Ms Shaw called on Members to work together to address this issue and highlighted the perceived lack of community engagement across the borough. She also asked that the Council’s Strategic Director for Community Wellbeing work with LFB to visit and offer assurances to residents in tower blocks in Brondesbury Park. Phil Porter re-iterated that he was keen to work with Councillors on all forms of communication with residents in order to re-assure them on the fire safety standards of the Council’s housing stock.


Rohail Bhandari responded with reference to Councillor Mashari’s points and stated that there were 60 to 70 properties, generally high rise buildings, which the Council had contacted to request that they carry out audits and fire risk safety assessments. On building control policies being reviewed, he said that the Grenfell Tower investigation would reach a conclusion on this and he expected that the legislation would be upgraded if deemed necessary.


Councillor Tatler (Lead Member for Regeneration, Growth, Employment and Skills) thanked the Borough Fire Commander, Mark Davidson, for his attendance at the meeting and asked him to pass on Brent Council’s collective thanks to the first responders who saved lives on the night of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. She referred to earlier comments from Members about South Kilburn and stated that she frequently visited the area, and that the current regeneration schemes were committed to improving the lives of residents. She added that she was disgusted by the recent comments of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid MP, about the failings of accountability in local government. She stressed that it was the Conservative Government which had deregulated building control regulations and presided over the failings of ‘permitted development’ policies. She outlined her belief further that local government needed to be at the heart of these policies and that building control assessments should be completed by local authorities rather than independent assessors.


Alice Lester (the Council’s Head of Planning) explained the key details of permitted development rights (office premises being converted to residential properties without the need for full planning permission) and the numerous problems associated with these. She directed Members to recommendation 2.3 of the report which asked the Government to urgently consider the revocation of the permitted development rights for office to residential conversions. She also referenced Councillor Mashari’s question on the role of the planning and explained that as building regulations were the regulatory system for fire safety, this did not fall under the Planning Department’s remit for assessments. She said that the focus therefore needed to be on building regulations being fit for purpose. In terms of planning policy and whether high rise towers were appropriate for the borough, she said that this could be fed back into the review of Brent’s Local Plan. She said that any from a planning perspective any policy change would likely be focused on place making and appearance rather than fire safety because this did not fall wholly under their jurisdiction.


Phil Porter answered Councillor Thomas’ earlier point on resident engagement and said that the Council had been consistent on the importance of resident engagement and scrutiny throughout the review of BHP and that it only wanted to strengthen residents’ voices going forward. He specified that the new Housing Scrutiny Committee was due to consider co-opting residents as part of the Committee’s composition that a separate resident and tenant panel board panel was also in place.


Councillor W Mitchell-Murray outlined her disappointment that the borough’s registered social landlords were not present at the meeting. She also questioned why there appeared to be one rule for RBKC and different rules for other Councils. She also urged the Council to ask the Government to address changing the current planning laws for high rise tower blocks.


Councillor Nerva paid tribute to both the community spirit which had been prevalent since the disaster and to the Brent Officers who had assisted the response effort. He questioned what had been learnt from RBKC’s poor emergency planning procedures, and asked Members to consider how consistent emergency planning policies could be implemented London-wide. He also mentioned water pressure within the Borough, and called for assurances from Thames Water that a heavy take of water would be maintained during an emergency. He urged the Council to: do more to lobby the Government on changing the permitted development laws; do more to ensure that fire safety standards are upheld more rigorously in the private sector; conduct a piece of work on bike storage throughout the borough; and ensure that housing associations were present at all future meetings on fire safety with residents in high rise tower blocks.   


(Councillor Marquis left the meeting at 9.05pm.)


Councillor Miller (Lead Member for Stronger Communities) recalled that around the time he was elected to municipal office, he campaigned against the previous London Mayor’s decision to close a number of fire stations. He asked whether these closures had provided a clear challenge for LFB.


Mark Davidson responded to Councillor Miller’s question directly, stating that the current London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, had asked for recommendations on resources from LFB. He outlined that the outcome of the consultation was likely to be due over the next few months. In response to Councillor Nerva’s point on water pressure, Mr Davidson said that fire engines had high volume pumps and that Thames Water were present at all assessments of these. On Councillor Ms Shaw’s point on fire safety visits to high rise tower blocks, Mr Davidson outlined that LFB undertook home fire safety visits on a daily basis, which included high rise buildings. He outlined that LFB were more than happy to conduct these visits and that they could be requested from resident associations, housing associations or individuals themselves. He also clarified that this type of LFB visit were to give advice and guidance to residents and were not formal fire safety inspections. 


Councillor Duffy mentioned that fires were most likely to start in kitchens, and questioned whether the Council had assessed the cost of having sprinklers fitted in Council owned buildings that did not have them already. Carolyn Downs outlined that recommendation three of the fire safety report proposed an itemised and costed programme of work being presented to Cabinet in October 2017, which would include the relevant costings for sprinklers being fitted.


Carolyn Downs responded to Councillor Nerva on emergency planning procedures and said that it had been clear that the processes in place at RBKC had not worked effectively in the aftermath of the fire. She said that there had been a need for them to ask for help in this scenario and that a process of mutual aid had been forthcoming. She stated that, as Chief Executive, she had been reviewing Brent’s emergency planning procedures and she said that the Council needed to do more on planning for humanitarian aid assistance as this was a crucial area after a disaster had occurred. She also mentioned that it would be important to engage with the Council’s Audit and Scrutiny Committees to ensure that the emergency planning structures in place were deemed to be robust enough.


Phil Porter responded to some of the additional queries raised within the debate. He said that there remained a dedicated BHP email address for dealing with tenants’ and leaseholder’s concerns and that the Council was committed to responding to any issues which arose. He stated that the Council had also been working with housing associations, as detailed within the report, and that it was evident that they were taking this issue very seriously. With regards to points on private sector licensing, he explained the details of the Council’s borough-wide Extended Licensing Scheme and specified that this would give the Council greater enforcement powers in relation to fire safety. He concluded by referring to Councillor Colwill’s point on where disabled people were placed in high rise buildings and said that the Council would never want to force older or disabled people to move from their homes, but was aware of the need to balance this with the need to ensure resident safety. He explained that the Council would be looking at personal information boxes in its assessment of fire safety to ensure that it had the best intelligence about where people with additional needs were living and that each had a personal evacuation plan.  


Councillor Nerva questioned what the Council was doing to address ‘isolated owned occupiers’ whom he felt had a level of fire safety far below what was envisaged on page 12 of the fire safety report. Peter Gadsdon (the Council’s Director of Policy, Performance and Partnerships) responded that communication was key in this instance and that it was important to encourage residents to be thinking about safety measures that could implemented in their houses. He mentioned the creation of the Brent Advice Partnership and that this would assist in liaising with relevant voluntary sector organisations in order to reach out to these vulnerable people. He also noted it was likely that this issue would be looked at by the new Housing Scrutiny Committee.


Councillor Butt (Leader of the Council) thanked the panel for attending and answering Members’ questions. He stated that the fire at Grenfell was unprecedented and that the Council had reacted by reviewing all of the fire safety provisions for its housing stock. He stressed that the safety of residents remained paramount and thanked LFB for their re-assurances to residents during this period. He also praised the work of some of the registered housing providers in the borough who had put staff on the ground around the buildings 24 hours a day in the aftermath to ensure that residents had extra re-assurance of fire safety within these properties. He said that the proposals within the report went above and beyond what was required and that it was important that the building control and permitted development laws were challenged nationally and that local government was given more powers in both area. He also mentioned that the Council’s leadership had spoken with Roberta Blackman-Woods MP (Shadow Minister for Local Government and Housing) to ensure that Brent’s concerns were fed into the national housing picture. He concluded that the measures proposed within the report were a good starting point and intended to give further assurance to residents that the Council was always on their side. 


Discussions ensued on the recommendations within the report. Members agreed that recommendation 2.2, as presented within the agenda pack, would be deleted and that the wording in recommendation 1 would delete the line ‘to be financed initially be additional borrowing’.


Councillor Collier declared that he was the Chair of Generation Rent and also raised that the recommendations within the report did not fully address issues prominent in the private rented sector, such as whether all dwellings were fit for human habitation. He also pointed out that despite it being mentioned several times during the course of the debate, there was no recommendation which asked the Government to review building control laws to ensure that local authorities regained the ability to adequately inspect buildings for the purpose of building control approval. Councillor Collier also made a wider point on the potential for bad governance within an authority with a large majority. Members agreed that two additional recommendations be drawn up to capture Councillor Collier’s points on a review of building control and licensing laws for landlords who own private sector dwellings.   


To conclude the debate, Councillor Farah thanked the panel for their responses and the residents who had attended the meeting. He emphasised that the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy had prompted Brent to look at its own strategies for fire safety within its housing stock and emergency planning. He acknowledged that there had been a lot of valid issues raised during the debate and that these would all be dealt with accordingly. He stressed that it was vitally important to listen to residents’ concerns and re-iterated that this would continue when the Council’s housing stock had been brought back in-house. Members heard that none of the issues raised would be taken lightly, and Councillor Farah thanked them for their time. 


The amended recommendations were put to a vote by show of hands and declared CARRIED.


It was therefore RESOLVED that:


(i)         A £10million increase to the Council’s 2017/2018 Capital Programme, in order to meet the cost of enhancing the fire safety measures in the Council’s housing stock, be agreed;


(ii)        The Council’s Chief Executive be asked to write to the Government as a matter of urgency to request that the Government provide direct financial support meet the costs incurred;


(iii)       The Council’s Chief Executive be asked to write to the Government as a matter of urgency to request that the Government urgently consider revocation of the permitted development rights for office to residential conversions, in order to ensure that such proposals go through the proper planning process to enable full consideration of all relevant planning considerations;


(iv)       It be noted that a report which proposed an outline programme of works would be taken to the Council’s Cabinet meeting on 24 July 2017;


(v)        It be noted that a report with a fully itemised and costed programme of work would be prepared for Cabinet consideration and approval by October 2017, and that its implementation would be monitored by the Housing Scrutiny Committee;


(vi)       The Council’s Strategic Director of Community Wellbeing be asked to write to Registered Providers in the borough to request that they keep the Council updated as to the status of their Fire Risk Assessments for the high risk tower blocks that they were responsible for within the borough;


(vii)      The Council’s Chief Executive be asked to write to the Government as a matter of urgency to request that the Government review the use of building control teams from the private sector and other Councils to inspect buildings for the purposes of building control approval, which can mean a total lack of oversight by the relevant local authority inspectors of the fire risk level in some privately owned high rise blocks; and


(viii)     The Council’s Chief Executive be asked to write to the Government as a matter of urgency to request that the Government address whether licensing laws for landlords in the private sector are stringent enough to ensure that all dwellings are fit for human habitation.

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