The horrific events at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington have shocked the country. We have been united in grief and so many have been moved to acts of great generosity and compassion. These events however have underlined deep social divides that are clearly recognisable here in neighbouring Westminster, and that are now, finally and rightly, becoming part of our national conversation.
The first priority is to make absolutely certain of the safety of the many thousands of people living in other tower blocks, and to reassure those residents who are understandably anxious.
Since last Wednesday, I and local Councillors have been talking to Westminster Council officers and City West Homes (CWH) staff about a number of key issues and focusing on getting answers communicated to residents by the Council and CWH.
1. Seeking clarity on the advice about whether to stay or go in the event of a fire
At present the advice to residents of high-rise blocks from the fire service and Council remains unchanged but this must be resolved and clarified as a matter of great urgency across the country. If the advice changes then the Council and CWH must rapidly install communal fire alarms in all its blocks.
2. Getting answers about the cladding of Westminster’s tower blocks
As events unfolded it quickly became clear that the cladding at Grenfell may have been contributed to the disaster and that the same company was involved in installing cladding on the Warwick and Brindley Estates in Westbourne Ward. The Council must urgently investigate the safety of the cladding on all Westminster’s tower blocks, and residents, councillors and I told which independent investigators are appointed by Westminster to do this work.
Westminster Council has informed residents that all fire and building regulation standards have been met regarding the Warwick and Brindley cladding and that the type of cladding used appears to have been different to that used at Grenfell Tower. However, it is imperative that independent investigators confirm, as a matter of urgency, that the materials used on these towers and other blocks are both safe and correctly installed. This includes confirming that there is no cavity between the cladding and the concrete, and examining the safety of external decking put up on some of the blocks. These checks must be done as quickly as possible to provide reassurance or facilitate urgent action to help ease the worries of residents. If action is required to alter or remove the cladding on the Warwick or Brindley towers or any others in Westminster it is important that leaseholders, who faced huge bills for the installation of the cladding, are not made to pay yet again.
3. Improving fire safety: The provision of sprinklers and secondary means of escape
We need clear information about whether any of Westminster’s council-owned tower blocks currently have sprinkler systems installed. From what is known, and the fact that such systems were not mandatory on new buildings until after 2007, it is clear that there needs to be work urgently done to retrofit sprinklers to all of Westminster’s tower blocks. The council should move forward with such plans (as Croydon Council have already announced) and they have said they are looking into this. It must be done as a matter of urgency. There needs to be further work done to investigate the feasibility of the installation of secondary emergency staircases in blocks to provide an alternative method of exit. I have written to Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to call for the government to provide resources to assist Westminster and other local authorities to do this.
Understanding who is living in our blocks
Over recent months Councillors have raised concerns about the lack of information the Council and CWH hold about the people living in their blocks, while I have been actively campaigning against illegal short-term lets. Many flats in CWH blocks are owned by Housing Associations and private landlords who often fail to provide CWH with up-to-date information about their tenants. The tragic events at Grenfell show that this is extremely important work which must be prioritised. Housing associations must improve their reporting and the Council’s legal team must look at what can be done to require private landlords to provide accurate information.
4. Fire safety standards in leasehold flats
Many flats in Westminster blocks are privately-owned and then let out as private tenancies. Issues around the enforcement of fire safety standards in leasehold flats, including those that are short-let, have been raised for some time. Questions have asked about what can be done to ensure all leaseholders comply with the safety standards expected of tenanted properties- in particular, whether action can be taken to ensure that appropriate fire doors are fitted in these flats, required by law in Council-owned properties. The Council must provide advice and support to leaseholders about some of the long-term implications of the tragedy for their properties.
5. Rubbish dumping
While the issue of the dumping of potentially flammable material does not seem to have been a factor in the Grenfell tragedy it remains a significant fire risk on our estates. In recent months, local Councillors have been working with residents to push for a swifter response from CWH cleaning teams to remove hazardous materials that are dumped, particularly at weekends, when most CWH staff are not on duty.
6. Meeting housing need
The immediate priority is to get answers to these and other questions to ensure our residents are kept safe. However, far too many people are living in over-crowded or unsuitable, and in some cases, poor quality, homes in inner London. Increasingly, homelessness now means being moved many miles away from local schools and community support. After the immediate crisis is over, and safety is guaranteed, the Government must look again at what is causing inner London’s housing crisis and commit to providing the help needed to resolve it.
I hope this is helpful and I will do my best to keep you informed of any developments.
Karen Buck MP
020 8968 7999