COVENTRY council leader George Duggins has declined to join MPs in calling for the city’s residential tower blocks to be fitted with sprinkler systems in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.
Speaking with the Coventry Observer following our investigation into fire safety at 24 city tower blocks housing 17,000 residents, Labour councillor Duggins instead said further meetings and fire service inspections were scheduled before final decisions would be made.
He said West Midlands Fire Service advice on retro-fitting sprinkler systems was ‘nuanced’ – as Coventry Labour MPs Jim Cunningham, Colleen Fletcher and Geoffrey Robinson backed calls for sprinklers in all tower blocks.
Councillor Duggins said the advice with housing association landlord Whitefriars and the fire service was that it could take eight years to fit full sprinkler systems into all of Birmingham’s tower blocks alone.
As we have reported over the last fortnight, West Midlands firefighters believe sprinkler systems are a most effective weapon against fire. Experts say they reduce loss of life and property damage by 80 per cent. Their installation in all tower blocks was recommended to government by a coroner four years ago.
Birmingham City Council has said all its tower blocks will be retrofitted with sprinklers, costing £31million, as have other councils.
Housing association Whitefriars – which took over Coventry council housing in 2000 – only has sprinkler systems in bin areas in all its 24 tower blocks. Only two of them have full systems and two more are getting them.
Coun Duggins told us councillors had been briefed last week by Whitefriars and the fire service, and he will receive a further update at a meeting on Friday.
He said: “My main objective is clear. It is that people are safe and feel safe. That has to be the primary objective.
“In respect of sprinkler systems, Whitefriars and the fire service will effectively do an inventory.
“Their position is that it’s horses for courses. They will recommend sprinklers be fitted where they believe they should be fitted.
“From my point of view, the direction of travel may be that sprinklers should be fitted in all blocks. Whitefriars and the fire service were clear it could vary between different blocks. For example, the fire service says where there is a single exit and entrance, they would recommend sprinklers.
“I’m not going to argue with anyone who maintains sprinklers be retro-fitted. However, we need to listen to the advice from West Midlands Fire Service.”
He said that was not just the case for Whitefriars’ residential tower blocks, but for other buildings in other sectors across the private and public sector, including schools.
Councillor Duggins also said he would be writing to government ministers to call for the return of full responsibility for building regulations to councils, without private sector involvement.
He added: “It’s important residents have a say and have positions on various boards of organisations who they rent from.
“A disaster like Grenfell unnerves anybody and certainly anybody who lives in a similar situation. It’s so awful, I can’t put it into words.”
Cabinet member Jim O’Boyle, whose St Michael’s ward covers Coventry city centre and Hillfields where many tower blocks stand, said the fire service advice was of general support for sprinkler systems, but that fitting could take years. Not least because of a limited number of companies doing the work nationally.
He said councillors had also been advised that the major job of retro-fitting sprinkler systems could compromise the structural integrity and fire safety of large buildings while the work was being carried out.
He added: “We would support the idea of making buildings as safe as possible.”
Coventry South Labour MP Jim Cunningham said: “The horrific events in London resulted in a yet unknown number of lives lost which could have been avoided. The Government should now do all it can to ensure that we never see such events in this country again.
“Retrofitting sprinklers seems to me to be a justifiable and necessary measure to help keep residents living in high rise blocks safe.
“I’ve been working with the Council, local Fire Service and my fellow Coventry MP’s since the events in London to ensure the safety of residents here in the city. Now the Government should fund the retrofitting of sprinklers without delay to protect our residents for the future.”