THE housing association landlord at 24 Coventry tower blocks where 17,000 people live has declined to answer the Observer’s questions following the Grenfell Tower tragedy concerning a lack of potentially lifesaving sprinkler systems to tackle fire.
West Midlands firefighters say sprinkler systems are a most effective weapon against fire. Experts say they reduce loss of life and harm property by 80 per cent. Their installation in all tower blocks was recommended to government by a coroner four years ago.
As we revealed this week, housing association Whitefriars – which took over Coventry council housing in 2000 – only has sprinkler systems in bin areas in all of its 24 tower blocks.
It has fitted sprinkler systems in all flats and communal areas at just two of its tower blocks in Coventry – Mercia House and William Batchelor House, because it is considered residents there are particularly vulnerable to fire. That is because Mercia House in the Precinct, city centre, is above shops; while William Batchelor House is sheltered housing, so elderly and vulnerable tenants are at higher risk in evacuation procedures.
Whitefriars’ parent company WM Housing Group announced yesterday two more high-rise blocks will get sprinkler systems throughout – Douglas House and Paul Stacey House.
Birmingham City Council announced yesterday it will find £31million to install sprinkler systems in all 217 of its tower blocks in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, which has killed 79 people. Stoke-on-Trent said it will speed up the installation of sprinklers in its 16 tower blocks.
We asked WM Housing on Wednesday afternoon – after our initial questions in our report on Tuesday – why sprinkler systems are not fitted throughout at all its tower blocks. We asked if the group accepted it meant residents were more vulnerable to fire.
We also asked how much it would cost to install, whether cost was an issue, and what advice it had received about sprinkler systems from West Midlands fire brigade.
A statement in response reads: “We carry out fire risk assessments every year using trained fire assessors and using an approved methodology and each assessment is unique to each block reflecting its layout, structure and facilities. Where a fire risk assessment has identified a need for sprinklers we have installed them as part of the works we undertake.
“We work closely with the fire service and are satisfied our assessments and fire safety arrangements meet their requirements. We are watching closely the news and information arising from the Grenfell Tower fire and will adapt our approach to risk assessments and work when this is known.
“We have not calculated the cost of fitting sprinklers in all our blocks as this has not been something either our risk assessments or fire service inspections have identified.”
We then asked the group to identity for our readers the ‘trained fire assessors’ or consultants it worked with, and details of the ‘approved methodology’ and protocols it was working to.
We asked if having sprinkler systems at two of its blocks, where there is heightened vulnerability, was a tacit acceptance that sprinklers mean people are safer from fire risks.
We asked again what advice the group had received from the fire brigade and consultants.
The response yesterday was that the group had had a “change of mind” concerning responding to us, and it was “declining to comment further”. It said its previous response would be the “final statement we are making.”
Our front page this week raised questions as to why Coventry City Council inspections of properties above six floors in the next two weeks were EXCLUDING all Whitefriars tower blocks due to the housing association’s ‘assurances’ they were ‘fully compliant’, including that its cladding was of a different nature to Grenfell Tower.
We asked further questions why the council was not prioritising the 17,000 homes where many vulnerable live in the city. We asked again what independent risk assessments had been carried out and what evidence, if any, had the council independently sought or received.
We received the following response
A spokesperson for the Council said: “The City Council does not own any residential, or otherwise, tower blocks and the responsibility for fire risk assessments remains with the owner and operator of the tower block.
“In Coventry’s case, the vast majority of these are owned and operated by Whitefriars Housing Group which has made detailed statements on the actions it is taking.
“The regulatory authority for the inspection of already constructed tower blocks is the fire service, which regularly inspects tower blocks without notice.
“The City Council has responsibility for ensuring that any new build tower block meets building regulations. However, the current legislation allows a developer to have their building regulations signed off independent of the City Council. This means that there is no single point of building regulation compliance records in the country, let alone in a local authority.
“The City Council is currently working with registered providers and the West Midlands Fire Service to produce a definitive list of buildings over six storeys in Coventry and risk assess these buildings accordingly, regardless of ownership. This is to ensure that a co-ordinated approach is achieved in Coventry, covering buildings that are currently of interest to government, such as those in public ownership, and buildings that have not yet been picked up by government information requests.
“The Government has asked local authorities and registered providers (such as Whitefriars) to provide details of all tower blocks and their construction in their ownership and/or control. Both Whitefriars and the City Council have complied with this request. The City Council’s response was a nil response as we do not own any tower blocks. Whitefriars can confirm that none of the cladding on any of its tower blocks is of the type that was used at Grenfell, that needs to be tested. We will of course respond rapidly and positively to any further requests for safety checks.”
Prime Minister Theresa May suggested in the Commons yesterday – in response to MPs’ questions about sprinkler systems – that they might not prevent fire in all cases. But she added more evidence would emerge from the public inquiry she ordered in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy.