Fire statistics released yesterday make for alarming reading: incidents have increased by 9 per cent compared to the previous year. The statistics include the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire, which cost the lives of 71 people. The Fire Brigades Union describes it as the UK’s worst fire in terms of deaths within living memory.
However, the government’s response is lacking on many fronts. As of last month, 299 of 312 high rise buildings with Grenfell-style cladding have failed safety tests, and only three of these buildings have completed cladding replacement.
There are thousands of towers in social housing schemes, student accommodation and privately-owned blocks across the country in which residents will be sleeping uneasy for fear of a repeat of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Confidence in the government’s fire safety testing also took another blow last week when the safety report for a type of cladding had to be withdrawn due to errors.
Lessons that should have been learnt before this tragedy were disregarded. David Cameron talked about “killing off the health and safety nonsense for good”. In 2013, the coroner’s reports into fatal fires at Lakanal House and Shirley Towers cited the importance of retrofitting sprinklers in high rise blocks.
Sprinklers could have been installed in Grenfell Tower, costing £200,000 – a fraction of the cost incurred refurbishing the tower with cladding. Philip Hammond quibbled over sprinklers’ effectiveness while a sprinkler system is being retrofitted in parliament. If sprinklers are good enough for MPs, they are good enough for residents in tower blocks.
The government’s lack of urgency is painfully apparent, but Labour is not complacent about the potential danger. Jeremy Corbyn has called on the government to set aside vital funding for local authorities and housing associations, allowing them to fit sprinklers into tower blocks and protect the lives of tens of thousands of people across the country.
36 councils have approached the government regarding remedial work following the Grenfell fire. As of this January, 7 months after the fire, the government had not yet approved any requests for post-Grenfell safety work.
A cross-party appeal from Birmingham City Council to help fund tower block sprinklers demonstrates the exasperation over the government’s intransigence. The Fire Brigades Union and National Education Union have also raised serious concerns that many new schools are being built without sprinklers, despite guidance to the contrary.
Private landlords should not be shifting the costs of removing flammable cladding on tower blocks onto residents. A 95-year-old man was hospitalised due to stress after being told he would have to pay a share of the £2m bill for the cladding on his home to be removed.
The government dogmatically continues with austerity on essential public services. It beggars belief that the fire and rescue services in England face further cuts, with £155.7m coming out of central funding over the 2016-20 period. This comes after more than 30 per cent of cuts from 2011 to 2015. Annual UK fire and rescue service expenditure equates to less than £50 per person in the UK.
The independent Hackitt review of building regulations and fire safety following the Grenfell Tower fire states in its interim report that “the mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible… must stop”. Change must start at the top – with the government. Its response so far does not match the urgency Grenfell deserves. There appears to be a culture of denial amongst ministers who are dismissive of concerns that another fire like that which affected Grenfell Tower could be repeated. If ministers are serious about preventing another catastrophic fire, this must change.
Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.