Leaseholders and tenants across the Wandsworth Borough Council may be interested in the newsletter that has recently come out from Councillor Grimston regarding water sprinklers. The newsletter is below;
From: Malcolm Grimston <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: News from Councillor Malcolm Grimston <email@example.com>
Sent: Saturday, December 30, 2017 3:25 PM
Subject: FW: 10+ storey newsletter December 16 2017
The televised service marking six months since the Grenfell disaster was extremely moving – whatever differences we might have over an appropriate response to this tragedy I know we all have in our minds and hearts the dreadful suffering of those who felt that their councils and other bodies were not listening to them. I hope the promises that have been made that councils will listen more in the future are sincere and are acted upon. However, nothing changes the fact that our blocks have proven themselves safe over many decades and that none of the ten West Hill high rise buildings have ever had the cladding which was so disastrous at Grenfell.
Unfortunately Wandsworth is still refusing to allow anyone but the inner circle to look at the legal advice (which it bought using our money) about the rechargeability of sprinklers, but it is obvious that the matter is by no means as black and white as Wandsworth would have us believe. For example, Hammersmith & Fulham Council is taking a very different approach from Wandsworth – it does not intends to put sprinklers in individual rooms but in the communal areas: it intends to do the work in all its council blocks, not just the high rise ones which (excluding the one-off disaster at Grenfell) were the safest from a fire danger point of view; and it is not recharging leaseholders even for new firedoors where needed.
The Secretary of State for Local Government and Communities, Sajid David, has said that private landlords should not charge leaseholders for cladding work (see https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/javid-private-landlords-should-not-charge-leaseholders-for-cladding-work-53475). Mr Javid said: “When it comes to local authorities and housing associations they have made clear that they will not be passing on the costs and that is the right approach. For the private sector landlords I would like to see them follow the lead of the social sector and not pass on the costs to their tenants [by which I suspect he means leaseholders, given the context].” It is not clear if this should also apply to sprinklers – probably not – but it is an interesting legal question as to why not. (Wandsworth is not recharging the works to the two blocks, Sudbury House and Castlemaine, which need to have cladding removed as the Council has admitted it was at fault in fitting it in the first place – all that cost will come from Council tenants across the Borough.)
Hearteningly, he also said that more money was going to be made available for the Leasehold Advisory Service so that leaseholders can have more information about their rights in defending themselves from their landlords.
I should say that I am not in favour of shifting the costs onto the backs of the tenants alone – I want to see residents at the heart of deciding whether they want this inevitably expensive and disruptive measure at all in buildings that have proven themselves safe for decades. But the council’s refusal to let anyone outside the power that be scrutinise why it is taking a very different legal position from at least some others is starting to look dubious.
RESIDENTS IN THE MEDIA
We have managed to get some publicity for the argument that residents should have a greater role in choosing how to proceed rather than having things imposed from the Town Hall. A number of leaseholders have been interviewed by the BBC. Radio 5 etc., and by the written press such as the national Guardian (see https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/nov/11/wandsworth-anger-fire-sprinklers-bill-grenfell-tower), and have made the case for their views being taken properly into account when decisions are taken. I was interviewed for the BBC local TV news and made the point that if this work does have to go ahead then it is not fair that all the cost should fall entirely on the residents (tenants or leaseholders), both because some of those living in Council blocks are not the most affluent in society and because tower blocks are not evenly spread across the country. I also made the point that the money being proposed for sprinklers could be (in my opinion better) used in dealing with the many problems of damp, lifts breaking down, old kitchens and bathrooms and so on that I see in our council housing stock. Later in the day the Leader of the Council had been recorded saying in effect that Wandsworth had run its housing so brilliantly that it did not need any help from the government (though it would not say no if some were offered). Given that the government had already made it clear that it would only consider giving help to Councils in financial hardship this was a very peculiar line to take. Obviously overnight some words were said behind closed doors because come the next day the Leader was very publicly asking for help from the government, like many other councils had been doing from the start. Whether this makes any difference is of course yet to be seen but in any case it isn’t just about the money…
The issue was raised in questions at the Council meeting on December 6. As past performance led me to expect, rather than trying to discuss the concerns of the leaseholders (and many tenants) seriously, senior councillors simply attacked me personally and effectively dismissed the concerns of leaseholders as only involving ‘a small number’. I was accused of spreading ‘needless scare stories’ (for suggesting that our blocks are still as safe as they ever were, presumably) and accused of being irresponsible. Well, ok, I’ve been called worse over the last three years but it did betray a certain mindset. There was a reference to ‘a small number of leaseholders’ who were expressing concern. In my newsletter of August 26 this year I called for the Council to spread the costs for leaseholders over at least three years – the one bit of good news is that the Council has given in to this, in fact extending it to four years. Even so I don’t think the Council has heard two important messages:
- it is considerably more than a “small number” of leaseholders who would like their views to be heard and acted upon – I am aware of a large number of leaseholders and at least a small number of council tenants;
- it is not (only) about cost – there are all sorts of concerns, ranging from destruction of people’s decorations; to concerns about sprinklers going off accidentally or through malice; to not wanting the disturbance when the buildings have shown themselves safe for decades; to the poor quality of many major works projects; to a general objection at the Council feeling it can march into someone’s home against their will and do what it likes; to the same sense of frustration at a council that will not listen as is being expressed by the Grenfell survivors and families.
I asked a question of my own (as outlined in my last newsletter) – the Leader did not try to explain why residents in our blocks are being treated so differently from people in private blocks of the same age or acknowledge that it is a very different matter to include features at the design and build stage than to backfit them to existing buildings. We should remember that in June the government said it would not even force private blocks to undergo fire tests, let alone have a particular expensive and disruptive approach forced on them (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/private-landlords-not-forced-check-fire-cladding-combustible-safety-tower-block-a7805296.html). To be fair to the Leader he did accept that his comments recorded in the minutes of November’s Let’s Talk meeting, which he had seen and passed as accurate, in fact were misleading.
I do not know what the position of the opposition is at the Council – they did call for ‘meaningful consultation’ but whether this means meaningful consultation (i.e. actually acting on residents’ views) or not is not yet clear.
It could be a rather interesting New Year! Let’s hope it is a sensible one.
Councillor (Independent), West Hill Ward
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