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.
Since the tragic events on Wednesday, Westminster Labour councillors and Karen Buck MP have been working to ensure Westminster Council Officers and CityWest Homes staff are urgently looking at a number of key issues. It has been important that our work is focused on getting answers communicated to residents by the council and CityWest (CWH) on a number of important issues- some of which are set out here below. At present Westminster Labour is particularly focused on:
- 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 CityWest Homes need to rapidly install communal fire alarms in all its blocks.
- Getting answers about the cladding of Westminster’s Tower blocks
As events unfolded on Wednesday it quickly became clear that the cladding at Grenfell may have been a contributor to the disaster that unfolded and that the same cladding company had been involved in installing cladding on the Little Venice towers (on the Warwick and Brindley Estates in Westbourne Ward). We urgently requested that the council investigate the safety of the cladding on Westminster’s tower blocks, and both we and residents have been informed of that independent investigators have been appointed by Westminster to examine this.
Westminster Council has informed residents that all fire and building regulation standards have been met regarding the Little Venice cladding and the type of cladding used appears to have been different to that used at Grenfell. However it is imperative that the independent investigators are urgently able to confirm that the materials used on the Little Venice towers and other blocks are both safe and correctly installed- this includes confirming that there is no cavity between the cladding and the concrete, while also examining the safety of external decking that has been put on some of the blocks. Such checks must yield results as quickly as possible to provide reassurance or facilitate urgent action that can help ease the worries of thousands of local residents. If action is required to alter or remove the cladding on the Little Venice towers (or others in the city) it is important that leaseholders, who faced huge bills for the installation of the cladding, are not made to pay yet again.
- Improving fire safety: The provision of sprinklers and secondary means of escape
Westminster Labour have asked for clear information about whether any of Westminster’s council-owned tower blocks currently have sprinkler systems installed. From our own knowledge, 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. We are urging the council to move forward with such plans and they have said they are looking into this. It must be done as a matter of urgency. Karen Buck MP and Cllr Adam Hug have also 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.
Furthermore 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.
- Understanding who is living in our blocks
Over recent months Labour Councillors have been raising concerns about the lack of information the council and CityWest hold about the people living in their blocks, while Karen Buck has been actively campaigning against illegal short-term lets. While CityWest are believed to be reforming tenancy checks on properties they manage, something that may start to address issues of illegal subletting, the challenge is even greater in the leasehold properties that make up 40% of the CityWest estate. In a number of CityWest blocks a substantial number of flats are owned by Housing Associations who often do not provide CWH with up-to-date information about their tenants, and the situation is even more piecemeal in terms of private landlords informing the council and CityWest who is currently living in their flats. Westminster Labour have been pressing the council for action for some time and the tragic events at Grenfell show that this is extremely important work that needs to be prioritised. Greater pressure to improve performance must be placed on Housing Associations, and the council’s legal team needs to look at what more can be done to push private landlords to provide accurate information.
- Fire safety standards in leasehold flats
Karen Buck MP and Labour Councillors have been raising issues around the enforcement of fire safety standards in leasehold flats. We have requested clarifications on what can be done to ensure leaseholders comply with the gas safety standards expected of tenanted properties and whether action can be taken to ensure that fire doors are present within their flats, something that is again mandatory in council-owned properties. More broadly the council must provide advice and support to leaseholders about some of the long-term implications of the tragedy for their properties.
- 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 Labour councillors have been working with local residents to push for a swifter response from CityWest Homes’ cleaning teams to remove potentially hazardous materials that are dumped, particularly at weekends when most CWH staff are not on duty.
There are many deeper questions that relate to how our city functions and how it treats its less well-off citizens that are an integral part of Westminster Labour’s ongoing work and will be a central part of the debate going forward. However the immediate priority is to get answers to these and other questions to ensure our residents are kept safe.
From Karen Buck MP and Westminster Labour Group