Sedgemoor District Council’s Corporate Scrutiny committee, under the chairmanship of Westover Councillor Brian Smedley, has reviewed the Council’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in its own hi-rise properties and has concluded that all necessary steps have been taken to re-assure tenants and where there was cause for concern measures are being introduced to improve the situation.
On 14 June at about 1am, a fire started on the 4th floor of the Grenfell Tower block in London housing some 600 people. Grenfell Tower had 24 floors with 6 flats per floor, an alarm system that worked and the Fire Brigade in immediate attendance – yet at least 80 died – most of them in 23 of the blocks 129 flats
Ward Councillors immediate call for re-assurance
On the morning of 14th June, Scrutiny Chair Cllr Smedley visited Sedgemoor’s (and Somerset’s) only tower block, Westfield House and nearby lo-rise blocks around West Street. Hi Rise blocks are defined as ‘anything above 18 metres’-usually 5 storeys or more. Noting resident’s concerns he immediately wrote to Chief Executive Kerry Rickards and SDC Leader Duncan McGinty asking for a swift Council response to re-assure tenants and offered to hold a Scrutiny meeting at which residents and Homes in Sedgemoor officers could participate.
Cllr Smedley said “The key question asked was ‘How can a small kitchen fire in one flat lead to this catastrophe? How could it happen there and could it happen here?’ Residents raised four areas of concern -The Stay Put Policy, the lack of a central sprinkler system, the lack of a central Fire Alarm and , crucially, the Cladding used which seemed to have contributed to the spread of the fire. We felt a Scrutiny Working Party should look at these issues first and present a full and open report to be put on the table for the public to see, scrutinise and ultimately be re-assured by, or if not then whatever action necessary should be taken.”
Government responds to Grenfell events
Nationally, the Government announced a £5m fund for those affected by the fire and launched a review of Cladding in over 4,000 high rise buildings plus an investigation specifically into the cause of the Grenfell disaster. In North Kensington Council, the Chief Executive resigned on 21st June and the Leader 7 days later, after it became apparent that the Grenfell Action Group had repeatedly expressed concern about fire safety.
The Fire Service in London had arrived within 6 minutes of the alarm and put out the initial fire, but by that stage the exterior was also alight with the fire spreading rapidly. 250 firefighters and 45 engines were on site. There were important questions that needed answering in order to reassure tenants of all high and low-rise blocks across the country.
Homes in Sedgemoor in the Spotlight
Locally, Homes in Sedgemoor, working closely with Devon and Somerset Fire Service, attended the Westfield House site on a daily basis and the Chief Exec and Leader visited the building while staff hand delivered notices to all flats.
At both the Working Party of 29th June and the Scrutiny committee of 17th July, Senior Homes in Sedgemoor officers-Paul Barry, Mary Fray and Chris Wilmott, gave the following assurances under questioning from councillors and residents, and were backed by the Fire Service Local Risk manager Martin Lock.
The ‘Stay Put Policy’ is appropriate for Westfield House which is 10 storey high and not 24 storeys like Grenfell. This means the Fire service’s rescue equipment could reach all levels.
There was further reassurances that fire doors had been replaced in 2012 including letter boxes on the doors also have intumescent strips.
Practice evacuation drills had been carried out on all floors and windows were confirmed to be large enough to facilitate rescue and escape.
Cladding ‘not the same as Grenfell’
The ‘Cladding’ was confirmed not to be the same as at Grenfell and was described as ‘external wall insulation, a thoroughly safe alternative that acts like a duvet aroud the building.’ HiS also confirmed that there were ‘no gaps between the building and the insulation material as it is mechanically fixed’
When challenged by resident Roger Perren to prove there was no ‘polystyrene’ present, HiS officer Paul Barry immediately offered to test a section to disprove this.
Regular System Checks
Westfield House was confirmed as having a functioning double knock fire alarm system with detection equipment both inside the flats and in the communal area, and tested weekly, with all properties fitted with smoke alarms, replaced every 5 years.
The ‘sprinkler system’ is operational in the caged areas beneath flats but it’s introduction to all flats is only being investigated but unlikely to be implemented..
Cllr Bob Filmer (Knoll) pointed to “the possibility of someone burning a piece of toast and therefore setting off sprinklers in every flat”.
Officers confirmed that the Dry Riser in the building had been successfully tested. Cllr Dave Loveridge (Eastover) asked for an explanation as to how this worked and was told ‘ a dry riser is a pipe within the system which allows an outlet for water access on every floor rather than bringing lengths of hose up several floors’.
HiS further confirmed that the gas installation is tested annually, the emergency escape lighting tested monthly and lighting protection systems tested annually. Mary Fray, the compliance Surveyor for HiS Westfield House, summed up their concerns saying “Safety is our top priority as while buildings are replaceable, people aren’t.”
Fire Risk Officer supports conclusions
Fire Officer Martin Lock said that he concurred with the HiS conclusions and emphasized that “Fire prevention is our priority and making people aware of how to lessen the likelihood of fires breaking out is by far the best approach.”
The Committee concluded that adequate actions had been taken to re-assure tenants by Homes in Sedgemoor and by the Fire Service, that the Stay Put policy was appropriate in this case, that the cladding was not a danger and that steps had been taken to address any concerns that had been identified in the process. The motion of confidence was proposed by Cllr Mick Lerry (Victoria) and seconded by Cllr Bob Filmer, who further added the need for a timescale to report back on the subsequent measures taken.
Chairman Cllr Smedley said after the meeting “We heard evidence that Homes in Sedgemoor acting on behalf of the Council did indeed do what was required to reassure it’s tenants but crucially responded to residents concerns to take certain actions to improve the situation and also identified other solutions. For instance there were issues where keys were not available to the fire crews, which have now been rectified, the fire officer pointed out that the nearest water point was some distance from the building and in a location which was often the site of a parked vehicle. While Fire officers have the power to physically shift that vehicle, they recognised it was better to relocate the hydrant point elsewhere. Other steps include the addition of specialist saws at key points in the building, the installation of carbon monoxide detectors in relevant premises, the reinforcing of the no-smoking in communal areas policy and the addition of a smoking shelter nearby. They recognised the issues with waste chutes and some missing seals and were rectifying those and they are investigating the option of having a vent installed on the top storey. It’s absolutely crucial that Local Authorities ensure that all their properties are as safe as they can be and that appears to be the case based on the evidence heard today”