There were two unfamiliar guests at last week’s Places Overview and Scrutiny
Committee meeting. Two Fire Commanders and there could only be one reason for
that, the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington.
It was therefore more than a little odd that Chairman Melvin Seymour opened the meeting with the following words…
“I do need to stress that I will not be allowing questions on structural safety nor any other safety regards, it would be unfair for me to expect you [the fire officers] to answer questions in view of the fact the judicial review and public enquiry has yet to take place.”
Presumably the fire officers were not considered to be intelligent enough to judge where any boundaries might lie.
More reasonably the Chairman also said that “we are not here to discuss the reactions or response of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea or the decamp at Camden.”
Councillor Danny Hackett (Labour, Lesnes Abbey) was the first to run foul of the Chairman’s curious ruling. He asked “have we informed residents of the nine tower blocks at Parkview that we have suspended cladding”. As already noted, he was stopped in his tracks and if the residents of Parkview are in ignorance of the decision, the Chairman’s preference was that they must remain so.
Deputy Director David Bryce-Smith updated the Committee on what Bexley Council did immediately after the fire (†). All the housing associations were asked for details of their high rise buildings and any cladding. Earlier fire assessments did not report on cladding.
Peabody had 25 high rise blocks, Orbit eleven and L&Q none above four storeys. None of the 36 have cladding similar to that at Grenfell but some accommodation in private hands needs “further investigation”. There is a total of 300 properties in the borough above four storeys and “a robust audit had identified issues with self close fire doors etc. but the issues found were minor as regards fire safety”.
Schools and care homes are also being looked at as is the Premier Inn in Sidcup which has aluminium cladding, as did Grenfell, but without the same internal insulation.
The fire officers later admitted “that the audit process does not take into account external cladding. In the light of what has happened that is something that will be looked at”.
Mr. Bryce-Smith, with what was perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase, said that “in these flats there are ticking time bombs, residents with white goods that have not been checked to see if they are on recall for example” and he aims to publish a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions on fire safety.
The fire officers said that they had attended fires at high rise blocks in Bexley on 112 occasions since 2012, none involving fatalities. The recommendation to stay put in tower block fires remains in place and rely on “fire mitigation. If that is there people are safe”.
Councillor Joe Ferreira (Labour, Erith) said he knew of fire doors that were missing which housing associations had been slow to replace and “what risk is there?”. Mr. Bryce-Smith said that the housing associations are required by law to produce fire risk assessments but “there are challenges still. There are fire doors which have been changed for new PVC doors. If a fire door is missing there will still be some compartmentalisation in place but it reduces that [safety] along the corridor where it is missing”.
The fire officer said he would expect fire safety to be assessed annually “or maybe every two years in a really well managed building. Missing fire doors is a serious issue”.
Councillor Seán Newman (Labour, Belvedere) commented that a lot of new houses are planned for the borough and planning policy must seriously look at fire safety, sprinklers etc. The Chairman whole heartedly agreed while referring to a case in Crayford where a new development was approved without access for emergency vehicles.
No access for fire engines does of course occur daily due to inconsiderate parking.
Vice-Chairman Cheryl Bacon said she wanted the fire services to be “automatically” informed of high rise planning approvals. The fire officers said that already happened and had been the case since 2006. Identifying older properties remained a problem.
Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) enquired about the state of Bexley’s emergency plan. Mr. Bryce-Smith was able to give her reassurance but risking the wrath of the Chairman, said that Bexley would have invoked the London Wide Emergency Plan sooner than was the case in Kensington.
Councillor Hackett asked Mr. Bryce-Smith how he expected to get his fire safety messages out to the residents of Thamesmead. They don’t get the News Shopper, few visit the Council website and the next issue of the Bexley Magazine is not due out soon. Mr. Bryce-Smith said that Peabody was planning road shows and the Council would support them.
Councillor Louie French (Conservative, Falconwood & Welling) also transgressed the Chairman’s curious ruling by asking about the testing process for Grenfell’s cladding but as you might expect the fire officers were not prepared to comment. It was in any case not their area of expertise.
It should perhaps be noted that the Chairman allowed David Bryce-Smith and Councillor French to mention the dreaded G word without him commenting but poor old Danny Hackett was jumped upon for what even the Chairman accepted was “a reasonable question”. He merely referred to cladding in Thamesmead.
Finally, Councillor John Davey (Conservative, Crayford) offered his support to Councillor Newman and sprinklers but went on to refer to illegal sub-letting of premises - careful John! - and poorly maintained appliances. “Do we believe this is an issue in Bexley?”
It would be surprising if it was not but we were not about to be enlightened by Councillor Davey’s brave attempt to tackle a difficult subject; the Chairman said it was “not an issue for this Committee”.
† The latest Council Press Release gives more details.