Capital tower blocks ‘don’t have sprinklers’ as residents call for full review

Moat House in Slateford is one of the 44 properties across Edinburgh needing a sprinkler system.
Moat House in Slateford is one of the 44 properties across Edinburgh needing a sprinkler system.
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Four thousand homes in high-rises across the Capital do not have sprinklers installed despite modern building standards demanding them, it has emerged.

Residents today called for urgent action to improve safety in the wake of the Grenfell House tragedy in London. It is estimated that it would cost around £8 million to fit sprinklers in all the city’s high rise flats. None of the council-built blocks currently has them.

Persevere Court, Leith is one of the 44 council owned blocks built before sprinklers were a requirement.

Persevere Court, Leith is one of the 44 council owned blocks built before sprinklers were a requirement.

The law states that sprinklers must be installed in high rise flats, as well as care homes and sheltered housing built after 2005, but there is no legal requirement to have them fitted in older blocks.

There are 44 tower blocks in Edinburgh built before then, with a total of around 4000 flats.

Council chiefs said sprinkler systems would be considered as part of a city-wide fire safety review launched last week. They have also made clear that cladding used in the Capital is different from that at the centre of the investigations into the London blaze.

Robert Pearson, chairman of Trim (Tenants and Residents in Muirhouse & Friends of West Pilton) said: “We have serious concerns about fire safety in these flats. The fire service regularly attend bin chute fires in their properties as well as malicious fires. There is no sprinkler in any of these blocks of flats which house some of the most vulnerable tenants.

Oxcart court

Oxcart court

“Anything that could potentially save lives and delay a fire and prevent more firefighters having to enter a building would be welcomed by everybody.

“It’s the firefighters we want to protect as well – I think the council needs to take advice from the fire service.”

One former fire chief said councils should start fitting sprinkler systems in high-rise blocks.

Brian Sweeney, who led 
the Strathclyde Fire Service, said a single sprinkler would probably have put out the initial fire in the Grenfell flats. He added: “The last big loss of life in a fire in the UK was when 14 people were killed at the Rosepark care home, Uddingston, in 2004.

Brian Sweeney former Chief Officer at Strathclyde Fire and Rescue.

Brian Sweeney former Chief Officer at Strathclyde Fire and Rescue.

“One key recommendation that came from that was not only should sprinklers be installed in all new-build residential care homes, but also in buildings above a certain height if they were going to be built new.

“But it did not apply to flats that had already been built. I think it should.

“That, to me, should be a Scottish Government priority.

“If the London fire was caused by a fridge that caught fire, a sprinkler in that room would basically have extinguished it even with that cladding.

“Just the presence of a sprinkler would have extinguished it in one or two minutes.

“Just one sprinkler head would probably have put it out.

“In my estimation, it would cost £1500 to £2000 per flat to kit blocks out with sprinklers – I can’t see how any council in Scotland would be saying that doesn’t sound like a good idea, particularly after this tragedy.”

Green housing spokesperson Councillor Susan Rae, who is a council tenant in a multi-storey block near Leith Walk, said money shouldn’t be an issue when it came to fire safety.

She said: “The heartbreaking tragedy in London must surely change the rules for fire safety in tower blocks.

“The council will need to look at a whole range of things both to prevent fire and to deal with any outbreaks.

“If fire sprinklers are part of what needs to be done, then they should be installed as a priority and cost should not be a barrier.

“In all of the tower blocks there will be a smattering of private owners and private landlords, after Right to Buy, so they would also need take part in any scheme to instal sprinklers.

“And, as we know only too well, it is vital that whatever measures are brought in, they are done with residents’ consent and maintained so they work when needed.”

In Scotland, since 2005 all new residential care homes, sheltered housing and high-rise residential accommodation above 18 metres high have had to be fitted with sprinklers.

They are also required in all covered shopping centres, schools and warehouses over 14,000 sq m.

A council spokeswoman said: “Sprinkler systems will be one of the measures we will consider in the full review of fire safety in tower blocks that we announced last Wednesday.

“These measures will be considered by a panel of tenants and residents and, where supported by them, will be taken forward.”

The council, who manage 44 tower blocks in Edinburgh, told tenants they are committed to keeping residents up-do-date on the progress of the review as well as undertaking a survey of all tower block tenants and their views.

“We want you to feel as safe as you possibly can in your home and we will do everything we can to make that happen.

“As part of the review, we will be establishing a Fire Safety Tenant and Residents Panel which will be open to residents from tower blocks across the city and we will ensure that you all have an opportunity to be involved.”

Trim chairman Mr Pearson said sprinkler systems were not the only step that needed to be taken.

He called for a greater focus on fire education for residents when they first move into high-rise flats.

“When a new tenant enters a new property in these high-rise flats they are not shown a fire evacuation plan,” he said.

“Now we are very privileged that our fire and rescue service offer free home fire safety visits. But in our opinion the council have a duty to ensure all residents are aware of and understand the fire evacuation plan and fire safety procedures in these properties from the moment they move in.”

And similar to regular fire alarm drills and tests in the workplace, Mr Pearson suggested council high-rise flat blocks should have similar procedures, so that in the event of a fire all tenants are well-versed in how to get out safely.

“Why do we not have this on a regular basis across all of the high-rise flats in the city?,” he said.

“Or in light of what has happened why do we not have a full evacuation drill to ensure all the residents understand what they need to do and ensure that there is an appropriate evacuation plan in place.

“I am also writing to Edinburgh council to urge them to design a poster similar to Aberdeen City Council who have come up with a fire evacuation poster that is very clear and easily understandable for everyone.

“We’ve got to remember that there are residents living in these flats who are vulnerable or residents where English is not their first language, and anything, as small as a poster, that could potentially save lives is worth doing with a matter of urgency.”

Edinburgh Labour group leader Cllr Cammy Day is meeting safety experts today to gather information and advice as part of the fire review.

He said: “I am meeting officers to review all our safety measures in multi-storey blocks. This will include advice from Fire Scotland on any further fire prevention measures.

“The safety of our tenants is our top priority.”

Tower disaster came after ‘years of neglect’

The Grenfell Tower disaster was a “preventable accident” following “years of neglect” by successive governments, London mayor Sadiq Khan said as the council chief leading the response to the crisis defended the relief effort.

Mr Khan said the local community was “frustrated” and “angry” in the wake of the blaze, which left at least 58 people feared dead, after he attended a church service near the tower block in west London.

His remarks came as Nick Paget-Brown, the Tory leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, insisted that officials were on the ground “very soon” after the fire broke out following criticism from Prime Minister Theresa May, who said the support given to residents was “not good enough”.

He also sidestepped questions over whether he felt guilty about the tragedy, telling BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “I feel terrible about the whole position we find ourselves in.

“All I’m keen to say is there is an effective, co-ordinated relief effort on the ground and I’m sorry if people haven’t seen that.”

Speaking outside St Clement’s Church, Mr Khan said: “There is a feeling from the community that they have been treated badly because some of them are poor.

“The tragedy we’re seeing is because of the consequences of mistakes and neglect from politicians, from the council and from the government.”

Meanwhile, a company involved in the renovation of the tower was forced to deny cladding on the building was banned in the UK after comments made by Chancellor Phillip Hammond.

It was reported that the material used in the cladding covering Grenfell was Reynobond PE – a cheaper, more flammable version of two available options.

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Hammond said: “My understanding is the cladding in question, this flammable cladding which is banned in Europe and the US, is also banned here.”

John Cowley, managing director of CEP Architectural Facades, which produced rainscreen panels and windows for Grenfell Tower’s cladding sub-contractor Harley Facades Ltd, said: “Reynobond PE is not banned in the UK.”