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Harriet Harman: government should cover cost of fire safety improvements in council housing

Following the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower, in which at least 80 people have lost their lives, families who live in other high-rise blocks want to know that they are safe in their homes.

There are 174 tower blocks in Southwark – 54 of which are in my constituency Camberwell and Peckham. I was very concerned by the BBC London report on 11 July which raised issues of cracks between flats and fire defects in the 4 blocks on the Ledbury Estate and I am in regular contact with Ledbury tenants’ association and Southwark Council. The council have assured me that they have taken expert advice and both they and the Fire Brigade are confident it is safe for residents to remain in their flats but it is clear urgent safety inspections must continue across the borough.

Since the Lakanal House fire in 2009 in which 6 people tragically lost their lives Southwark Council has prioritised fire safety and spent £62 million on fire risk assessment and fire safety works for council homes. But following the Grenfell Tower fire it is imperative that the council carries out further fire safety checks and improvements, assesses all cladding on buildings and fits sprinklers in tower blocks. These works could cost about £100 million.

Southwark Council has two key legal duties: one is ensuring people are safe, the other is balancing the books financially. They must be able to do the first without jeopardising the second. But since the Tories took over in 2010 Southwark Council’s budget has been cut by almost half.

The cost of additional fire safety work should not be done at the expense of much-needed improvement works to kitchens and bathrooms, which are eagerly awaited by tenants. As Southwark MPs Helen Hayes, Neil Coyle and I have written to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid to seek confirmation from the government that they will:

  • Cover the costs of any additional fire safety works in Southwark, including fitting sprinklers in tower blocks.
  • Not charge leaseholders for fire safety work – approximately 20% of people in Southwark Council blocks are leaseholders. Most leaseholders already face considerable charges for planned improvement works.
  • Carry out an urgent review of fire safety regulations, as proposed by the coroner in the 2013 Lakanal House fire inquest.
  • While the immediate concern is homes, other tall buildings including schools and hospitals in Southwark need to have urgent fire safety inspections too. The government must provide resources for their inspections and set out a specific timeframe.

I will continue to work with my Southwark Labour colleagues Helen Hayes MP and Neil Coyle MP to press the government to commit to providing Southwark Council with the money it needs to carry out all necessary inspections and do the work to ensure residents are safe.

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