Whilst watching the news of Channel 4 about the Grenfell Tower Enquiry a couple of weeks ago, questions were raised in my mind about the large numbers of new homes being built here in Bristol by our Labour Council and its partners here in Bristol. So I put in a question to the City Council Cabinet meeting on 4th February 2020 that was responded to by Cllr Paul Smith, Cabinet Lead for Housing. The question I asked is: in the light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in North Kensington in 2017 and the Lakenal House fire in 2009 which preceded it, who exactly i.e. which partner or agency, will have responsibility for ensuring that these MMCs (Modern Methods of Construction) are fit for purpose in terms of fire risks and the safety of their occupants? And who will make sure that it is so?
Cabinet were considering a report entitled “Enabling Housing Innovation for Inclusive Growth Programme” that followed up on last Year’s Housing Festival held in Millennium Square that showcased exciting new models of housing and construction. I visited and was extremely impressed. However, as in all new projects, it is easy to get carried away by the new ideas, including cost savings on traditional ideas and to forget/overlook the basics the key one being the safety of occupants.
I am happy to say that Cllr Paul Smith gave immediate reassurance that “BCC will take that responsibility. It is on our land, so we will take responsibility for that” also explaining that the Lakenal House and Grenfell Tower fires were, in his opinion, not because of innovation but due to cost-cutting and privatisation.
Under Public Access procedure, one is allowed a supplementary question, of which I took full advantage; “is it possible that this Council, whilst unable to pass laws on fire safety obviously, could build into its Contracting and Procurement processes, a requirement that fire sprinklers are added to all new residences as is the case in Wales and could be added to existing tower blocks in Bristol? This might save the life of individuals and whole families.” I referred to the fact that before Grenfell Tower fire but after the Lakenal House one, the then Coalition Government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats refused to act upon the Coroner’s recommendations; One former Bristol West MP Stephen Williams who was the Minister responsible for building regulations told MPs on a fire safety Committee that he “wasn’t prepared to disrupt the work” of his Government and therefore no laws or regulations to strengthen fire safety have been passed or are going through the Parliamentary process.
Paul Smith replied that “I would never tell my officers not to disrupt their workload if safety is an issue” – straight and to the point! Bristol City Council is retrofitting sprinklers in all tower blocks, but in some they are being resisted by residents, indeed in one block BCC have have pulled out as so many opposed, a fact that I find astounding.
But well done to the Labour-led Welsh Government for passing a law that all new residences must have fire sprinklers.