After the Grenfell tragedy, anyone living in a tower block needs to know that they are safe and that reports on repairs do not fall on deaf ears.
If tower blocks are properly maintained, with all structural work properly carried out, they are perfectly safe. But this week we report on the four thirteen-storey blocks of the Ledbury Estate on Old Kent Road that have, since last week, been identified as dangerous by London Fire Brigade inspectors, due to the gaping cracks in the rooms of many residents’ flats.
Word has spread throughout the blocks that the cracks in the walls have “compromised” the “compartmentation” fire-safety features of the blocks, as smoke and oxygen can leak into different rooms and between flats.
Residents have said that these cracks have been present for up to 30 years and only now in the wake of Grenfell is the council taking seriously the danger posed.
Without a doubt Southwark is ahead of councils across the country on the fire safety front, after the avoidable devastation of the Lakanal House fire in 2009 that claimed six lives. £62 million has been spent on fire assessment programmes and fire safety work, but as the largest social landlord in the country, the costs of having to maintain its properties is vast. Given the millions already spent it is worrying that Ledbury’s safety concerns were not identified earlier. The problem may lie with the council having to deal with the huge amount of repair work needed on its stock, on top of the work clearly spelt out in the inquiry into Lakanal in 2013.
This is not an isolated issue just for Southwark – both Lakanal and Grenfell are national tragedies that effect every part of UK. As such it is also now down to the government to take hold of the situation and provide the resources and direction led by professionals in the fire brigade and construction industry, to enforce the safety measures needed across the country.
The recommendations have been there since 2013, so there is no need to wait for the Grenfell inquiry and the money can be given immediately by the government, allowing councils to borrow millions of pounds from housing revenue accounts (which hold money specifically for maintaining council housing).
In the wake of Grenfell there have been calls for tower blocks to be pulled down or for no more to be built. Critics claim they are eyesores, magnets for crime and terrible to live in. But most of us at the News have found that a lot of people in tower blocks enjoy living in there. Indeed they would do so more if repairs and improvements were carried out promptly.
In the council’s Southwark Plan it controversially argues about getting rid of height restrictions on buildings for planning. Critics of this are making a link to Grenfell, although this does muddy the water as the issue of building high is much more one about dealing with the housing crisis.
We can make tower blocks perfectly fire safe, and we clearly need to build more social housing in areas with high need. Social housing pays for itself, but there needs to be enough of it adequately to relieve the housing crisis. What are the critics of tower blocks suggesting as a solution to where people will be housed, if we were to demolish the ones we have and ban any more from being built?