Improving fire prevention systems in tower blocks is expensive, but the price of not doing the work could be human life
On 6 April 2010 two firefighters entered a burning tower block in Southampton and did not come out again. In a letter this week relating to the inquest into the deaths in the fire on the ninth floor of Southampton Council-owned Shirley Towers, coroner Keith Wiseman warned ‘obvious precautions to prevent the fire occurring were not taken’. Mr Wiseman has a stark message for social landlords: install sprinkler systems to all tower blocks over 30 metres high and fit more appropriate signage to help the emergency services in the event of fire, or risk further preventable deaths.
The call echoes the message of Inside Housing’s long-standing campaign Safe as Houses to stop preventable deaths from fire and gas. The coroner has demanded action in the clearest possible terms from communities secretary Eric Pickles to make existing tower blocks safer places to live by amending the building regulations. But why should social landlords wait to be told to reduce the chances of their tenants and residents dying?
For one, there is the cost. When the Welsh Government outlined plans to require all new and converted homes to be fitted with sprinklers from September this year, it faced criticism from consultancy BRE. Its assessment of the plan showed that each of the predicted 36 lives saved by 2022 would cost £6.7 million. It concluded that this was ‘not cost-effective’.
Yet work by Sheffield Council to retrofit a 47-home high-rise in 2011 cost £55,000, or around £1,150 per property, with an annual £250 maintenance charge on top. Although it believes these costs are conservative, Southampton Council estimates it would need to spend at least £2 million fitting sprinklers to its 16 high-rise blocks. Not cheap, especially when placed in the context of spending cuts.
The key point here is whether or not social landlords believe the opportunity cost argument of investing in expensive fire safety measures for their existing homes. Perhaps the Welsh step of sprinklers for all new and converted homes, while admirable, is too far. But why not all high-rises over four storeys? Southwark Council, which owns Lakanal House where six people died in a blaze in July 2009, expects the fire will cost it at least £8.2 million. Social landlords should act now before they regret it.