Monday, 19 June 2017

Fire safety in flats

We all were shocked and appalled last week by the terrible fire in the Grenfell Tower that has killed so many people in Kensington and naturally the Reading community has stepped up to help, from residents collecting through to our Mayor speaking to the council's emergency planning department asking that they offer help.

However inevitably as a councillor my thoughts also have been turning to flats in Reading and safety particularly for tenants.
I know that I would not have been sleeping well the last few nights if my children and I were on a top floor of flats anywhere in the country.

As a councillor in Reading, previously the cabinet for housing and now in adult social care, I know my colleagues and I all take fire safety very seriously.

We have three 14-storey flats in Coley and four eight story blocks in Granville Road, Southcote as well as smaller flats in other places.  Although none of Reading Borough Council flats have comparable cladding systems to Grenfell Tower and they are of a different construction we wanted to be clear about the implications of this awful fire to our own area of Reading

The administration Councillors were briefed on Friday by the Chief Executive and the council's head of housing about council own flats and we were clear that while we have a positive relationship with tenants groups and we've always taken fire safety seriously we should not be complacent and will be looking again to see what we can learn from this awful tragedy.

As well as a hand delivered letter to residents in council flats, the council has issued a press statement that I reproduce below:

In the last six months there have been two major fires in high rise blocks of flats in other areas – one in Shepherds Bush and this week at Grenfell Tower, Kensington. None of Reading Borough Council’s blocks have cladding systems comparable to those in the blocks where these fires occurred.
Reading Borough Council has three 14-storey blocks of flats in Coley and four eight-storey blocks in Granville Road, Southcote, and we are confident they meet high levels of fire safety standards.
Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Services has audited 90 per cent of the Council’s blocks of flats, including our high rise blocks, with communal areas and have not raised any significant issues. Where fires have broken out inside flats, none of them have spread outside the flat.
Formal fire risk assessments are carried out in our high rise blocks every other year by the Council using a qualified fire risk assessor. A block inspector regularly checks all blocks and housing officers carry out interim assessments and are on site most days to ensure constant monitoring.  From this year every flat within the blocks will have their smoke alarm tested every year and tenants are encouraged to check them weekly.
The Coley high rise flats have very few cavities between any external cladding panels and the main concrete construction but on the limited elevations where they do occur fire breaks are in place to stop the spread of fire. None of the other flatted blocks have cavities.
The Coley high rise flats have fire exits at both ends of the blocks and have a call-point alarm system in communal areas which can be heard throughout the building when activated. The Granville Road flats each have two communal staircases accessed via external balconies. All flats have their own alarms which sound internally.
Smoke seals and intumescent strips are fitted on communal doors and the front doors of flats in all of our blocks to protect tenants from fire and reduce the risk of fire inside a flat spreading outside.
Fire risk is taken very seriously and the Council operates a zero-tolerance policy regarding items left in communal areas by tenants, as this poses a fire risk. The Council enforces this policy strictly.
Every block of flats also has a fire notice board with an evacuation plan and factsheet giving advice regarding what to do in the event of a fire. We realise that tenants in some of our high rise flats may be concerned following the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington. Advice to tenants, provided by the fire service, is still to remain inside your flat if there is a fire elsewhere in the block unless the fire brigade tell you to evacuate the building - with the exception of two blocks where tenants are aware.
The Council is writing to all tenants in the Coley and Granville Road high rise flats to reassure them of the fire safety measures in place and to urge them to regularly check their flat’s alarms and provide guidance on how to reduce the risk of a fire occurring and what to do if a fire does occur.

The Council takes fire safety extremely seriously and reviews measures as new information arises or updated guidance is issued. This includes learning from major incidents in other areas, including the findings which will come out of the investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire.  Despite Reading Council’s blocks differing in design to Grenfell Tower, in order to provide residents with complete confidence and assurance, the Council is appointing an external organisation with specific expertise on fire safety in high rise blocks.  The organisation will carry out a review of our practice in the areas of management, fire safety measures and safety advice to tenants. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

The dementia tax raises questions about Conservative fitness for government

I was originally going to publish this on Tuesday but due to the awful terrorist attack in Manchester I delayed as all candidates have been avoiding campaigning.  However I believe this issue is so vital I wanted to publish is now that campaigning has restarted.

When the dementia tax was first launched my immediate reaction was disbelief.  It seemed that whoever was in charge of the national Conservative policy on social care didn't understand the crisis at all let alone have a solution. 

It now appears that this person is Theresa May, who is still hastily revising her own policy.
In some ways this is understandable as it is just such a terrible policy.   We need strong leadership in these times, but a truly strong leader listens and involves people in working together on tackling the big issues.

There is a good reason the funding part of it has been dubbed the dementia tax - the first problem is one of utter unfairness:  it creates massive differences in outcome depending on which disease of old age you get, or indeed if you gain a disability before or after you have acquired assets.  

However, it will also create a further black hole in council finances due to increases in deferred payments and it reduce the incentive people have to remain in their own homes when they gain a disease like Alzheimer's - which we all know is better for people at least in the early stages of dementia.

Even more seriously this back of the envelope approach breaches years of work on a cross party basis to find a grown up solution to this complex issue - one we know our society will need to tackle and one that doesn't have a simple solution.  Organisations like the Local Government Association, the Kings Fund and indeed parts of the civil service are looking at this issue carefully and thoughtfully, so it's appalling to have this ridden roughshod over by the government.

Everyone from the Economics Editor of the Financial Times, to Andrew Dilnot, author of the influential Dilnot report, to the Labour party has condemned the Conservative policy as unworkable, costly and unfair.
It is therefore no surprise therefore that the Conservatives are hastily shuffling round u-turning on a manifesto commitment before the election has even happened.

What is a surprise is that it even made into the manifesto in the first place.  It is yet another example of a Conservative party that is not only out of touch but out of control.  

If we can't trust them on something as important as treating our elderly and disabled citizens with respect, what can we trust them on?

If they are not competent enough to understand the consequences of their own policies are they really competent enough to run the country?