Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, I wrote to Sutton Council regarding fire safety in tall buildings in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park. Below are the questions I asked and the answers I received.

  1. Can you please clarify exactly how and why the Council, SHP and the London Fire Brigade believe Chaucer House to be safe despite a failure in the fire safety test of its cladding?

We have set this out in the joint letter from the Council, SHP and London Fire Brigade delivered to all Chaucer House residents on Thursday evening which provides reassurance about fire safety. We also held a well-attended drop-in session on Thursday afternoon with Chaucer residents to provide additional detail and answer specific concerns of residents.

The Fire Brigade have completed a number of audit checks at Chaucer House over the last fortnight and are satisfied that the fire safety arrangements in place are effective. In addition to the modern fire detection system, comprising hard wired smoke alarms in every room, heat detectors in every kitchen and a communal fire alarm, there is also a sprinkler system in every room and in the former bin chambers. Each flat has a fire safe front entrance door and frame and the same is present throughout the communal areas. The block also has a staircase and means of escape at each end of the building.

There are fire stops between floors and between the flats and the cladding system used received Building Research Establishment approval as meeting the Building Regulations. The specific tests that DCLG organised to test combustibility of the inner core have resulted in 100% failure to date and cannot be taken as evidence that a block is unsafe as it is the totality of the fire safety cladding and related arrangements that is relevant.

  1. What, if any, action is going to be taken to add further fire safety measures in Chaucer House?

We are ensuring that a diligent approach to fire safety remains in place at all times and on our  high-rise blocks in particular. The following additional measures have been taken to achieve this and to reassure residents:

  • Independent Fire Risk Assessments for Chaucer and Balaam have been conducted in the last two months
  • Four Fire Brigade audits have been completed at Chaucer and Balaam in the last fortnight
  • A 24/7 fire patrol has been instituted at Chaucer and Balaam to ensure that the fire safety systems are all operating as designed through the night and communal areas and means of escape are kept clear of combustible materials and potential obstructions etc.
  • We are offering Home Fire Safety Visits by the Fire Brigade to all SHP residents
  • SHP are conducting home visits to all residents at Chaucer and Balaam to:
  • Checking and verifying who is living there and updating our records
  • Providing and talking the household through the latest fire safety advice including knowing their evacuation route(s), checking the operation of self-closing internal doors and heeding fire brigade advice
  • Keeping the communal parts of the blocks free of belongings and rubbish
  • Provision of smoke alarms and kitchen heat alarms for residents
  • Strongly recommending that they that they have a Home Fire Safety Visit
  • Identifying tenants who may be at risk of hoarding and referring them for immediate help and support to address this
  • Identifying residents who have limited mobility or other relevant vulnerability and assessing their risk in the event of a fire and developing, where appropriate a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan. The Fire Brigade provide an ‘Assisted Living Technology Handbook’ which is helpful in these cases
  • We are also planning to offer residents of Chaucer and Balaam access to electrical testing of home appliances and to purchase and give out fire extinguishers and fire blankets and training in how to use these correctly
  1. When does the Council believe the cladding on Balaam House will have been completely tested?

We have taken samples of the Balaam cladding and provided these to DCLG but DCLG have declined to test steel clad buildings at the moment. SHP has commissioned fire safety experts to conduct a forensic and holistic assessment of fire safety at Chaucer and Balaam and their initial findings are expected in four weeks.

  1. Have all relevant alarms and automated fire response systems such as sprinklers been tested?

There is a continuous testing programme in place for all fire detection and suppression systems.

  1. Has a review of fire safety been done of all SHP properties, particularly flats?

All of the flatted properties managed by SHP receive formal fire risk assessments undertaken by an independent consultant.  These are carried out annually for sheltered schemes, Balaam House, Chaucer House and our other taller blocks and every 3 years for other flatted properties.

Flatted properties with annual Fire Risk Assessments are also subject to quarterly fire safety inspections by trained SHP staff to verify that the appropriate measures are working effectively.  Flatted properties with 3 yearly Fire Risk inspections are subject to 6 monthly fire safety inspections.

  1. Is a sprinkler system going to be installed in Balaam House? If so, when and if not, why not?

SHP are commissioning the design of a suitable sprinkler system for Balaam House and have asked the experts conducting the forensic review to make recommendations on this.

  1. Has the Council/SHP made contact with other housing associations or private landlords responsible for other tall buildings in Sutton whether clad or not, such as Aspects, 2 and 4 Sutton Park Road, Bank House, 9 Sutton Court Road, 11 Sutton Court Road, Leith Towers, Dunsfold Court, Alford Court and Northumberland House (formerly Sutherland House), to check their fire safety arrangements? If not, will the Council undertake this?

Council officers are in the process of contacting all housing associations who may have high rise stock in the borough to ascertain if there are any fire safety issues regarding cladding etc.  To date we have received reassurances from all but three (who are being chased today).  Of those who have responded, only three have high rise blocks and none of these have the ACM cladding that was present at Grenfell Tower.

The situation is not as straightforward with privately owned blocks. We have seen a letter sent by the Permanent Secretary at the DCLG  to private sector bodies encouraging owners and managers to arrange checks on their buildings. Although locals authorities receive notification of certification of works as compliant with Building Regulations from Approved Inspectors and we maintain a database of such notifications these do not detail necessarily the works carried out .  We are liaising with our local Fire Brigade about the visual inspections that they are carrying out of 242 buildings higher than four storeys and will discuss follow up action in cases where fire risks, cladding related or not, have been identified.

  1. Has the Council been in touch with the local Fire Brigade to discuss their ability to tackle fires in tall buildings?

SHP have been working very closely with the local Fire Brigade and regularly discuss their approach to fighting fires in taller buildings. All of the crew members in the Sutton and Merton Fire Brigades are visiting Chaucer House to familiarize themselves with the scissor design of the flats and the specific fire safety procedures and layout so they are able to respond effectively and appropriately to any emergency. Their callout response times are excellent and a for a fire in a high-rise property, the Brigade now sends five fire engines and an aerial platform.

  1. Have residents in tall buildings been given the most up to date advice on fire safety?

The latest fire safety information has been sent to residents in Chaucer and Balaam and SHP are keeping them fully informed about what we are doing to enhance fire safety including individual visits.  

On June 15th, SHP door knocked all properties and discussed fire safety with residents.  There have been joint press releases between the Council, SHP and the FB and SHP have updated information on their website.  SHP are putting together a FAQ based on questions from residents at the drop in sessions, via phone calls and during face to face home visits.

  1. Have escape routes been identified in tall buildings, such as fire escape staircases, and how long are they likely to provide safe passage out of the building in the event of a fire? How many are there in each building?

This forms part of the fire safety assessment undertaken at all blocks and as the design features of each block vary, a general response that is applicable to all is not possible. All residents are provided with this information and encouraged to know their means of escape from the block in the event of a fire. The core principle that applies is that of compartmentation, so that the fire is contained within the property where it arises and the means of escape is kept sterile and free of combustible material so that safe passage out of the building can be undertaken.

  1. Where residents are unable to escape, how long is a flat likely to remain safe whilst they await rescue? Can you confirm that there are sufficient fire breaks in each block, such as fire doors in common areas in contrast to those missing in the buildings in Camden?

Properties are designed to contain a fire for sufficient time to allow the Fire Brigade to reach anyone that needs to be evacuated. Fire breaks are in place for each block and the forensic review commissioned  will be checking on and reporting on this, so that any deficiencies found can be remedied.

  1. How many householders in each building are SHP tenants and how many are private owners?

There are 6 leaseholders in Chaucer and 9 leaseholder in Balaam House.