Fire Safety (2): Response from West Berkshire Council

04 JULY 2017

Written response received from Councillor Hilary Cole:

Thank you for raising what is a very important issue, as it gives me the opportunity to reassure the residents of West Berkshire and give a detailed response to your question.

Everyone at West Berkshire Council has been shocked and saddened by the terrible fire at Grenfell tower. Our thoughts are with those who died in the fire and we send our condolences to their families. We must also remember that a great many residents have also been injured and left homeless and we wish them well as they recover from this terrible ordeal.

I also want to pay tribute to all the agencies and individuals who have responded to the incident at the time and in the days and weeks since. It has been a real community effort and I commend those communities for the compassion, selflessness and generosity they have shown.

These events have, understandably, caused concern across the country that a similar tragedy could occur elsewhere. Here in West Berkshire we have plans in place to reduce the likelihood of a similar incident happening in our district.

West Berkshire Council has always, and will continue, to take its responsibilities around fire safety very seriously. This includes both the occupants of, and visitors to, its own buildings and those of partner organisations and privately owned property. We are not complacent however and as a result of the fire we have begun some specific activity which I have outlined below.

I think it will also be helpful if I outline the current position in West Berkshire.

West Berkshire Council currently has no high rise residential blocks (which are defined as being 18 metres or taller, which equates to blocks of 6 storeys or more). The Council has, however, been in conversation with a wide range of local organisations to ensure that processes are already in place, and to consider whether any new activities can be introduced. We want to ensure that all sensible precautions have been put in place to minimise the risk to the public.

This has included dialogue with the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, Sovereign Housing Association, the Education & Skills Funding Agency, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association.

WBC owned buildings (inc. Schools)

With regard to its own buildings, the Council has an ongoing rolling programme of reviewing and renewing its fire risk assessments which cover both its school and non-school buildings. In addition, the Council’s Health & Safety Team undertake health and safety audits of all properties. This also covers fire risk and ensuring properties are managing this effectively.

The Council has a fire safety improvement programme in which we have invested more than £1.5m over the past four years. This includes £400,000 allocated to be spent this financial year. The work programme has seen fire detection systems, emergency lighting systems and building fabric work undertaken on the majority of its properties ranging from schools, care homes, administrative buildings and libraries.

Schools

The Council’s School Estate Officers are responding to the Education & Skills Funding Agency queries related to school buildings which will confirm that there are no high rise school buildings and only a single circumstance where a residential property is located within a school building. This is a single caretaker property.

Fire Suppression Systems (sprinklers)

With specific regard to sprinklers, the Council has a Fire Suppression System Policy for its own buildings which requires that all new buildings and major refurbishments which meet the policy criteria will have a risk assessment undertaken. Where this risk assessment recommends it, sprinklers will be installed. For both Council-owned buildings and privately owned properties where a Building Control application is submitted for construction, alteration or extension and come within the control of the Council’s Building Control service, the regulations applicable at the time will be applied, including with regard to fire suppression systems (such as sprinklers).

In addition, the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service have said that whilst Building Regulations do not require the fitting of sprinklers in all new buildings, they are recognised as a very effective means of protecting life and of limiting fire damage to the property and the environment. They actively promote the fitting of sprinklers and consistently recommend their installation. I can confirm that the new primary school, Highwood Copse, which received planning permission only last Wednesday at a meeting of the Council’s Western Area Planning Committee, will have sprinklers installed

Housing

With regard to the provision of housing stock, West Berkshire Council has a small amount of directly owned housing stock all of which is low rise and low occupancy.

Sovereign Housing Association is the largest housing provider in West Berkshire. I am pleased to report that Sovereign has written to us confirming that:

  1. it has no high rise blocks in West Berkshire;
  2. it holds up to date fire risk assessments; and
  • it has increased inspections and visits by its housing teams to reassure tenants.

HMO’s (Houses in Multiple Occupation)

For Private Sector Housing, the Council’s Environmental Health Team has evaluated known houses in multiple occupation and no direct risks have been identified. Through existing joint protocols with the Fire Service it is expected any fire safety issues will be identified and addressed.

Private developments – control

For the construction, alteration or extension of a building, and where this comes within the control of the Council’s Building Control Service the building regulations and associated legislation applicable at the time will be applied.

For current construction, the need for fire suppression, cladding compliance and other safety requirements are determined by the Building Regulations 2010 (as amended) and guidance within Approved document B (fire safety) Volume 2. However, it should be noted that not all building work is controlled by the Council’s Building Control service. Where a notice is served to advise that an Approved Inspector is providing the building control service, at that point the Council has no further jurisdiction. An example of this is the Racecourse development for which an approved inspector was used.

Civil Contingencies

The Council is prepared to respond to a broad range of civil emergencies and have plans in place which are regularly tested internally and also with other agencies. This includes a Major Incident Plan and a number of other plans associated with it including a Rest Centre Plan, Vulnerable People Plan and a Major Incident Support Team Plan. These all relate to how people will be supported if they are involved in an emergency and have to be evacuated from their home. These plans not only involve Council Officers but voluntary agencies, other partner agencies and mutual aid support from other Local Authorities.

Our contingency plans cover a wide range of scenarios ranging from fire and flooding through to emergencies at the district’s nuclear sites. We test them regularly, including one recent exercise testing the response to an emergency at AWE. The exercise saw participation by more than 400 people representing 40 agencies which shows the importance we all place on having plans in place and regularly testing those plans.

These plans have also been used for real incidents in recent times including for a Thames Water outage in June 2017 and the flooding in 2014. As a result of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, these plans will be reviewed and amended as necessary along with the Emergency Planning Training Programme.

In addition, the Council’s Civil Contingencies Team has been engaging with other responders across the Thames Valley in particular the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service in relation to any buildings in the area, not just our own buildings, which may pose a risk to the occupants.

It is important to note that as part of our Member Development Programme, all Members have had Civil Contingencies training, so that they are aware of the role they should play within their communities, should a major incident occur. 

Next steps

At West Berkshire Council we are in a good place but we do not want to become complacent. You will recall I mentioned earlier that the Council does not own any high rise residential blocks and that Sovereign does not have any rise blocks in the district. However, the Council has created a working group to examine any risks, look at any lessons that can be learnt and address them. The group, which includes the Housing, Education and Planning services, are conducting a range of activities including:

  1. Reviewing all Council building fire risk assessments
  2. Contacting the Responsible Person at each Council property to emphasise the importance of continuing to keep the health and safety reporting system up-to-date
  • Write to all contracted providers of services where people are placed by the Council, seeking assurances that fire safety systems are in place for their building
  1. For ALL Council owned buildings including schools (but excluding Academies), the Responsible Person for each building is to be asked if cladding exists on their building. Where cladding is used, regardless of the type, a precautionary survey by a competent surveyor based on the recommendations of the DCLG & RICS will be undertaken.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to outline the Council’s position and to inform our communities of the seriousness with which we take our responsibilities to keeping our communities safe, so once again. I thank you for your question.”

 

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