Council's Bid to Make Residents Pay for Sprinklers Fails

Wanted leaseholders in high rise blocks to cover cost of retrofitting

Campaigners outside Wandsworth Council. Picture: Claire Gilbert

Residents have called Wandsworth Council’s application to force leaseholders to pay for sprinklers in high-rise blocks “a massive adversarial waste of time and money”.

In a landmark decision before Christmas, the First Tier Tribunal struck out the council’s application for a ruling which would entitle it to retro-fit sprinklers in every room of all leasehold flats in council-owned buildings which are 10 or more storeys high, as part of fire safety measures.

The council wanted to enter flats without the leaseholder’s consent and make them pay for both the cost of the fitting and maintaining the sprinkler systems as part of a service charge.

Some estimates suggested this could have been up to £4,000 per property.

The long-running battle with residents has been going on for nearly a year-and-a-half, since the council reviewed fire safety in the borough’s high-rise buildings after the Grenfell Tower Tragedy in 2017.

According to a council report, there are 100 blocks of 10 storeys or more containing 6,420 residential flats in the borough.

There were a number of applications from residents calling for the ruling to be struck out, including one from Paddy Keane, Chair of the Battersea High Street Residents Association. He said the decision to strike out the council case was “eminently sensible”, but said the process has been a “nightmare”.

“Hours spent on evenings and weekends trying to manage it all, write submissions, organise meetings and run the ‘communications group’ for residents, find legal representation […] the whole process has been a massive adversarial waste of time and money, some residents are thousands of pounds out of pocket on legal fees at the moment, he said.

However he added he is “determined to carry on” if the council decide to appeal the decision.

The tribunal’s written decision said “the council are not entitled to ask for a blanket determination of leaseholder rights”, and that “if the council wish to fit the sprinkler systems then they must consider each block of flats individually and if necessary make an application to the tribunal on a block by block basis.”

Mr Keane agrees. He said, “There may well be blocks within the 100 high-rises in Wandsworth that would benefit greatly from enhanced fire safety measures like sprinklers. It just happens that the two in our residents’ association do not require them. Even our independent fire risk assessment states “sprinklers – NOT required”.

“What I’d like to see come out of this is a council that starts to listen to its residents. When we give them highly credible and informative information on all the risks and issues with retro-fitting sprinklers, rather than fobbing us off, and refusing to discuss, with a “we know it all” attitude.”

The tribunal made it clear that it was not making a decision about whether or not fitting sprinklers into each room of each flat is the correct way to proceed in learnings from the Grenfell Tower fire.

It said, “Many leaseholders and their landlords are still deciding how best to make their buildings safer. In common with other councils and private freeholders of high rise residential buildings, Wandsworth are seeking to ensure the safety of all residents. The focus of this case, is whether the leases between the council and the individual lessees allows Wandsworth to charge the leaseholders for their proposals.”

The tribunal appeared to criticise the council for asking for a decision on whether it could enforce the works.

Wandsworth claimed the tribunal “could look at the near-identical common wording of the leases and say whether they are capable of supporting Wandsworth’s interpretation.”

The tribunal said a determination on this would be “of little or no value”.

“It would not be binding on any of the leaseholders and it would be necessary, if there were a challenge, to make a further application to the Tribunal for a final decision. To ask the Tribunal to make such a determination is in our view an abuse of process.”

In this case “abuse of process” is a technical term that does not mean the council acted with impropriety, but that it would be “meaningless for the Tribunal to make a decision that is neither specific nor enforceable”.

Roehampton Labour Councillor Claire Gilbert has been working to inform residents about the process and help them access legal aid. She criticised the council for its approach to the tribunal and communication with residents. She said: “There were difficulties that leaseholders had in getting documentation from Wandsworth. That did even go back to getting copies of the relevant leases. It also went back to receiving copies of the court documentation and also even now I would say, understanding what has happened in the tribunal process.”

She added: “The communication has been very challenging and that has led to people coming to councillor surgeries very very upset.

“A number of questions are now outstanding. How much has Wandsworth spent on this case, will it appeal? It has until January 17. I don’t think that would be a wise decision for the council given the way the judgement has been structured.

“The key for me was always about the communication, about the rational use of resource. We have a very challenged situation in Wandsworth in terms of the cuts to our finances as a local authority from central government. We must make sure that we are using HRA (Housing Revenue Account) money appropriately. That’s where the money would have come from for council tenants. The leaseholders would have had to pay, but for the tenants that money could be spent on other things like other repairs and building more social housing.”

A spokesperson for Wandsworth Council said it was “disappointing” that the tribunal “felt unable to provide clarification on behalf of the council and its residents regarding the installation of sprinklers in all of its high rise towers”.

They added: “Sprinklers are required by law in all new blocks over 30m due to their proven record on improving fire safety. It is perhaps surprising that a tribunal felt unable to consider an application aimed at ensuring that all residents of council tower blocks were entitled to similar levels of fire safety to residents of newly constructed blocks. Until primary legislation clarifies these urgent matters a two tier fire safety regime will remain.

“The council is considering the merits of an appeal.”

Sian Bayley - Local Democracy Reporter

January 7, 2020

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