Westminster City Council is proposing to charge leaseholders for the cost of fitting sprinklers in tower blocks, as part of its fire safety upgrades in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy .
The council has already agreed to add sprinklers to all of its housing blocks over 30-metres tall.
Affected leaseholders will have their chance to say on the proposal, which is still in its early stages, according to the council.
The council’s sprinkler task group’s preferred proposal to do the works in every flat would cost an estimated £22.5 million. It would assume the costs for retrofitting council tenants’ flats, and the rest would be passed to leaseholders.
Westminster City Council’s housing, finance and customer service committee heard the task group’s proposal on Thursday (September 27).
It is not yet clear what the costs to individual homeowners would be, or how many leaseholders it could affect as the £22.5 million figure includes properties to which the council has no powers to enforce the sprinkler works in.
However, council figures show leaseholders make up 41% of total properties in its tall buildings, and a number hold pre-1987 leases. The council holds no powers to install sprinklers in those units, and the task group recommends it asks for a legal agreement to ask for access to include them in the works.
However, it can add the sprinklers to post-1987 leaseholder units, who are the homeowners it is proposing to bill. The task group’s report said the alternative option not to charge that leaseholder group for the works would cost the council £8.4 million, adding it was “unclear” how Westminster would fund that.
It comes after the Government has decided not to fund councils to retrofit sprinklers in tall buildings.
The task group agreed the council will join others in lobbying the Government for more funding, and to amend regulations to make retrofitting sprinklers easier for social landlords.
The report noted Westminster could face a risk of legal challenges on the cost and appropriateness of the works.
If leaseholders refused access for the works, the preferred approach would either be to take them to court or exclude the flat from the programme, the report said.
Task group leader councillor Melvyn Caplan told the committee planning the sprinkler roll-out had been complex, and its proposals not easy to arrive at.
“More than a year after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the shock does not go away,” his report foreword said. “It is the duty of all councils and councillors to do whatever they can to put measures in place that will protect their residents.”
Adding sprinklers to sheltered housing to protect Westminster’s elderly and vulnerable is predicted to come with a £7.8 million price tag for the council, which has already begun works on Glastonbury House in Pimlico, where there are no leaseholders.
While there is no legal requirement for sprinklers in tall buildings, it is recommended by bodies including the National Fire Chiefs Council, and the Royal Institute of British Architects, and encouraged by coroners following earlier deadly London tower block blazes, including at Lakanal House in 2009.
Fire safety experts recommend every single unit of a tower block has sprinklers. However the task group report noted even other councils offering the works for free to every home had not managed to get permission for all of them.
At least one London council, Wandsworth, has already proposed passing on the cost of the works to leaseholders, attracting protests and an upcoming tribunal.
Labour opposition leader Cllr Adam Hug asked Cllr Caplan what the likely cost to a leaseholder could be, and whether they might be able to defer payments.
“If you’re going to say ‘option A’ you need to be absolutely clear what it’s going to cost leaseholders and then the mechanism by which you’re going to charge them.”
However Cllr Caplan said that information was covered in commercially-sensitive briefings he would provide to councillors.
One figure contained in the public report provides some clue, with the cost of retrofitting a sprinkler system in Polesworth House on the Warwick & Brindley Estate in Little Venice estimated at just under £1.4 million.
The proposal will go through the public consultation process, before it goes to cabinet leaders for final decision.