Sprinklers: are they really needed for Wigan flats?

Mabel Cowan at the flats
Mabel Cowan at the flats

Many of west-facing balconies of the high rise flats in the centre of Wigan offer views towards the town hall and the council’s flagship Life Centre complex.

With a decision pending that could have a major impact on tenants’ lives, it is a view that is representative as much as physical; all eyes are on the local authority.

High rise committee chairman Phil Harris

High rise committee chairman Phil Harris

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In the months following the Grenfell Tower disaster the council announced proposals to install sprinkler systems, at a cost of more than £2m.

Bosses said it would put “minds at rest” even though the town’s high-rises do not have the same fire-risk cladding.

A number of tenants – enough to prompt a re-think, they say – argue the sprinklers are unnecessary.

They claim the plans are more a “knee-jerk reaction” from the town hall about “covering its own back” rather than acting in the interests of those living in the flats.

A report on the results of a consultation is expected in the next few weeks.

All views will be taken into consideration, council bosses have said, having previously attempted to allay fears the plan – backed by the fire service – is a done deal.

But Phil Harris says the tenants he represents are concerned the proposal will be pushed through.

The consultation is nothing more than a “paper placebo”, he said on a walk through some of the high rise buildings.

Among the reasons behind their stance is that tenants have had to endure years of disruptive works to improve facilities and the flats have an excellent safety record as they are.

But perhaps the most pertinent standpoint is the potential for a high-pressure water based system being installed in buildings riddled with water ingress problems.

Mr Harris, who is chairman of the High Rise Committee, has lived in the Scholes Village blocks since 1995 and is a former resident caretaker.

Issues with damp and mould have been reported in the blocks with regularity in recent years and on this particular day a leaking pipe in a service duct housing pipes and wires (both electrical and for telecommunication) means audible drops of water are falling from floors above.

“We could wind up in a position where the council is responding to multiple claims about water damage from one incident (of the sprinklers being activated),” Mr Harris says.

“Every flat above here could damage this one.”

The council has said the fire service would be notified instantly in the event of a system activation.

But Mr Harris argues the lag in response time will be sufficient for the water, even if it is confined to one flat, to cause future damage to multiple homes.

The blocks are designed to contain fires and have an excellent safety record, he adds.

“Everyone in these flats should be mobile enough to get out, otherwise they shouldn’t be here.

“The council has been told for 50-odd years these steel and concrete boxes are capable of containing fires and they have been happy with that.

“We’ve had a perfectly acceptable fire safety policy, now you’re talking about putting in a system that will not only damage the place that is on fire, but will effectively damage several homes underneath it.

“In all that time, there’s never been a peep out of the council even though we’ve had fires, because what we’ve got is fine.

“When there have been fires in the past, people in the immediate vicinity have not known until the fire service has turned up. The fires don’t spread.”

For Mabel Cowan, the disruption caused by months of work in order to install the sprinklers is something that should not be overlooked.

Tenants have been offered financial compensation, the pair say, but it is not just when the work is taking place in their own flat when they will be affected.

“You can hear someone knocking a nail into a wall 10 floors down, we’ll hear it when they’re doing it on the ground floor,” she said.

The 73-year-old, who has lived in the blocks since 1994, added a show flat set up to give residents a look at how the sprinkler system will appear is a “completely different layout” to her flat and therefore gives a false representation.

The council has said, however, that those to have visited the show flat have provided positive feedback and were “impressed with the subtlety of the systems”.

The £2.4m earmarked for the works would be better spent elsewhere, Mr Harris says.

It is a viewpoint already voiced at a town hall committee meeting by another tenant representative; better smoke alarms or new fire escapes could be of benefit, instead of the sprinkler system.

Earlier in the year, ahead of the consultation being launched, the council’s leader of the opposition, Coun Michael Winstanley, raised concerns in the same town hall meeting about the process.

“It looks as though someone has made the decision…and it doesn’t matter what the residents say,” he said.

In response, officers said the ‘genuine’ consultation includes a “whole package of fire safety measures” and is “dynamic” because of the ongoing Grenfell Inquiry.

Despite the favourable safety record at the flats, the authority must plan for the ‘worst case scenario’, councillors said.

“We’ve got to find a balance here between what’s right and what’s popular, this isn’t an election, this is about getting it right,” said Coun Fred Walker.

In the same housing advisory panel meeting, tenant representative Christopher Brady told councillors ‘we’ve had more problems with water ingress than we have with fires’.

He added that the Hackitt Review (conducted in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster) mentions several other options as alternatives and there was an emphasis on taking the views of residents into account.

“There are lots of things in the Hackitt Review (advising about fire safety and building regulations) that aren’t about sprinklers,” he said.

He added that other improvements could be prioritised such as preventing combustible material from being left in open areas, more frequent safety checks, and improved smoke alarm or “misting” systems should be considered.

Council officer Lee Payne, responding to Mr Brady’s concerns about water ingress, said false activations – whether the result of anti-social behaviour or otherwise – are “extremely rare”.

In the event of a fire, the amount of water deposited by sprinklers would be less, but equally effective, than if firefighters used hose reels to douse the flames, he said.

Wigan council’s seven high rise blocks at Scholes village contain 710 flats, including 24 leaseholder flats, housing approximately 776 tenants.

And the move toward sprinkler systems is not isolated to Wigan with several local authorities taking action post-Grenfell.

This particular scheme, the town hall has previously highlighted, is part of Greater Manchester wide proposals with the fire service saying the systems “dramatically improve occupants’ safety”.

Manchester city council recently said individual tenants could opt out of similar plans if they are staunchly opposed to having sprinklers installed.

Wigan council is yet to give any indication on its post-consultation approach but even that option may not be enough for the residents’ group because of the risk of leakage from flats that had opted in to the scheme.

A report detailing the feedback from the consultation will be brought back to the authority’s ruling cabinet early in 2019.

Council bosses have said ‘if the new system saves one life, it is worth the cost’ and that the consultation is an extensive one with tenants in mind.

Marie Bintley, assistant director for growth and housing, said: “We would like to thank all tenants who engaged with the consultation, took the time to visit the show flat and submit their views regarding the proposed sprinkler project.

“All of the responses will be collated in the form of a report, which will then go through our internal processes, as per all other consultations.

“The findings will ultimately be presented to cabinet, who will take into consideration all views before making their final decision.”

Mr Harris says he has “no faith whatsoever” in the consultation process, though.

This has led him and colleagues to have sought advice on their legal position.

He said: “We have to act on behalf of the tenants, they say they do not want the sprinklers so we don’t want them under any circumstances. We want further consultation – or an investigation – to clarify the fact that we do not need them.

“The consultation is a paper placebo. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve got the money, they know what they want to do, this is just a process they’re going through. Our fire safety record goes out the window.”