Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry

Part of Humanitarian Situation in Mosul – in the House of Commons at 3:12 pm on 12th July 2017.

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Photo of Royston Smith Royston Smith Conservative, Southampton, Itchen 3:12 pm, 12th July 2017

I assure Mr Betts that if he wins the chairmanship of the Communities and Local Government Committee by one vote, it will have been mine, and he is welcome to it.

On a more serious note, I would like to declare an interest. As is set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am an unremunerated director of 3SFire Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hampshire fire and rescue authority and a local authority trading company created to help to fill the gap left by the shrinking Government grant for the Hampshire fire and rescue service. 3SFire returns all profits to the fire and rescue authority, and all the directors are unremunerated.

On 6 April 2010, a fire broke out on the ninth floor of Shirley Towers in Southampton. I attended as chairman of the Hampshire fire and rescue authority as crews battled the fire. That fire was brought under control and 100 people were rescued on the night, but at a great cost. Two firefighters who entered the tower block to rescue residents died after becoming entangled in falling electricity cables. They lost their lives while trying to save others. Those two firefighters, Alan Bannon and Jim Shears, demonstrated the very best of our emergency services, and they are still very much missed by everyone who knew them.

The fire in Shirley Towers happened in 2010. The inquest concluded in 2012, and the coroner issued his letter in April 2013. In that letter he recommended—some of this has been said, but I will repeat it, because I think it is important—

“Social housing providers should be encouraged to consider the retro-fitting of sprinklers in all existing high rise buildings in excess of 30 metres in height, particularly those identified by Fire and Rescue Services as having complex designs that make fire-fighting more hazardous and/or difficult.”

After the coroner made his recommendations, Southampton City Council committed to retrofit sprinklers in three high-rise tower blocks. However, as the weeks and months passed, there was no move to carry out the work. I asked the council about it over and over again, and was always given assurances that a report was about to be written or that funds were being made available, but nothing actually happened. Months and years passed, but then finally, in February 2015, Southampton City Council approved a cabinet report saying that it would commit £1 million of housing revenue account money to retrofit three blocks: Shirley Towers, where the fire happened; Sturminster House; and Albion Towers in my constituency.

Two and a half years after the council agreed that report and allocated the funds, those sprinklers are still not installed. Coincidentally—the Labour cabinet member with responsibility for housing in Southampton has assured me that it is a coincidence—the sprinklers that the city promised more than two years ago for some of the most vulnerable blocks will soon be fitted. That is, at least, what I have been told.

The Leader of the Opposition will be visiting Southampton on Saturday. I hope that while he is there, he will ask the leader of the Labour-controlled council, who was also the Labour candidate in the general election, why he has not acted on the coroner’s recommendations and carried out the retrofitting of sprinklers in the city’s high-rise flats. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will also explain to residents of those towers why he and his shadow Chancellor have sought to politicise the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, but have remained silent about Labour-controlled Southampton’s failure to act on the coroner’s recommendations, despite its promise to residents that it would do so. I am confident—or, more likely, hopeful—that seven years after the Shirley Towers fire, Southampton City Council will retrofit sprinklers in our tower blocks.

I recount these events not for political point scoring—[Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but that is what they have done from the day of the tragic event at Grenfell Tower. I have done so not to score political points in the way that Labour has sought to do, but for a really important reason. When the inquiry into the Grenfell tragedy has concluded and we know what happened, and how and why it happened, the recommendations flowing from that inquiry must be accepted. The Government must act on those recommendations and not allow the situation to drift for year after year in the way that has been allowed to happen in Southampton. In the years since Shirley Towers there have been dozens of fires in Southampton’s tower blocks, and if one of those had turned out like Grenfell or Shirley Towers, there would have been no excuse and nowhere for the local authority to hide.