With the grim task of counting corpses still under way it is too early say much about the Grenfell Tower site. Those of us who pray can offer our prayers. Those of us with money can donate to help the survivors. Our grief is mixed with pride at the bravery of the emergency services and the long queues of those offering food and clothes. The surrounding community in north Kensington has come together in a desire to provide whatever practical help it can – a cause taken up by many further away. In the spirit of unity it is too early to vigorous debate about the political or architectural issues raised by the disaster. It is certainly too early to pronounce on the technical lessons until a thorough investigation has taken place.
Yet I would like to make one proposal. I hope it will not be controversial and that it would have cross party support. It would not cost any money. There should be a transparency requirement for all housing associations and local authorities to publish in their websites the Fire Risk Assessments for all the blocks that they own.
Last year there was a fire in Shepherds Court in my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham – mercifully nobody was killed but the flames in Shepherd’s Bush Green were an alarming site.
I requested the Fire Risk Assessment for the property – it is here. As a councillor I was entitled to have it and (probably) it could have been obtained by anyone via a Freedom of Information request. But would it not be better for all such documents to clearly and openly available on the websites of the relevant social housing landlord?
Transparency is a route to accountability. If it is easy for residents of a block to check if their life is regarded as being at significant risk in the event of a fire then it is likely they take the chance to discover this. If they then discover that various (often quite modest) measures are overdue to mitigate such a risk they might be expected to pursue the matter – with their housing officer, tenants association, local councillor, MP, housing association board members, etc.
I am not suggesting Fire Risk Assessments are perfect. As with all these box ticking exercises points can be missed. They can never be completely up to date. In the case of the Shepherds Court the back stair lights should have come on automatically in a fire and the fluorescent numbering of staircases should have been visible. I’m told that neither of these happened and residents were forced to use the lifts instead. The problem hadn’t been spotted in the Fire Risk Assessment the previous year.
But these documents are better than nothing. Farmers rely on weather forecasts, politicians look at opinion polls. It is what there is. They might be wrong but it is a starting point.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has already made a range of welcome transparency requirements – for instance on council finances. In the United States fire inspection reports are publicly available.
I would urge Nick Hurd, the new Fire Minister, to make it a legal obligation for councils and housing associations to make access to all their fire risk assessments available via their websites.