Cllr Richard Cornelius is the Leader of Barnet Council.
One of the measures of a society’s moral compass is its response to unimaginable human tragedy. On this the British people have a commendable record. More than £300 million was raised for the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami appeal in Britain, for example, and more than £100 million after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The response to the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire has been no different and more than £3 million has been raised already.
At the same time, many residents of Kensington and further afield have given their time to do everything from distributing aid to just providing a shoulder to cry on. Some may have been meeting neighbours they never knew they had for the first time. Others will no doubt have seen people they rarely thought about in a new light.
The scale of the tragedy has forced us all to rethink many things, and local authorities are no exception. For us, it is the effectiveness of current fire and building regulation, and whether it is enough to keep our residents safe. For, while the Mayor took Grenfell residents’ frustration on the chin as the face of London government, it is incumbent upon borough councils to ensure the immediate safety of their residents.
In Barnet, we provided assistance to the relief effort in Kensington through the usual ‘gold route’ of local government co-operation, but we also quickly set about inspecting the tower blocks in the borough which have been reclad. The initial results from the first three were reassuring, showing that while they made use of similar rain screen panels to those on Grenfell Tower, non-combustible mineral fibre was used for insulation and there were non-combustible fire stops at each floor level and around each window.
But we also have a responsibility to ensure any fire is extinguished well before it would even threaten the exterior of the building. Therefore we will be investing in upgrades to the fire safety systems in all 24 of our tower blocks. This will be done after consulting with the London Fire Brigade over what is the best way to achieve this. It may mean installing improved fire and smoke alarm systems; it may mean retro-fitting sprinkler systems. But we will do whatever it takes to ensure our residents’ safety.
As our population rapidly increases over the coming years, providing enough high quality housing will be one of the primary challenges any council has to face. The appalling tragedy at Grenfell has sharpened in our minds the burden of getting it right. It has also highlighted many of the real and perceived mistakes of the past in delivering affordable housing, whether it be the desirability of high-rise living in general or the recent fashion for more energy-efficient and visually appealing upgrades. The interim and final results of the inquiry called by the Prime Minister will no doubt add clarity here. But, whatever the result, residents can be sure Barnet Council will do whatever it takes to get it right in the future and ensure their immediate safety in the present.