Tower blocks

MQT on 2017-08-10
Session date: 
August 10, 2017
Question By: 
Shaun Bailey
GLA Conservatives
Asked Of: 
The Mayor


How will recent events impact on your approach to tower blocks?


Answer for Tower blocks

Answer for Tower blocks

Answered By: 
The Mayor

Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Thank you, Chair.  The awful and devastating fire at Grenfell Tower has, understandably, left many people, including those living in such blocks, asking questions about high-rise residential buildings.  I know you have been there for obvious reasons with your connection with the community and your family and friends who still live nearby.  Some of these questions will need to be explored by the public inquiry and the much-needed review of building regulations that I and others have been calling for.  I am pleased the Government has finally announced that there will be a review of the building regulations.


Councils, HAs and the Government’s initial focus has rightly been on identifying high-rise blocks with cladding similar to Grenfell Tower and sending samples for flammability testing.  My officers are part of the team co‑ordinating this work and I wrote to the Prime Minister to emphasise the need to ensure that the independent expert advisory panel appointed by the Government provides crystal-clear advice to housing providers on the steps they need to take to make buildings safe.


It is essential to make sure all high-rise blocks are made safe for their residents.  Where buildings cannot be made safe through improvements such as retrofitting sprinklers or where other improvements cannot be made without compromising a building’s safety, it could well be that some blocks may need to be demolished and replaced, but clearly this should be a last resort.  I am calling on the Government to fund any financial gap that arises from retrofit requirements.  I do not, I am afraid, have powers over building regulations, but I have asked my team to investigate what can be done through the planning system to improve fire safety and anything I can do through planning I will.


I want to be clear, though, that I am not per se against tall buildings or new tall buildings in London.  They can be designed and built to be safe.  They can make a positive contribution to a neighbourhood and we need them if we are to cope with the growing population, but they are not the only way to provide the housing and employment space we need.  Greater densities can be achieved through a range of building designs including courtyard blocks and mid-rise buildings.  Whether it is possible or appropriate will depend on the specifics of the site and my new London Plan will deal with some of these issues.


Shaun Bailey AM:  Thank you for your answer, Mayor.  I appreciate that.  Can you give us any idea of how your London Plan will look at it?  One of the issues was about access, kerb heights, road widths, those kinds of things, and we understand that modern planning should make the buildings safer to exit, etc., but is there anything you can do specifically with the London Plan?  Has your team looked at that?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Chair, Shaun, you have been there a number of times.  You will have heard from residents their concern, for example, about access to the tower block.  Some things raised with me just anecdotally are, for example, because of other buildings built around the tower block, did that deny the Fire Brigade’s fire engines access to the tower block?  That will be one of things we look at in relation to access to a tall building.


Other things we could also look into are in relation to whether we can have lifts inside a building that are fireproof, which is really important to look into.  We will look into all sorts of issues.  You will be aware that a number of years ago a requirement was put in place for all new buildings to have sprinklers, but we are trying to be as innovative as we can in relation to looking at what other cities around the world do to make sure our requirements are as tough as they can be.  That is on top of the building regulations review the Government is undertaking.  I am not simply relying upon the building regulations review.  I am asking if we can use planning to make sure our buildings are as safe as possible.  That includes, by the way, retrofits.  Can we look at improving planning around retrofits as well?


Shaun Bailey AM:  Thank you for that.  Do you agree that councils and HAs should publish regular fire safety assessments of their tower blocks and indeed any building that might be difficult to escape from?  I used to live in the block near Grenfell.  It was not a tower block, it was what we call a low-rise block, but I used to worry that getting out of there in a hurry would be an issue.


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  We should have as much transparency as possible.  Just so others are aware - I know you are - in addition to planning and building regulations, there are separate fire safety regulations and the LFB does a great job.  Maximum transparency is really important, if for no other reason than to give the public confidence and also for tenants to be aware how safe a building is.  Also, that puts - small P - pressure on a council and a HA to make sure they raise their game as well.  There is nothing better than pressure bottom up to people in positions of power and influence and so I welcome that.


Shaun Bailey AM:  Will you use your planning powers to send that signal and to create that pressure?  You can change things through your own powers to send that message.  Will you be doing that?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  We cannot force them to but we can make sure we explain to councils and HAs that our expectation is that there be maximum transparency and we will be doing that.


Shaun Bailey AM:  I just want to quickly move on to resilience.  The GLA is a big part of London’s resilience.  Are you conducting any audit to look into the GLA’s response to the disaster at Grenfell?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  One of the things I have done is ask the chair of the public inquiry for us to be a core participant in the public inquiry because I have a number of issues that I want to bring to his attention about how local authorities deal with such crises like the one we saw at Grenfell Tower.  This is a national disaster.


Shaun Bailey AM:  Yes, I agree.


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  No council in the country could have by itself responded to the national disaster.  There are issues about mutual aid and, if a council does not ask for mutual aid, whether steps can be taken.  I am not suggesting - and I am not being flippant - a coup where I take over the running of a council ‑‑


Shaun Bailey AM:  I understand.


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  ‑‑ but there must be better ways of doing things and one of things I will be looking into is how we can improve things in the future because I am afraid the bad news is that there is likely to be another tragedy, maybe not a fire incident but another incident in another part of London.  What I do not want to do is to be frustrated by not being able to get involved and help.


Shaun Bailey AM:  My specific request is for the GLA - your office - to look into anything that we, the GLA, could have done better because I accept your point that a disaster is imminent in such a big city.  There is always something that can happen and so the GLA needs to look at its own response.  Are we doing something specific about that?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  We are.  We are reviewing.  We always have a debrief and a review on how we responded to an incident, not just this one - it could be a terror incident; it could be another incident - if there are lessons to be learned.  We are looking into what lessons we can learn but, obviously, you will appreciate there are more lessons we may learn from the public inquiry as well.  Of course we are; so by the way is the LFB; so by the way is the MPS because they were involved in Grenfell Tower, as indeed we are, too.


Shaun Bailey AM:  Could we ask for those details or the conclusions of that report to be made public?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  I am very happy to.


Shaun Bailey AM:  The last thing I would say is: is it possible for the GLA, maybe with London Councils, to practice for a disaster?  One of the reasons the fire service responded so quickly was because they had the practice.  It is very different actually going through the process than just making the notes and assuming that it will happen on the day.  Is that at all possible?


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Just to reassure you, that does happen.  London Councils do lots of planning and preparation around this area.  They have a resilience team.  You will be aware that the Chief Executive of the City of London is the person who is involved in the work that the taskforce is doing.  That is because of the planning and preparation that takes place.


I am afraid it relies upon a council asking for help and there are several discussions about what happens when a council is slow off the ground in asking for help.  Three days is a long time.  For example, when there was that issue with Camden a few weeks later when Camden was worried about the safety of buildings, Camden asked for help straightaway.  That is an issue for London Councils.  We work closely with London Councils and I am happy to feed in any particular issues that you have.  That resilience and preparation does take place already.


Shaun Bailey AM:  Please do because Camden’s response was based on the learning from K&C’s response and if the Mayor of London’s office can suggest to councils, “You should take this as an opportunity to learn, to practice, to name the officers who will be responsible in the event of something of this nature and this horrific scale happening”.  Unless we actually go through the process beforehand, it will always be slower at that point of crisis.


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Chair, with your permission, I am very happy to get from London Councils a briefing note of actually what the resilience plans are and I will circulate that.  If there are additional points Assembly Members want to raise with London Councils, I am happy to facilitate that.


Andrew Boff AM:  Mr Mayor, will you write me or publish the academic evidence and research that supports the view that residential tower blocks are okay from the perspective of educational outcomes, health outcomes and crime outcomes?



Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Yes.  I am happy to discuss with Assembly Member Boff offline exactly what he wants and then write to him once I know exactly what he wants.


Andrew Boff AM:  There is growing evidence that tower blocks are not the place to bring up families.  However, in your period, you have overruled two local councils in terms of building residential tower blocks.  I am not saying this is down to you.  Your predecessor did exactly the same thing.  This is not a party point.  It is a view as to whether or not tower blocks are the kinds of places that people think is the best place to bring up families, bearing in mind the evidence that is around that says that they are precisely not the places to bring up families.  What I am asking from you, Mr Mayor, is to commission evidence, write to me possibly with the evidence that is being used to inform, for example, the London Plan about tower blocks, but also consider the possibility of commissioning research to show whether or not they are the kind of buildings Londoners actually want to live in.


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Chair, I am really glad that Assembly Member Boff said the last bit.  What I am happy to do is write to you with our thinking at the moment around tall buildings in relation to the draft London Plan, our thinking, and then we can have a discussion about how you think that may be failing.  Obviously, we are at the right stage to do it now because the draft London Plan will be published later on this year.  Now is the best time to have that conversation.  I will write to him with the thinking that is going behind our current policy around the draft London Plan and then we can have a discussion about it.


Andrew Boff AM:  That would be great.  Thank you.


Jennette Arnold OBE AM (Chair):  We could also ask Assembly Member Boff to share to that with other Members, of course ‑‑


Andrew Boff AM:  Absolutely.


Jennette Arnold OBE AM (Chair):  ‑‑ because other Members of the Housing Committee ‑‑


Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London):  Of course.


Jennette Arnold OBE AM (Chair):  ‑‑ and we are all on this issue.  Thank you for that.