Last spring, On London documented the resistance of residents of a number of council-owned housing blocks in Wandsworth to the borough’s wish to install sprinklers in every home in each one 10 or more storeys high as an urgent post-Grenfell safety measure and to charge their many leaseholders – beneficiaries of historically vigorous council enthusiasm for right-to-buy – roughly £3,000-£4,000 towards meeting the costs of the work.
At that stage, Wandsworth had asked a government tribunal for an adjudication in its favour. Unhappy leaseholders had made representations against. The bad news for Wandsworth it is that just before Christmas the tribunal decided the council was in the wrong and has, to use the formal term, struck out its application. But is the story really over and what are its wider lessons?
In its 15-page document setting out its decision, the tribunal stresses that “it is not making a decision about whether or not fitting sprinklers into each room of each flat is the correct way to proceed”. Rather, the “focus of this case is whether the leases between the council and the individual lessees allows Wandsworth to charge the leaseholders for their proposals”.
The tribunal took the view that the council’s “decision to proceed without any consideration of the properties on a block by block by block basis is made in error”, specifically that it was “seeking to exercise a discretion to do something that is not specified in the lease”. It concluded that without considering “on a block by block basis” whether the work to instal sprinklers in all the blocks was necessary, Wandsworth was “not entitled to seek a blanket determination that service charges would be payable for that cost”.
As a representative of the five residents’ groups that sought to block Wandsworth put it in an email conveying the news, “although this is a clear victory for us and the way residents have been treated it might not necessarily be the end of the matter.” He points out that the way remains open for the council to make separate applications to charge leaseholders in individual blocks for a portion of future retrofitting costs. It also has the right to appeal against the tribunal’s decision by 17 January.
The decision clearly has relevance for local authorities across the country in terms of the scope of their powers to levy service charges on leaseholders. Perhaps it also underlines that instant responses to the awfulness of Grenfell haven’t always proved to be the wisest. Wandsworth began moves to retrofit with sprinklers the roughly 6,400 homes in the 99 housing blocks it had in mind in late June 2017, just ten days after the Grenfell fire took place. It was supported by its local fire chief. Yet the relative value of sprinklers continues to be contested and going ahead with the policy without first reviewing the fire safety situation of each individual block and consulting residents first now looks more rash than responsible.
Leaseholders, who make up about 2,350 of the 6,400 homes concerned, a majority of whom are residents, have been leading the case against Wandsworth’s approach. That’s no surprise: they, after all, are the ones who were lined up to help pay the bill, whereas council tenants would have had the work done without being charged for it directly. But critics of the council claim that some tenants too have been unhappy with the council deciding to impose disruptive and intrusive installation work on them without asking them how they felt about it or even if it is really necessary. What happened at Grenfell demands urgent action. But it needs to be the right kind of action and executed in the right way.
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