Residents of fire risk tower block say council culture has to change

Elderly residents of a Bristol City Council tower block left at risk of being trapped in a fire have said there needs to be a ‘complete culture change’ among the council’s housing officers, after the damning report into how they have failed tens of thousands of tenants in the city.

The residents of Gilton House, a tower block in Brislington, went to City Hall to ask a series of questions to councillors on Tuesday evening, just hours after Bristol Live revealed the Government’s regulator had issued a damning judgement on serious failings in the way the council is managing its social housing stock.

The Regulator of Social Housing’s judgement applied to the council as a whole, and outlined how there was a backlog of thousands of defects and repair jobs, almost two thousand homes with a damp or mould problem that hadn’t been dealt with, and more than 20,000 homes where the council couldn’t say whether or not there were carbon monoxide alarms installed. But perhaps the most serious of all the serious failures outlined in the judgement was around fire safety.

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The RSH judgement described how there were more than 3,000 recommendations and actions from fire safety inspections at the council’s social housing that were still waiting to be done - and the council has ‘low confidence’ that it has kept up to date with all the records in relation to which homes and blocks of flats and tower blocks need new fire safety inspections.

The RSH judgement includes admissions from the council’s own housing department about its own failings. “Bristol has reported to us that it has around 3,000 fire remedial actions outstanding and has reported low confidence in its data management relating to fire safety,” the report said. “Bristol CC has, to date, only provided limited information on its mitigation of fire safety risks for the period while remedial actions and any outstanding works are completed.”

The RSH report covers all the council’s housing stock, including all the 62 tower blocks. The failures and poor management came as no surprise to the residents of Gilton House, an over-60s council tower block on the Bath Road in Brislington that has been shrouded in scaffolding for two years now thanks to a delayed and calamitously bodged refurbishment.

So worried were the residents about fire safety that they asked Avon Fire & Rescue Service to undertake a fire risk assessment, and send the report to the council. That disappeared into City Hall, along with last year’s similar report and, incredibly, the council initially refused to release the report to the residents.

It took a Freedom of Information request to get a redacted version. Eventually, the 2023 risk assessment revealed that there were more than 60 recommendations and points of action, but there was no evidence anything had happened about it.

Residents of Gilton House a tower block in Brislington, which has had scaffolding around it for two years, outside City Hall, after asking questions to councillors about their situation
Residents of Gilton House a tower block in Brislington, which has had scaffolding around it for two years, outside City Hall, after asking questions to councillors about their situation -Credit:Bristol Post

Nigel Varley, from the Gilton House Residents Association, told councillors the culture at City Hall needed to change.

He told them the RSH report showed their campaign, and their statement to the council that they have been failed - submitted before Tuesday morning’s bombshell Government report - was ‘fully justified’.

“Dealing with council housing support officers on important matters like fire safety and the removal of cladding has been like swimming in treacle,” Mr Varley said. “It’s taken ages and ages and ages to get nowhere, except finally, after we submitted these questions, things are beginning to move.

“If things are going to improve in Bristol, there has to be a cultural change among officers. They have to proactively provide tenants with information, they have to engage with us. We just talk and get nowhere, fobbed off all the time, and that has got to stop. If you really want to achieve your aims, the culture has to change,” he added.

“Our experience in dealing with the Council in the past two years leads us to believe that a lot of work needs to be done. Fire Risk Assessments (FRAs) are important documents. However, few tenants know about them, the link on the Council’s website is obscure and, for a long time, requests for FRAs were ignored,” Mr Varley said.

Residents of Gilton House in Brislington have been told work on their tower block will take a year longer than previously thought
Residents of Gilton House in Brislington have been told work on their tower block will take a year longer than previously thought -Credit:Bristol Live

“ The Council does not pro-actively inform tenants of the FRAs for their block and the problems they reveal, potentially placing us at risk. At our request, Avon Fire & Rescue Service conducted a fire safety inspection of Gilton House and sent a report to the Council. It has taken three months and a Freedom of Information request for us to get a response to our original submission. We should not have to wait so long, make repeated requests and use Freedom of Information for information on such an important matter of fire safety,” he added.

“If the Council is to achieve its commitment to inclusiveness and transparency, there has not only to be a policy change but also a cultural one,” he added.

Other residents of Gilton House demanded to know why the council had still not paid agreed compensation for leaving many of them in freezing flats for two winters in a row after removing the cladding and taking 18 months to replace it, while other residents of the same tower block asked about the complicated issue of mobility scooters in tower blocks - which are assessed as a fire risk because of their battery charging, but at the same time vital lifelines for disabled residents.

The man now in charge of Bristol’s council housing is Cllr Barry Parsons, the Green Party chair of the new housing committee. He said his committee would be drawing up a new policy around mobility scooters in tower blocks in the autumn, and that housing officers will be working with residents of each block to come up with solutions, that might vary depending on the block itself.

Cllr Parsons said the experience of Gilton House would be closely monitored as it continued - residents have been told the work to replace cladding and windows there won’t now finish until October.

“I can only extend the sympathy of everyone in this chamber for the experiences that you’ve had,” said Cllr Parsons. “I’m assured by officers that they have learned significant lessons from the experience at Gilton House, particularly around the planning and sequencing of these works and that this will have a positive impact on future programmes,” he added.

Bristol City Councillor Barry Parsons (Green, Easton)
Bristol City Councillor Barry Parsons (Green, Easton) -Credit:Paul Gillis

The chair of Bristol City Council, Cllr Tony Dyer, who took over after eight years of the council being run by former directly-elected Mayor Marvin Rees, apologised to Gilton House residents and all council tenants for the way the council had failed them as their landlord, for years.

“We apologise to all council tenants and those who live in our council owned homes,” he said. "All residents should expect us, as a landlord, to deliver a high standard of housing and comply with national requirements, and we share these expectations.

“We recognise that this news will likely cause concern for some residents. We do not wish for anyone to worry but recognise that better communication and further information is needed to ensure all residents are clear on what this judgement means and how we intend to fix the issues we face.

“Both our own internal assessment and that of the regulator sets out clearly where the gaps in our arrangements exist and provide a blueprint for improvement. We accept the findings of the regulator’s review and have committed to fix the issues we face in the shortest possible time.

“Whilst we accept the failings in our own services, we also acknowledge the national challenge councils face in catching up with changing regulation at a time when funding is scarce. Our position is not unique, and we join a number of other local authorities who have found their arrangements to be inadequate to meet the necessary national standards for social housing,” he added.