Sprinklers save lives. So why, after Grenfell, isn’t the government doing more? | John Healey

John Healey
‘The Grenfell Tower fire was a national tragedy, exposing a national breakdown in our system of fire-safety checks and controls.’ Photograph: Natalie Oxford/PA

Almost five months ago, Theresa May promised to do what it takes to make sure a fire like that at Grenfell Tower never happens again. But instead her government has failed to act. Despite claiming in June that she had “fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home”, only 26 of the more than 200 families from Grenfell Tower have been given permanent housing.

And thousands more families living in 4,000 high-rise blocks across the country still don’t know whether their homes are safe. In some cases, proper safety tests have not been carried out. In others, vital work has been identified but hasn’t started because local councils lack the funds, having had their budgets slashed by 40% by the Conservatives since 2010.

The government has failed to take action and responsibility. It tasked Kensington and Chelsea council with supporting Grenfell residents even as it condemned the council’s response to the fire as inadequate. And residents in social housing blocks across the country, feeling fearful in their homes, were told that ensuring the safety of tower blocks was the responsibility of landlords and councils, not ministers.

The Grenfell Tower fire was a national tragedy, exposing a national breakdown in our system of fire-safety checks and controls. It demands a national response from government to make sure it can never happen again. That’s why Labour is urging the chancellor to set aside £1bn in the budget to install sprinkler systems in all council and housing association tower blocks.

This equates to just 1% of annual public sector capital spending. And it’s equivalent to only a tenth of the extra money for the help-to-buy scheme that the prime minister announced at the Conservative party conference to grab headlines rather than grapple with the housing crisis.

We know sprinklers save lives. In 99% of cases, sprinkler systems extinguish or contain fires. That’s why Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London fire brigade, whose firefighters responded so bravely to the Grenfell fire, has said sprinklers must be installed in tower blocks.

This is what the 2013 coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, London, demanded. Yet successive Conservative ministers have failed to act on that report, and are now failing to act in the wake of Grenfell. Scandalously, still only 2% of tower blocks have sprinkler systems. And when councils have asked the government for the funding needed to install them, they have been turned down or ignored by ministers.

We don’t need another report to tell us that we need sprinklers in high-rise blocks. In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, May promised: “If any further action is required, it will be taken.” Five months on, action is long overdue as thousands of people across the country continue to live in fear.

The government must learn the lessons from Grenfell. I urge the chancellor to use the budget to set aside the funds to make homes safe, ensuring that the avoidable tragedy that took place on 14 June 2017 is never repeated.

• John Healey is shadow secretary of state for housing and planning