Birmingham leaseholder Sarah Rennie adapted her flat to her life-long needs but building safety defects have left her feeling betrayed. Image credit: Supplied
Disabled tenants living in high-rise blocks at risk of fire will not be given evacuation plans after ministers rejected a key recommendation from the Grenfell Inquiry in order to “cut costs”.
Ministers unveiled the Fire Reform White Paper on Wednesday claiming it brought forward the “most comprehensive plans for fire reform in decades”. It included the “majority” of recommendations made following the first phase of the inquiry into the 2017 fire.
But it omitted a recommendation that called for disabled tenants to be given a personal emergency evacuation plan – known as a PEEP – to allow them to evacuate the building in the event of a fire rather than staying put.
Despite 83 per cent of respondents to a consultation on fire safety plans backing the need for PEEPs, ministers opted not to implement the recommendation over costs warning it is not “proportionate, practical or safe”. Instead the government said it has launched a new consultation on alternatives.
The move has angered building residents and campaigners.
“We are devastated by the government’s U-turn on evacuation plans for disabled people,” said Sarah Rennie, a member of Cladag, a fire safety campaign group for disabled tenants, from Birmingham. If you haven’t experienced being trapped or left to ‘stay put’ in a building when everyone around you is trotting down the stairwells to safety, it’s a very frightening experience.
“We are, however, heartened by the outrage from non-disabled people, industry experts and fire service professionals who have pledged to join our community’s fight for justice.”
Bereaved families and survivors from the Grenfell Tower disaster also called the snub, which comes just weeks before the five-year anniversary of the fire, an “outrage”.
Of the 72 people killed in the North Kensington blaze, 15 people had disabilities and had no individual plans to aid their escape so were forced to ‘stay put’ – a policy that focuses on isolating a fire in a single flat rather than evacuating everyone from the building.
A recommendation tabled following the first phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry in October 2019 called on ministers to axe the policy and instead give disabled residents individual plans to evacuate.
A Grenfell United spokesperson said: “For five years we’ve had to endure government’s games. We’ve been forced to hold them to account to create a legacy of meaningful change for our loved ones. To prevent another Grenfell.
“Today’s news has left us speechless. Outraged. 72 people died at Grenfell. 15 people had disabilities. They had no personal evacuation plans and no means of escape. Our loved ones did not stand a chance. government failed them in every way.
“The report from Phase 1 of the Grenfell Inquiry was published in 2019. It concluded that the government must drop its reliance on stay put and provide personal evacuation plans for disabled residents.
“They have decided that cutting costs is more important than the value of human life. We will not let this be brushed under the carpet.”
Battersea Labour MP Marsha De Cordova also criticised the plans, warning that the “government still hasn’t learnt anything” following the Grenfell disaster.
The white paper cites “operational challenges” to implementing PEEPs, citing very limited or no staffing in buildings and the need for extra staff could mean “disproportionately increased costs for residents”.
The new consultation proposes “Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing”, which would require people living in buildings to designate someone as responsible for fire safety in the building to assess the needs of the most vulnerable.
The white paper unveils changes to the Fire Safety Act 2021 which ministers said will make sure all blocks of flats are assessed for fire risks.
The proposals will also “improve the professionalism” of the fire and rescue service and explore the creation of a College of Fire and Rescue to boost standards.
Ministers also announced plans to improve accountability, too, by creating single elected individuals to act as operationally independent Chief Fire Officers.
Home secretary Priti Patel said: “The government’s priority is keeping the public safe and the reforms we’ve set out today will strengthen and support our hard-working fire and rescue services.
“The White Paper will be transformative in how firefighters are trained and will enable fire and rescue services to build on their strengths and leadership.
“The Grenfell tragedy must never happen again and we are continuing to drive forward progress on putting the Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommendations into law.”