Residents call out Newcastle Labour council’s fire safety lies

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YHN

Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) - the Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) that runs Newcastle council’s housing stock - have been caught lying by their residents. Following the Grenfell fire, YHN issued letters to tower block residents claiming that they have smoke detectors installed in the communal areas of their blocks and self-opening windows at the top of every stairwell. In many instances, residents have neither of these things. The letters also claimed that children have not been housed in tower blocks 'since the turn of the century'. This prompted young mothers and other angry residents to take action, demanding YHN retroactively fit sprinklers in all of their blocks and address other fire safety concerns, which include badly fitted fire doors, bin chutes and sufficient evacuation procedures for young families, disabled and elderly residents.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! North East supported the campaign as they took their concerns to the civic centre on 28 June, staging a protest outside and addressing the full council meeting to highlight their demands. The protest was joined by the Migration Asylum Justice forum who highlighted concerns about overcrowding and forced room sharing in asylum housing as well as private renters union ACORN who recently won a victory in getting combustible cladding removed from student flats in the city. The issue of fire safety cuts across the social and private housing sectors.

A lively open mic saw many residents tell of appalling breaches of fire safety in their tower blocks. One resident spoke about the use of gas canisters in his tower block. Rather than being hooked up to the gas mains, every tenant in the block is expected to administer their own gas from containers kept in a cupboard. YHN and the council have ignored his every complaint. Other residents spoke of broken fire doors, loose wiring and broken bin chutes. A speaker from the Migration and Asylum Justice Forum highlighted forced room sharing and overcrowding in Newcastle’s asylum housing as a clear risk to safety. After chants of ‘Justice for Grenfell! Decent homes for all!’ and ‘Sprinklers! Sprinklers! Get em in!’ the protest made its way into the council chamber.

In response to pressure from both the resident’s and local newspaper The Chronicle, Labour council leader Nick Forbes had prepared an emergency motion on fire safety. This was taken as the council’s first order of business. Forbes took the opportunity to present a video showing tests on some cladding used on Newcastle’s tower blocks. As the cladding used on YHN blocks is too dissimilar to the aluminium composite material used on Grenfell the government has refused to test it, so the council have run tests of their own. Boldly, Forbes declared that this made Newcastle ‘the first city in the country to pass’ such tests. As one of the housing campaigners addressing the council pointed out, this was an unofficial test on one small unidentified piece of cladding with no attention paid to how the cladding was fitted to the building or the insulation, both crucial factors in the Grenfell fire. Instead residents demanded to see the results for themselves and have a say in the investigation of fire safety in their homes.

The emergency motion commits the council only 'look at' the installation of sprinklers and other fire safety mechanisms 'where appropriate' but demands that funding for these things must come from central government. This is deflecting responsibility and delaying action. Combined, YHN and the council can clearly afford to fit sprinklers. The cost of retroactively fitting sprinklers in tower blocks varies, with estimates suggesting it would have cost £200,000 to fit such a system in Grenfell. The council’s capital investment fund for the 2017-18 financial year stands at £155m, with a fund of £71.2m set aside for ‘decent neighbourhoods’. In April this year, YHN reported that it would have a surplus £1.24m, alongside a ‘transformation grant’ of £2.8m for ‘ideas and improvements’ over the financial year. Despite this money being set aside for infrastructure development in housing, the council did not commit to using it to install sprinklers in all of YHN’s 38 high-rise tower blocks. Though some councillors demanded the actions be taken regardless of cost, the motion was passed unanimously.

The residents addressing the council took the opportunity to point out that many of the measures YHN claim to have taken to put them at ease since the Grenfell fire are nothing but fiction. Labour councilor Veronica Dunn, who sits as a YHN board member, was called to respond. She said, ‘I absolutely refute the allegations that YHN have lied to their tenants. This is simply not true.’ When a campaigner heckled ‘Are you calling tenants liars then?’ from the public gallery, Dunn responded by shouting ‘I’m speaking. Shut up.’

The attitude of Newcastle Labour council is clear. Whilst it is formally committed to ‘working with residents in YHN tower blocks’ over fire safety, when such residents raise their concerns the council’s only response is to accuse them of deceit. What is equally clear is that residents will not accept this. They will continue to campaign for an open, transparent inspection of the city’s fire safety and for sprinklers in every tower block. FRFI urges its readers to join them.

See a video of the protest here.

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