Sprinklers in 300 Scottish tower blocks to cost Government £100 million

Retro-fitting sprinkler systems to more than 300 Scottish tower blocks would leave the Scottish Government with a bill of almost £100 million, experts have claimed.

High rise flat block by Ocean Terminal. Picture: Greg Macvean
High rise flat block by Ocean Terminal. Picture: Greg Macvean

Pressure is mounting for the government to fund the installation of the potentially life-saving device to older tower blocks in Scotland after it emerged that more than 300 buildings housing thousands of residents are currently without sprinklers, or “fire suppression systems”.

Politicians have called for the upgrades to council tower blocks in the wake of the deadly Grenfell fire which killed at least 80 people, after it emerged that 319 high rises built before 2005 in Scotland do not have a sprinkler system.

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Experts from trade body the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA), said that retro-fitting sprinkler systems could cost an average of £300,000 per block – or more for larger high rises.

The news comes as a former Scottish fire chief said Grenfell tragedy could have been prevented by a sprinkler system – and urged the Scottish Government to take action.

Figures obtained yesterday by the BBC showed that 67 blocks in Glasgow, 59 in Aberdeen and 48 in Edinburgh and North Lanarkshire are without the devices, with a total of 319 across the country. Only one council or housing association – South Ayrshire Council – said it had retrofitted sprinkler systems to a high-rise in 2003 as part of a wider refurbishment project. Brian Sweeney, the former head of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service, said he believed a sprinkler system could have prevented the spread of the fire at Grenfell, which began in a faulty fridge and spread throughout the 24-storey building.

“The Scottish Government have led the way in requiring sprinklers since 2005 in both residential care homes and high rise blocks,” he said.

“What I want them to do now is go a little bit further and say they now want to work in partnership with the 32 local authorities in Scotland, they want to prioritise the installation of sprinklers and they want to… to make sure these 300 high rises are fitted with sprinklers in each flat over the next three to five years.

“I think that’s do-able. I think they could take lead in the UK in demonstrating exactly how important public safety is to them, and particularly how important the safety of those who are most vulnerable is to them.”

He added: “If you can put sprinklers in hotels, if you can put them in high rise premises and office premises and commercial premises, well let’s take a look at those council estates where people are most vulnerable – like Grenfell – and let’s make sure they get them as well.”

Keith MacGillivray, chief executive of BAFSA, said that sprinkler systems can be fitted “relatively easily” to older buildings, taking a couple of days per flat – often without having to rehouse residents.

He said: “It takes good communication with residents. It depends very much on the layout of the building and the water supply, but we have had members who have carried out retro-fits with the residents in situ.”

He pointed to two serious fires which have taken place in a block of flats in South Ayrshire since they were retro-fitted with sprinkler systems 14 years ago.

He said: “Residents of the affected flat were back in their home in 24 hours. The fire brigade basically went in to mop up the water. No other residents had to move out at all. The difference is enormous.”

A spokesman for South Ayrshire Council said: “We were carrying out internal modernisations to rewire the flats and to install new kitchens in 2003. We identified this as a good opportunity to install sprinkler systems, meaning no additional disruption to tenants.”

Scotland has previously been praised for leading the way in fire safety in terms of sprinkler systems. Regulations north of the Border have since 2005 required any building more than 18 metres tall to have a system fitted – while even lower buildings, if they have an open plan design, are also required to be fitted with sprinklers. In England, it is only buildings higher than 30m which are required to have sprinkler systems.

Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley said the Scottish Government should fund improvements needed.

He said: “SNP communities secretary Angela Constance should be meeting local authorities as a matter of urgency over this.

“Given the level of cuts to local authorities in recent years, the SNP government must accept that it also has a responsibility not just to agree any improvements to safety in high-rise flats, but also to fund such programmes.”

Scottish Conservative housing spokesman Graham Simpson said the Scottish Government should ensure every tower block is fitted with sprinkler systems. He said: “That’s what the people living there would expect, and it’s something which has to happen immediately.”

Last month, Croydon Council became the first to commit to retro-fitting sprinkler systems to 25 council blocks of over ten storeys at a cost of £10 million.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the government would hold a review of evidence on fire suppression systems as part of a range of measure on fire safety to be considered and said it plans a session on fire safety with local authorities, the STUC and the Fire Brigades Union.

She said: “While we continue to be confident that we have stringent building and fire safety regulations, following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower it is imperative that we undertake a thorough review of our regulations.”

The effectiveness of sprinklers was confirmed in an independent report published shortly before the Grenfell tragedy. The study, commissioned by the National Fire Chiefs Council and the National Sprinkler Network, found that they were 99 per cent effective at controlling or extinguishing fires.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat Baroness Walmsley yesterday told the House of Lords: “Last year, the London Fire Brigade did 184 school fire safety consultations, but only 2 per cent of those schools were fitted with [sprinklers].

“This indicates that the current guidance is not being followed.”