Council considering charging leaseholders for sprinklers

16 October 2018

WESTMINSTER CITY Council is proposing to charge leaseholders for retrofitting sprinklers in high rises, though the cost for council tenants’ flats would be covered by the council.

Get West London reported on the move by the council, which had already agreed to fit sprinklers to all housing blocks over 30m, with leaseholders affected by the move able to ‘have their chance to say’ their views on the proposal in its ‘early stages’. The council’s sprinkler task group had a preferred option to undertake sprinkler retrofitting in every flat, which would cost £22.5m, and would ‘assume’ costs for council tenants, with the remainder ‘passed to leaseholders’.

While ‘not yet clear’ what costs individual homeowners would have to pay, or ‘how many leaseholders it could affect’ – due to the quoted figure including properties ‘to which the council has no powers to enforce the sprinkler works in’ – council figures showed that leaseholders are 41% of the total property owners in its tall buildings, with some holding pre 1987 leases in which the council ‘holds no powers’ to retrofit sprinklers.

On this note, the task group recommended asking for a legal agreement ‘to ask for access to include them in the works’. Units with post 1987 leaseholder agreements can have sprinklers added by the council, and the leaseholders of these flats ‘are the homeowners it is proposing to bill’. An alternative in not charging that group would cost the council £8.4m, and it was ‘unclear’ how this would be funded.

The council will lobby the government for more funding and to ‘amend regulations to make retrofitting sprinklers easier for social landlords’, as Westminster Council ‘could face a risk of legal challenges on the cost and appropriateness of the works’. Should leaseholders refuse access for the work, its preferred approach ‘would either be to take them to court or exclude the flat from the programme’.

Adding sprinklers to the council’s sheltered housing was expected to cost around £7.8m, with work begun on Glastonbury House in Pimlico ‘where there are no leaseholders’. Noting that even other councils offering free retrofits ‘had not managed to get permission for all of them’, the group pointed out that Wandsworth council had already proposed passing on costs to leaseholders, ‘attracting protests and an upcoming tribunal’.

Melvyn Caplan, task group leader, stated that the planning of the rollout ‘had been complex’, with proposals ‘not easy to arrive at’, and added: ‘More than a year after the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the shock does not go away. It is the duty of all councils and councillors to do whatever they can to put measures in place that will protect their residents.’

Opposition leader Adam Hug asked Mr Caplan ‘what the likely cost to a leaseholder could be, and whether they might be able to defer payments’, and was told: ‘If you’re going to say “option A” you need to be absolutely clear what it’s going to cost leaseholders and then the mechanism by which you’re going to charge them.’

Mr Caplan did add that details were covered in ‘commercially-sensitive’ briefings for councillors, with one particular building’s retrofit cost – Polesworth House – estimated at around £1.4m, with the entire proposal to go through a public consultation before final approval.

Council considering charging leaseholders for sprinklers