Work '99% complete' on project to make South Tyneside high-rise blocks safer after Grenfell Tower disaster

A major project to install sprinklers in South Tyneside’s high-rise tower blocks has been praised by councillors as works draw to a close this month.

Durham Court, Hebburn
Durham Court, Hebburn

Council bosses agreed to start installing the life-saving devices in 2017 following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London.

The £1.4 million retrofitting project covered Durham Court in Hebburn and Wilkinson Court, Ellen Court and Monastery Court in Jarrow.

Almost 300 people are thought to live in the tower blocks – where cladding systems were ruled fireproof and compliant with building and planning regulations.

This week, councillors were told sprinkler works were ‘99% complete’ with final checks taking place at Monastery Court.

“It’s a bit of a journey that South Tyneside Council and South Tyneside Homes have undertaken,” said Gary Kirsop, group director of operations at South Tyneside Homes.

“It’s on the backdrop of something that has been very close to everyone’s hearts and what happened at Grenfell was a catalyst for this to start.

“If you take a high-rise block like Hebburn Court with 111 apartments and put them on the land, it is a large area.

“We call it our community in the sky.”

Mr Kirsop was speaking at a recent meeting of the borough council’s Housing Performance Panel (November 6) in a look back over the scheme.

This included public open days, beefing up inspections, evacuation plans, the creation of a ‘high-rise residents forum’ and responding to concerns from individual customers.

Mr Kirsop said “best practice” established throughout the project would be rolled out to future developments in the borough, including Whitburn Towers.

As South Tyneside was one of the first local authorities to retrofit sprinklers, he explained, other organisations were getting in touch looking to learn from the project.

English law requires only buildings constructed since 2007 and taller than 30 metres to have sprinklers fitted – though the law was not applied retroactively.

At the meeting at South Shields Town Hall, councillors heard the sprinkler systems were offered to all residents in South Tyneside’s four high-rise blocks, including leaseholders.

Coun Allan West, a former cabinet member for housing, said charges for similar works in private developments could leave tenants out of pocket.

“They’re in an absolute ‘catch 22’ where they can’t get around it or sell, that’s a real compliment to that [council] decision that was made quite early on.”

Coun Wilf Flynn added: “I can’t miss the opportunity as a member of Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue [Authority] to condemn the attacks on London firefighters.

“The London firefighters and their organisation didn’t put the flammable material on the Grenfell block.

“I know the inquiry is not finished but those responsible for putting that on, they should be in the dock.”

More than 70 people died following the devastating blaze at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.

The tragedy prompted councils across the country to examine safety measures at their own high-rise blocks.

The Building Research Establishment previously said samples from South Tyneside’s tower blocks were not similar to cladding used on Grenfell and did not need to be tested.

However, sprinkler systems were still introduced in tower blocks in the borough as an extra ‘reassurance’ measure for residents.