The Home Office is continuing to insist that creating plans for disabled people to evacuate high-rise blocks of flats is unsafe and too expensive, even though a London council has put scores of such plans into effect.
Fire minister Lord [Stephen] Greenhalgh has previously told peers the government had to question how much it was “reasonable to spend” on ensuring that disabled people have a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) because ministers must “seek to protect residents and taxpayers from excessive costs”.
But Lord Greenhalgh is the former leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, which has quietly been implementing PEEPs for its own disabled residents of high-rise blocks for the last two years.
Its neighbouring local authority, Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council, has faced years of anger and criticism over its failure to protect those who were living in Grenfell Tower, including its many disabled residents.
A fire in the council-owned high-rise block of flats led to 72 people losing their lives, including 15 of its 37 disabled residents, on the night of 14 June 2017.
National guidance in place at the time of the fire stated that it was “usually unrealistic” to expect landlords to put in place arrangements for disabled people to evacuate blocks of flats in an emergency.
In October 2019, the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommended that owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings should be legally required to prepare a PEEP for all residents who may find it difficult to “self-evacuate”.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has previously promised to implement all the recommendations of the first phase of the inquiry.
But the Home Office later rejected the inquiry’s PEEPs recommendation and instead is now consulting on its own “alternative package” of measures, which it calls Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing (EEIS).
Its EEIS proposals do not go as far as PEEPs and will only apply to the minority of buildings that have been assessed as being “at higher risk”.
The Home Office has said repeatedly that introducing PEEPs would be impractical, too expensive, and unsafe.
But Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham council told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that it has created 90 PEEPs since January 2020, including 73 last year.
It has been contacting residents in all blocks of six storeys or more via letters, phone calls and personal visits since January 2020, sending out more than 3,000 letters.
All residents are offered a person-centred fire risk assessment, and those who would need more help to evacuate if there was a fire are offered the opportunity to create a PEEP.
Among the issues addressed in its PEEP form are how long it would take the disabled person to escape from the building where they live, whether they would need any aids to evacuate, and whether there are people living in the building who could help them evacuate.
The council has confirmed to DNS that it will fund equipment that disabled residents might need to help them evacuate.
Cllr Frances Umeh, Hammersmith and Fulham’s cabinet member for housing and homelessness, said: “The government says that personal emergency evacuation plans are ‘too difficult’, ‘too expensive’, ‘not safe or practical’ and ‘cannot be done’.
“In Hammersmith and Fulham, we have already introduced dozens and are adding more all the time.
“We care about our residents and especially those with additional needs living in our taller properties.
“While we recognise the challenges, we fundamentally believe that disabled people are right to expect us to prioritise their safety.
“So, we’ve worked with the London Fire Brigade and disabled people to implement plans so that everyone can be evacuated in an emergency, no matter their situation.
“We invite any Hammersmith and Fulham tenant or leaseholder who needs help to evacuate and doesn’t already have a plan in place to contact us today.”
Sarah Rennie, co-founder of the disabled-led leaseholder action group Claddag, said: “The Home Office has provided a public, bold and painful rationale against PEEPs but has failed to share any evidence to support it.
“We find this level of irresponsibility quite staggering.
“In contrast to their false assumptions, we are seeing an increasing number of PEEPs being put in place, formally or informally – with landlords (private and social sector) choosing to act ethically despite the government’s current position.”
She added: “PEEPs are a practical, effective solution to save lives and funding any aids needed to facilitate a safe evacuation is a responsible and proportionate measure.
“We urge all local authorities to be doing this on a non-means tested basis, particularly given the absence of national leadership on the issue.”
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said the Home Office’s “outright rejection” of PEEPs was “completely unacceptable”.
She pointed out that the Home Office consulted on PEEPs in 2021 and more than 83 per cent of respondents supported the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendation.
She said: “It is essential that PEEPs are implemented, to protect the lives of disabled residents of residential blocks, and disabled people’s organisations and disabled people should respond to the current consultation on EEIS, making this point loud and clear.”
A Home Office spokesperson refused to say if the department now accepted that it would not be too expensive, unsafe or impractical to arrange PEEPs for disabled residents of high-rise blocks.
She also declined to explain how the Home Office continued to justify its position when its own fire minister’s former council had proved PEEPs were affordable, safe and practical.
But she said in a statement: “Our fire reforms will go further than ever before to protect vulnerable people as we are determined to improve the safety of residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.
“That is why we have launched a new public consultation seeking views on an alternative package of initiatives, building on the information garnered from the Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans consultation, that enhance the safety of those residents.”
Picture: Close-up of Grenfell Tower with banners in June 2018 (c) by Carcharoth is licensed under Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
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