Cabinet member for housing rejects calls to resign over council’s ‘failure to manage safety’ of estate residents

Conservative councillors accuse Labour administration of leaving residents to live in tower blocks “at danger of structural collapse”, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Cheshire House and (inset) cabinet member for housing George Savva
Cheshire House and (inset) cabinet member for housing George Savva

Enfield Council’s cabinet member for housing has faced down calls to resign over the authority’s handling of building safety risks at an Edmonton estate.

Conservative opposition councillors called on Labour’s George Savva to quit over what they claimed was “poor management” of risk at Shires Estate in Edmonton, where two blocks – Cheshire House and Shropshire House – were recently found to be vulnerable to collapse in the event of a gas explosion.

But Cllr Savva and his Labour colleagues defended the council’s actions in responding to the safety issues at the estate and voted against a motion calling for his resignation.

Both 18-storey towers failed structural safety tests carried out in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, but the date for switching off the gas supply was initially extended from June this year to January next year so the buildings could be connected to the council-owned Energetik heat network, which is supplied by excess heat from the Edmonton incinerator.

However, in November, the gas supply to Cheshire House had to be cut off urgently after a leak was discovered – leaving residents using electric heaters and outdoor showers in sub-zero temperatures. The council now hopes to switch off the gas at Shropshire House as well, by the end of this month, after installing electric boilers.

On Wednesday (22nd), the council announced it was considering various options for the future of the towers – including moving residents out permanently and decommissioning the buildings – as the cost of repair works was estimated to be £53million.

At an extraordinary council meeting last night (Thursday), the Conservative group tabled a motion calling on Cllr Savva to resign and apologise for “not treating the gas replacement as an emergency and making the risks clear to residents”. The Tories claim a similar motion on Shropshire House intended for a meeting on 25th January was blocked because of a risk of the council being sued. The council claims in response that it “did not meet the requirements for an emergency motion”.

Speaking during Thursday’s meeting, shadow cabinet member for housing Lee Chamberlain accused the council of “appalling failures to properly manage the safety of residents living in Walbrook, Cheshire and Shropshire tower blocks”.

He said the council had chosen to leave residents in “structurally weak towers, with rusting gas pipes – towers which were at danger of structural collapse in the event of an explosion”. He also claimed the council had failed to inform residents of the risks and to install gas sensors quickly enough.

Cllr Chamberlain said recent safety measures had been taken after the council came under pressure from residents, the press and councillors. He added: “The cabinet member for housing should resign. The council is supposed to know the condition of its housing stock and plan accordingly. It is failing in this simple task.”

Council leader Nesil Caliskan hit back at the comments, saying the safety and wellbeing of tenants and leaseholders “is always our top priority” and accusing the Conservatives of political point-scoring. She claimed the Tories’ previous motion missed a deadline for the January meeting.

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Cllr Caliskan added that the council was already carrying out some of the actions proposed in the motion, including rehousing residents and evaluating the civic centre’s property portfolio. She also claimed the council had acted “immediately” to install a new heating system in the blocks.

The council leader accepted there were “lessons to be learned”. But she accused the Tories of repeatedly opposing the administration’s investment in housing and said the situation at Shires Estate was “the consequence of decades of [government] underinvestment”.

Tory group leader Alessandro Georgiou claimed his group’s previous motion had been “blocked” by the deputy mayor. He accused members of the administration of abrogating their moral and legal responsibilities “to the people impacted by the mess they created”.

Cllr Georgiou added: “We know that the council left the gas running in Cheshire House even though it knew this risked collapse of the building. We know this council left many residents without water and heating. We know that the gas safety sensors were woefully delayed. And we know they only bothered to do anything in the end because it was raised in the free press.”

Claiming the blocks were also affected by a range of issues including mushrooms growing on the walls, wallpaper peeling off ceilings because of damp, leaks into other properties and black mould, Cllr Georgiou called on Cllr Savva to resign and to “realise where he went wrong and say sorry to the residents”.

When Cllr Savva was called to speak, he claimed the motion was based on “gossip or rumours just for them [the Conservatives] to pretend they care”. He accused the opposition of not caring about the people of Edmonton, pointing to the closure of the local library under a previous Conservative administration.

Cllr Savva said the residents of the Shires “know how much we care”, and thanked council officers for their efforts in helping them. He said not a single life was lost as officers offered heaters, local accommodation and temporary showers to residents in Cheshire House.

He also called the Tories a “bunch of gossipers” and “community scaremongers” who were “dividing communities instead of uniting [them]”.

Following the debate, the Conservatives voted in favour of the motion, with Labour councillors voting against.

Deputy council leader Ergin Erbil also tabled a motion accusing the government of failing to provide enough investment in council housing, which he claimed had led to structural issues at blocks such as Cheshire House. Despite facing funding cuts, he said the council would invest £47m in building safety and £163m in major works projects over the next five years. His motion called for more investment from the government.

Cllr Erbil told the meeting: “Thirteen years of Conservative government cuts – vicious cuts – have meant that council housing across the country, including in the Shires Estate, has been of poor quality, because Conservative government cuts have hit our frontline services, including our repairs services. If it wasn’t for Conservative government cuts, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Conservative councillors rejected the claims. Andrew Thorp said: “What we saw on the Shires Estate before Christmas was a total disgrace, and it is the result of 13 years of mismanagement from this Labour administration opposite. They are happy to sit there and take credit when things go well but blame everyone else for their problems.”

Following a debate, Labour members voted in favour of Cllr Erbil’s motion, with the Tories voting against.

In a press release issued on Wednesday, the council said it would be launching “a series of engagement exercises over the coming weeks, where residents at Cheshire House and Shropshire House can speak to officers about their experiences and plans for the future”.

A spokesperson acknowledged the disruption caused by emergency works and said the council now needed “to ensure that residents get the decent, safe and future-proofed housing they deserve”.

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