Government announces £30m Waking Watch Fund for fire alarm installations to ‘reduce reliance on patrols’

Designed to ‘remove’ or ‘reduce’ the need for interim safety measures at high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, the UK Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced a £30 million Waking Watch Relief Fund on 17 December.  

The fund, set to open in January, will “help end the scandal of excessive waking watch costs” via the installation of fire alarm systems in high-rise buildings, according to the Government.

‘Waking Watch’ patrols have been a long source of frustration and contention from leaseholders, residents and fire safety professionals, with an average monthly cost of £137 to a flat owner – rising to £256 in London. Introduced in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy over three years ago in high-rise buildings considered high-risk, thousands of residents and homeowners continue to pay for the 24-hour fire safety patrols.

The number of affected buildings has continued to rise, too. In London, 573 blocks now have the patrols, compared to 286 in March, as more buildings continue to be identified as ‘unsafe’.

The installation of fire alarms should enable significant cost savings, believes the Government.

In research undertaken between June to September 2020, the costs of employing a person to carry out Waking Watch duties 24 hours a day exceeds the average one-off cost of installing a fire alarm system in three to six months, depending on the hourly rate charged.

In addition, some buildings require more than one person to carry out Waking Watch duties, while this doesn’t take additional charges into account, such as radio/training costs or toilet hire.

The fund will open in January, but will also provide “immediate, emergency support to Wicker Riverside Apartments in Sheffield”, so that the recently evacuated families may return in time for Christmas. The building failed fire safety tests after an inspection by South Yorkshire Fire Service on 11 December.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “I’ve heard first-hand from leaseholders the misery that rip-off waking watch costs have been bringing to residents of high-rise buildings with cladding.

“I’m announcing a £30m Waking Watch Relief Fund to help relieve the financial pressure on those residents and to ensure they are safe. I’m confident that this will make a real difference to worried leaseholders up and down the country this Christmas.

“We have continued to prioritise the removal of unsafe ACM cladding throughout the pandemic and expect around 95% of remediation work will have been completed or be underway by the end of this year.”

National Fire Chiefs Council Chair, Roy Wilsher, added: “We welcome this new Waking Watch Relief Fund, which will help to reduce the financial burden for some leaseholders having to fund the costs of waking watches.

“It has been our firm and long held expectation that building owners should move to install common fire alarms as quickly as possible and this funding is a positive step.”

Do the measures go far enough?

Questions remain, however, whether the £30 million fund goes far enough.

Stephen Mackenzie, Independent Fire, Security and Resilience Expert, told IFSEC Global: “Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up and £30m is ‘breadcrumbs’ in relative terms. We have 457 high-rise blocks with ACM, as well as 2820 non-ACM registering for the Building Safety Fund.

“£30m is inadequate when we have varying reports of 500-700 blocks with Waking Watch in London alone, while reports of fire alarm systems costing anywhere between £50-500k.

“This is not ‘Waking Watch relief’ as it fails to address any historic cost now or in the future, when families are now facing prohibition notice, bankruptcy, and homelessness as we saw in Sheffield and other blocks.

“There is wider issue in general here, too. MHCLG recently projected 8,000 highrise buidings over 18m, plus 50,000 over 11m, all that require emergency EWS1 surveys. Three and half years post-Grenfell, and we are concerned that MHCLG continues to use ‘estimates’. We simply do not trust the figures on the numbers of blocks, families and residents impacted, given the significant variance in figures. For many, this is already too late, with residents reporting endemic mental health issues and bankruptcy, amongst other issues, as a result.

“We are advising residents, campaigner groups and MPs to reject funds as inadequate. The bill for post-Grenfell recovery is at best between £15-£30b, while worst-case estimates suggest as high as £100b.”

Speaking to the BBC, the Manchester and Liverpool Cladiators campaign group also commented: “After months of waiting for a full and fair solution, we hoped for more detail and more funding.

“Given there are up to 1,000 buildings in the country, where a Waking Watch is in place, we remain concerned that this new funding will help less than a third of the residents affected. Many will be left unable to benefit from this announcement. In effect, another safety lottery has been created.”

The £1billion Building Safety Fund deadline has also been extended by six months to “ensure more eligible buildings can remove unsafe cladding”.

Read the full government statement on the Waking Watch Relief Fund.