The Wokingham Paper

Anger after new Wokingham school block opens without sprinklers

Matthias Block at The Emmbrook School, Wokingham

A DECISION to build a new school facility without sprinklers has been blasted by Wokingham’s Liberal Democrat leader.

Last week, The Emmbrook School celebrated the opening of its new maths block – but it since emerged that there are no sprinklers installed, something descrived as ‘shameful’ and going against agreed council policy by Cllr Lindsay Ferris.

However, both Wokingham Borough Council and the school insist that the two-storey facility is safe.

Cllr Mark Ashwell, executive member children’s services, told The Wokingham Paper: “I can confirm, based on advice and recommendation from The Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, the block is safe and fit for purpose.

“This new block is a standalone building from the main school, is non-residential and includes fire protection measures such as alarms, four exits and compartmentalised stairs and corridors.”

The decision not to install sprinklers differs from what was agreed by the council in 2012. Back then, councillors from all parties teamed up to approve plans to install the fire safety measures into all of the borough’s new school builds.

And just last autumn, in the wake of the Grenfell tower block fire, London’s fire brigade chef Dany Cotton called on the measures to be “mandatory in all new school builds and major refurbishments”.

She said: “Sprinklers are the only fire safety system that detects a fire, suppresses a fire and raises the alarm. They save lives  and protect property and they are especially important where there are vulnerable residents who would find it difficult to escape, like those with mobility problems.”

Cllr Lindsay Ferris, the Liberal Democrat group leader for Wokingham, has written to the interim chief executive of Wokingham Borough Council, Manjeet Gill, to express his anger that the block had been built without sprinklers.

He told The Wokingham Paper: “A number of my colleagues attended the recent opening of the new maths block at Emmbrook School. Everyone there was pleased with the facility and I am sure it will be a real asset.

“I was dismayed and angered to dis-cover that this block has been provided without any sprinklers and it would appear this was due to an oversight by Wokingham Borough Council.

“This is shameful and I have already written to the Chief Executive indicating this dismay and have asked for an investigation. This unfortunately appears to be symptomatic of how Wokingham Borough is currently performing.”

Cllr Lindsay Ferris continued: “Your readers will have seen our concern at the lack of appropriate disabled facilities at the new Carnival Pool and associated car park. In the 21st Century this is not good enough.

“The provision of sprinklers in new public buildings especially schools, Hospitals and the like should be a legal requirement, if it is not then it should be.”

However, there is no suggestion that the building is unsafe, despite the calls for the sprinklers to be retrofitted.

Paul O’Neill, headteacher at The Emmbrook School, said that the new maths block was an asset for the school and that it met the required standards.

He told The Wokingham Paper: “We’re delighted with our new Maths block as it’s a fantastic facility for our students and teachers.

“Following the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, we asked the borough council for confirmation that the cladding for the new maths block met national regulations.

“Following discussions at the time, we are satisfied it does.

“A risk assessment was also carried out by the borough council before the building was constructed and we are content that it meets all fire regulations.”

Some of the concerns over the lack of sprinklers comes from the motion approved by council in 2012. Back then, councillors from all parties came together for the vote proposed by Conservative Cllr Pauline Helliar-Symons and seconded by Liberal Democrat Cllr Prue Bray.

The pair sought to set the standard for buildings erected by the borough council, with an aim to “drive down the risk of loss of life and damage through fire … especially in schools”.

The motion reads: “It is proposed that the Council will undertake a risk assessment of the need to install fire sprinklers in all new buildings it constructs, particularly schools and residential accommodation such as extra care homes, and will address the need for retro-fitting such fire safety provision in all major refurbishments. Further, the Council will encourage the installation of sprinklers particularly in new multi-occupancy housing.”

Speaking this week, Cllr Prue Bray said: “In 2012 the council agreed to put sprinklers in this sort of building. I seconded the motion which made that council policy and it’s still policy now. We need to urgently find out why the council didn’t follow its own policy. What else might it be ignoring?”

In its appeal for buildings to be built with sprinklers, The London Fire Brigade’s Commissioner Cotton pointed out: “Fires in schools cause major disruption to pupils, breakfast and after school clubs are cancelled and often, a costly repair bill could have been avoided.

“If they are incorporated from the design stage, sprinklers are around 1% of the total build cost.”

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