The Tory government is refusing calls to provide funding to help make residential tower blocks safer following the Grenfell Tower fire.
Croydon Council has committed to spending £10million of public money on retro-fitting sprinklers in the borough’s residential blocks, a decision announced in the week after the tragedy in Kensington in June.
The sprinklers will go into individual flats in Croydon’s residential blocks of 10 storeys or more. Work will start in October and finish next spring.
The move is putting into practice the recommendations of a 2013 coroner’s report following a previous tragic fire in a London tower block – a report which the sometime housing minister, Gavin Barwell, said he would look into, but failed to action.
Barwell’s former boss, communities secretary Sajid Javid, has been doing his utmost to ignore demands for government intervention to assist local authorities, such as Croydon. Amid mounting concerns about safety standards in tower blocks, Javid even lied to Parliament when claiming that he had received no approaches from councils for help in this respect – when his front bench colleague had letters from Croydon and other local authorities in his in-tray.
It is as if Javid has his fingers in his ears and his eyes closed, while he chants, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, I won’t hear you.”
Barwell’s successor as housing minister, Alok Sharma (who he?), eventually did reply to Croydon’s appeals, in a fine display of buck-passing, saying that it is up to councils to take action. Whatever happened to “All in this together”?
Since then, Alison Butler, the deputy leader of Croydon Council, has written to the government again, stating, “We believe these works are necessary to ensure the fire safety of our housing and therefore should receive financial support from government.”
Croydon’s position is supported by the Local Government Association, which has said that the government “must commit to meeting the full cost” of replacing cladding, installing new insulation, finding new homes for displaced tower block residents, and fitting sprinkler systems.
In Croydon, Butler has admitted that by spending £10million on sprinklers, the council will be unable to fund other projects. This includes repairs to council-owned housing stock and continuing to reduce the number of homeless in the borough.
Butler, and Croydon, are set to be disappointed, unless they can get the fire brigade on side.
Javid has written to local authorities saying, “Our expectation is that, as landlords, you will fund measures designed to make a building fire safe and you will draw on existing resources to do so.” This from a minister in a government which has slashed funding councils by almost half in the past five years.
Javid did note, however, that councils could seek funding when local fire services said that works are “essential to ensure the fire safety of the building”. This caveat might, just, be enough to include fitting sprinklers, but it may be phrased deliberately to rule out the many claims from other councils for replacing cladding from their towers.
The Tory government has been placing local authority finances in a vice for most of this decade, and not only in the reduction of grant funding. For while Javid expects councils to manage their estates as “landlords”, he meanwhile also dictates what they can charge in rents.
Spending on council homes comes from a strictly controlled housing revenue account, with income from rents helping to fund repairs. But in 2015, the government introduced a 1 per cent a year cut to council rents, for four years. This helps to reduce central government’s spending on housing benefit, but makes already shrinking council budgets even tighter.
Since 2014, Croydon Council has done some good work in reducing the number of homeless people in temporary accommodation in the borough. But that work may have to stop if Javid and his government refuse to help Croydon upgrade its residential tower blocks to a safety standard which the Tories, including former Croydon MP Gavin Barwell, tried to ignore before Grenfell.
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