Councils ‘still waiting’ on fire safety funding

Councils ‘still waiting’ on fire safety funding

DESPITE RECENT claims that councils would receive financial help for essential fire safety works ‘in the next few weeks’, there are as yet ‘no deals’ agreed.

In January, it was revealed that only three council owned high rises were the only such buildings nationwide to be reclad, out of 160 that failed the government’s fire safety tests. The government’s pace of response was attacked by Labour as ‘simply not good enough’, with the details having emerged amid the issues regarding councils requesting government funding assistance, and the government was accused in parliament of breaking its pledge to help councils with funding.

Four were recently reported to be set to receive funding, after a recent update from Tamara Finkelstein, the director general of building safety for the ministry of housing, communities and local government, saw her tell a parliamentary select committee that the department ‘has received inquiries from 36 councils about financial help’, but that ‘so far none have been approved’.

Following Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget last year, the only fire safety investment was £28m to help victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, though he stated that ‘if any local authority cannot access funding to pay for essential fire safety work, they should contact us immediately’, and that ‘we will not let financial constraints get in the way of essential safety work’.

Nottingham City Council criticised the government for not responding to repeated funding requests, having decided it would ‘forge ahead’ regardless. In November it criticised the government’s ‘mixed messages’ on funding, having had an earlier request refused by then Housing Minister Alok Sharma. Mr Sharma’s view was that fire safety measures were ‘additional rather than essential’, and that costs should be undertaken by the local authority ‘without any further financial assistance’.

Most recently, Birmingham City Council said it is ‘still waiting’ for a reply to its letter to the government asking for fire safety funding for sprinkler retrofitting. Now, Inside Housing has reported that ‘no deals to give councils financial flexibilities to pay for essential fire safety work have been agreed’, despite Ms Finkelstein’s comments ‘more than seven weeks ago’ that they were ‘imminent’.

In turn, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) ‘failed to answer’ a written question from shadow housing secretary John Healey on ‘how many councils had requested and received fire safety funding help’, which was submitted on 27 February. He was told by Housing Minister Dominic Raab in parliament that MHCLG ‘has indicated that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period’.

Mr Healey stated that the lack of response was ‘shameful’, while a spokesperson for the MHCLG commented that ‘we have made it clear that we will consider financial flexibilities for councils that need to undertake essential fire safety work to make a building safe’. It would not explain the reason for the delay, but a government source told Inside Housing that the department was ‘awaiting more information’, despite Ms Finklestein stating that talks were ‘towards the end of that process’.

The government would also not confirm the names of the four councils, but Inside Housing believes one is Portsmouth City Council, and should agreements be reached, councils are to be ‘given either extra Housing Revenue Account borrowing flexibility or an opportunity to make a one-off transfer from their general funds to pay for high-rise fire safety works’.