Government response demanded over fire safety funding
NOTTINGHAM CITY Council has repeated its request for £8.4m from the government to retrofit sprinklers in 13 of its tower blocks.
In October, the council stated it would ‘forge ahead’ with a fire safety plan despite the government not providing financial support to install sprinklers and other fire safety measures. Of the 13 buildings, none have cladding similar to that on Grenfell Tower, but Nottingham City Homes – which manages the social housing on behalf of the council, reviewed fire safety measures alongside tenants and Nottinghamshire Fire and Rescue Service (NFRS).
These measures included replacing intercom systems, installing sprinklers and PA systems, and altering existing fire alarm systems alongside updating and improving existing procedures. In November however, the council criticised the government’s ‘mixed messages’ on funding, stating that following Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget, the only fire safety investment was £28m to help victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
His comments reported included 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’. The council’s response was that on the same day it received a letter from then Housing Minister Alok Sharma that stated ‘local authorities should draw on existing resources to implement these measures’, and that the government would only ‘consider the removal of financial constraints for local authorities where these stand in the way of essential work being done’.
He had also previously refused a funding request in September, stating at the time that fire safety measures were ‘additional rather than essential’, with costs to be undertaken by the authority ‘without any further financial assistance’, despite – as the council pointed out – London Fire Brigade commissioner Dany Cotton stating that sprinkler retrofitting ‘can’t be optional or a “nice to have”’.
Now, Notts TV has reported that the council has again asked for the funding, reiterating its request to new Housing Minister Dominic Raab, and stating that ‘if it won’t give out the money’ then the government ‘could help the council deal with having to borrow it to pay for the work’. Councillor Jane Urquhart, portfolio holder for planning, housing and heritage, has now written a letter to Mr Raab outlining the council’s concerns.
It stated that ‘it is disappointing that you have continued to deny requests for funding for fire safety works, despite public assurances to the contrary’, asking him to reconsider the decision, and adding that should the government remain ‘unwilling to provide direct funding’, it would ask that he raises the council’s housing revenue account (HRA) debt cap by £8.5m to ‘provide an annual subsidy to cover the interest’ on the additional £8.5m that it would need to borrow to complete the work.
She added: ‘The Government recognises the lifesaving benefits that sprinklers can provide, and has said money will not stand in in the way of vital safety work, but has so far turned down our requests for funding. We are now requesting that at the very least it adjusts our HRA debt cap so that, as CIPFA recognises, other important housing improvements and developments – which the Government also wants us to carry out – can still go ahead.
‘We plan to move ahead with our programme of works in early spring and so we are seeking a swift response from Government so we are clear on the funding arrangements.’
The council’s move was supported by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), which pointed out that under the current prudential code councils ‘can only take on borrowing which is “affordable, prudent and sustainable”’, and so in the case of HRAs, debt taken on to build new homes ‘is justified by extra rental income generated’. However, as sprinklers provide no extra income and produce maintenance costs, without funding ‘cutbacks to other programmes will be required to make the borrowing affordable’.