Increased borrowing for fire safety suggested
COMMUNITIES SECRETARY Sajid Javid stated that UK councils ‘may be allowed’ increased freedom to borrow for fire safety work on high rises.
Inside Housing reported on the statement from Mr Javid during a session of the Communities and Local Government Committee, in which he added that councils may also be able to ‘switch funding from general funds’ to pay for the work. The government however ‘will not provide direct funding’, Mr Javid confirming that 31 local authorities have ‘asked for assistance’ in paying for fire safety measures, with the government in ‘detailed discussions’ with six of those.
The borrowing flexibilities would come through extra housing revenue account (HRA) borrowing, as well as requests from ‘one or two’ councils for a ‘one-off transfer to be made from their general funds into their HRA’. In July, Mr Javid stated in the House of Commons that no councils in England had asked him for fire safety cash, despite a number of councils having sent him letters.
However, it was then reported that Housing Minister Alok Sharma, ‘who was sitting next to Javid’ as he made his speech about the councils, ‘had actually responded to one of the councils just 24 hours earlier’. After that, Mr Javid wrote to ‘council and housing association chiefs across the country’, stating that they will have to ‘stump up the cash to fund fire safety work on tower blocks’, and should do ‘out of their existing funds’.
This comes despite the government having said councils with ‘concerns about funding essential fire safety measures’ should ‘request financial assistance’, with Mr Javid questioned by Helen Hayes, a member of the committee and Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, on how the government was responding to funding requests. She referred to a letter from Mr Sharm to Nottingham City Council in which he refused sprinkler funding assistance as they were ‘additional rather than essential’.
She said: ‘It would seem in that case it is in fact the government which is making a decision as to what it regards as essential rather than additional, and government is not accepting the local authority’s plea that those works are indeed essential.’ Mr Javid responded that he was ‘not familiar with that particular case’, while Mr Sharma – who attended the same meeting – ‘did not comment’.
Mr Javid stated: ‘In terms of what is essential work, I think they as the legal owners of the buildings they are responsible to keep those safe, and whatever ultimately they decide is essential. As long as they’ve genuinely thought about it and what is required then they should determine that, I shouldn’t determine that.
‘I don’t want to second guess any local authority. Of course they should be taking advice from their local fire and rescue service and potentially experts and then once they’ve taken account of their advice they should determine what’s essential.’
He also later admitted that paying for fire safety work could ‘impact councils’ other housing-related plans’, commenting that ‘it could in some cases have a knock-on impact on other plans local authorities have. Local authorities are free to raise that with us, but I cannot guarantee to a local authority that they don’t have to reprioritise work, I mean they will have to do that’.