Some councils ‘set to receive’ fire safety funding
WHILE FOUR councils nationwide have had ‘good conversations’ with the government about funding, this could be granted ‘within weeks’.
The recent update given by 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 recently criticised the government for not responding to repeated requests for funding, having decided it would ‘forge ahead’ with a fire safety plan 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’.
In a letter, he told the council that ‘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’. Of the 36 inquiries for funding, nine were from councils that had buildings with cladding that failed the government’s fire safety tests, with another 10 asked to ‘supply extra information’.
Four of the councils have given the department ‘additional information’ it required, and Ms Finkelstein stated that ‘conversations are progressing’, noting that ‘it is not preventing essential work from happening. The secretary of state was absolutely clear that we would not see anybody in that position, where they are not able.
‘If they are doing essential work to make a building safe, we will give them the borrowing headroom or the flexibility they need, so they do have that confidence’. Now, Room 151 has reported that the four councils mentioned could be given funding flexibility ‘within weeks’, according to permanent secretary Melanie Dawes, who was interviewed at the same committee meeting.
She stated that ‘I hope in the next few weeks we will have some decisions made on a very complex set of issues which will give some assurance to committee and local government that we will be making progress’. Defending the time taken, she said ‘this is urgent but also quite complicated. Finding contractors to replace the whole of a façade is not a trivial question on how this is planned and delivered. We are not delaying. We hope to reach decisions quite soon on some authorities’.
However, she hinted that authorities would have to ‘make very strong arguments’ for sprinkler installations, Room 151 noted, quoting her as stating that ‘we are dealing primarily with a problem of faulty cladding that was put up where it is now clear it is not safe. That is our primary focus. In some circumstances, local authorities are very clear that sprinklers are part of that. We haven’t ruled that out but are having conversations with individual local authorities’.
Those making successful funding arguments would be granted ‘more borrowing headroom or access to other funds that normal restrictions wouldn’t allow them to use in terms of general funds’, Finkelstein said.