LGC’s essential daily briefing.
Today’s big breakthrough: Cladding works to be fully funded by government, PM announces
Today’s top analysis: Ministry’s workforce grows while local government shrinks
Today’s divisive debate: Jane Scott: Resistance to Bucks unitary plan is not based in reality
“The fire at Grenfell Tower was an unimaginable tragedy for the community, and for our country. My government will do whatever it takes to help those affected, get justice and keep our people safe.”
Those were the words of Theresa May on 17 June last year – three days after the devastating fire broke out on the 24-storey tower in North Kensington, London.
The words caught the mood of a nation that had been shaken to its core. Work by councils and housing associations to make sure residents were safe in their homes got underway almost immediately.
But what seemed like a no-questions-asked offer from the prime minister that her government would pay for the works to make tower blocks safe, soon turned into an argument about what constituted “essential” fire safety work.
Did this mean the removal of cladding? If so, what kind? What about retrofitting sprinklers?
While ensuring peoples’ safety was of paramount importance to councils and housing associations with affected housing stock, a question about who would pay for all of this work lingered like smoke in the air.
LGC reported last August how some councils were struggling to pay for fire safety improvements to tower blocks. Even those who can cover the costs have warned the required work will divert cash away from much needed housing projects, including plans to build more homes (more on this later).
At the time Salford City Council’s deputy mayor John Merry (Lab) said: “We believe that the government is failing to live up to its responsibility to local government. Whilst we have had to take the measures we have done to protect local residents and to ensure their safety we believe that the government should be making a contribution towards the cost.”
Fast-forward another seven months and Ms May has finally buckled under the pressure.
During prime minister’s questions today Ms May said: “Councils and housing associations must remove dangerous cladding quickly, but paying for these works must not undermine their ability to do important maintenance and repair work.
“And I’ve worked closely with my right honourable friends the chancellor and the housing secretary and I can today confirm that the government will fully fund the removal and replacement of dangerous cladding by councils and housing associations estimated at £400m and the housing secretary will set out further details later this week.”
The money has been welcomed by the likes of the Local Government Association, London Councils, and Chartered Institute of Housing - it is, after all, better late than never.
This afternoon, further details of the offer were made public by the government. In a joint statement the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government said councils and housing associations “will be given access to the money to help with reasonable costs of removing and replacing unsafe cladding from buildings”.
It is worth noting that this does not appear to include funding the costs associated with retrofitting sprinklers – a sizeable cost to many councils. For example, LGC reported how Nottingham City Council wanted government help with the £8.5m cost of fitting sprinklers in the 13 residential tower blocks it owns. Croydon LBC was another wanting financial assistance for the £10m fire sprinkler programme in its borough.
So much for doing whatever it takes.
For those lucky enough to qualify for funding for removing “unsafe cladding” – what is the definition of that, by the way? – from tower blocks, it would appear there will still be plenty of hoops to jump through.
“The government will set out further details shortly about how councils and housing associations can apply for funding, including conditions attached to the grant,” the notes from the ministry and Treasury ominously warned.
Also, it is not clear if the government’s offer is limited to a total pot of £400m or whether it can be used to pay for works which have already taken place.
But why the sudden change of heart?
Chancellor Philip Hammond offered some insight when he said: “We have always been clear that unsafe cladding must be removed from tower blocks so that people are safe in their own homes.
“But we do not want vital safety work to put at risk our high priority house-building programmes. So we have decided to provide funding to ensure that housing associations and councils can carry out this vital work.”
If LGC is reading that statement correctly it would appear ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ has stumped up the cash over fears councils and housing associations, diverting funds away from their own housing projects, will build fewer homes that will go towards the government’s annual housebuilding targets.
This all comes the day before Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations and fire safety is due to be published.
But anyone expecting a radical overhaul of the system is likely to be left disappointed.
Inside Housing carried a report today that Dame Judith will recommend the introduction of a “new regulatory system for tower blocks” but will not endorse a ban on the use of combustible materials – something the Local Government Association wants. Inside Housing said this comes after sources had previously warned the review would result in “tweaks and small changes” rather than an overhaul of regulations.
The latest figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government show that over 65% (104 out of 158) of social housing buildings with unsafe cladding are currently going through the process of remediation.
Housing secretary James Brokenshire today said: “People must always feel safe in their own home.”
Yet the government’s dithering over the past 11 months on how remedial works will be funded, and a lack of action on strengthening building regulations, has done nothing to help with that.
By David Paine, acting news editor