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Dick Sorabji: Councils forced to take financial risks to fund post-Grenfell improvements

Dick Sorabji
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Since the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower, London boroughs have moved swiftly to assess the work needed to ensure tenants’ homes are safe.

They are now pressing ahead with that work, without yet knowing exactly how the bills will be paid.

The costs are large. London Councils has surveyed the 32 boroughs and from 21 respondents has identified £402m in remedial works. Immediately after the tragedy London boroughs spent £8m on inspections and staff time working across estates. Cladding will now be removed from 38 blocks across 12 boroughs. The average cost is £1.4m per block and the total for London is forecast at £53m. It is still not clear what types of alternative are safe to install.

The survey shows that retrofitting sprinkler systems would cost an estimated £262m. That is around £426,000 per block. The lack of clarity in fire regulations makes it harder to know what is required in each block. The design of individual buildings has a major impact on the role and requirement for sprinklers.

The London Fire Brigade chief has said of fitting sprinklers that “it can’t be optional”, yet the fire regulations are not so clear. For instance, sprinklers are compulsory for new buildings over 18 metres high, but not for existing tall buildings. When boroughs invest in sprinklers the regulations do not tell us whether they have done essential works, or they have opted to go the extra mile for their tenants.

Different buildings will need the right mix of emergency lighting, ventilation systems, electrical upgrades, duct cleansing, fire-stopping works to roofs and smoke extractors to name just some. It is even harder to show the right mix for a specific block is the essential result of the fire regulations.

To fund this work 20 London boroughs responding to the survey have £600m of housing revenue account reserves, £454m of major repairs reserves and an overall HRA borrowing cap of £1.1bn. It looks more than enough to fund the essential work – except this money has been committed once already.

One borough reported it would have to cancel planned works in order to pay for essential safety works. Another borough had committed its HRA reserves for new housing; it would need to delay new homes to fund safety works.

The government has promised to pay for any essential works that are not funded. But our London survey reflects the experience across the country: unclear fire regulations mean it is hard to say what is officially essential and what is necessary. Local government is stepping up to do the work needed. Unlike other parts of government, we have no choice but to take financial risks in order to do the right thing.

Dick Sorabji, corporate director for policy and public affairs, London Councils

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