Rarely has an issue created such pressure, in parallel, on both local and central government. The need to check the safety of hundreds of tall blocks of social housing has now become the main priority of councils and the Department for Communities & Local Government.
The challenge facing individual authorities with ‘at risk’ buildings has thrown into sharp relief the challenge facing modern local government. It is increasingly evident that years of policy changes, outsourcing and financial constraint have weakened councils’ capacity to maintain their housing at the best possible standards.
Since last weekend, and in the full glare of national media coverage, Camden LBC has faced the challenge that sub-groups of affected residents understandably responded very differently to the challenge posed by fire brigade advice to evacuate a series of re-clad blocks, leaving over 4,000 people homeless. There were, variously, criticisms of the original decision to use cladding, of inaction since the Grenfell Tower fire, of the night-time evacuation, of the facilities made available to displaced households and, from some residents, of the need to leave at all.
There is no way a council could consistently respond to all these views. Indeed, even with other London boroughs working alongside Camden, there are constraints on how far residents can be housed temporarily in acceptable short-term accommodation. Other councils nearby might yet face the same challenge, with the risk that people are moved around from place to place as several authorities unpredictably need to find homes for people within a small geographical area. Like Kensington & Chelsea RBC, Camden is one authority out of 33 in London.
In other cities, the issue is similar: Birmingham City Council has promised to put sprinklers in over 200 high rise towers. On Tuesday, the prime minister confirmed that the first 95 examples of cladding, from 32 councils, had failed safety checks. Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, has said in Parliament that “some councils have moved very quickly in terms of sending in their samples and we want everybody else to do so as soon as possible.”
This latter remark can be read to include the implication that some authorities were not moving “very quickly”. This is an issue that needs to be probed further, not least to see how fast DCLG itself has moved to respond to the escalating challenge. If, as the PM has said, the first 95 examples of cladding from around the country have proved unsafe, this suggests that the overall regulation of such materials is ineffective: it cannot make sense for every council and every contractor to undertake their own fire-testing of UK building materials before taking a decision to use/approve them.
The DCLG, at least early on, appears to have been reactive rather than leading a national effort. Even now, there is no certainty as to who will pay for the improvements required, particularly against the backdrop of the deep reductions to many inner urban authorities’ budgets in recent years. There must be a risk that all other housing improvement (and possibly new building) will now be suspended as resources are diverted to high-rise safety. Such a diversion of money would mean fewer homes being available in years to come.
The Local Government Association has a role here. It needs to clearly state that the position in which councils find themselves results from decades of often-inconsistent public policy interventions by successive governments. Moreover, it should respond to the implication of a number of ministerial statements that appear to suggest local authorities are responsible for all housing, even if run by separate social providers. Accountability for housing and its maintenance are so fragmented between Whitehall, national regulatory bodies, local government, quangos, housing associations, construction companies, sub-contractors and suppliers that even a full public inquiry in unlikely to be able to deconstruct who, in the final, resort, should do what.
There are appropriate duties for each level of government to fulfil. Rule-setting and regulatory oversight should be the responsibility of Whitehall, while provision and maintenance will be undertaken by councils and/or other social landlords. Sub-national education and health providers are in a similar position to local government. Fire services have a vital advisory and compliance role. Surely there is no need to wait years for a full inquiry before DCLG and other departments start the process of ensuring people can rely on clear and transparent lines of accountability to secure safe homes, schools and hospitals. Councils, even if some have made mistakes, cannot be left responsible for all the consequences of decades of inconsistent national policy, nor indeed for fragmented governance. Some issues are national in character.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London