The government will not provide any funding to councils carrying out fire safety improvement works to tower blocks, communities secretary Sajid Javid has announced.
Instead local authorities will be given “flexibilities” to increase the borrowing cap of their housing revenue accounts or use money from their general funds to pay for the works.
Meanwhile, Mr Javid has admitted “consultation should’ve happened earlier” on building regulations following recommendations to review them after the fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, Southwark, in 2009, in which six people lost their lives.
Appearing before the communities and local government committee yesterday, Mr Javid was asked directly if any councils would receive grant funding to carry out fire improvement works.
Mr Javid said: “We are not talking grant funding. We are talking about giving local authorities the enough flexibilities so they can have the funding to carry out this essential work.”
When pressed further, he said: “We’re not planning grants.”
Mr Javid said the Department for Communities & Local Government was in “detailed discussions” with six of the 31 councils that have enquired about financial assistance.
LGC reported last week how councils had not yet received any financial help.
Mr Javid said: “In terms of the discussions about financial assistance we are having at the moment with six local authorities is around either… giving them more headroom to borrow in their HRA [housing revenue account] and one or two have made requests for a one-off transfer from their general fund into the HRA and we’re considering that as well.”
Mr Javid repeated previous statements that “any essential work” should be carried out and that concerns about a lack of “funding should not be holding any local authority back”.
He said it was up to councils, working with their local fire service, to determine what works are essential. When asked if the government would fund retrofitting sprinklers, Mr Javid said: “If the local authority believes it is essential to have sprinklers then we will not argue with them.”
Mr Javid said the Treasury is involved in discussions about providing councils with funding flexibilities, adding assistance will only be given for “essential” works.
Mr Javid admitted this could have a knock-on impact on other planned works.
“Essential safety work is the priority,” he said. “If it means local authorities have to reprioritise their spending, whether it’s from their HRA or their general resevres then that’s what they should be doing.
“It could have a knock-on impact on some priorities local authorities have. They are free to raise that with us but I cannot guarantee to a local authority they will have to reprioritise work. They will have to do that.”
Prime minister Theresa May was critical of Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s initial response to the Grenfell Tower fire and the borough’s head of paid service Nicholas Holgate and leader Nick Paget-Brown (Con) both resigned.
However, Mr Javid said it was “not realistic” to expect any council to have coped with the disaster.
“The response could have been better… but any borough would’ve been overwhelmed by a tragedy of this size and nature,” he said. “There is a need to look at what other structures could be put in place [to deal with any other emergency in the future].”
In October last year the former housing minister Gavin Barwell announced a review into Part B of the Building Regulations 2010 that cover fire safety in tall and wooden buildings.
However, the review was not launched before the fire at Grenfell Tower.
When asked if the review of building regulations should have happened sooner, Mr Javid said: “It was being updated. A version was ready. We we’re quite close to consultation.
“We can look back now and say a lot of decisions were made many years ago when this coroner’s report first came out. We can say that consultation should’ve happened earlier [but] it didn’t and given where we are today it’s sensible it’s taken into account as part of the broader look at building regulations.”
Last month, Mr Javid announced plans to publish a green paper on social housing.
He told committee members it was his “aim to get something out” in the first quarter of next year.