Unsafe tower blocks are the result of decades of local authority cuts

It's ultimately the government and Parliament's responsibility to ensure housing is safe.

The furore over Wandsworth Council asking residents to pay for sprinklers in their homes must be put in context — councils don’t have the money or power to act following the axing of local government budgets.

Tower block residents in Wandsworth have been asked to pay up to £4,000 to fit sprinklers in their homes.

A great number of the homes in Wandsworth (just under half of the 6,000 flats in question) were sold by the local authority under Thatcher’s right-to-buy and later schemes. So, the local authority has somewhat sundered its relationship with these residents.

The relationship between renters and Wandsworth Council is, of course, entirely different. Part of what tenants get for their rent is periodic upgrades — new front doors, or windows. As the landlord, the Council has a responsibility of care towards tenants.

Wandsworth has asked both groups to pay to fit sprinklers. Asking homeowners to pay for an upgrade to their own property is arguably fair. Asking tenants to do pay is unfair — but it’s not at all unprecedented.

Local authorities have been forced into this situation due to cuts to local government budgets. They haven’t the money to fund mass renovation or upgrade programmes of their properties — especially fitting sprinkler systems that would cost tens of millions of pounds.

Stretched social care budgets, libraries closing, bins only being emptied every other week, and council owned land being sold off to make ends meet are symptoms of the same problem. There is no spare cash. And local authorities have strict limits on what they’re allowed to borrow.

But there is an imperative to get this job done. The public won’t wait for another Grenfell type disaster before action is taken on sprinklers.

It falls to the government, who could implement a nationwide sprinkler fitting programme as Jeremy Corbyn has suggested, to take action.

Once the Moore-Bick inquiry reports, there will be irresistible political pressure on the government to make sure such things are in place.

But why on earth should it take a judicial inquiry into a devastating event to get sprinklers in tower blocks to be accepted as an inarguably good thing – something as expected and required as decent sanitation, or electricity?

The issue of safety in rental homes has been raised in Parliament twice in recent years. Surprise, surprise, it’s been blocked on both occasions by the Tories

In 2015, Philip Davies MP (Conservative, Shipley) talked out a Labour tabled private members’ bill — Homes Fit for Human Habitation — which suggested putting more responsibility on landlords for the safety of their tenants. Mr Davies argued it was too onerous on landlords.

In 2016, the Tories again blocked Labour attempts at tightening regulation on landlords, the housing minister Brandon Lewis saying that Labour amendments to their Housing Bill would impose “unnecessary regulation” on landlords.

The government and Parliament do have a responsibility here for what happened at Grenfell. But it doesn’t stop with Westminster.

As a country, we are too fond of low council taxes, chronic under-funding of local authorities and public services, of flogging off public housing without topping up the affordable property stock.

Too comfortable with a “brutal system of rampant inequality, hollowed-out public services and disdain for the powerless and the poor.”

Residents of Wandsworth shouldn’t have to pay for something so closely associated with their right to safety. But it is time to recognise that there are deep and unavoidable challenges around the means needed to achieve it.

Simon Sapper is a trade unionist and writes at Makes You Think. Follow him on Twitter.

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5 Responses to “Unsafe tower blocks are the result of decades of local authority cuts”

  1. patrick newman

    No talk now from the government of one for one replacement let alone a two for one. Even the biggest combined authority is forbidden from any substantive policy position on social housing. They cannot pause or even just vary the application of RTB. This is a policy that is a major factor in driving the housing crisis, particularly in the private rented sector. RTB is a major scandal with much evidence of fraud and of course massive public subsidy. It is also slowly undermining communities as many ex- council houses are converted into HMO’s being temporary abodes for ‘nomadic’ tenants. HB costs are sky rocketing. In spite of the usual warm social welfare words from the PM and others this disgrace will continue until there is a change of government. So with virtually no scope given to councils in their housing the government are definitely responsible.

  2. Spencer Barnshaw

    Whilst unsafe Tower blocks are the legacy of decades of local authority cuts I don’t agree that this absolves local authorities of their responsibilities and especially for Wandsworth, where the council do have the money to pay for it.

    To quote the ex leader of the Wandsworth Labour group ‘The Tories have a morbid obsession with having the lowest council tax in London.’ This obsession leads them to consider the running of the council as a costing exercise, rather than being about the provision of services for local people.

    Wandsworth Council have benefitted from government grants which mean that despite setting the lowest council tax in London they have tens of millions in reserves. Yes, the excuse for not using these for the good of local people is that they are ring fenced, but that is not good enough and peoples lives are being put at risk by a council hiding behind bureaucracy.

    This is a disgrace and their lack of humanity is staggering – They want to spend £100,000 on an unnecessary bridge across the Thames, not a mile away from an existing crossing, close a local pub which is designated as an asset of community value and ride roughshod over local people. They have sufficient reserves to fund the fitting of sprinklers in Tower Blocks across the whole of London, let alone to ensure the safety of their own residents.

    Developers have been encouraged to maraud around the borough and they are keen to make deals which they know in reality provide no affordable housing for local people. Are they going to be allowed to get away with the lack of affordable housing at the Battersea Power Station development?

    They must not be let off the hook.

  3. KJP

    Over £70,000 was spent on each flat at Grenfell including the cladding which turned the fire into a disaster, so I am not sure a lack of money is necessarily the problem.

  4. Woo

    We cant argue with the reality that central government cuts to local authority budgets is having devastating effects – crucial to any analysis of the situation. We also need to consider that Wandsworth has a long record of publicising itself as one of the Tory “golden boroughs” following on the heels of Westminster. and yes it is one of those boroughs who have flogged off much of its land and has for the past 4-5 years seen some of the most intensive private flats building. At one time this year I counted 20 cranes on the horizon around Wandsworth town centre. Every space is squeezed full of flats – and every flat will bring in Poll/ Council Tax – so it should be very rich and getting richer. Will this considerable increase in council revenue be shared out to give better services? From its history, I very much doubt it. I’ve lived in Wandsworth for many years and used to be a member of the public consultative environmental group – what a waste of time and energy!
    Also the housing benefit bill should be decreasing as those on even the very lowest incomes are now forced to pay a proportion of Council Tax – which is in reality a Benefits cut, and all those people face immediate fines, bailiffs and added charges if they are unable to pay.

  5. Anthony Gillon

    Conservatives Do Not Want Social Housing…
    They talk on a full stomach…..Surely the last election was the time to get them out……We wait and see what more harm these sociopaths do before the vast majority of people wise up and sling them out……

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