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Saturday, 15 July 2017

Post Grenfell Housing Spending

At last full Council, the councillors voted to spend an extra ten million pounds on fire safety measures, and lost no time in issuing a self congratulatory press release on the subject. 

I don't disagree with the substance of this.  If that is the amount needed to make Brent's buildings safe than so be it, but there seems to be no appropriate scrutiny of what the Council is doing.  The decision was off the back of a supplementary report rather than the main agenda so I am not sure how much opportunity the councillors had to digest what they were being asked to do.

The amount authorised (£10 million) appears to be about five times the annual capital spend on fire safety since 2012.  If the Council suddenly has to increase its fire safety spending by 400%, councillors should be asking why such a backlog has built up.  If, as Brent claim, the existing buildings are all safe I don't see the urgency case for immediate investment.  The government is conducting a review of fire safety standards.  The Grenfell Inquiry will specifically address fire safety and may well lead to specific recommendations which cannot, at this moment, be predicted.  We can therefore expect the relevant standards to be changed fairly soon, and Brent may need to go back over the same ground again to make sure it is compliant. 

I suspect the real urgency here is the need to look as if something is being done rather than a proper assessment of need.  In other words the money is for a political gesture rather than a genuine concern over fire safety.

The second point to be made is that Council Housing funds this spending from what is called Housing Revenue Account (HRA) spending.  The money comes from tenants rents, rather than general Council spend.  This system was set up so that Council Housing could have a rational considered business plan.  A sudden increase in capital works will lead to either much higher rents, reduced repairs or reduced spending on new housing.  Given that the number of Council properties in Brent is dwindling, the HRA is likely to see lower revenues in future.  Being forced to take on more debt when income is going down will make the properties harder to manage in future.  There will probably be fewer repairs, and it will be harder to get affordable housing.  The Council may even have to return Right to Buy receipts.

I am not sure that most of the councillors actually understood this. 

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