Published: 11:07, 12 October 2021
| Updated: 13:28, 12 October 2021
As much as £4 million is to be spent re-cladding three high-rise residential blocks in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Canterbury city council leader Ben Fitter-Harding assures the costly scheme will not impact other services provided by the authority’s Housing Revenue Account budget - such as repairs and maintenance to homes it owns.
But he could not rule out whether rent at council properties will be hiked in the coming years as the authority vies to recoup the sum.
Investigations carried out in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire - which saw 72 people die after flames engulfed the 24-floor block of flats in London in 2017 - found the building’s external cladding had contributed to the inferno’s rapid spread, and prevented it from being contained.
Changes have been made to national fire safety standards in the wake of the tragedy, and a new Fire Safety Act 2021 is due to become law in 2022.
Herne Bay’s Elizabeth Court has the same cladding, but at 15.2m is below the 18m minimum height that will require it to be removed by law.
But councillors have voted to replace cladding on the building anyway, given the “relatively small difference in height”.
The fire safety project will also see the blocks reinsulated with an approved material, while other works such as the installation of sprinkler systems will be carried out to comply with the new rules.
It is estimated the overhaul will cost between £3 and £4 million - a huge chunk of the city council’s Housing Revenue Account capital budget, which is about £5.3m a year.
The HRA budget is generated through rent on council-owned properties and is ring-fenced for spending on its housing, such as replacing roofs, boilers, kitchens and bathrooms.
Cllr Fitter-Harding says the work “won’t impact on residents’ repairs and maintenance that would normally be part of the HRA’s budget”.
He says it is likely the city council will cover the cost of the work by borrowing from the public works loan board, as it did when it bought Canterbury’s Whitefriars shopping centre.
But he could not rule out the possibility that council tenants could face a hike in rent to balance out the massive spend.
He said: “Ultimately we want to make sure that our social stock is affordable.
“One of the best ways we can do that is by ensuring that those rents fall within housing benefit.
“But of course not all our tenants are in receipt of housing benefit.
“If we put up rents and they’re within housing benefit but you’re not on housing benefit, then that’s still a real increase. So there’s a lot to consider.”
He added that there are “other ways” of addressing the income imbalance.
“Potentially, if we can work with Homes England to develop and fund new housing, that will generate increased rental income to the HRA in the future,” he said.
But he described the move to reclad the blocks as “capital expenditure that needs to be made”.
“There’s no question whether to do it or not, we absolutely should do it,” he said.
“There will be a cost to financing that additional capital spend and that will need to be considered in future HRA budgets.
“The only thing I’m pretty sure that councillors will unanimously agree is that we don’t have a choice but to ensure the safety of our tenants, so in that sense making the funding available will be a bit of a no-brainer.”
But Labour councillor Chris Cornell has criticised the fact the city council is set to foot the bill.
“Four years on from Grenfell, I’m sure that most people will be surprised to hear that the council is only now replacing the cladding at Windsor House, and that there is no certainty on any funding from central government,” he said.
The city council says it is exploring external funding options, and will seek funding from the government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund to contribute to the cost.
Spokesman Rob Davies said: “The cost of the work will be spread over the financial years 2022-24.
“Delivery of other capital expenditure will be phased over the coming years. Spending on compliance to ensure our properties continue to be safe is our number one priority.
“As part of our 30-year investment programme, aligned to future asset management strategies, we will prioritise our capital and revenue expenditure accordingly.
“This may mean extending life versus condition of elements of our properties if it is appropriate to do so.”
The city council voted in favour of recladding all three buildings, at a Policy Committee meeting yesterday (Monday).
'Anything to make the buildings safer'
Tower block residents have welcomed the move to reclad the buildings.
There are currently 59 occupied flats in both Elizabeth Court and Windsor House, and 34 in Margaret Court.
Several residents have said that although they generally feel safe in the buildings, they welcome any improvements.
Margaret Court resident Tina Osborn said: “Anything that’s going to make the building safer, I agree with.
“I feel safe at the moment, but I feel sorry for the elderly people if there was a fire.
“I think it’s a good idea because a lot of old people live in this block. They can’t walk well, and it’s a safety thing.”
Angela Jacobsen, 60 , who lives near the top of the eight-floor block, said: “I would like to see the cladding replaced. After Grenfell, I’m very frightened about it all.”
Carl Malkin, who has lived mid-way up Windsor House since March 2020, says he already feels “very safe” in his flat.
“They’ve been out and checked all the fire doors last week, the fire alarms are tested every Tuesday, and we already have a sprinkler system,” he said.
“We’ve had a letter sent out about what the council is looking at doing and the money it would cost, and when the decision is being made.”
City council spokesman Rob Davies assures protocols are in place to help vulnerable tenants in the event of a fire.
He said: “Within our high-rise and sheltered accommodation we work with tenants who struggle to evacuate in the event of a fire.”
He added that “personal emergency evacuation plans” are carried out with every such resident, and these are shared with the fire service to ensure they are compliant with regulations.