Barry Sheerman MP slams 'disgraceful litany of major mistakes' over fire safety in council homes

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman has described fire safety failings affecting thousands of council properties in Kirklees as “a disgraceful litany of major mistakes”.

And he has sharply criticised a “no blame culture” adopted by Kirklees Council as it allows senior managers to avoid facing responsibility for errors.

The authority is facing a bill of almost £90m to make improvements to its housing stock following an independent review into safety compliance that highlighted weak and unreliable record-keeping around fire safety, asbestos management and water hygiene that put Kirklees tenants at risk.

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The three-month review was completed in April, just as thousands of properties were transferred back to council control after almost 20 years with Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing (KNH).

Barry Sheerman MP

KNH was scrapped and replaced by Homes & Neighbourhoods with staff transferred via TUPE to Kirklees Council. The mammoth repair bill will be paid for by money from the Housing Revenue Account, which is made up of tenants’ rents.

Mr Sheerman was made aware of the scale of the improvements – involving “significant risk” around asbestos safety and water hygiene with fire safety flagged as the “primary risk” facing the authority – by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

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He is among the senior figures, including political group leaders on the council, who have not seen the report by consultant Anthony Brown.

Mr Sheerman said: “This is a disgraceful litany of major mistakes around safety in housing. We are all living in the shadow of Grenfell. I would have thought that the absolute priority should have been to sort this. Someone must have got wise and got these consultants in.

“But because of this delay it’s going to cost a great deal more money than if it had been tackled systematically through good management.”

In his review Mr Brown said fire risk assessments were not being published for residents despite councils being told in August 2017 to do so pro-actively by the Information Commissioner in order to be open and transparent following the Grenfell blaze.

And he underlined “a number of inherent weaknesses” around building safety compliance “that expose Kirklees Council Homes & Neighbourhoods to potential breaches of regulatory standards and, ultimately, its legal and statutory obligations.”

Those weaknesses included the recording of data from fire risk assessments in which key information such as dates and signatures was missing.

The report described a decision by the board and leadership team to self-refer itself to the Regulator of Social Housing regarding fire safety as “a positive step” with staff acknowledging that “improvement is necessary”.

Mr Brown also supported the “no blame culture” within the department, which he said should be embraced and nurtured.

The consistent message from senior staff was: “It’s about sorting the issues, not looking for blame.”

Mr Sheerman said the “fashion” for out-sourcing was now over and that local government services should be provided by local government “because that is where the buck stops.”

He added: “It’s too easy for highly-paid senior managers in local authorities to say, ‘Not me, guv. It’s our private contractors.’ That’s really frustrating to my constituents [in Huddersfield] but it goes right through the whole of Kirklees. It’s a shameful record of under-performance. What is ‘no blame culture’? Do they ever get any comeuppance?”

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) made multiple attempts to gain access to the fire safety compliance review and eventually resorted to a Freedom of Information request.

The council did not provide the report, which was eventually leaked to the LDRS.

Among those who have not seen the review are senior councillors John Lawson, leader of the Lib Dems on Kirklees Council, and Andrew Cooper, who leads the Green group.

Coun Lawson confirmed: “I have not seen the fire safety report. I am making enquiries about how soon it will be made available to us.”

Coun Charles Greaves, leading member of the Holme Valley Independents, said his group welcomed the report and supported the 48 recommendations made within it.

He said: “Grenfell identified a lot of issues and it is vital that all housing providers learn the lessons and act on them as Kirklees has.”

Coun Greaves also confirmed he had not had sight of the review.