I have found it hard to comment on the Grenfell Tower disaster. Words cannot convey the horror of it, and everything I tried to write felt hopelessly inadequate. Others succeeded where I failed, and I would recommend thoughtful pieces penned by Chris Creegan, Municipal Dreams, and Giles Peaker amongst others.
I was so angry at the ineptitude of the council’s and the government’s response and so in awe of the magnificent response of the emergency services and the local community. They are in total contrast to each other.
pic: Metropolitan Police
I was also stunned that within hours some people started to use the fire to attack social housing. One tweeter said: ‘The nature + quality of social housing is probably the single biggest post-war British policy failure’ and there were plenty of a similar ilk. Others reverted to well-worn dystopian myths and Clockwork Orange imagery about council estates. Yesterday, first Theresa May and then Sajid Javid said we should pay more attention to social housing, but I found that menacing rather than reassuring. The dreaded Iain Duncan Smith called for tower blocks to be flattened and replaced by nice houses with gardens, presumably without the council tenant tag.
Grenfell does not tell me that we should have less social housing, or that private housing is somehow superior, or that tower blocks are bad – on the contrary we need more social housing of all types and, whatever its height, it should be of a highest possible standard. And it should be better resourced and better managed.
The best memorial to all those who have lost their lives in Grenfell is that we as a nation choose collectively to invest in safe and secure public housing for all who need it.
Municipal Dreams blog
I do not know if cuts in spending on fire services and deregulation of some aspects of fire safety contributed to the Grenfell fire. But after a long period of decline, fire deaths have been rising again, and fire chiefs have put this down to cuts of up to 50% in some places. The fire statistics do not help us understand if there is a specific problem in social housing, but it seems highly unlikely. In the vast majority of cases, fires in towers are contained and the building does what it is supposed to do. The social factor that seems to have the biggest correlation with death by fire is age, with people over 80 particularly vulnerable. They live in all tenures. In the 1980s at Shelter I spent a lot of time working with the Campaign for Bedsit Rights trying to get standards in multi-occupied property raised after many fire deaths in such properties, including the appalling fire in a rabbit warren terrace of bedsits in Clanricarde Gardens in 1981, where 8 people died a mere mile from Grenfell Tower.
Will the Prime Minister today guarantee that local authorities will be fully funded for an urgent review of tower block safety and all remedial action that is necessary, including the installation of sprinklers when appropriate, so that they can proceed in a matter of days with that comfort? Does she agree that regulation is a necessary element of a safe society, not a burden, and will she legislate swiftly when necessary to ensure that all high-rise residents are safe?
Karen Buck MP, House of Commons, 22 June.
Heightened concern about fire safety in towers can be traced back to the previously worst tower block fire at Lakanal House in Southwark in 2009, when 6 people died. Exterior cladding panels were identified as having helped the fire to spread fast both laterally and vertically, as with Grenfell. Yesterday Mrs May said “All recommendations from the coroner on the Lakanal House inquiry have been acted on” but this was strongly disputed by the local MP, Harriet Harman, and others. It is clear that the requested review of building regulations has not been concluded and published.
Even more damning of government is the lack of action in response to a series of letters from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fire safety, chaired by the Conservative Sir David Amess, which included calls for sprinklers to be fitted in all towers. And the Tory obsession with deregulation was highlighted by the Guardian yesterday, reporting that the government-connected Red Tape initiative has been discussing how to reduce ‘the burden’ of fire regulations post-Brexit, including for external cladding.
I have spent much of my working life defending both social housing as a housing model and social tenants as an unfairly derided class of people. Rather than the stereotype of chain-smoking can-carrying foul-mouthed council tenants, after the Grenfell Tower fire a succession of residents described the events in the tower, the failings of the council and the TMO, and the strength of their community with extraordinary eloquence. As their back-stories emerged, we learned of the remarkable range of people living in the tower, people of all faiths and none, often with amazing and sometimes horrific histories. Their common point was that by some chance they had ended up in the cosmopolitan community of north Kensington (David Cameron’s Notting Hill is a few streets but a world away). In the aftermath of the fire we learned of the extraordinary compassion and dedication of ordinary people willing to help each other.
The surviving residents and those evacuated from surrounding homes were initially treated with callous disregard until the community stepped up and stepped in as the death toll rose. Some of the stories of neglect and indifference by the council tell me that rather more than the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea should resign. It was the council’s job to organise the non-uniform response and they failed miserably and absolutely. They evidently turned down offers of assistance from neighbouring boroughs and the GLA, arrogantly assuming they could do the minimum required. They appeared not to understand the extent of their duty to all residents in an emergency under the homelessness legislation. Above all, they did not seem to care much. They were overwhelmed and it took days before more competent people were brought in. I am not alone in thinking that a civil emergency on this scale required military expertise: I am sure the army could have sorted communications and logistics in hours especially with so much community help. Traumatised victims could and should have been helped much faster with a range of services to meet both their physical and emotional needs.
Responsibility for the fire will continue to be debated, not least in the House of Commons as it was yesterday. As the Guardian’s John Crace pointed out, Theresa May has had legal advice, but has been found to be ‘morally wanting’, and during questions ‘the sound of backs being covered was all too audible’. Fingers are being pointed, and I suspect responsibility will be located at several stages in the very long chain from building regulations to contractor. The specifics may have to await the criminal investigation and the public inquiry.
We also have to wait to see how many other towers are dressed in flammable cladding, it is possibly quite a few, and not all in social housing. Some Councils, like Camden, have already started removing suspect cladding, and it is hoped that blocks can be made safe quickly without rehousing becoming necessary.
Grenfell Tower alone has required between 100 and 200 replacement homes to be found from a diminishing stock of social housing. Attention has focused on one block of ‘luxury flats’ being bought by the City of London, but it turns out these were always destined to be some form of social housing. No information has been made available on the rents and service charges that will be levied, what form of tenancy will be offered and for how long. The first principles are that residents should be suitably rehoused and not be out of pocket.
As the supply of new genuinely affordable social rented homes has collapsed to a little over 1,000 homes nationally last year, from 36,000 in 2010, most of the homes that are likely to be available will be at so-called ‘affordable rents’ at up to 80% of market rents. Rehoused tenants must not be expected to pay those rents, the difference should be made up by the council. Some DWP rules have been suspended for these residents, but it has also been said that they would have to pay bedroom tax if they ended up with a spare room. That is grotesque.
The numbers matter. Unless extra social housing is provided in total then the people who will actually pay for this crisis will be those homeless families or people on the housing waiting list who will not be rehoused as a consequence. One way round this would be government to fund the purchase of an equivalent number of homes on the open market – as happened in the early 1990s to mitigate the housing market slump.
Theresa May was as slippery as can be when challenged about how the works to blocks like Grenfell will be paid for. It could be hundreds of millions. This should be a central government commitment, a new fund provided by the whole country to avoid another tragedy. May wouldn’t commit, just saying it will be done. What is most likely is that government will allow councils to borrow more to pay for the works, with the cost falling to the housing revenue account. And there’s the rub: unless there is specific subsidy or grant, extra borrowing on the HRA will be funded in the long term by tenants through their rents. Tenants will pay for a fire safety crisis that is not of their making.
It is absolutely right that the victims of the fire should have top priority and should be rehoused as quickly as possible. No-one will disagree that similar panels should be stripped from other blocks. No-one will object to an extensive programme of fire safety improvements, including for example sprinklers, in all towers currently without them. But, whoever is found to be responsible, it is not right that the actual burden of putting things right should fall on existing tenants and homeless people waiting for a home. Central government should foot the bill, sharing the load. That’s why we all pay taxes.