Charlotte Delgado, PRESENTE!

It was with a heavy heart and teary eye that I read this email today from Michael Kane, director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), sister organisation of Defend Council Housing (DCH) in the US:

Hello all, yesterday I received the sad news that long-time NAHT Board leader and former President Charlotte Delgado passed away peacefully, on Tuesday afternoon, in a hospice in Stockton, California.

Kathryn Buller-Melton, Charlotte’s stalwart friend and neighbor, had a long talk with Charlotte on Sunday. Kathryn asked Charlotte how she would like to be remembered. Charlotte replied, that she was a little soldier for all the little soldiers, fighting so that everyone can have a safe and decent place to live.

Charlotte needn’t worry—we will always remember her tenacious, boundless energy; her beautiful and well-placed anger; and her inspiring leadership in the struggle for tenants rights and housing justice.

Charlotte Delgado, Presente!

As my own small tribute, below is the extract about Charlotte from my book.

American Tragedy

Charlotte Delgado has lived in Sacramento for 30 years, but in 2015 found that she didn’t have a home there.  Charlotte moved to her rented apartment in the city centre in 1985.  Soon after, she became a tenant activist when she led a successful battle to keep rents affordable for herself and her fellow low-income neighbours.  This was a life-changing moment for Charlotte because it led her to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT), a national, tenant-led organisation that campaigns to preserve and protect affordable housing, particularly in the private rented sector.  Charlotte has been a NAHT Board member ever since and had been the organisation’s national chairperson for several years until her own housing situation destabilised her life.

When the latest speculative property boom hit Sacramento, Charlotte’s building was “flipped” three times in three years, each time increasing a sense of threat and vulnerability.  Charlotte was a marked woman because the owners knew her reputation and that she would organise to resist any attempt to hike rents or evict low income tenants.  They made Charlotte various offers – including outright bribes – in the hope she’d leave quietly.  She refused.  In early May 2015 Charlotte received an eviction order based on spurious grounds relating to the behaviour of her younger son who is chronically ill and mentally unstable.  One day Charlotte returned home from visiting a sick neighbour she cared for to find the building manager and the sheriff changing the locks.  She had to demand the return of her walking frame and purse before she was told to leave the building.  At the age of 79, Charlotte was homeless and alone.  She says she spent the rest of the day in a daze, walking around the city until she couldn’t walk any more.  This wouldn’t attract attention in Sacramento because there are thousands of people in a similar plight.  The local homeless encampment has elected its own Mayor and there’s a dedicated school for homeless children.  Charlotte had spent years volunteering at a shelter, but never imagined she’d need its help.  She recalled that another thing she’d never considered is where homeless women go to the toilet when, like her, they (literally) have no place to go.

Fortunately, at least some of Charlotte’s contribution to society was repaid and she was offered emergency shelter so she didn’t have to sleep on the street.  She was then provided with temporary accommodation by a Catholic charity, while she tried to find a permanent home.  Although she was now in a comfortable, caring environment, the hostel was in the suburbs, a one hour train and bus ride from the neighbourhood she knows.  It was as though Charlotte had been banished from the city for daring to challenge the property barons.  She tried to get help from the public housing authority, but despite her age and physical frailty, they weren’t interested.  Instead Charlotte had to hope that her housing voucher would be honoured by a new private landlord, but this was in some doubt because technically, Charlotte had been evicted for breaching her tenancy conditions.  In early August, after three months of dislocated limbo, Charlotte found an apartment in a complex for older people, but her uncertainty was not over yet.  A month later, the housing authority, which administers the voucher system, had not released the funding to pay the landlord.  So Charlotte had a bed and a roof over her head, but her furniture was still in storage because she wanted to be certain that she wasn’t going to be made homeless again.

In the context of a flimsy, porous social welfare system, Charlotte has been relatively fortunate to be rehoused.  Others, like Charlotte’s older son, are not so lucky.  After serving in the US Army, he worked as a gardener for the city for 25 years and had been living with his mum and acting as her carer before her eviction.  He ended up on the streets, along with his younger brother who Charlotte thinks may have stomach cancer, because he keeps vomiting blood.  Referring to another aspect of America’s relentless war on the poor, Charlotte relates an occasion when she went to the chemist with her younger son and asked how many of the 11 drugs he needed she could afford with the $55 she had in her purse. The answer was “none”.  The cheapest prescription was $110.

 American Hero

It’s one thing to witness and try to describe the experience of those affected by America’s housing crisis, another when one of its victims is a personal friend.  I’ve known Charlotte Delgado for about ten years and she’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.  She’s devoted much of her life to helping others, particularly campaigning with NAHT for tenants’ rights and decent homes for all.  But Charlotte’s story is about much more than housing.  She defied potential racist prejudice by marrying a Mexican, became a fluent Spanish speaker, spent many years working in the hotel industry, fostered and adopted abandoned children, is an active church member, a cancer survivor, but still chain-smokes the cigarettes she calls “coffin nails”.  Charlotte’s politics aren’t formulated through theory or party affiliation, but an innate sense of social justice and class solidarity that is distinctively American.  This is also reflected in her patriotism which, most remarkably, is undimmed by the loss of three (yes, three) sons in the Vietnam War.  But as she approaches her 80s, Charlotte isn’t bitter or self-pitying, just angry with a system that destroys lives for profit.  Despite her age and some health problems, Charlotte was still fighting for the homes of others when she lost her own.  She’s already told NAHT that once she’s settled in her new home she’ll organise a tenants association![1]

The hardest thing for Charlotte in telling me her story (and for me listening to it) is that she feels ashamed.  Like other activists I’ve known, Charlotte is better at fighting for others than herself.  Given all she’s done to help other people and the affection she’s held in, it’s possible Charlotte could have avoided the situation she found herself in when she lost her home, but not certain.  A key feature of American society in general and its housing crisis in particular, is its brutality. The fact that Charlotte Delgado is elderly, disabled, poor and has made huge contributions to and sacrifices for her country, including paying taxes for 65 years, matters not a jot.  When the forces of corporate finance, property developers and their political lackies want to make money, it seems nothing else matters.  If California was a country, it would be the seventh wealthiest on earth. Who should be ashamed?

Speaking at NAHT conference in 2014, Charlotte said:

The government is trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and poorest – women, veterans and the disabled.  They’re cutting programmes for affordable housing, but there are no cuts in the military budget. I’m a mother of seven veterans, including three who are over on the wall.[1]  Our veterans need to be looked after by bringing them home.  We need to make sure that big corporations like Apple and Bank of America pay their fair share of taxes.  I pay mine.  We’re here because the government needs to see the faces of the people their cuts affect.  We need a government that recognises decent housing as a basic human right. 

[1] A reference to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

[1] Since 2015, Charlotte’s housing situation has stabilised.  She’s been able to settle in a new apartment in central Sacramento, sharing with her older son.

Charlotte leads NAHT members to speak truth to power on Capitol Hill (DC, June 2016)

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Vindication, but not victory (yet)

This is Alan Walter.

Alan died suddenly in 2009 aged 51.  He dedicated his life to the struggle for council housing, as part of his belief that everyone has a right to a decent, secure, truly affordable and safe home.  As Austin Mitchell says, Alan was a ‘master of the arts’ of campaigning.  One of his specialities was working behind enemy lines.  He slipped into the corridors of power where he met and cajoled politicians of all persuasions in an attempt to forge the broadest possible alliance for housing policy in the interests of working class people and communities.

I thought of Alan yesterday while I digested Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech.  Defend Council Housing (DCH) and other housing campaigns have had good moments in the past.  We’ve had conference resolutions passed, high-profile media coverage and won battles to save council housing from privatisation, all from a grass-roots, shoe-string organisation.  But overall, the neoliberal, private developer and profit-driven bandwagon has continued to roll.  Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn signaled that might be about to change.  It’s a huge vindication for Alan and the many other people who’ve maintained the fight for a real alternative to the property casino.  But it’s not yet a victory.

Mr Corbyn has been a staunch supporter of DCH and housing rights campaigns for many years, so in a way his speech was no surprise.  But since becoming Labour leader he’s been understandably pre-occupied with internal party politics.  Although we never doubted his sincerity, this has become a growing concern and frustration for those of us on the outside.  While the government’s housing policy has been falling apart, some Labour councils have been trying to drive through privatisation agendas that would make some Tories blush.

Yesterday’s speech contained some vital arguments if we are to escape the housing crisis and avoid repeating it.  Quite rightly, Mr Corbyn used Grenfell Tower as the symbol of what has to be a turning point.  He called Grenfell:

“…an indictment not just of decades of failed housing policies and privatisation and the yawning inequality in one of the wealthiest boroughs and cities in the world, it is also a damning indictment of a whole outlook which values council tax refunds for the wealthy above decent provision for all and which has contempt for working class communities…Grenfell is not just the result of bad political decisions It stands for a failed and broken system which Labour must and will replace…a decent home is a right for everyone.”

Corbyn went on to make  the following commitments:

  • Housing must not be a tool for speculative investment.
  • Labour will listen to tenants and control rents.
  • Labour will seek powers to compulsorily purchase and tax unused land held by developers.
  • Labour will “think again” about regeneration so that it’s “for the benefit of the local people, not private developers, not property speculators”.
  • Residents in regeneration areas will have a binding ballot before redevelopment goes ahead and a real right of return.

Conference speeches aren’t the place for detailed policy.  They inevitably leave some things unsaid.  So while Corbyn’s speech is very welcome, as Alan Walter (who was a miserable git at times) would have been the first to say, it’s also a potential honey-trap.

The biggest dangers are complacency, inertia and policy obfuscation.  Residents of the 50+ estates currently threatened with the loss of their homes through ball and chain redevelopment can’t afford to wait for a Labour government.  The next election could come too late for the people of Haringey where the council and a private developer are attempting a massive land-grab and asset-stripping of public property.  If the Ministry of Justice goes ahead with the sale of public land at Holloway Prison it will never be used to build the homes we need.  If Notting Hill Housing Group completes its merger with Genesis it will be another sign that housing associations have been lost to the world of corporate property developers.  The review of social housing being undertaken by Labour invites the likes of John Healey and Sadiq Khan to continue their craven capitulation to the undermining of genuine council housing through “affordable” and “social” housing schemes that are nothing of the kind.

Armed with Corbyn’s speech, local campaigners should be demanding an immediate moratorium on all redevelopment and regeneration projects that do not offer tenants a ballot and a like-for-like right to return.  The Haringey fire sale should be binned.  Islington Council must step up  the campaign to use public land in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency (at Holloway Prison) for public housing.  Housing Associations must be brought under democratic control now, by the kind of action residents are taking to stop the gravy-train merger of Notting Hill and Genesis.

To turn yesterday’s speech into action we need a united national campaign to demand decent homes for all.  The summit on 25th November (details here) will be an important step.  Just waiting for Jezza could be a disaster.




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Grenfell Silent Protest

Here’s my nomination for the Turner Prize.

I took the photo last night at the Grenfell silent protest.  At the time – and even now – I struggled to put into words how profound I find this.  According to their parents, the idea and execution were all the children’s.  It is truly a great work of art.

Of equal powerful eloquence was the protest itself.  It was the third.  Apparently it started with about 20 people on 14th July.  Last night there were about 400.  The idea of silence on the same day that the inquiry by, of and for the establishment was opened seemed incongruous.  But emotions are still raw in North Kensington so chanting slogans might seem insensitive and disrespectful.

As Sir Martin Moore-Bick moves towards his inevitably unsatisfactory conclusions, it’s essential that we ‘the public’ make true meaning of what purports to be a public inquiry.  There are lots of ways of doing that, but one is to stand in solidarity with the local community and bear witness to this preventable tragedy.

The plan is to hold the silent protest on the 14th of every month (starting at 7pm outside Notting Hill Methodist Church, – two minutes from Ladbroke Grove tube station).  So please make a date for Saturday 14th October and spread the word.


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The Bridge

In early July, I wrote a post about Montgomery County, Maryland.  That was a month before white supremacists (one of whom murdered Heather Heyer) rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest about the removal of statues celebrating the slave-holding Confederacy.  The reaction to Charlottesville, from Trump pandering to the far-right to the pulling down of more Confederate monuments, exposed again the unhealed scars of racism in US society (although, of course, it’s not unique in having them).  Even my post provoked a surprising level of anger from people who know about the controversy around a bridge in Silver Spring, Maryland.  This short (16 minutes) film provides a vivid account of the history of that bridge and its links to much wider issues.

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The everyday story of a housing crisis

In my 26 years working and campaigning on the subject, I’ve never known housing get so much political and media attention.  This level of concern is long overdue.  It’s just a shame it took the deaths of innocent people at Grenfell Tower for it to happen.  For years, the establishment has turned a blind eye to the plight of millions struggling to find or keep a roof over their heads.  This chasm between political action and social concern has been one of the clearest signs of our democratic deficit.

Grenfell changed that.  It’s not a permanent state of affairs, but for now, housing is politically important and sensitive.  Time will tell whether this actually changes anything.  But the demand of decent, secure, truly affordable and safe homes for all is part of securing Justice for Grenfell – and we may not get a better chance of winning it.

The ultimate proof that housing inequality has hit the middle England mainstream is The Archers.  The everyday story of country folk is currently doing a pretty decent job with a story-line that highlights how the crisis is spreading through the country, up the social ladder and blighting people’s lives and communities.

I should perhaps out myself as a committed Archerite.  I tend to listen to the omnibus in the gym, desperately hoping I’m never exposed as training to cows mooing instead of high-energy garage.  I often struggle to remember who’s who and have an additional confession that my favourite character is Brian Aldridge.  But while I’m at it, I like Hugh Grant too!

The housing plot revolves around a proposed new development in Archer-land.  A property developer wants to build a relatively small number of homes on formerly agricultural land.  This has unleashed a host of tensions and conflicts in Ambridge, most of which ring true.

Predictably, there’s the NIMBY question.  Some of the better-off residents oppose any new homes in their rural idyll.  This is an issue that underlies a lot of housing policy impotence and inertia in the “real” world.  Politicians in many parts of the country are petrified of any appearance of “concreting over” the countryside or green-belt.  Lynda Snell, a vocal Ambridge resident, has articulated another fear of new development: that the homes will be bought by “part-time resident strangers with lives elsewhere”.

This aversion to new housing development is not a luxury afforded to people living in cities, but in any event, is based on a false argument.  Only a fraction of the UK land-mass is devoted to housing.  It would take a lot more than Justin Elliot’s scheme in The Archers to turn Ambridge into Singapore.

Stopping landowners building homes wherever they like is why we have a system of planning control, albeit one that is much abused.  The Archers gave a good snap-shot of how developers use self-serving, dishonest tactics to get what they want.  The Ambridge Parish Council was presented with seductive arguments that come close to emotional blackmail.  In a typical manoeuvre Damara Captial, the shadowy developer, used the promise of affordable housing to get backing for its plans, enlisting the support of Emma, one of the locals in housing need.

If The Archers reflects reality, Emma will be betrayed and disappointed.  The term “Affordable Housing” has become so misused that it should always be placed in parenthesis.  It’s tragic to hear Emma pinning her hopes for the future on a lottery.  Damara are out to maximise profits, which means minimising the number of homes that aren’t sold at full market prices.  Once they’ve got planning permission, they’ll use a new string of bogus arguments to pretend that homes that Emma might be able to afford are “unviable” (an issue recently addressed by Channel 4 News, with a cameo appearance by me).

The new homes in Ambridge have created divisions within the community and sadly, that’s also a feature of our housing malaise.  The elevation of housing as a commodity and signifier of social status is exploited by those who have no interest in solving the problem.  We need to take back control of housing and planning policy from the likes of Damara Capital.  After Grenfell, we need to drive the profiteers out of our homes.


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The Bridges of Montgomery County

[What follows is thanks to David Rotenstein, a historian in Silver Spring, Maryland who uses his skill and knowledge to challenge establishment orthodoxies that seek to present versions of the past that render certain experiences, people  and places invisible. See more of David’s work here.]

The selective preservation and erasure of memory is universal and timeless. It’s the essence of history. But nowhere is it more true than the USA. I sometimes think the foundation myth of European ‘America’ spread across the virtual genocide of Native Indians is the biggest cover-up in history.  But like other societies, America continues to tell itself sanitised stories that foreground ‘official’ histories without acknowledging that they’re contested.

This issue is very current in the context of attitudes to relics of the civil war. A debate is raging in the US about whether statues celebrating the Confederate South should stay or go. The mayor of Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy during the civil war) recently said of monuments like the one in his city to Jefferson Davis (who was president of the Confederacy):

“Equal part myth and deception, they were the ‘alternative facts’ of their time – a false narrative etched in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago – not only to lionise the architects and defenders of slavery, but to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and reassert a new era of white supremacy.” (Mayor Levar Stoney, DC Express, 23rd June 2017)

But there are many mundane distortions of the past that are perhaps more ideologically powerful and pernicious than statues. David Rotenstein showed me some of them during a “dirty tour” of his home town, Silver Spring in Maryland, just north of Washington DC.

The strange social geography of DC makes any definition of place contentious. This city-state imposes itself on the local landscape with a rigidity under-written by Federal law. By most standards, Silver Spring would be just another suburb. But its history makes it more than that and presents a microcosm of the American experience.

The first thing David showed me was this mural, decorating the side of a multi-storey (no pun intended) car park.

We’ve all become used to anodyne municipal and corporate art deployed to dress-up reinventions of place. I still get infuriated by the artifacts (cranes, winding gear, random chain links) littering London’s ‘Docklands’ in a fake gesture to historic preservation. But this mural is more provocative. The clear message is the equality of the two sides in the civil war.

Post-conflict expressions of peace and reconciliation are natural, particularly after civil war and all wars are messy and complex. But in this mural there’s no way of knowing that one side was fighting for the preservation of legal human slavery.

David showed me several other examples of Silver Spring’s attempts to depict its past in a way that conceals some facts and concocts others. In an adjoining mural, black people are shown catching commuter trains in the 1950s at a time when, David says, they would not have been allowed to use the station unless they were working there. Silver Spring remained segregated by custom and practice until the early 1960s, significantly later than DC. More African-Americans moved to the area around this time when a government office opened there, but they not only found it hard to buy a home due to racist restrictions, they couldn’t even buy lunch. David took me to the site of a diner that refused blacks service until they organised the type of sit-in protests more commonly associated with the Deep South. The diner’s demolished now, but the Silver Spring authorities chose not to mark its significant place in local civil rights struggles. What it does commemorate is the figure of Francis Preston Blair, a former slave owner who ‘discovered’ (like Columbus discovered America) the silver spring from which the city takes its name (see photo below).

African-Americans, both free and enslaved, had been living in the Silver Spring area for generations, particularly in the settlement of Lyttonsville.  As my book describes, the history of US housing is entwined with racism, so it’s no surprise to learn that Lyttonsville didn’t get running water and paved streets until the late 1960s – and only after a fight.

Today, Lyttonsville has been absorbed into the wider Silver Spring conurbation, but the difficulties for US society in reconciling its present with its past don’t end there.  The Talbot Avenue Bridge links Lyttonsville to downtown Silver Spring.  It’s an elegant structure that’s typically American.

Now the authorities want to demolish it (allegedly to make way for a new train line).  The contrived arguments being used to justify this – poor maintenance, structurally unsound, beyond economic repair – are precisely those used to justify the destruction of US public housing and UK council housing.  They all illustrate an enduring disrespect for the homes, histories and lives of working class communities, with ethnicity a potent additional factor.

In the Age of Trump, demolishing bridges and building walls (actual or metaphoric) assume ever greater significance.

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From Ronan Point to Grenfell Tower: How many more?

(I’m writing this in a state of thinly controlled sadness and fury.  Apologies if that’s reflected in my writing.  I’m conscious the full facts about Grenfell Tower aren’t known.  But that’s another reason for my anger.  As at Hillsborough, how long will it take to get to the truth?  Because when powerful vested interests are threatened, working class lives don’t matter.)

The most infuriating thing about Grenfell Tower is that local people (some of whom I know) have been warning it would happen for years.  Those with the responsibility and authority to do something didn’t listen.  That goes to the heart of the matter.  But the reasons why lives were put at risk are more complex – and the charge sheet is long.

Top of my list is the construction industry.  I’ve worked in it.  It has a culture of wanton disregard for anything but money.  It’s characterised by macho chauvanism and a contemptuous attitude towards ‘the client’, particularly if that’s a local authority and people who live on council estates.  Of course, this is not a reflection on all the individuals who work in the industry.  I recently had a meeting with the site manager of a big development near the council estate where I work.  He told me his attitude is that people working on his site should not do anything they wouldn’t want done in their own home.  Sounds simple.  But it’s the exception that proves the rule.

On the whole, the construction industry is wasteful of materials, money and lives.  In due course, contractors will be shown to have put profit before safety at Grenfell Tower.  They’ve been doing it for years.  Their negligence has been used to undermine both the structure and reputation of council housing.  This became apparent with the partial collapse of Ronan Point in Newham in 1968, when four people were killed.  The government commissioned inquiry was quite explicit that shoddy cost and corner cutting by private contractors were responsible.

There’s a wider issue about high-rise blocks.  They’ve become a symbol of the stigmatisation of council housing, but this lazy association ignores the political, financial and social context.  Council tower blocks were originally promoted by the 1950s Tory government who offered councils and contractors more money the higher they built.  Design and maintenance were secondary considerations.

I’ve been responsible for looking after high-rise council blocks in the past.  Good day-to-day management becomes even more important than usual when, as was tragically demonstrated at Grenfell, means of escape are paramount.  There are ways that risks can be mitigated.  But they depend upon adequate resources, training and the co-operation of various agencies (housing departments, fire service, building control etc.) all of whom have seen both money and staffing cut.

But the argument that high-rise housing can’t work is false and is often exploited by those hostile to council housing.  Some of the most expensive and desirable homes in the world are in high-rise blocks.  This is a class issue.  The ultra-modernist, ‘brutalist’, concrete-built towers of the Barbican centre are just up the road from where I work.  A flat in there will cost you £millions.  What would happen if Barbican residents expressed fears about health and safety?

There’s an underlying attitude of mind that exacerbates financial, technical and management problems.  In this, local councils have a particular responsibility and culpability.  I’ve worked in housing since 1991 and been involved in numerous projects involving councils working on peoples’ homes alongside private contractors.  I can’t think of many that didn’t leave residents feeling frustrated, ripped-off and demeaned.  The most annoying thing about that is that, during my 26 years in the field, little, if anything, has been learned.  Still, there is a practice of bogus consultation, lack of transparency and a fundamental disrespect that conveys a message of ‘we know best’.  Problems are inevitable and it’s not possible to please all the people all the time.  But councils should remember the words of one of the tenants where I work – ‘It may be their property, but it’s my home’.

Another element at Grenfell Tower is the role of the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO).  I currently work for a TMO and have worked for several others in the past.  At their best, they offer a mechanism for residents of council estates to have more control over decisions that affect their home.  It’s not a panacea, but I have seen TMOs deliver a better quality of day-to-day housing management than the mainstream.  One of the reasons it does this is that it’s locally based and directed, providing an immediate and (crucially) personal service that has been lost by remote and bureaucratic housing departments.

I don’t know the detail of the TMO responsible for Grenfell Tower.  What I do know is that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (K and C) set up a borough-wide TMO to manage all of its council housing.  This is the antithesis of how resident management should work and I’ve always thought looked like a Tory council that’s hostile to working class people in general and council tenants in particular, shuffling-off responsibility.  No doubt when the buck-passing starts in earnest, K and C will say it’s all the TMO’s fault.  But like any organisation, TMOs are only as good as the people in them and the system around them.  As someone who does the same job, my heart goes out to whoever was managing Grenfell Tower.  But I’ve seen TMOs go badly wrong.  This happens for a variety of reasons (ego and empire building, weak controls, incompetence).  When they do, the council has an over-riding responsibility to intervene.

A lot of attention is focusing on what might have made the fire spread so quickly and extensively.  This relates to some of the points above, but there are other issues about health and safety at home that have cost lives at Grenfell and elsewhere.  I was involved in the procurement of a cladding contract about ten years ago.  Perhaps naively, I was astonished to find such a large, lucrative industry selling an expensive product that seemed to have very dubious benefits.  Supposedly, the main reason for cladding is improving insulation, a very important objective.  But in my experience it became quickly obvious that saving energy (and perhaps fire safety) was less important than appearance.

Cladding becomes a particularly distorted feature when it meets prejudice against council housing.  I remember some of the early estate regeneration programmes and asking a senior colleague about the colourful cladding on the side of a tower block.  He replied ‘It cost a lot of money, but at least it looks nice.’  Questions of appearance are inherently subjective.  But three’s a lot of evidence to suggest that dislike of council housing has become enmeshed with dislike of how it looks.  It’s as though those who would really like to get rid of council housing might sometimes settle for trying to hide it.

This country has an excellent institution for assessing domestic health and safety.  The Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford is full of people who know how to build safe, energy-efficient, well-designed homes (and they’re not alone).  BRE used to be a public agency, but was privatised in 1997.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Although my heart wasn’t in it, last night I went to a talk about social housing in Vienna.  It wasn’t a retro-fest about Red Vienna in the 20s, but an account of how the city has built on that tradition to maintain a commitment to providing high quality, innovative homes available to a large proportion of its citizens.  (60% of Viennese housing is state-subsidised).  We were shown photos of developments built within the last 20 years with roof-top swimming pools, Turkish baths, ‘dementia gardens’, libraries, restaurants and youth facilities: all non-market housing, all rented for less than 800 Euros a month.  Grenfell Tower was about a mile away, but it felt a lot further.

I once read something by a Berlin writer entitled ‘You can kill a man with bad housing’.  This week bad housing has killed women and children too.  We have to decide.  Do we allow this to continue, or, perhaps in the name of the victims of Grenfell Tower, demand homes that give to lives, instead of taking them?



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