(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?