After Grenfell, residents’ voices must be heard

Housing in Britain is in crisis

The block of flats in which my family and I lives has a design flaw. The small balcony in the flats at the top of the block is cut back into the ceiling of the flat below. When it rains hard, water penetrates the balcony door sill and often runs down the light fitting in the sitting room underneath.

Ten years ago, after sustained pressure from many in the block, the housing association promised to pilot the solution on one flat and roll it out across them all if it worked. They did the first bit and it worked, but never got round to rolling it out.

Our block was built in 1970. It’s poorly constructed and has several recurrent problems with which long-standing residents are all too familiar. And the lack of action on these fronts has created a feeling of deep anger and resignation among residents.

Our problems are trivial compared with those highlighted by the Grenfell Action Group for years before last week’s tragedy. And our three blocks are low-rise with external deck access. The risk of many perishing in a fire is much lower. But the common factor – and the issue that you hear again and again from tenants groups across the capital and the country – is that they are not listened to and the problems they raise are not acted upon.

This is a structural problem – not in terms of engineering, but in terms of the relationship between residents and those who have the power to do something.

Clearly something with the building fabric went catastrophically wrong at Grenfell and if, as seems increasingly likely, this was due to cost-saving and poor management of repairs and renovation, then the authorities and firms must be held to account. Justice for Grenfell will have to be real and prosecuted criminally.

But the most uncomfortable truth lurking within this tragedy is that there is a stigma attached to people who live in social housing. Narrowly, this means that a discount is applied to their views when they are expressed to the relevant authorities. Broadly it also means that the lives and wellbeing of people who live in council blocks – especially if they are renters, but also including leaseholders – are seen as having less value than home owners who live in houses or in the many luxury apartments that increasingly surround older council stock.

Many have already pointed out that modern, private housing blocks are unlikely to want for health and safety measures. And also that, following the inquest into the fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, the recommendation that sprinklers should be retro-fitted to council blocks seems to have been largely ignored at all levels of government, save for the odd buck-passing letter.

But the problem is that we’re even having a conversation about a few hundred thousand pounds to fit life-saving equipment into a block like Grenfell.

After decades of talking up home ownership and talking down every other means by which people might be able to enjoy a secure, safe, comfortable and affordable place to live, housing in Britain is in crisis. For many of those who do not currently and may never have a foot on the first rung of the housing ladder, that crisis too often manifests itself in cold, damp, poorly maintained and, as we now know, lethal places to live.

Add to that a prevailing narrative that sees anyone renting a flat from a council as being a scrounger (when in fact there’s evidence that social housing is a long way from being welfare) and a decade of austerity in which local authorities have borne the brunt of cuts and have been prevented from borrowing, and you have all the conditions for catastrophe.

The Grenfell tragedy will and must have repercussions that shake housing and politics to its core. It is emblematic of the fissures, fractures and inequities that are the hallmark of modern Britain. It is the latest – deeply tragic – episode in an unfolding story in which UK institutions have been beset by scandal, driving a large wedge between a distant governing elite and people who have little control over how the things that most affect them are run and managed.

Much should change as a result. And heads must roll. But one of the most important changes is that – from now on – tenants and residents must have a clear and properly resourced role in managing their housing, with the means to hold the institutions they have to deal with properly to account. They must be in control when it comes to the decisions that affect their lives.

On our small estate, working with a receptive and progressive crop of ward councillors, we’ve recently formed an estate-wide forum and we’re in the early stages of agreeing a means of negotiating as one with the local authority, housing association and their agents. It is early days – we’re a pilot in our borough for other mixed tenure estates – but such processes shouldn’t have to rely on the benevolence of any one set of politicians. It should be built into the way public and social housing is run and indeed how all public service is approached.

Last week revealed the lethal dangers of marginalising and ignoring the voices of tenants. This has to change.

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