This is a reblog of a post which I’ve written for the Housing after Grenfell blog published by the Oxford University Faculty of Law.  Do visit the blog to read a range of posts on  the many issues raised by this awful man-made tragedy. 

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower has thrown up many issues but one of the most powerful has been that of the accountability and responsiveness – or lack of them – of its management to the blocks’ residents. Eight months before the disaster, one activist residents’ group accused the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation (in charge of Grenfell) of literally ‘playing with fire’. With horrifying prescience, the Grenfell Action Group contended ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord’. In the aftermath of the fire and as demands for a renewed social housing programme have risen on the political agenda, a broader debate has emerged about the reforms required to ensure that residents’ voices are heard and heeded.

Justice for Grenfell banner

Justice for Grenfell banner affixed to a wall on the Lancaster Estate © John Boughton

Beginning with Grenfell, it is clear that lines of accountability were attenuated and inadequate. Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) had originally been established under the Conservatives’ 1988 Housing Act that introduced ‘Tenants’ Choice’. This was basically an attempt to transfer council housing stock to housing associations and other approved social landlords. The reform had strong ideological motives – an antipathy in particular to the Labour councils which owned and managed much social housing to this point – but there was also a genuine attempt to devolve management to bodies deemed more accountable and responsive than local authority housing departments considered bureaucratic and sclerotic. TMOs, intended as a grassroots initiative from tenants themselves (after further legislation in 1994, they could represent as few as 25 households) were the purest example of this. The Kensington and Chelsea TMO was an anomaly resulting from the Conservative council’s transfer of its entire housing stock, some 9700 homes, in 1996.

Formally, the new organisation – a limited, non-profit company with a board comprising eight residents, four council-nominated and three independent members – appeared representative but most subsequent accounts suggest residents experienced it as distant and unresponsive: a problem reflecting both its scale and ethos. The Council, meanwhile, which retained ownership of the stock and control of overall housing strategy, has been accused by its own new (post-Grenfell) chief executive, in a criticism accepted by the Council, as behaving like ‘a property developer masquerading as a local authority’.

In the light of the Grenfell tragedy, it’s tempting to see the behaviour of both the TMO and Council as particularly egregious. My fear is that, in many ways, it’s all too typical of what had become the new realities. Those realities encompassed, firstly, as we have seen, the loss of direct democratic control of housing (however imperfect in too many cases); and, secondly, as direct public investment was slashed from the early 1980s, the financialisation of housing in which public housing and land were increasingly seen as assets to be traded. However progressively intended in some cases, the latter has invariably seen social housing stock diminished in favour of properties for sale or let at dishonestly designated ‘affordable’ rents. The new breed of housing associations which have resulted from the many mergers and take-overs within the sector in the same period reflect both these trends – a growing distance and detachment from local and resident interests and a willing embrace of an entrepreneurial role far removed from their founding, philanthropic purposes.

The necessary regeneration of social housing stock and estates has taken place in this context, part-funded by private capital and executed by public-private partnerships and a cost-cutting, profit-driven agenda. Over 60 contractors worked on the regeneration of Grenfell and the Lancaster West Estate – itself a shattering of accountability – and it is claimed £300,000 was saved by substituting cheaper, less fire-resistant cladding for that originally commissioned. Some Grenfell residents believed – perhaps mistakenly but it’s a sign of the distrust existing – the entire regeneration process motivated by a desire to sell off the block.

Ironically, the marginalisation of tenants’ voices had created concern over a decade ago. The Cave Review of Social Housing Regulation, commissioned by the then Labour Government and published in 2007, noted ‘inadequate concern for tenant interests’ and ‘a strong case for regulation to protect tenants’. The Tenants’ Service Authority (TSA) – ‘a regulator that had the rights of consumers at its heart’ in the words of its first chief executive, Peter Marsh – was established the following year as an independent regulator. One early proposal of the TSA was to set up a register detailing whether social housing blocks had up-to-date fire risk assessments. Tenant Voice, created to give social housing tenants a say in national housing policy, followed in 2010.

Conservative MP Grant Shapps

Conservative MP Grant Shapps, formerly the Housing Minister in the early Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. Image shared under the CC BY 3.0 license obtained by Wikimedia.

Both these bodies were abolished by Housing Minister Grant Shapps in the early years of the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. This must be seen as part of a wider government assault – what was once chillingly described before Grenfell as a ‘bonfire of red tape’ – on what was judged unnecessary and bureaucratic regulation. Building control was, in effect, handed over to hired guns when the Thatcher government introduced independent inspectors into the sector (previously overseen by local government) in 1984. The Building Research Establishment was part privatised in 1997 by John Major. David Cameron proudly proclaimed a ‘one-in, two-out’ rule for his 2010 Government – for every regulation added, two would be removed. In this context, the failure to outlaw flammable cladding – a deadly problem highlighted by the fire which killed six residents in Lakanal House (a social housing block in Southwark) in 2009 – becomes all too comprehensible.

Shapps passed on the responsibilities of the TSA to a Housing Ombudsman operating under the aegis of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). A ‘serious detriment’ test applied to tenant grievances and a focus on economic regulation ensured that it had little impact or visibility. The survivors’ group, Grenfell United, has stated that it was unaware of the regulator’s existence till after the fire.

In 2017, in a speech to the National Housing Federation after Grenfell, Minister of Housing, Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid, complained ‘too many people in positions of power saw tenants less as people with families and more as problems that need to be managed’ and promised government would ‘look again at the way tenants are listened to and their concerns acted on’; an apparent condemnation of his own party’s policy since 2010. The Government Green Paper on Social Housing issued in August 2018 made similar promises to empower tenant voices. The Shelter Housing Commission Report published in January 2019, Building for our Future: a Vision for Social Housing, has called for a new social housing regulator with enhanced powers.

As Ed Daffarn, of Grenfell United and a member of the Shelter Commission, has argued:

Social housing is not like choosing a doctor – you can’t just up sticks and move if your housing association gets a low rating. Much more is needed to put power in residents’ hands. We need a new regulation system that will be proactive and fight for residents, with real repercussions for housing associations or councils that fail in their duty.

It seems as if the unconscionable tragedy of Grenfell might, at least, result in a positive move in this direction. Had stronger forms of accountability been in place before Grenfell, had residents’ voices been listened to, it is possible that the fire might have been averted. But a caveat must be added. The residents did not complain about the cladding; they had no reason to believe that flammable cladding would be permitted. If the man-made disaster of Grenfell is not to be repeated, we need both to strengthen tenant representation and ensure that the state itself upholds and imposes its duty of care towards all its citizens, not least those who are often most marginalised.