For almost four decades, we have been taught to see public spending as a bad thing; ruthless economising as a virtue. We have come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…and have ended with the funeral pyre of Grenfell Tower.
Three days after the night of Wednesday 14 June, I still haven’t written anything about Grenfell Tower. I’ve been trying to process the tragedy emotionally and intellectually. Even the pronoun jars. This is – or should be – all about the pain and anger felt by the victims of the tower block fire. Those feelings are shared by many but have been appropriated by a few to fit their existing worldviews, to serve pre-existing agenda. In the meantime, it seems every journalist has become an expert, every pundit has their opinion.
I do know a bit about social housing but I’m certainly not an expert on all the issues raised by Grenfell Tower. This is an attempt to look at some of the questions raised and to query some of the responses already emerging.
The first and most important questions are without doubt technical. The flammability of the cladding has already been criticised but, beyond that, we need to look at the ‘compartmentalisation’ behind and around it which is supposed to isolate and contain any outbreak of fire. It failed disastrously at Grenfell Tower.
The predominant British model of passive fire protection (using means which prevent the spread of fire, rather than sprinkler systems and the like which extinguish it) is a perfectly sound one but, by God, it has to work. Why didn’t it at Grenfell?
This takes us to building standards and fire regulations. There’s a consensus they need updating and a strong belief that Government has resisted that for reasons of cost-cutting and convenience. We need to know how these standards and regulations are being applied and we have to ensure that those whose job it is to inspect and enforce have all the resources and authority they need.
This is not an issue about tower blocks – which can be as safe as any other form of building. We must resist those who are using Grenfell to attack tower blocks more generally. Tower blocks provide decent homes for many thousands. The image of Grenfell’s burnt hulk will be used as some dystopic cipher for high-rise failure and the notion that tower block living is to be despised. The truth is that tower blocks, including council built ones, are back in fashion and many social housing tenants are being displaced from blocks in desirable London postcodes.
But there’s something more and we’ve seen it powerfully on our TV screens for days. Grenfell Tower was home to a community. Families, friends, neighbours together and all, of course, intimately connected – cared for and about – to others in our wider community. Can this awful event please put an end to the demonising stereotypes so frequently and so crudely applied to our fellow citizens who live in social housing?
Grenfell Tower also tells us little about the inherent design and build quality of tower blocks as a whole. The sometime failure of system-building methods was devastatingly exposed in the Ronan Point disaster of May 1968. Grenfell may yet be its equivalent for the glitzy cladding refurbs which have become so prevalent. Here it seems near certain that it is the tower’s recent renovation that is culpable for the loss of life which followed.
And then there are those who are using the disaster to condemn social housing more generally. There’s room for informed discussion about housing types and models. There should be no room for any attack on the single form of housing provision offering secure and genuinely affordable homes to those who need them most.
A second set of questions revolves around management and accountability. The block’s landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) has come under enormous criticism, most powerfully from the unofficial tenants’ Grenfell Action Group. Its criticisms of the recent refurbishment and tenants’ safety fears were ignored – with the consequences we now know all too well.
Criticism of impersonal and unaccountable landlords is common enough (and probably more prevalent in the private sector, let’s remember) but, here, it’s being applied to the new registered social landlords that have largely replaced council housing departments since the 1980s. The Kensington and Chelsea TMO was formed, uniquely, by a borough-wide transfer of housing – 9700 homes in all – from the Conservative-controlled council in 1996. It doesn’t conform well to the generally more bottom-up model that TMO’s were supposed to represent.
The irony is that the new landlords were a reaction to the Council bureaucracies which had previously managed social housing and were promoted by advocates as more responsive and more representative. Often, they were. I’m not going to comment on Kensington and Chelsea – I don’t have the information I need – but a general criticism of any given system of housing management is probably unhelpful. Frankly, council control could be good or bad. What counts in every case are forms of genuine accountability and clear and open lines of communication. Let’s remember that when it comes to their housing, tenants are the experts.
Thirdly, and underlying everything said so far here and elsewhere, comes MONEY. For almost four decades, we have been taught to see public spending as a bad thing; ruthless economising as a virtue. We have come to know the price of everything and the value of nothing…and have ended with the funeral pyre of Grenfell Tower.
Every one of the criticisms made above is essentially about cost – about how much or how little we as a nation are prepared to spend on the health and well-being of our fellow citizens. Public investment enriches lives; here it would have saved them. 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.