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Grenfell exposed neoliberalism's reality: ruthless economising that saves pennies not lives

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The fire at Grenfell was, above all, a personal tragedy to its residents and their friends and families. But to many more it symbolised, in devastating fashion, a crisis in social housing. It stands as an awful culmination to deeply damaging policies pursued towards council housing, and the public sector more widely, since 1979.

In the early hours of Wednesday 14 June 2017, an electrical fire broke out in a fourth-floor flat of this recently refurbished twenty-four-storey west London tower block. It spread rapidly until flames engulfed the building’s upper floors. The official death toll, announced in November 2017 after painstaking investigation, was seventy-one. The pain and anger of victims is almost unimaginable but the event sparked a much wider and agonised public debate about how such a needless tragedy could occur in twenty-first-century Britain.

The lessons of Grenfell will continue to unfold and will always be disputed but some clear conclusions seem inescapable. The fire appears to condemn a very common recent form of tower block renovation. At present, dangerously combustible cladding has been found in every sample taken from similarly refurbished blocks across the country. It seems to indict a model of social housing management, seen here as distant to residents’ interests and oblivious to the fire safety concerns they raised. It brings into question the system of commercially driven procurement and public–private partnership that has become near-ubiquitous in the social housing regeneration of recent years. And, more broadly, it challenges the cost-cutting, austerity agenda that has dominated public policy in the past forty years. ‘Neoliberalism’ can seem a ‘boo’ word but Grenfell has exposed its reality – deregulation, public services decimated, their underlying ethos battered, public investment slashed and scorned, ruthless economising that saves pennies not lives.

To some, ‘the lesson from Grenfell [was] simple: stop building residential towers’; they were ‘antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they [could] never be truly safe’. Each of those adjectives is questionable. The more nuanced truth is that tower blocks, while not perfect (which housing form is for every type of household?), have provided good homes for many thousands. In fact, tower blocks are back in fashion as the displacement of social housing tenants from ex-council blocks in the right postcodes by affluent middleclass incomers reminds us. But, more importantly, we need to challenge the stereotype of tower block living which misrepresents it as some kind of hellish anomie. In the worst circumstances imaginable, Grenfell showed us community, strong and diverse; families, friends and neighbours together. And all, of course, joined with and connected to others in our wider community. As a reminder of our common humanity, perhaps Grenfell will act as a corrective to the demonising caricature of social housing tenants prevalent in recent years.

Many of the questions raised were, at first glance at least, more narrowly technical. The recent £10 million renovation of the block had added the new shiny thermal cladding, now de rigueur in such work. The flammability of that cladding seems to have been a major cause of the fire’s rapid spread. The failure of ‘compartmentalisation’ – the means by which any outbreak of fire is contained – appears equally culpable. Most residential blocks in the UK employ what is called ‘passive’ fi re protection, using means that prevent the spread of fi re rather than sprinkler systems which actively extinguish it. The fire safety advice issued to residents of Grenfell (as is the case in similar blocks) was to remain in their flats until what should have been a limited outbreak was dealt with by the emergency services. It’s a sound model if it works. At Grenfell, it failed disastrously. There are now widespread calls for ‘active’ systems to be installed in all comparably vulnerable buildings. What now appears to be the widespread use of combustible cladding in tower block renewals stands condemned.

The management of the block has also been sharply criticised. Grenfell Tower was owned by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea but managed by the TMO which, unusually, has run the borough’s entire social housing stock of around 9,700 homes since 1996. Residents’ concerns about fi re dangers resulting from a botched renovation had been powerfully voiced by the unofficial Grenfell Action Group. In a tragically prescient blog post in November 2016 entitled ‘Playing with Fire’, the group feared it would take ‘a catastrophic event . . . an incident that results in serious loss of life’ to truly expose the incompetence of the Kensington and Chelsea TMOs and its mismanagement of recent works. Many others have extended this criticism of weakened democratic controls and blurred lines of accountability to the entire system of devolved social housing management which has come to dominate the sector since the 1980s. It would be wrong to condemn all registered social landlords and naive to assume council management automatically provided more responsive management. But the case for strengthened democratic controls and oversight and stronger accountability to residents – the experts on the ground when it comes to their own housing – is clear.

Grenfell Tower also shines a disturbing light on the near-universal contemporary model of regeneration dependent on opaque public–private partnerships and private capital and driven by commercial interests. At Grenfell, it is claimed that managers and contractors cut costs by using cheaper and less fire-resistant cladding. Such decisions are integral to a system which privileges private profit while it limits – and decries – public investment.

But ruthless cost-cutting extends much further. It appears that expert recommendations to strengthen fire safety regulations, particularly those made after a fire at Lakanal House in Southwark which killed six people in July 2009, have been consistently delayed and sidelined by government. Meanwhile the local authority building control departments whose job it is to enforce fire safety regulations have been ‘eviscerated’. Some of their functions have been privatised while the oversight role of independent fi re officers has been replaced by a form of self-certification. No-one is likely to use the phrase a ‘bonfire of red tape’ again – its echoes have become too chilling – but here is the value, the absolute necessity, of the health and safety measures so widely derided in recent years. And if ‘austerity’ can sometimes seem a piece of empty political rhetoric, this is its reality. For almost four decades, we have been taught the neoliberal mantra ‘private good, public bad’ and encouraged to see public spending as an evil; 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.

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The outpourings of sympathy shown towards the residents of Grenfell and the fortitude of its community since the tragedy have defied common negative stereotypes. But the marginalisation of social housing and its occupants remain. In this context, the longer crisis of social housing is real and destructive. Since Mrs Thatcher’s introduction of Right to Buy in 1980 and the virtual cessation of new build since then, our social housing stock has diminished drastically. The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in which Grenfell is situated, has built just ten new council-funded social homes since 1990. In consequence, and in conjunction with well-meaning policies prioritising those in greatest need, social housing has become housing of last resort, reserved to the poorest and most vulnerable of our society even while demand for the secure and genuinely affordable homes it offers has risen sharply.

Council housing then, social housing now, arose from the duty of the state to house its people well even as the market proved unable or unwilling to do so. Grenfell Tower, at root, epitomises the dereliction of that duty, but the failure of private enterprise remains even as the state has, in recent decades, retreated from its former role. Grenfell has reminded us, in the most powerful way imaginable, how much we need the state. We need its regulation and oversight to protect us from commercially driven agendas which value profit over people. We need its investment to provide the safe, secure and affordable housing for all that the market never will. And we need its idealism – that aspiration to treat all its citizens equitably and decently which lay at the very heart of the council house building programme which improved the lives of many millions of our citizens from the 1890s.

– this is an edited excerpt from Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing. Out now in paperback. See all our financialization of housing reading here.

Traversing the nation, Municipal Dreams offers an architectural tour of some of the best and most remarkable of our housing estates, and in doing so offers an engrossing social history of housing in Britain. John Broughton’s account includes extraordinary planners and architects who wished to elevate working men and women through design. The politicians who shaped their work and the competing ideologies that have promoted state housing and condemned it. The economics that have always constrained our housing ideals. As well as the crisis wrought by Right to Buy, and the evolving controversies around regeneration. Boughton shows how the loss of the dream of good housing for all is a danger for the whole of society—as was seen in the fire in Grenfell Tower.