Grenfell Tower and the long crisis of social housing

Council housing arose from the duty of the state to house its people. Grenfell Tower epitomises decades of dereliction of that duty. An excerpt from 'Municipal Dreams' by John Boughton.

June 13, 2018
9 min read

Photo by Nico Hogg

As I write, the charred remains of Grenfell Tower loom over North Kensington. At times, as you walk around its base among the low-rise blocks of the leafy Lancaster West Estate to which it belonged, you can almost forget the events of 14 June 2017. But then you’ll see another of the ubiquitous posters of those ‘missing’ in the fire, or raise your eyes and see the tower: a blackened twenty-four-storey hulk – scene, now symbol, of one of Britain’s worst peacetime housing disasters and funeral pyre for dozens of people.

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 stood as an awful culmination to deeply damaging policies pursued towards council housing, and the public sector more widely, since 1979.

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.

The universal shock and anger in the aftermath of Grenfell has therefore been applied not only to this singular, awful event but to current social housing policy and practice more widely. That properly emotional response is understandable and not unfounded. Political and fiscal choices that have marginalised social housing and its residents for four decades. But the language of ‘crisis’ is double-edged. We have much to learn from Grenfell and much to condemn but we must also defend social housing, its value and achievements.

It was, above all, necessary – a pragmatic response to the prevalence and persistence of slum conditions, originating in Victorian fear of the disease-ridden and allegedly criminal and immoral rookeries of its booming cities and towns, but strengthened as a more democratic state renewed its mission to end slum living, first in the 1930s and, on a larger scale, from the 1950s. The constant was the failure of the free market and private enterprise to provide the healthy and affordable homes that ordinary people needed and deserved.

It reminds us that council homes – built in large numbers from the 1890s, more so after the two world wars – have been, for most of that long history, aspirational housing: the mark of an upwardly mobile working class and the visible manifestation of a state which took seriously its duty to house its people decently. The state didn’t, of course, get everything right. Constraints on public investment were, nearly always, an impediment to the best of what might be achieved. Planners, sociologists and hostile politicians criticised the suburban ‘cottage’ estates which dominated the interwar and early post- war years just as they did the tower blocks which arose in the 1960s.

There’s no value or plausibility in sugar-coating the mistakes and missteps here, of all that ‘went wrong’ as the conventional narrative has it. But this is a story rooted in actual estates and lived experience, and there the account is far more mixed and, generally, far more positive. At first, there were many utopian ideals which inspired and informed the great programme of council house building which transformed our country, overwhelmingly for the better, up to the 1980s. But the second, later transformation has seen council housing and its surrounding communities marginalised and dishonoured in the neoliberal era which followed. Before Grenfell, there was an earlier ‘crisis’ of council housing – a time when hostile politics and destructive economics, sometimes compounded by flaws in design and construction, often exacerbated by council neglect, troubled many estates and communities.

The image of the ‘problem estate’ – far more than the reality which was always more diverse, more positive – became the dominant representation of public housing at this time and a powerful force for the sweeping transformation of the sector that followed. The causes and consequences of those changes need to be better understood than the current fevered debate allows. In simple terms, it is undoubtedly the case that estates are overwhelmingly now decent places to live. It’s hard to say that after Grenfell, but we must assert this truth against those who would use the disaster to smear public housing as a whole.

Estate regeneration, or its current practice, has been widely criticised. Some Grenfell tenants believe the block was improved to make its appearance more palatable to their affluent North Kensington neighbours. A few thought its regeneration was a prelude to privatisation. Those concerns may have been groundless but they found fertile soil in the form of regeneration taking place all around them. The very notion of the estate has been criticised.

‘Council estates’ – the term and its negative connotations are retained – have been attacked by critics as ‘ghettos of the poor’. ‘Mixed tenure’, ‘mixed communities’ are the new mantra; the sell-off of council property to raise funds from profitable private development the ubiquitous means. ‘Social cleansing’ is an emotive term but the fact that in nearly all cases social housing stock has been reduced by regeneration and working-class tenants displaced in favour of better-off owner-occupiers and renters is undeniable.

At the same time, regeneration has benefited many estates in recent years and many thousands of social housing tenants have seen their homes and environments greatly improved.

We should also reject the bandwagon criticism of tower blocks as such. Their story is a mixed one but tower blocks have provided decent homes to many and continue to form a vital component of our social housing stock. The attack on high-rise slides easily, and sometimes explicitly, into an assault on the form and principle of social housing more generally that should be resisted. 

We must be wary too of generalised criticisms of contemporary forms of social housing management where, again, the reality is mixed and often – in terms of best practice at least – much improved in recent years. Into the 1980s, a model of direct local authority ownership and administration dominated, but tenants’ experiences of this (in principle) more democratic model varied. The antagonism of both Conservative and Labour governments since 1979 towards council-run housing effected a management revolution. Now most social housing – as the shifting terminology indicates – is owned and managed by so-called registered social landlords, usually housing associations. Representative, responsive and accountable governance is essential – as Grenfell has so starkly demonstrated – and tenants’ voices must be strengthened as we go forward, but any large-scale reversion to direct council control is unlikely.

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 – and 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 extract from ‘Municipal Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Council Housing‘ published by Verso Books.