In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants

Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

June 19, 2017
5 min read

As the body count and anger rise, so do the questions about what caused the Grenfell Tower disaster. There are many concerns about materials, management and maintenance. These are vital issues that must be addressed. We all have a role to play in ensuring there’s no establishment cover-up. There must be no repetition of Hillsborough, when it took 27 years to get truth and justice.

For housing campaigners, there’s a strong sense of chickens coming home to roost. In part, the tragedy is the result of Britain’s disastrous housing policy. Four decades of systematic disinvestment, neglect and denigration of council housing has had multiple consequences. As well as stoking the housing crisis, it’s created an embattled culture for those who work and live in council housing. Being a council tenant has gone from being a source of dignity to one of stigmatisation. This gets played out in the relationships between landlords and tenants.

One of the first things we learned about Grenfell Tower was that residents’ safety concerns had been ignored. That’s no surprise. Behind the window-dressing of ‘consultation’ and ‘customer care’ council tenants and leaseholders are too often disrespected, including by the people whose wages they pay or who were elected to represent them. As council housing has become more marginalised, there’s been a growing sense that tenants should shut up and be grateful for what they get.

This is a perversion of one of council housing’s core principles. Being publicly owned should mean being democratically accountable. Like NHS patients, council tenants shouldn’t be treated as ‘customers’, but as citizens. Customers get ripped-off. Citizens have rights.

Private vs public

These issues intensify around the role of private contractors. In due course, it will be revealed that profit-driven building companies have cut costs at the expense of safety at Grenfell Tower. We’ve known they do that since Ronan Point in 1968. But the erosion of resources, staffing, training and confidence in local housing departments has made it easier for contractors to cut corners.

The construction industry is dysfunctional. It abuses workers, residents and clients alike. It also profiteers from the housing shortage. But the ideology of ‘private good, public bad’ still dominates policy. To ensure we get homes that are genuinely safe and affordable, we must take control away from private developers.

But Grenfell Tower has exposed deeper truths about our increasingly divided society. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, home to some of the richest people in the UK, but also some of the poorest. There’s some suggestion that cladding was applied to Grenfell Tower to improve its appearance so it didn’t damage the valuation of nearby multi-million pound properties. This may be apocryphal, but maybe not. Our social and political obsession with private home ownership knows few bounds. Property porn fills our TV screens and newspapers. But more importantly, our housing policy is completely subjugated to the housing market. This skews government decisions about housing investment at national and local level. The fact that cladding is considered a higher priority than a sprinkler system is the most grotesque proof of this.

The level of political negligence at Grenfell Tower, personified by Theresa ‘Antoinette’ May, has led to some saying this is a ‘Katrina moment’. Care needs to be taken with that comparison, but there are some similarities. The contemptuous attitude, ignorance and sheer incompetence of the authorities would certainly be recognised in New Orleans. But alongside the belief that it was a preventable tragedy, the most important thing about Katrina was what happened next. The recovery and rebuilding process were exploited in an attempt to further displace working class, non-white people from the city. We all have a responsibility to ensure this doesn’t happen in west London.

Make residents sovereign

First and foremost, there must be absolute guarantees about re-housing and redevelopment. Past incidents (e.g. the bomb on the Isle of Dogs in 1996) have been used to justify further reductions in council housing. Every council home destroyed at Grenfell Tower must be replaced with a council home. The design of new council housing, there and everywhere, should be subject to the meaningful involvement and final approval of residents.

This demand needs to be extended to insist that residents are involved in urgently reviewing fire safety, particularly if they live in tower blocks and/or an estate where major redevelopment is planned or underway. Even before Grenfell, there was huge concern among residents on scores of council estates about regeneration programmes that threaten their homes and communities. After Grenfell there should be a new approach to all council housing in which residents are sovereign. No contract should be signed-off until or unless it’s been approved by a ballot of estate residents.

The reaction of the prime minister and other politicians to the disaster exposed fear and loathing of working class people in general and council housing in particular. At the root of our housing system is a fundamental lack of care. Alongside a change of policy, we need a change of attitude. Grenfell Tower has already become a symbol of our failed, profit-driven housing system and unequal society. Campaigners said before the general election that housing stood at a crossroads between a home as a disposable commodity or a secure place to live. Millions voted in favour of the latter. Our demands for decent homes and rent control for all are now more urgent than ever.

Join the March for Homes this Saturday (24th June), meeting 12pm at Parliament Square.

Glyn Robbins is a housing worker and campaigner. He manages a council estate in north London