A firefighter at the Grenfell Tower inferno said that the sight of people jumping from the burning building was the sort of horrific event that might occur in a slum, but not in one of the wealthiest parts of London, if not the world. The fire, which has shaken the capital and the political establishment to the core, is an epoch-defining moment. This is not just because of the devastating loss of life but because it has shone light on the hidden catastrophe of social housing provision in the UK.
Unlike other disasters, such as Aberfan, Hurricane Katrina or even 9/11, the difference with Grenfell is that it was predicted by the now widely-spread and horrifyingly prescient blog post by the Grenfell Action Group in 2016, warning that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO’.
So who are the KCTMO? Since the fire, blame has focused on Kensington & Chelsea council and following government pressure, the council’s chief executive Nicholas Holgate resigned. But the Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), which is the company responsible for the 10,000 social homes in the borough, has accepted no responsibility. In a statement the company said: ‘We are aware that concerns have been raised historically by residents.’
The obscurely named KCTMO is what is known as an ‘Arms Length Management Organisation’ or Almo for short. Over the last 20 years, control of housing has tended to pass from local authorities to an opaque and confusing mix of different bodies.
The process began under the Conservatives in the 1990s but gathered speed under New Labour’s modernisation agenda, which aimed to transfer 200,000 homes a year from councils, claiming it was in order to meet ‘Decent Homes’ standards. Most homes transferred to housing associations, but the other two ‘options’ councils had for meeting Decent Homes targets were Almos and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), both of which critics saw as stealth privatisation.
PFI housing projects have come in for repeated criticism for imposing very high debt repayments and for poor condition work and it now appears that similar refurbishment to that carried out by the KCTMO was part of a PFI project in Camden. The cladding on the Chalcot’s Estate in Camden, where tenants were evacuated following the failure of safety tests, was installed by Rydon, the same contractor responsible for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
The government has been shown to have ignored the advice of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire and Safety Rescue, which repeatedly called for a review of regulations that should have flagged up these safety issues. But as academic and housing expert Stuart Hodkinson points out, on a PFI project, it is the PFI contractor itself that is responsible for carrying out the safety checks.
At Grenfell Tower, Rydon, the contractor appointed by the KCTMO, was responsible for introducing the cladding which is seen as central to the uncontainable spread of the fire. Both Rydon and the KCTMO came in for repeated criticism from the Grenfell Action Group long before the fire, to the point where residents refused Rydon access to their homes.
The fallout from the fire was paralysis in government and chaos on the ground. On the ground a power vacuum has been reflected by a failure to provide adequate replacement housing and counselling for all those affected and traumatised, with the impact spreading far beyond the fire. The complex web of non-accountability played the same role after the fire as it had before.
For example, the extensive complex of neighbouring low rise homes, which were dependant on the tower for a communal heating system, are still without gas and hot water – and residents fear the impact of asbestos known to exist in the tower. Meanwhile, nearby Latimer Road station closed, according to Transport for London, ‘due to the risk of falling debris’ from Grenfell Tower’, but disbelieving residents who live far nearer in the shadow of the tower’s skeleton have been told they are safe to return to their homes.
Across the community there is huge distrust of the authorities, as a result of the ongoing lack of accountability and now over suspicions that there has been a cover up over the real numbers of dead, with many community leaders claiming that the figure is more likely to be in the hundreds rather than the official death toll which has remained for weeks now at 80.
Rather than initiating coordinated emergency measures to provide reassurance and safety it appears that none of central or local government – including the new emergency task force – or the KCTMO are equipped to deal with the continuing crisis. Instead, it is spreading as recently installed cladding on tower blocks all around the UK fail fire safety tests, with the result that residents being moved into temporary accommodation are fearful about what will happen to their homes.
At such a sensitive time, it is has angered many housing activities and communities that London mayor Sadiq Khan suggested that the answer might be to demolish tower blocks, feeding into a pre-existing and increasingly vicious battle in London over ‘estate regeneration’.Critics claim this is little more than social cleansing, as housing estates of low and high rise housing are demolished and replaced with largely luxury apartments with limited amounts of affordable housing, while existing residents are displaced.
For these communities, it is clear that it is not the tower blocks themselves which are the problem (although it is very understandable that Grenfell residents themselves may not now wish to be rehoused in high-rise accommodation). Instead, this disaster, and the associated failings now emerging on other housing estates, reflects the loss of democratic accountability in housing and the abject failure to listen to residents over the last twenty years – which is also reflected in the failure to listen to all those tens of thousands of residents on housing estates who do not want to see their homes demolished.
It is no surprise that no one has suggested that the 300 or so new towers of luxury apartments mushrooming over London be demolished, even though the government has now said private landlords should also test cladding for safety. As the chimera of luxury apartment towers sold to foreign investors come to define London’s skyline, it appears that the failure of accountability at Grenfell Tower is sadly a more accurate representation of life for many ordinary Londoners.