We need to talk about Grenfell

Carol Hayton

Horsham CLP, NPF representative

The blackened remains of the Grenfell tower stand as a stark symbol of the appalling indifference   and inertia that has prevailed across both national and local government when it comes to the need to ensure that everyone has a decent, safe and secure place to live.  There are, of course exceptions;  councils that are working hard in difficult circumstances to deliver the homes their communities need. But the extent of the inertia is evident in the complete failure on the part of those who have the means to do so, to deliver a policy agenda, at local and national level, that will end the housing crisis. 

This is a crisis that has seen a year on year increase in the numbers of homeless on our streets and a year on year decline in the levels of council housing stock. It has resulted in growing numbers housed in temporary and inappropriate accommodation and, despite councils tightening up eligibility criteria, the number of households on the housing register remaining steadfastly above one million.

There is recognition in most quarters of the strain that the housing crisis is putting on so many households and in particular those on low incomes. There is a growing recognition of the need for  an alternative to the private sector. But the Grenfell fire highlighted that there is undoubtedly, amongst many of those responsible for that alternative, an indifference to their responsibilities.  Some even seem to feel that those who have every right to apply to the council for housing are somehow undeserving when they access that right, particularly when they do so in a neighbourhood that is deemed more suited to a more aspirational demographic.  As if to remind their tenants of just how undeserving they are, some councils have neglected their stock to such an appalling extent that it has becomes unfit for human habitation. 

This is of course an extreme outcome of political indifference and I am sure some councillors will feel offended by the suggestion that this attitude could even occur, but the evidence lies in the  English Housing Survey 2015 which identified 527,000 housing association and council homes that failed to meet the decent homes standard, and 244,000 classed as unfit for human habitation.

The tenants of Grenfell Tower were undoubtedly victims of that extreme indifference and they tried to challenge it. They tried to escalate the concerns about fire safety to the social housing regulator but they were prevented from doing so as the concerns were not deemed to meet the regulator’s criteria for investigation. They were right to believe that only a devastating incident would result in a response from appropriate authorities to their concerns.    

It is startling to note how quickly, when faced with the consequences of their indifference, the  political establishment became defensive, seeking to shift the blame to the fire service, the contractors, the manufacturers, even the tenants. Apparently, tenants were offered the opportunity to have sprinklers installed but turned this down in favour of improvements to their flats to bring them up to the decent homes standard. The option of having both a safe and a decent home wasn’t available to them, but they were given a choice, so the implication seems to be that, unbelievably, the responsibility for the absence of sprinklers lies with the tenants.

In the weeks following the fire there was unanimous agreement that such a terrible tragedy should never happen again. Lessons would be learned, action would be taken. But lessons were not learned and promises of swift action were soon forgotten. The public inquiry seems destined to become a smoke screen for more inertia, more opportunities to place the blame elsewhere. In the meantime families remain displaced, campaigners continue to demand justice, and across the country tower blocks remain clad in combustible material and other breaches of fire safety regulations remain unresolved.   

At the end of the Justice for Grenfell march on Saturday, 16th June, the organisers asked all those who attended to talk to other people about Grenfell to keep the campaign for justice alive. So that’s what we will do.  And there’s the broader issue: we need to break through the political indifference and inertia that Grenfell symbolises to achieve an appropriate political response to the housing crisis that is devastating our communities. We need to keep talking about Grenfell, we need to keep talking about housing.