The disaster has become an emblem of Britain's social failures
Image: Natalie Wood
The tragic fire at Kensington and Chelsea’s Grenfell Tower — whose presumed death toll has now risen to 79 — is fast becoming an emblem for the consequences of a decade of austerity, deep cuts to local council services, and pushing social housing to the margins. There the blackened tower stands, an indictment of widening inequality, especially in one of the country’s richest boroughs.
The exact causes of the fire will need to be addressed by the promised speedy inquiry by the prime minister. Yet what is clear is that the cladding used in a recent refurbishment of Grenfell Tower is banned in much of Europe, could possibly contravene the UK’s health and safety standards, and was perhaps used to ‘disguise’ that the flatted block was social housing, so reducing its perceived suppression of local house prices.
The prime minister’s inadequate response to the tragedy, recognised by many of her colleagues and even some of the right-wing press, is matched only by the lack of any presence on the ground in the first days of the tragedy by representatives of Kensington and Chelsea council. And the likelihood that successive Tory housing ministers set aside a series of reports about the safety of tower blocks generally, and that Kensington and Chelsea council rejected representations from the residents group for the Grenfell Tower estate, underscore how social housing and tenants are ignored.
The decline of social housing as a once effective means for those on low or no incomes to obtain decent housing is revealed by trends in housing investment.
Last year, just 6,500 new social rent homes were provided by local councils and housing associations compared with 57,000 twenty-five years ago. Central government funding for social rent has disappeared since 2010 via that year’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Many of these homes are being built solely through the endeavours of social landlords from their own resources rather than via public investment.
In Kensington and Chelsea, fewer than 600 social and affordable rented homes have been built in the borough in the last ten years, while 2,500 private homes — many investment properties bought by foreign interests — are empty across the borough. Of these, 50 per cent have been empty for more than six months. These figures reveal the reality of central government and localised housing policy — it is more important that boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea offer rich foreigners investment opportunities than invest in, or support, social and affordable house-building for local people.
This despite the fact that Kensington and Chelsea has 2,753 households on its waiting list — equivalent to more than 8,000 adults and children. It is also likely that this is a severe under-estimate of the real scale of local housing need since close to 9,000 households were registered on the waiting list in 2013, which dropped by 70 per cent in one year following the Localism Act. The Act is important since it enabled local councils to set stricter eligibility criteria for their waiting lists, effectively removing many thousands who are in need of housing.
One of the ironies, and an additional pressure point for the prime minister as she tries to redeem her sullied reputation, is that former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who seems to have ignored reports about tower block safety issues, now sits at the centre of Number 10 as May’s chief of staff.
While the Grenfell Tower fire was probably not caused directly by the government’s austerity programme, unless adding cheaper cladding was used to save money, it is symbolic of an uncaring attitude since 2010 of the plight of the poor and disadvantaged generally, and of social tenants specifically.
Redemption for the government, and for May especially, needs to begin with supporting Grenfell Tower residents more effectively. Reduce the burden of austerity on those at the bottom of the income scale, by repealing welfare reforms and immediately introducing a higher national living wage, should follow.
Finally, Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech should announce a massive investment in social housing to build at least 500,000 new homes over the life of the Parliament, as a meaningful way of commemorating the Grenfell Tower victims.
Kevin Gulliver is Director of Birmingham-based research charity the Human City Institute, is former Chair of the Centre for Community Research, and part of the SHOUT save social housing campaign, but writes in a personal capacity.
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