Why the Grenfell tragedy is about inequality

To tackle the crisis at the heart of Grenfell we need to tackle the inequality behind it.

Figures released yesterday showed that nearly 2,000 homes lie empty in Kensington and Chelsea – many of them treated as investment units by wealthy offshore owners.

Yet survivors of the Grenfell tower tragedy are still homeless. This is a story of inequality in Britain, writes Kevin Gulliver.

It’s six weeks today since the Grenfell tower disaster. It will cast a long shadow over UK housing for a long time to come. But it also stands as a monument to widening inequalities in our country that have been neglected for far too long. 

The UK is one of the most unequal industrialised countries according to Oxfam. The wealthiest 1,000 families have combined wealth of £658bn, up almost 15% from last year, representing 6% of total UK wealth of £11.1tr.

The Wealth and Assets Survey reveals that the wealthiest 10% of households own 45% of total wealth – almost £5tr – whereas the bottom 50% of the population hold just 9%, or £1tr.

The Grenfell Tower fire happened in one of the nation’s wealthiest boroughs where the average income is £11,000 higher than nationally and the income gap between the poorest tenth and richest tenth of households is £88,000, whereas it’s £42,000 for the UK over all.

Grenfell Tower residents – mostly poor, disadvantaged and from an ethnic minority – were clustered in a social housing enclave in the midst of fabulous wealth, where the average house price is £1.5m and the ratio of average house price to average income is 40 to 1 in stark contrast to 8 to 1 nationally.

Housing tenure perpetuates inequality since housing equity makes up a large slice of total wealth: average wealth for social renters is only £18,000 compared to £270,000 for mortgagors and £410,000 for outright owners.

The recently published English Housing Survey (EHS) further illustrates that households in poverty, those on low incomes, social renters and ethnic minorities habitually experience greater levels of inequality associated with their housing.

Households living in poverty are more likely to be living in ‘non-decent’ housing (at 24%) compared with non-poor households (at 18%). Over 23% of the lowest income group lives in ‘non-decent’ housing in contrast to 15% of the highest income group.

Given the Grenfell Tower fire, perhaps the most shocking finding of the EHS is that households in poverty, low income groups, lone parents and ethnic minorities are most likely to live in homes without fire alarms.

The EHS underscores that disadvantaged households tend to be less satisfied with their homes too. Dissatisfaction is much higher for those households identifying as ‘black’, at 17% compared with 5% of whites. More than 13% of social renters are dissatisfied with their homes whereas the proportions for home owners and private renters are 3% and 10% respectively.

What the Grenfell Tower tragedy has underscored is that social housing has been neglected for too many years. Social house-building reached a post-WWII low in 2016, as the chart shows. And existing social housing is calling out for new investment to upgrade tower blocks and estate-based amenities.

What’s clear is that investment in social housing, even via borrowing, represents good value for money since it adds physical assets to the national accounts, creates employment in the construction and supply-chain sectors, and cuts the housing benefit bill which has ballooned because of escalating private sector rents, which are double social rents on average.

Such investment is urgently needed to rebuild social housing communities blighted by a decade of austerity and to ensure that another Grenfell Tower does not happen again.

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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