Responding to Grenfell

By David Dewhurst

 

The fire at Grenfell Tower has raised a number of concerns for those living in both council and social housing.
The fire at Grenfell Tower has raised a number of concerns for those living in both council and social housing.

Housing has been a critical issue both locally and nationally for decades, but the dire implications of government policies were brought sharply and tragically into focus after the recent inferno in Grenfell Tower. In Hounslow, we feel that it’s time to launch a housing group to work to improve housing conditions in the borough and to apply pressure on the local authorities. We hope that people will be able to get involved and contribute to making this a success and we would like to encourage everyone who is able to lend a hand.

Despite wanting to help, Hounslow Momentum has taken on board the concern of local people not to be ‘taken over.’ We agreed to be available for their specific calls for help and support and to seek to co-operate on wider issues. In Hounslow we would determine our own housing vulnerabilities and campaign around them. The first steps of this will be taken with the public meeting on 14 September (see here for details).

A 2009 report stated that 20 of the 34 Hounslow high rise blocks were also high risk. HLBS (House Line Building Services) was the main contractor for Hounslow. It was agreed that we should inform ourselves about the situation of tower blocks in Hounslow. Specific Council members of the Planning group to get information from were: Rob Watley (Chair of the Planning Committee), Steve Curran, the lead member for planning, and Katherine Dunne, the lead member for housing.

To repeat a generally supported observation by one member, ‘An upshot of Grenfell should be a heightened awareness of the responsibility of the owners, designers and maintainers of such potentially dangerous buildings.’ Heads need to roll for the avoidable deaths in Grenfell and members of planning need to have it drawn to their attention very forcefully that they have a legal responsibility to make a genuine effort to understand the problems and implications of the decisions they make, especially in the case of safety. It is all too often apparent that some planning committee members have not read even the basic papers for complex applications such as the Design and Access statements which are written in non-technical language specifically for them and members of the public. Instead, they rely on the planning officer to tell them whether the application is okay or not.

Planning departments are understaffed and are under tremendous pressure from developers. Planning officers’ advice needs to be critically examined. We need to get up to speed with the current situation and likely future developments. We could start by a series of well-framed questions put through our Labour Party branches.

The wider implications to life and welfare as a result of corporate greed, austerity and the disempowering indifference by Kensington and Chelsea Council to local voices have been expressed movingly and articulately by survivors. The contradiction between ground roots democracy and gross inequalities of wealth will lead to more unnecessary death and suffering if we lack the determination to address it. The stark warnings of the Grenfell Action Group about impending disaster, as in the report published on its website on 16 December 2016, “Playing with Fire”, show how little the authority cared to listen to the most detailed accounts of the problems.

When 80% of the UK finance sector is an asset inflation device for itself and for the land oligopoly [UK banking is a highly interconnected machine whose principal activity is leveraging up existing property assets.’  Martin Wolf FT 29 10 13] the unchecked ‘rent’ extraction in all its forms (including enormous mortgages and rents, shoddy dwellings, static or declining wages with growing profits) will continue to have the effects on life and happiness which epidemiologists have been warning us about for decades.

Over a decade ago, the McKinsey Institute, a business consultancy, pointed out how ‘land-banking’ in London was inflating housing costs. The annual reports of the big five builders use phrases such as ‘We have decided to prioritise margin over volume’, which explains the hundreds of thousands of undeveloped sites with planning permission. Oxford geography professor Danny Dorling points to the 30m empty bedrooms in the UK.  With 60m acres in the UK and a population of 65m, a little maths shows that we could also house two million in typical semis on one twentieth of one percent of the land (with a much smaller built footprint). The build cost (around £100,000 per semi) would be under a quarter of what has been squandered on Quantitative Easing. The necessary technical discussions on building are still of very mixed quality; the fundamental economic drivers of the human sacrifice at Grenfell are all too apparent.

Please join us on Tuesday 12th September at 19.30 to discuss the implications of the Grenfell Tower disaster and how it has affected individuals. Details can be found on our Facebook page.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Grenfell”

  1. Many good points in this article. Particularly interesting that Hounslow Tower Blocks were deemed unsafe so long ago. However, we also need to know what the response of the Council was to the points made in 2009.

    David makes good points also about the way our financial system leverages up property prices. It is not always appreciated that Gordon Brown’s much vaunted saving the world from disaster in response to the 2008 crash consisted in vast amounts of quantitative easing which had the effect of pushing up property prices.

    And that’s the point I think. We need the Labour Party national to advance a housing policy that takes such things into account, along with the issue of land registration and land value tax. The response of Labour’s Policy Commission report to Annual Conference 2017 does not seem to be fit for purpose.

    It is up to all concerned to get up to speed with good quality left analyses of the housing crisis. I suggest that a discussion based on Duncan Bowie’s book Radical Solutions to the Housing Crisis (2017), Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (2017) by Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laurie Macfarlane and All that is solid (2015) by Danny Dorling would be a great basis for people interested in developing housing policy for both local and national purposes. It seems clear that the Labour Party, left to its own devices, is not going to do the work for us.

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