Grenfell Tower and the unravelling of forty years of housing ideology

As part of a series of posts critically reflecting on the Grenfell Tower fire, Prof Helen Carr argues that legal and policy burdens make tower blocks unmanageable

Some argue that the collapse of Ronan Point which killed four people in 1968 following a gas explosion within the tower block marked the beginning of the end of the welfare state. Grenfell Tower may well have a similar place in history, the moment when the contradictions and impossibilities of contemporary housing policy were revealed to everyone in a tragedy that is a national shame.

In 1974, when Grenfell Tower was built, it all seemed so much simpler. The council was the proud landlord of a brand new building allocated to tenants selected from its waiting list, all of whom had the same tenancy agreement, one written by the council, and reserving to it all sorts of powers to ensure it could manage the building, and the people living in it. It made economic sense to employ caretakers and rent collectors, so there was personal contact between the tenants and the council. However the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 triggered a process which made the management of tower blocks so much more complicated, if not impossible. Following the blog by my colleague Ed Kirton-Darling on the parallels with the Lakanal House fire, I argue that the complexity of the task facing the Tenants Management Organisation, and ultimately Kensington and Chelsea, is a significant factor in the tragedy, and one which must not be overlooked by any inquiry.

As is well known, the Housing Act of 1980 gave statutory force to the Right to Buy. Many tenants, tempted by substantial discounts, bought their homes and over the years 1.87 million homes were sold. This, in an extraordinary transfer of resources from state to individuals, really gave substance to the notion of a property owning democracy. Tenants were also given, for the first time, security of tenure and other rights such as the right to improve their homes or take in lodgers, reducing what many believed to be the excessive powers of their landlord, local authorities.

The Right to Buy, however, was only one of a series of reforms which impacted upon housing policy. The Homeless Persons Act 1977 imposed statutory duties upon local authorities to house homeless families and vulnerable individuals, disrupting the waiting list system. This in combination with the reduction in availability of council housing led to what has been described as the residualisation of council housing. So, in simple terms, more people, with greater housing and other needs were being housed in a declining number of properties. Policies, such as only housing families on the first five floors of a tower block had to be abandoned. At the same time private renting was deregulated, so security was reduced and market rents, at first sweetened by the ready availability of housing benefit, were imposed. The increasing numbers of people who were excluded from social housing entered the private market, stimulating demand and causing rents to rise. In addition, the close and often personal contact between councils and their tenants could no longer be sustained as public management reforms subjected council services to the rigours of the market. When New Labour came to power they saw social housing as a locus for much that was wrong in society. So social housing providers got new duties imposed upon them, for instance to manage anti-social behaviour and to provide for tenants’ employability and support needs. Welfare reforms such as the ‘bedroom’ tax and the benefit cap have also impacted upon housing management, with an added twist, the government has actively encouraged tenants to take in lodgers so as to be able to afford their rent, adding to the dense mix of residents. All these policies must be set against a backdrop of many of us becoming more wealthy because of home ownership, and, following the introduction of buy-to-let mortgages in 1995, an increasing number of home owners owning second homes and becoming landlords. The disparity between those of us who own property and those that don’t has never been greater.

Perhaps the government did not anticipate that the Right to Buy would be exploited by investor landlords who saw great potential for profit in the marketization of private rents. Flats in tower blocks were particularly attractive to investors. Those who exercised the right to buy were often understandably keen to move away from densely packed and often substandard accommodation. Particular inducements were offered to the tenants of tower blocks to purchase their flats. From 1983 the price discounts were considerable higher than on houses. But the reluctance of lenders to offer mortgages for this sort of property meant that cash buyers were privileged, and they were most likely to buy the flats for renting out. At the time of the fire, rents were around £2000 per month for a two bedroom flat in Grenfell tower.

The end result is that tower blocks are virtually impossible to manage. Residents can comprise social tenants, long leaseholders, private tenants, lodgers and many other, less formal arrangements. The landlord has distinct responsibilities in relation to each type of residential occupier. Perhaps this is most clearly demonstrated in the landlord’s responsibilities in the management of fire risks. It has direct responsibility for all the common parts and for the fire risks faced by its own tenants. It also has enforcement powers against long leaseholders who breach fire regulations. Long leaseholders who have bought to let have responsibilities towards their own tenants within the properties, and if the flat is let to multiple occupiers unrelated to each other, those responsibilities may be more onerous. And of course there are conflicts between these groups… social tenants may want maximum provision, long leaseholders may be more reluctant to pay for what they may consider unnecessary works when they are unable to increase rent levels to match service charge outgoings and private tenants and others more informally housed may just want to keep their heads down so that no-one decides to evict them. The resources available to the landlord to manage the impossible situation into which it has been placed are increasingly constrained, and it is constantly asking its Tenant Management Organisation to do more for less.

I am not an apologist for Kensington and Chelsea. Far from it. What I am asking for is for Kensington and Chelsea to put up its hands and admit that it was in an impossible situation and to make explicit central government’s responsibility for the mess of contemporary housing policy. It’s most unlikely to do this…. And much more likely to blame the residents, whether because of unapproved alterations, disabling of fire proof doors or whatever else might emerge, for its own failings. But we should all be alert to and resist the tendency of both local and central government to blame the governed for its own failings.

Image credit (images combined): (left) Ronan Point Collapse by Derek VollerCC BY-SA 2.0; (right) Grenfell Tower by ChiralJon CC BY 2.0