Remembering Ronan Point

Originally posted on May 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of what was seen until recently as the biggest disaster in the history of council housing.

At 5.45 in the morning on May 16, 1968, a cake decorator called Ivy Hodge put the kettle on for a cup of tea. A gas explosion triggered by a faulty connection to her cooker blew out the walls to her flat and triggered the progressive collapse of one corner of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block in Newham in east London.

Four tenants were killed and several more had miraculous escapes but the fact that the explosion happened so early in the morning prevented an even worse disaster – most people were still asleep in the relative safety of their bedrooms rather than exposed to the collapse in their kitchens.

That aside, the most shocking thing about the disaster was that it happened in a new building and the first tenants had moved in two months before.

A public inquiry quickly established not just the fault in the gas connection but fundamental flaws in the large panel, system-built design. The collapse could have been triggered not just by an explosion but also by high winds and fire

That led to reform of the rules on gas safety and a shake-up of the building regulations to ensure that the structure of tall buildings became more robust.

Over the years, Ronan Point came to be seen as the high water mark of both council housing and modernist architecture.

As time went on the blame was increasingly laid at the door of architects, local authorities and even the whole idea of council housing. It’s certainly true that some designs were flawed and untested and that some councillors arrogant, self-aggrandising and even corrupt.

But some important factors are edited out of that account.

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Red tape and rabbit hutches

Originally posted on May 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New rules making it easier to convert offices into residential property have generated more than 30,000 new homes in the last two years – but at what cost?

A report published last week that deserves more attention took a detailed look at what has happened in five areas of England since the system was deregulated in 2013.

The study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also compares the experiences of Glasgow and Rotterdam, which have also seen office to residential conversions without the same deregulation.

The English reforms extended the system of permitted development, allowing developers to apply for prior approval rather than planning permission and making it much easier for them to push office to residential conversions through the system.

This is not a total free-for-all – some local authorities have successfully applied for exemptions for some areas and it is still possible to apply for new ones – but it is a significant relaxation that is meant to deliver more homes.

When former communities secretary Eric Pickles first introduced the new system he said that:

‘By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply.’

The scheme was first introduced for three years from May 2013, then made permanent from April 2016.

At first glance the results seem to bear out Pickles’s hopes and look impressive in terms the contribution to the government’s plans to move towards 300,000 net additional dwellings a year.

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Seven big questions facing James Brokenshire

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New housing secretary James Brokenshire takes over at a critical time from Sajid Javid. With little previous experience of housing, he will have to make some crucial decisions in the weeks ahead, set the longer-term direction for policy and tackle what many Conservatives now see as a key political issue for them.

Here are seven big questions for him to address.

  • How will he follow Sajid Javid?

Brokenshire becomes the fourth Conservative secretary of state responsible for housing since 2010, following Eric Pickles, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Javid has to go down as the best of the bunch (admittedly the bar is not set very high here) and he talked such a good game that he even changed the name of his department to include the word ‘housing’.

As Terrie Alafat says, his time in office saw an important shift in the narrative as housing became a top domestic priority.

But how much of it was just talk? Sajid Javid sometimes raised expectations and sometimes left the impression of doing just enough to look like he was doing something – and no more.

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