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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Lessons from the collapse of Carillion

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on January 16.

On the face of it, housing seems set to escape relatively unscathed from the crisis at Carillion but there are still some important lessons to be learned.

The construction and outsourcing firm that sounds more like a heavy metal band went into liquidation on Monday leaving £1.5 billion owed to the banks, 19,000 workers facing an uncertain future and a £600 million hole in its pension fund.

That’s before we get to the egg on the faces of ministers who continued to award it lucrative contracts despite clear warning signs about its future, the controversy about executive pay and dividends and the awful knock-on effects on smaller companies and workers in the supply chain owed money that may not get paid at all.

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A damning verdict on the building regulations and fire safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 18.

Six months on from the disaster that changed everything it sometimes feels like not much has changed.

Despite the promises made in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, progress has been painfully slow on rehousing families from the tower and surrounding block.

The police will not complete a full forensic assessment and reconstruction of how the fire spread before autumn 2018 and potential suspects in the criminal investigation will not be interviewed until after that.

Interim findings from the public inquiry were originally due by Easter 2018 but the judge leading it says the scale of the work that is required means that will not now be possible. No date has been set for the final report.

With up to 2,400 witnesses to be interviewed, 31 million documents to be examined and 383 companies identified as having played some role in the refurbishment of the tower, it’s not hard to find good reasons why things are taking so long.

Establishing the causes of the fire to stop the same thing happening again will be complicated enough but that is just part of getting justice for the victims and survivors.

Finding who was to blame will take time and all the while questions will remain about building safety elsewhere.

Tangible progress towards finding some of the answers comes with today’s publication of the interim findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

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Building the case

Originally posted on October 19 on my blog for Inside Housing

Sometimes powerful arguments for a change of direction in housing policy come from unexpected places.

The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model is a case in point. Before your eyes glaze over at the title, bear with me because it has profound implications not just for the way we build homes but also the sort of housing we build and who we build them for.

Subtitled Modernise or Die, the report was commissioned last year from the Construction Leadership Council by housing minister Brandon Lewis and skills minister Nick Boles. By the time it was published this week, both had moved on, but the policy context had also shifted on its axis.

Back then, the Treasury and George Osborne dominated housing policy and everything was about home ownership and Help to Buy. Now other departments have much more influence, we have a housing minister calling for a balanced approach to tenure and attention has turned to modern methods of construction for new homes.

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Skills and homes

Originally published on September 23 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If ‘Brexit means Brexit’ should it also mean a new programme of investment in social housing?

After a referendum that saw 63% of social tenants vote to leave the European Union, the attractions should be obvious. For ‘left behind’ voters it could mean both homes and jobs. For the government, now apparently edging away from an obsession with home ownership, it could offer a big pay-off from Philip Hammond’s ‘fiscal re-set’. For the purposes of this blog I’ll ignore all the other arguments in favour.

But it could also play into the wider politics of Brexit. Theresa May’s soundbite has yet to be translated into anything substantial but seems to be heading towards a ‘Hard Brexit’ outside the single market on the grounds that the referendum was a vote for controls on immigration.

That has huge implications for the housebuilding sector and the wider construction industry. Berkeley Homes boss Rob Perrins even claimed last weekend that a block on EU immigration could cut new homes by half. That is an exaggeration that could say more about his own workforce in London than the industry as a whole but this is still a huge issue. An alliance of construction organisations warned Brexit secretary David Davis earlier this month of a skills crisis if he does not make it a priority in the negotiations to come.

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