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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Labour sets out its stall on affordable housing

The green paper published by Labour on Thursday represents the most comprehensive plan for affordable housing put forward by a major party in England in 40 years.

The document launched by Jeremy Corbyn and John Healey does not just reject the market-based and Conservative-led polices of the last eight years, it also goes significantly further than the policies adopted by the last Labour government and in some ways even beyond what the party proposed at the last election.

In broad outline, it is an attempt to reclaim the word ‘affordable’ and spell out what housing ‘for the many’ would mean. And it explicitly rejects the current government’s claim that the only way to make housing affordable is to build as many new homes as possible:

‘Conservative housing policy is the wrong answer, to the wrong question. It is not just how many new homes we build, but what we build and who for that counts. We have to build more affordable homes to make homes more affordable.’

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New name, new ministers, new start?

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on January 23.

It’s got a new name and new ministers but how much has really changed at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government?

Yesterday’s MCHLG questions marked the first time that Sajid Javid and his new team have faced MPs since the reshuffle earlier this month.

Judging from the secretary of state’s first few responses, the answer seemed to be not much.

His exchanges with his Labour shadow John Healey over the painfully slow progress on replacing unsafe tower block cladding have already been widely reported.

On the latest figures, 312 buildings have been tested and 299 have been failed but cladding has been taken down and replaced on just three.

‘How has it come to this?’ asked Healey. ‘Seven months on from Grenfell, only one in four families who are Grenfell survivors has a new permanent home. The Government still cannot confirm how many other tower blocks across the country are unsafe. Ministers still refuse to help to fund essential fire safety work when they know that blocks are dangerous.’

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The real Budget agenda is clear

Philip Hammond’s Budget contains some big numbers and ambitious promises on housing but you don’t have to delve very far to find the real priorities.

Contrast, for example, what’s happening with housing, tax and welfare, two different measures that were heavily predicted and one that was desperately needed.

Stamp duty is being cut, but the chancellor has gone further than the expected holiday by abolishing it completely for first-time buyers of homes worth up to £300,000 or the first £300,000 of homes worth up to £500,000. The cut applies from now and will cost £3bn by the end of 2022/23.

Problems with universal credit are being addressed with measures including the scrapping of the seven-day waiting period, making advances easier to get and allowing continued payment of housing benefit for two weeks after a universal credit claim. The total cost is £1.5bn by 2022/23 and there is another delay to the rollout.

The universal credit changes are welcome but will still leave claimants potentially facing destitution and people in work thousands of pounds a year worse off than they would have been under the previous system.

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A look ahead to the Budget part two: investment

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on November 15.

In normal times, a chancellor who pledged an extra £2bn for social housing and an extra £10bn for home ownership might to be greeted with general acclaim.

But these are not normal times and the pressure to do something big and bold on housing was such that what might have been two key Budget commitments (plus the new rent formula as a third) were announced last month at the party conference.

And, far from being applauded, the government came under fire for doing too little, too late on social housing and for pouring petrol on the flames of house price inflation via Help to Buy.

Philip Hammond was not helped by a curious Conservative briefing to journalists that the £2bn would only be enough for 25,000 homes but even Tory newspapers were checking housebuilder share prices on the day after the budget for Help to Buy was doubled.

This second part of my blog previewing a watershed Budget for housing looks at the prospects for further moves on investment on November 22. Part three (coming soon) will look at tax and welfare.

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Finding new homes for Grenfell families

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 12.

How difficult should it be for Kensington and Chelsea to find new permanent homes for the families made homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire?

A month on from the disaster, new council leader Elizabeth Campbell promised on the Today programme this morning (listen from around 2:10:00) to build new council homes and buy existing ones.

So far 68 social rented homes have been reserved for the families at a new development in Kensington but they were always going to be affordable housing anyway, built under a Section 106 agreement and bought by the City of London Corporation.

Only 14 out of the 158 Grenfell families currently living in hotels have accepted offers of temporary accommodation as they wait for permanent homes.

Cllr Campbell, who is also the new cabinet member for housing and regeneration, gave a contrite but awkward interview in which she claimed (wrongly) that the Royal Borough would be the first in London to build new council homes and admitted (eventually) that she has never been inside one of the council’s tower blocks.

However, she did at least perform better than her predecessor as leader, Nick Paget-Brown, and another Tory councillor, Catherine Faulks, who made an embarrassing appearance on the same programme last week.

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Learning the lessons of Grenfell Tower

Originally published on June 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

Why? Why? Why? The questions come thick and fast.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Who let it happen?

I can’t pretend to have the technical expertise to have the answers and it’s important not to leap to the wrong conclusions. So for the moment there can only be questions about Tuesday night’s horrific fire in London.

At least 12 people are known to have died as the fire swept through Grenfell Tower but given the number of people missing the final death toll looks like it will be far higher than that.

Even the immediate questions are endless. Why did the fire spread so quickly? Why were there no sprinklers or fire alarms? Should the advice to stay put be changed?

Did the refurbishment work or the cladding used make Grenfell Tower less safe? Why did the council and landlord not heed residents’ warnings about the fire risks?

Where will the surviving residents live now and how long will it take them to find permanent homes?

The questions keep coming but we need answers and soon about why the tragedy happened and how to stop it happening again.

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