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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From housing ladder to housing treadmill

Originally posted on April 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Once upon a time the image of a ladder was a fair representation of the housing system. Not anymore.

The old days in which the home-owning majority saved for a deposit and got a mortgage, a significant majority put their names down for a council house and got one and the rest used the private rented sector as a temporary transition are long gone.

And a report out today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests a new image has replaced the ladder for people on low incomes struggling with high housing costs and insecure jobs and tenancies: a housing treadmill, where people ‘were running to stay and were worried about falling off completely’.

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What – and who – is social housing for?

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

I’ve lost count of the number of inquiries taking place into the future of social housing.

Sajid Javid wanted his forthcoming green paper to ‘kick off a nationwide conversation’ only to see Alok Sharma reshuffled in the middle of hearing what tenants had to say.

But the conversation is at least taking place. Whether it’s Labour, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter or similar initiatives in the devolved nations, everyone is set to have their say.

The content will range far and wide from governance to safety, quality to quantity and accountability to tenants’ rights but there are also basic questions to be answered about what and who social housing is for.

Some vital context for this comes in the latest edition of the UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

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Where the money really goes in housing

Three comparisons leap out from the latest edition of the indispensable UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

The first two are not new in themselves and the third is only a crude estimate but all three need repeating again and again for a real appreciation of where spending on housing goes and exactly who is subsidising who.

First comes the main one highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH): the shift from bricks and mortar to personal subsidies, or from grants for new homes and repairs to old ones to housing benefit.

This series of pie charts from the Review shows the change over the last 40 years and the total amount of housing subsidies in real terms:

Chapters tables charts 2018

Note first that supply subsidies have sunk to just 4.3 per cent of the total pie – this despite all the cuts in housing benefit seen since 2010 and the fact that the figures to not include continuing tax reliefs for home owners (see below for more on that).

Second, note that this does not save money. Total subsidies are now 48 per cent higher in real terms than at the turn of the century (when admittedly social housing investment was very low) but they are also approaching the levels of 30 years ago (when investment was significantly higher and the unemployment rate was three times what it is now).

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A benefit to society

News that 90% of social housing tenants feel that the media presents stereotypes of them is depressing but sadly not surprising.

As a report launched at the House of Commons today by the Benefit to Society campaign argues, the negative views are embedded in whole swathes of TVprogramming that links housing tenure to benefits status.

But it’s not just about poverty porn like Benefits Street and Council House Crackdown and tabloid headlines about scroungers and large families.

More thoughtful programmes like How to get a Council House can mine the same themes and generate the same hostility.

And even supposedly objective TV and broadsheet news coverage can strengthen the stereotypes by resorting to the lazy clichés of ‘sink’ and ‘crumbling’ estates and using stock pictures and idents of tower blocks and abandoned shopping trolleys.

So it is good to see that my union, the National Union of Journalists, is backing the Fair Press for Tenants guide aimed at journalists, PR people and documentary makers.

And the level of media interest in today’s launch and opinion poll also bodes well and is a chance to combat the stereotypes and change a few opinions.

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Scotland shows the way on affordable housing

First posted as a blog for Inside Housing on February 27. 

News that Scotland is on track to deliver its ambitious plans for affordable homes is great news in itself but it also shows those further south what can be achieved when a government and the housing sector are determined enough.

The Scottish Government has promised 50,000 affordable homes, of which 35,000 will be for social rent, between April 2016 and March 2021. This is the largest programme of its kind since the 1970s.

And an independent analysis of local authorities’ Strategic Housing Investment Plans (SHIPs) published on Monday find that Scotland should deliver between 45,000 and 50,000 affordable homes and up to 34,850 for social rent.

That’s impressive enough but even more so when you consider it in the context of what’s happening (or not) further south.

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To ballot or not to ballot

Originally posted at Inside Housing on February 7.

Tenants get a vote if their landlord wants to transfer the ownership of their homes, so why not when their homes are going to be knocked down around them?

I’ve long believed that tenant ballots should be compulsory under major regeneration proposals even though the idea is not as simple as some people make out and is not going to fix current problems on its own.

Why? London mayor Sadiq Khan says he will require ballots on proposals where demolition is involved and which have Greater London Authority funding.

He has changed his mind since draft guidance last year argued that surveys and meetings should be held as proposals evolve ‘so that a “real time” assessment of the acceptability of what is being proposed is enabled’.

The draft said ballots and votes ‘can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people at different ways over many years into a simple “yes/no” decision at a single point in time’.

After a unanimous vote in favour of ballots by the London Assembly, the final version says that: ‘I want the good practice and principles in this guide to be applied on all estate regeneration schemes across London. Where demolition is involved, I intend to use my planning powers, and a new requirement for resident ballots where my funding is involved, to help ensure this is the case.’

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