Two years on from Grenfell but still ‘only a matter of time’

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on June 10.

Almost two years on from Grenfell, Sunday’s huge fire at a block of flats in Barking is a horrifying reminder of how much there is still to do to keep residents safe.

Thankfully, everyone seems to have got out but the parallels are all too clear in the terrifying speed at which the fire spread and previous safety concerns raised by residents of the mixed-tenure block that appear to have been brushed aside.

Attention will inevitably focus on the safety of timber balconies and the apparent failure of fire retardant treatment of the materials used as well as the actions of those responsible for the block.

More broadly it underlines a whole series of questions about regulation and the construction industry and relationships between developers, freeholders and leaseholders that have still not had adequate answers.

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Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.

As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.

The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.

The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.

And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.

Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.

Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.

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10 things about 2018 – part one

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.

It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.

It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.

Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.

1. New names, new ministers

January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.

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More housing questions than answers

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on December 11. 

As Westminster grinds to a halt over Brexit at least some progress is still being made on housing – or is it?

In the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, some things have undoubtedly moved but the signs at Housing Communities and Local Government questions on Monday were that others are grinding to a halt.

First up was the land question and specifically the way that MHCLG dashed hopes of radical reform of land value capture in its response to a Housing Communities and Local Government Committee report recommending big changes to a system that sees planning permission for housing increase the value of agricultural land by 100 times.

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Grenfell’s ‘culture of non-compliance’

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on June 5.

Yes it was the cladding but expert reports for the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire find multiple fire safety failures in the building and its refurbishment and management and in the wider regulatory system and construction industry.

The first thing that leaps out of the report by fire engineer Dr Barbara Lane is a timeline that shows that the conditions for ‘Stay Put’ advice to residents had ‘substantially failed’ by 01:26 on the morning of the fire.

This was within half an hour of the fire breaking out in Flat 16 and the London Fire Brigade did not abandon Stay Put until 02:47.

Those conclusions have already made some of the headlines but Dr Lane makes clear that there is a deeper context for them.

The way that high-rise buildings are designed and the way that fires in them are fought in them rely on the fact that multi-storey external envelope fires are not meant to happen.

So the fire at Grenfell rendered invalid all of the basic assumptions about fighting fires from the inside and telling residents of other flats to stay inside them because they will be protected by compartmentation.

That meant there had to be an improvised approach to fighting the fire from the outside on the night but most of the building was always going to out of reach even for aerial appliances – the whole reason why the risk of external fires should be designed out in the first place.

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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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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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