Guest post on the Grenfell Tower disaster
The theme for the first day of the Boot Out Austerity walk was housing, and one of the speakers at the morning rally, before we set off to walk from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, was Glyn Robbins. Glyn works in housing and has also campaigned in this area for many years. He writes a superb blog on housing matters, and having read his latest post, on Grenfell Tower, I asked him if he would write a guest post for this blog. I am really grateful to Glyn for having done so, as housing is such a central issue for social workers and the current crisis in housing affects so many of the people who use social work services.
Care and class in the city
I’ve just bumped in to David. In some ways, he personifies the early 21st century city. He’s a financial trader, originally from America and bought a home on the council estate where I work in north London. We talked about the Grenfell Tower disaster. David nailed it. He said ‘This is about what we value in society.’
I’ve worked in housing since 1991, but I’ve never known a period like this. Even before the election, campaigners (with the support of BASW) were saying housing policy was at a crossroads between a home as a disposable commodity or a safe, secure place to live. That question has even more urgency now.
I was delighted to take part in the first day of BASW’s ‘Boot Out Austerity’ walk in April. Along the road from Birmingham to Wolverhampton we talked about the links between bad housing and other social problems. Housing workers and social workers see them every day. We said back then ‘Austerity Kills’. After Grenfell Tower, that’s not just a slogan, it’s a fact.
What David said captures the many ways caring for one another has become harder in the Age of Austerity. It extends from cuts to frontline services, to our increasingly atomised communities. Our ‘broken’ housing system (the government’s word, not mine) underlies our increasingly divided cities.
On the estate I manage, I estimate we have a 30% turnover of residents a year. Mostly that’s young private tenants, renting from absentee landlords. Some of this churn is a feature of the global economy in which people are far more mobile than they ever were. That can be a good thing, but only if it’s a choice, not a compulsion.
If you’re a private renter in this country, you’re never more than two months away from a compulsory eviction notice. In the turbo-charged housing market of some places, it’s all too easy to understand why rents and evictions are rising and many pay more than 50% of their income on housing, often for sub-standard, overcrowded accommodation.
If you’re caught in that situation, what chance is there you’ll get to know your neighbour, or get involved in your local community? You may not see either again in six months time. Cities are more cosmopolitan than ever (there are people from about twenty different ethnicities on the relatively small estate where I work), but the sense of parallel lives has never been greater.
These issues are fundamentally shaped by social class. We’re all affected by our urban dis-ease and the housing crisis, in particular, now extends a long way up the social ladder. But it’s working class people and communities that are most affected by cuts, austerity and the fundamental lack of care that was tragically exposed at Grenfell Tower.
One of the first things we learned about the disaster was that residents had been warning about fire safety for years and hadn’t been listened to. That’s no surprise. Behind the window dressing of ‘consultation’ and ‘customer care’ is a basic lack of respect for people who live in council housing, with a message that says ‘We know best. Shut up and be grateful for what you get.’
This is a perversion of one of council housing’s core principles. Being publicly owned should mean being democratically accountable. Like NHS patients, council tenants shouldn’t be treated as ‘customers’, but as citizens. Customers get ripped-off. Citizens have rights.
Grenfell Tower is the consequence of four decades of systematic denigration and stigmatisation of non-market housing and the people who live in it. From the window of my office, I can see the tower blocks of the Barbican estate. A two-bedroom flat in there will cost you £1.6 million. What would happen if residents of that tower block raised safety concerns?
Some years ago, I found myself in a particularly clean, well-maintained toilet. The usual type of sign was present, telling people what to do if they were dissatisfied. It said ‘The condition of this toilet should be impeccable.’ It was in the Houses of Parliament. If MPs’ toilets can be impeccable, so can working class peoples’ homes.