Bringing social workers and housing workers together after Grenfell

A meeting took place on Tuesday 10th October, on ‘Social Work and the Grenfell Tower Tragedy’, organised by the Social Work Action Network (SWAN), who have written a detailed account of it here.

BASW had supported the meeting, by publicising it and also arranging for housing worker and campaigner, Glyn Robbins, to be one of the speakers.

A number of BASW members attended and contributed to the meeting, including Chair, Guy Shennan, who raised the issue of the need for co-operative working between social workers and housing workers on the ground.

In the spirit of this co-operation, Guy asked Glyn if he would also write about the meeting, from his housing worker’s perspective, and Glyn has provided the following report.

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Glyn Robbins: “The Grenfell Tower tragedy continues to shock, disturb and anger us.  The excellent turnout at the Social Workers Action Network (SWAN) meeting on 10th October was testament to this. 

As a front-line housing worker, it was good to be in a room of social workers discussing how we can work and campaign together to understand what happened and prevent it happening again. 

Part of the story of Grenfell is the long-term, systematic denigration of council housing and the people who live in it.  Council tenants are perhaps the only members of society who have been more stigmatised by politicians and the media than social workers!

This ideological assault has gone hand-in-hand with underinvestment in and privatisation of public services in general and council housing in particular.

The meeting discussed a range of inter-related issues underlying the preventable disaster.  From a housing perspective it’s clear that financially-driven decisions put lives at risk, as they do in social services. 

It was particularly interesting to hear older social workers talk about more collaborative, pro-active and supportive approaches to the job than the restrictive, managerial culture that pervades it now.  Trying to do more with less undermines morale and joint-working. 

So campaigns like BASW’s to ‘Boot Out Austerity’ are essential to winning Justice for Grenfell. 

It’s been widely agreed that Grenfell must be a turning point.  But we need to be wary of attempts to exploit the situation to advance the assault on council housing and working class communities.

 In the immediate aftermath of 14th June, the mask slipped from some politicians who jumped to the pre-formed conclusion that it was social housing that was at fault, not the market. 

This prejudice is often visited on high-rise blocks which are seen as ‘failing’, unless they’re penthouses in luxury private developments!

The narrowly-drawn remit of the public inquiry is designed to deflect blame from government, whose true motives are exposed by its reneging on promises to pay for essential safety works. 

After four months, the failure to rehouse most of the victims accentuates concerns that the fire will be used as another tool of displacement at a time when discredited regeneration projects are destroying communities across the country.   

Hurricane Katrina is a stark warning.  Twelve years after the floods, many people are still waiting to rebuild their homes and lives in New Orleans.  Some never will. 

In 2015 I met Arnise Parker who lives in the Lower Ninth Ward where some of the worse damage – accidental and wilful – was done.  Arnise recalls that the message from the authorities in the aftermath was “Don’t come back if you’re poor or black”. 

Political and corporate interests used the storm as a pretext for attacking a range of public services in the city, including the public housing that had previously housed thousands of low-income African-Americans. 

One local politician revealed how “natural” disasters can be cynically used for social cleansing when he said: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans.  We couldn’t do it.  But God did.”*    

The fundamental question that underpinned the SWAN meeting was “what kind of society do we want to live in?”  Grenfell Tower has become a symbol of socio-economic and spatial division, driven by the brutality and inhumanity of the speculative housing market.

 It’s the prefix ‘social’ that’s the reason why social workers and social housing are attacked by those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  The cult of individualism and the market has invaded every aspect of our lives, at home and at work. 

Yes, Grenfell must be a turning point.  But we all have a responsibility to ensure it’s a turn in the right direction.  We need to rebuild our public services and confidence in them.  Strong unions and strong, independent tenant and community organisations can unite around campaigns to demand decent, secure, truly affordable and safe homes for all.”

Further actions

1) From the end of the report on the SWAN website: “All those present were invited to the Grenfell Tower Silent Protest in Kensington, this Saturday on 14th October and were encouraged to keep the debate about Grenfell, Social Housing and Public Services alive in their workplaces and communities. Those from different community & housing campaigns and social work organisations pledged to work together”.

2) A Housing Summit is taking place in London on 25th November, organised by Defend Council Housing and the Axe the Housing Act Campaign. More details can be found at http://www.axethehousingact.org.uk/category/news/

* Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker, New York Times, 6th June 2006

Published : 13th October 2017

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