2017 07 – the fire at Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower

by Eamon Dyas

Sadiq Khan had an article in the Observer of 18 June. It’s just full of homilies and fine-sounding phrases. The substance of what we are supposed to learn from the Grenfell Tower tragedy amounts to this in his view:

“The greatest legacy of this tragedy may well end up being the skyline of our towns and cities. In the postwar rush to reconstruct our country, towers went up in large numbers, most of which are still here today. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.” – Sadiq Khan in the Observer today.[A]

His article has been posted on the Labour Party Facebook page and I’ve responded on that page as follows:

If this is the best Sadiq Khan can offer as an example of his thinking on this tragedy then there’s little hope for London. It’s not as if he’s not an intelligent man incapable of seeing things in their wider context. The problem is not the tower blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s what was done to them over the past couple of decades. We surely know enough by now to be able to state with some confidence that, left alone and un-renovated, a fire in Grenfell Tower would not have resulted in a catastrophe on this scale. So the issue is not the building of these tower blocks but the way they have been managed in recent years.

That brings us to the plight of those charged with managing them – and this applies to both Labour and Tory local governments. The systematic reduction of the Central Government Grant, which is a feature of the legacy of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s obsession with “balancing the books” economics has placed tremendous pressure on local governments to find economies to make up the shortfall. The obvious “low hanging fruit” provided the first line of potential cost savings so we saw the privatisation of previously direct labour council services like refuse collection, maintenance, some welfare services etc. This was followed by cuts to things like library services and other local amenities like swimming pools. It should also be added that all of this took place in the context of the first swathes of council house selling at discount prices – something that was the result of Thatcher and then Blair government policies. Central government also denied local councils the option of using the revenue accrued from the sale of council homes to build replacement homes.

By the time this restriction was relaxed some years ago and local councils were permitted to use such revenue to build new homes the burgeoning property market (fuelled by the original swath of council home sales it should be added) made it difficult for councils to purchase land on which to build new council homes. On top of that the local council regulations made it difficult for them to borrow the necessary money. But the absence of money did not mean that things like capital projects were no longer necessary. Just because one generation of council tenants were encouraged to purchase their council homes did not mean (as was implied by the “people’s capitalism” of Thatcher and Blair) that the next generation would not need council homes.

Every generation produces its quota of people who will rely on the ability of the wider society to provide a safety net. In London, where a central tenet of government policy for decades has been to nourish the finance sector, the result has been the emergence of a property market which only benefits the rich and has been disastrous for the poor. In the midst of the anarchy created by the economic philosophy of “the market will provide” local councils still had the responsibility to provide housing for those in need. Unable to build council homes the only option was to “get into bed” with the speculators who were capitalising on the buoyant London property market and who had access to the necessary finance to construct new homes. Planning rules were relaxed and regulations softened to facilitate the new private developments on condition that a small proportion of the housing “units” be allocated for social housing. But aside from the creation of new social housing each local government had the ongoing challenge of maintaining the surviving and diminished local government housing stock in their areas. In situations where it was deemed too expensive to renovate such properties they were handed over lock, stock and barrel, to developers who wished to completely demolish them and replace them with modern tower blocks. Something like this was done in Lewisham where a small estate of perfectly habitable local government maisonettes has been demolished to make space for a number of tower blocks. Again, the idea was that the developers would be permitted to sell the majority of the “units” to private purchasers on condition that a proportion be allocated for social housing.

The situation with regards to Grenfell Tower seems to be a variation on this kind of arrangement. The local government, unable (and probably unwilling in any case in this instance) to raise the necessary funding for the renovation of the block facilitated the handing over of the management of the building to a group that represented the tenants and leaseholders of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in the early 1990s. In 1996 the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) was established. Under these arrangements “responsibility for managing 9,760 properties passed from The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to the Tenant Management Organisation.” (see: KCTMO website). As to the ongoing relationship of that body to the local council the website states:

“The relationship between KCTMO and the Council is governed by a Management Agreement, which covers all areas of the landlord business. Whilst KCTMO still enjoys a close working relationship with the Council, it is a completely separate company.” Then in 2002 “KCTMO took over major capital works from the Council to access extra resources and funding to enable KCTMO to bring the properties up to the Decent Homes Standard.”

Because KCTMO represents leaseholders and tenants it is bound to have mixed loyalties. On the one hand the owners (leaseholders) have a vested interest in ensuring that the value of their properties increase. On the other hand, tenants don’t necessarily share that interest – in fact it could be said that tenants don’t gain anything by an improving property market, rather they lose as an improving property market will tend to create an increase in rental costs. One of the basic tenets of the property market is encapsulated by the well-known catchphrase “location, location, location” and undoubtedly the owners of the surrounding properties to Grenfell Tower would feel that the value of their property would increase if the surrounding location was improved. If a 1970s council tower block was to be in their line of vision then far better that it be “renovated” in a way that improved its appearance.

What happened as a result is now an ongoing nightmare for hundreds of relatives and friends of those who lost their lives. What Sadiq Khan needs to acknowledge is that those lives were lost not because those who were killed lived in a 1970s council tower block but rather they died because of what was done to that tower block as a result of policies that emerged logically and inevitably from the operation of an economic philosophy that London has been subjected to since the 1980s. If he is to be part of the movement that stops this process he needs to acknowledge the actual chain of events that led us from such policies to where we are at present.

[A] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/18/sadiq-khan-grenfell-tower-tragedy-establish-full-truth