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The councils trying to use Grenfell as an excuse to clear estates

Since a fire killed 72 people in London's Grenfell Tower, councils have been using safety concerns to try to move people out of housing estates.

Broadwater Farm Estate. By Iridescenti - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

It seemed, at least for a time after the Grenfell fire, that social housing was atop the political agenda. Housing was centred at party conferences, discussed in reams of media, and organisations from across the political spectrum issued announcements, green papers, and reports on the topic. Many argued that Grenfell must signal a turning point in how the UK houses people. Amidst this discussion, we were introduced to the fire’s likely causes. There were those named individuals, from councillors to contractors, and then there were its systemic roots. A deeply embedded ‘culture’ of neglect and dispossession: the ignoring of tenants, the arbitrary revocation of crucial safety law, and widespread social cleansing of blocks, estates and entire neighbourhoods under the guise of ‘regeneration’.

Ten days after the fire and one borough across, late one Friday night, thousands of estate residents were rushed from their homes into makeshift relief shelters. Safety checks by Camden council, issued in the aftermath of Grenfell, had found the Chalcots estate covered in similar flammable cladding. The sudden evacuation was widely criticised. Residents complained about the councils’ aggressive approach, their lack of communication and rehousing options and, even as late as March this year, their disregard for residents as revelations of further safety problems emerged. Residents’ confrontations with council leader Georgia Gould went viral. One featured a woman countering Gould’s assertion that safety was the council’s priority, pointing out “for this long now you’ve allowed them to live in this property that’s been dangerous – how?”.  Back up in Chalcots’ towers, around 200 people refused to leave. For them, the chaos and lack of support in leaving posing a greater threat than staying put. As one such occupier told a journalist “It [seeing Grenfell] does make us want to leave, But [...] there’s nowhere to go, and they’re not looking to move us out anywhere convenient.”

Despite the media, the promises and the reports, these catch-22s persist in estates across the country. For one, many thousands of people continue to live in buildings coated in flammable cladding. Though the prime minister finally committed to funding the removal of unsafe cladding from social blocks this May, the process is partial, and slow. And when such insulation is removed, residents are presented with a new safety battle. As Ruth from the Safe Cladding and Insulation Now (SCIN) campaign explains: “One of the most widespread safety risks is lack of insulation, in a country where thousands die every winter because they can't afford to heat their homes. [...]” She argues that unless the cladding crisis is acted on soon, “given the current standards of building regulations and enforcement, we are likely to see basically sound old estates demolished and replaced with "modern" ones where residents are at serious risk from both cold, and overheating.”

Elsewhere, local authorities are discovering that decades of neglecting and underfunding council homes present safety concerns beyond fire. In Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate, two blocks were revealed to be structurally unsound following ‘post-Grenfell’ safety checks. The blocks were vulnerable to collapse if there were an explosion or vehicle impact. Haringey Council’s response, too, has been speedy evacuation – this time in order to demolish both blocks. 200 households are being told they must permanently leave their homes before October, when their supplier intends to switch off gas supply. Questions from residents and campaigners have arisen about the council’s intentions, and their ability, to afford adequate rehousing whilst demolition takes place and to guarantee any new towers would be available for all the same residents, at the same rent. 

What faces residents of demolished social housing? Experiences from other demolitions are instructive: the land usually sold to a private developer, and the number of social housing units built in their place slashed. Council tenants are often forced to leave their communities, enter the private rental sector or move into pricey, often inadequate and invariably insecure temporary accommodation as they await another council home that may never come. Jacob, a resident of one of the towers facing demolition and a member of its Residents Association explains: ‘Council tenants get lied to all the time. I believe that strengthening the blocks [to prevent collapse], is expensive but it would be cheaper [than demolition]. Because it’s been deliberately neglected for so long, there isn’t a groundswell of residents asking for the council to save ‘our lovely block’. But as people move people into small and temporary flats, I don’t think they’ll be happy.”

These impossible binds in which council tenants are caught, be they around heating costs or safety concerns, are not inevitable. Even as government, and the developers and contractors with which they work, continue to do next to nothing to address the housing crisis, they patently could. One recent breakthrough was the Mayor of London’s introduction of a requirement for resident ballots to be taken on estates facing regeneration, official guidance on which was released this summer. The move was a step forward in demonstrating avenues for genuine consultation and accountability, though it is has key loopholes, including one exemption for demolitions needed for ‘safety reasons’. At Broadwater Farm, it’s the timing of any such ballot that matters. 

“They say they will have a ballot or consultation after everyone is moved out”, Jacob counters, “but residents will have already moved by then, and are likely to be out of the block for two years, probably even longer.” The process indeed works as a disincentive to residents interested in refurbishment as opposed to demolition. “If there is a ballot and residents vote for refurbishment, we won’t be entitled to the £6,000 payment we would if it were demolished.”. After the considerable costs of moving home, £6,000 is not a small sum to refuse. Jacob’s message to local authorities? “Don’t use safety concerns to displace residents”. 

It is not a problem exclusive to Tottenham. Across the river in Peckham, the Ledbury Estate was condemned as unsafe last year. Southwark council’s response? Demolition. For Danielle, from the estate’s Action Group, this isn’t good enough. “We had been raising these safety concerns for years and they have to be taken seriously. But the job to convince everyone they’re doing the right thing by decanting us is the council’s responsibility”. It is difficult for residents to read Southwark council’s actions as motivated by concern for safety. Just last month it was revealed they claimed to have carried out post-Grenfell risk assessments on 174 Southwark blocks; in fact they had checked just eight. On the ballot question, for Southwark, the writing is on the wall. “The results from our consultation have just come through”, Danielle tells me “The majority of people want the towers saved – it is now a question of money. For the council, it should be a case of listening and taking seriously what residents want. They should have a say in what happens next.”

The disregard for residents that built towards the deadliest fire in living memory now persists even when councils aim, or claim, to be addressing safety issues. Residents are routinely ignored on safety and, when councils act, are being coerced into impossible decisions. Thousands face potentially lethal fire, deadly cold, structural collapse – or displacement and entirely insecure housing options. As Danielle says of Southwark’s response to Ledbury, ‘If this continues then people will not trust to raise safety concerns, they’ll be pushed away from wanting to make them.’ Some journalists who covered the Chalcots estate last year interviewed residents refusing to leave with an air of bemusement: why would anyone stay in a categorically dangerous home? If councils don’t listen to tenants and do their utmost to act in the interests of both their safety and their housing security, we are likely to see more of the same.

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