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What’s Changed on Social Housing Since Grenfell Disaster?

With Theresa May’s apology covering the front page of the Evening Standard, this week looks like marking a sea change indeed. The Grenfell Tower disaster has challenged public attitudes towards social housing and those who live there, causing embarrassment if not more fundamental rethinking on the part of the relevant authorities. But how much difference is this actually making?

There would seem to be striking parallels with the Windrush scandal here – public outrage when individuals and their families are treated so unfairly, but no discernible movement at all when it comes to tackling the underlying causes: the hostile environment in the case of the Windrush scandal, the Conservative hostility to public services in the case of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Grenfell was a disaster waiting to happen. This was the only too predictable result of privatisation via outsourcing, removing housing management and health and safety from effective democratic control - exacerbated by the effects of austerity, including the cuts to the fire service, compounding the problems facing firefighters on that fateful night. Grenfell tenants and residents had already been raising their concerns, only to be disregarded, reflecting the stigmatisation of social housing tenants more generally.

The extraordinary courage and determination of the Grenfell survivors and their supporters have brought these issues out into the open in truly remarkable ways. Health and safety jokes really aren’t so funny anymore. Nor can the case for providing social housing via arms-length bodies be so readily sustained, whether these are so-called tenant management organisations or whether they are housing associations/ aka registered providers.

The Grenfell disaster demonstrates just how important it is for social housing to be socially provided and managed in democratically accountable ways i.e. this has to be council housing, provided by local authorities with the relevant expertise in-house. This is the only way of ensuring that council homes are safely and securely maintained. Grenfell tenants and residents were only too aware of what needed to be done to make their homes safe. If only they had been treated with more respect and dignity!

But without in any way underestimating the extraordinary impact of the Grenfell survivors and their supporters, this still needs to be set in context. Grenfell amplifies the arguments that housing activists have been making in recent years. For example, the campaign against the 2016 Housing and Planning Act brought council tenants together with housing association tenants and private tenants, along with trade unionists and progressive politicians, challenging the Conservative government’s proposals for the further privatisation of housing - in the interests of private profits. Campaigns against social cleansing via urban regeneration schemes such as the Haringey Development Vehicle have been similarly re-enforcing the arguments against market-led approaches to the provision of housing.  

These types of campaigns have been contributing to shifting the terms of public debates – and actually halting regeneration schemes, at least in their initial form in the case of the Haringey Development Vehicle, The present government has even made some partial retreats, over aspects of the 2016 Housing and Planning Act, for instance, and around some of private developers’ most flagrant abuses in relation to ‘viability’ assessments (i.e. making excuses for not providing social housing).   

Labour policies still need further strengthening, including further clarification in relation to the contested notion of affordability as well to the centrality of council housing per se.  But the Green Paper, ‘Housing for the Many’ does commit to social housing as a mainstream tenure, with the highest standards, asking how residents can be put in control of managing their estates. And the Green Paper recognises the need to make housing associations democratically accountable, focusing on their social mission as non-profit organisations, rather than encouraging them to be increasingly market-driven. This would replace market-driven forms of accountability with democratic accountability, both to tenants and residents and to the wider society at large.

Grenfell survivors and their supporters have brought out the arguments for alternative approaches to the housing crisis through their collective responses to this most shocking disaster. This builds upon the impacts of previous campaigns. Whilst such campaigning seems unlikely to shift Conservative attitudes significantly, this does demonstrate the potential for building support for more progressive policies under a new government.