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15 August 2017

The Grenfell Inquiry must address the powerlessness social tenants feel

All too often social housing residents tell us that they feel like second-class citizens.

By Kate Webb

The Grenfell fire was the most horrifying reminder in generations of the stark injustice of our housing crisis.

It quickly became obvious that the disaster was the result of such enormous failings that we would need an inquiry to address to how on earth this could have been allowed to happen.

Fire experts said the building had burnt in a way no well-constructed high rise should have done, and the fact that landlords had outright ignored the safety concerns of Grenfell residents quickly came to the fore.

Ensuring the right lessons are learned is absolutely crucial to making sure that not only can nothing like this happen again, but that it acts as a wake-up call that the wider housing crisis cannot continue.

With the terms of the Grenfell inquiry announced today, it’s heartening to hear it will cover not just the technical question of how the fire started and spread, but the building’s refurbishment and the relationship between residents and the local authority.

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It’s crucial that in the coming months the voices of all those affected by this tragedy must be front and centre. Where before the residents felt so fatally overlooked, they must now be heard loud and clear and with real influence, so they can get the justice they are rightly seeking.

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It is this question of powerlessness that is at the heart of much of the anger that has erupted since Grenfell. People must feel that their lives matter and that their concerns will be listened to and acted on.

Talking to the people who come to Shelter for help, it is hard to avoid the conclusions that social hosing has become a poor service for poor people. All too often social housing residents tell us that they feel like second-class citizens and that politicians simply don’t care about them.

And sadly this comes as little surprise when Shelter’s own research shows that nearly three in ten local authority and housing association tenants don’t live in decent conditions and nearly half can’t afford their home.

Crucially today, the prime minister said that this broader question of social housing will not go unanswered and the government must now make good on its promise to seriously examine the state of social housing today.

This should include a thorough investigation into how existing tenants live: what works for them and what doesn’t, and whether their housing meets their needs and aspirations – or whether their landlords simply insist they should be grateful to have a roof over their heads.

We know that genuinely affordable, secure homes can play a crucial part in tackling the housing crisis, reducing homelessness and improving the quality of people’s lives. But in recent years the benefits of social housing have been cast aside, with few homes being built and reforms which have weakened it even further.

As our housing crisis has grown ever-worse, those in need of social housing have been bearing the brunt of it – yet left forgotten by the very people who are meant to take care of them. Grenfell must stand as the wake-up call that this must never be allowed to happen again.

This is the third in a series of blog posts by Shelter for The New Statesman on Grenfell Tower. Read the first one here.