“Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower,” said the Grenfell Action Group, in the early hours of the morning of 14 June.
What caused the fire that killed at least 79, and is thought to have claimed many more lives, is now the subject of a public inquiry and a criminal investigation. But browsing the archives of the group’s community blog reveals more than just an ongoing concern about fire safety.
“At present, residents still do not know, because they have not been told, what caused the power surges that destroyed so much property, endangered their lives, and delivered so much heartache,” a blog post from 10 June 2013, entitled “Why are we waiting?”, declared. “We began complaining to the estate manager in October 2012, and had to renew our complaints in December,” noted another 2013 post about access for emergency vehicles.
The blog emanates powerlessness. Even after the tragedy, residents have found themselves barred from the first senior council discussion about the fire, for fear of “disruption”.
But the distrust between social tenants and the local authorities that oversee their buildings goes beyond Kensington and Chelsea, and the charred ruins of Grenfell Tower. In London, at least, social tenants increasingly feel they are an afterthought.
Local authorities – at least those on the left – used to welcome social housing tenants’ voices, according to Sharon Hayward, co-ordinator of the London Tenants Federation. Tenants’ organisations formed in waves over the 20th century, often in response to the deregulation of the letting sector.
The introduction of market rents in the 1960s and 1970s sparked tenant protests. In the 1980s, the Conservative government’s Right to Buy policy provoked more mobilisation, but also dislodged the social housing sector as a whole. Further disruption came when council stock passed into the hands of housing associations in the late 1990s. Hayward knows of at least ten tenants’ federations that have vanished since the turn of the century.
“In the past, local authorities felt it was really, really important to engage with their tenants, on a whole range of issues,” she told me. “They set up tenants organisations to bring people together. That has disappeared.”
Where social tenants do oppose the council, the dispute can be bitter. In one London borough, Waltham Forest, Sonia Mckenzie says of the council: “They probably wish I shut my mouth and go away.”
She was part of the residents’ association for the Fred Wigg and John Walsh tower blocks (known as Fred John Towers), and sat on the steering committee for a proposed regeneration project. The residents polled by her association wanted the money to be spent on restoring bathrooms and kitchens, but the council overruled them and decided to sell one of the towers and build a third block instead. (The council argued it was the only solution to overcrowding).
Mckenzie says that when she and other tenant representatives were asked to sign confidentiality agreements which would have prevented them from sharing information with other residents, they refused. As a result, the council stopped recognising the residents’ group.
Communication between residents and the council deteriorated even further on another occasion, when the council tried to remove the doors separating the balconies. At one point, residents blocked the stairs to prevent workmen sent by the council from coming up.
“They don’t talk to us, they talk at us, they just do things and they get the backlash afterwards,” Mckenzie said. “They still don’t listen to us, when we are the residents living here.”
In May 2017, in a letter seen by The New Statesman, Waltham Forest Housing recommended replacing the existing tenants’ council with a “strategic operations and scrutiny board”. Under the proposals, the residents appointed to the panel would be “competency based and selected through a formal recruitment process rather than elected representations”.
A spokesperson for Waltham Forest council said the measures such as removing balcony doors were designed to comply with fire safety rules, adding that everything it had done was to “ensure the safety of our residents in the event of fire”. The council also said the confidentiality clauses were standard practice covering commercial information that tenants would have been shown, and that the failure to recognise the residents’ group was due to the fact it had not signed up to a borough-wide constitution all such associations were required to adopt.
The lack of communication between councils and tenants has led to a tension that has only been exacerbated by the Grenfell Tower fire. In another London borough, Camden, the council decided to evacuate tenants in blocks with suspect cladding. While some commentators praised the council for its action, many residents on the ground were confused and anxious about where they would go instead.
Read more: The New Statesman profile of Camden council leader Georgia Gould
Ian Ritchie is the vice-chair of the Southwark tenants’ council. “Southwark is working very hard to avoid talking to us,” he said dryly, two weeks after the fire. A meeting had been held, but the residents continued to feel out of the loop: “People are living in fear that they will be treated the same way as Camden.”
He believes part of the disconnection is the changing culture of the council: “In the 1980s, Labour politicians were the same working class people who talked the same language.” These days, he claims, the dominant force is “middle class young professionals who have not got a clue how to talk to residents. So when we do criticise them, they run away and hide.”
Southwark’s cabinet member for housing, Stephanie Cryan, said the council had appointed a 15-strong team of fire safety experts after the Lakanal House fire in 2009, and that she had written to residents since the Grenfell fire, set up a dedicated email address for fire safety concerns and planned to hold public drop-in sessions. She added: “It’s hard to see how we could have done more to engage with and reassure residents, but as ever we are open to suggestions and feedback.”
The situation is complicated by the vast changes that have shaken up London’s housing stock. Increasingly, “tenants” mean private renters, while social housing blocks include properties owned by private owners. As some commentators pointed out in the wake of Grenfell, there are far less rigorous checks over the quality of properties in the private rented sector.
Nicholas Greaves is vice-chair of the Lambeth tenants’ council, a democratically-elected body for social housing residents in the inner London borough. The structure has been in place for decades, according to Greaves, but is to be replaced in July.
Greaves fears that any replacement will be a “supermarket” option, where the council can pick and choose compliant tenants. “These structures have been our only way of raising things like fire safety,” he warned.
Lambeth Council, on the other hand, argues that the restructure has been the process of years of deliberation, and will reflect better the diversity of the borough’s tenants, especially young, and black and minority tenants, and those in the private rented sector.
A spokesman said: “No expertise will be lost under the new set up. Every registered tenants’ and residents’ association will be able to elect their representative to the Area Board. There will therefore be no change from current structure, apart from the need for fewer meetings.”
Greaves is also worried about the de-funding of councils over decades, which he claims has had “devastating results” on the maintenance of social housing and lowered council staff morale. Lambeth lost 50 per cent of its core funding after the Coalition government came to power in 2010 and implemented an austerity programme.
A spokesman said the council carries out “regular checks according to an agreed schedule, and these are fully in line with council guidance and regulations”.
In the wake of Grenfell, councils may decide to copy the example of previous decades, and genuinely try to give a voice to the renter class, through adapting the long-neglected structures of the tenants’ movement. On the other hand, promises of “empowerment” may turn out to be divide and rule, and social tenants will feel more marginalised than ever.