After Grenfell, we need to talk about social housing

The market cannot deliver affordable homes for those whose incomes give them no power or choice in the marketplace.

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How do you investigate a problem as intractable as the right to safe and decent housing? How do you ask people if they feel like second-class citizens?

The Grenfell fire threw up a number of questions which fundamentally challenge some of our key public agencies and processes. Some of these are immediate and practical issues: how did the building burn so quickly, and the fire spread in the catastrophic way it did? Was the council’s immediate response adequate? What lessons must be learned from the history of a refurbishment which appears to have fatally undermined the structure of the building?

But there are other, more profound questions. It was clear that the fire signalled something more than the structural inadequacies of one building. Suddenly, the divide between rich and poor, in areas like Kensington and Chelsea and beyond, and the voicelessness of many of our fellow citizens were thrust into the public consciousness.

The nation became aware of a startlingly prescient blog already familiar to Grenfell tenants, which articulated their frustrations and predicted that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord". Working on the ground in the immediate aftermath, it became obvious to us at Shelter that people simply did not feel the local authority was on their side. It came as no surprise to us, given how the homeless families we work with in London are often treated, that people quickly assumed they would be rehoused in strange new areas. Even the promise of a rent-free year was assumed to be too good to be true. Colleagues on the ground reported a complete breakdown of trust between residents and the council. How had it come to this?

The official public inquiry into the fire starts next week and its terms of reference are predictably narrow. This is partly understandable, given the need to report back in a timely manner. But it creates an unacceptable risk that the broader but equally pressing question of the state of social housing, and the wider issues which social housing tenants face, could be kicked into the long grass. The inquiry may well produce conclusions which throw light onto the relationship between Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and its residents. But it will not explore the challenges facing all those reliant on big social landlords for their housing, or the context in which social housing has declined.

Shelter will always defend social housing. The market has never and can never deliver affordability, security and good conditions for those whose incomes give them no power or choice in the marketplace. We see every day the consequences for people unable to afford expensive private rents, or who have to deal with with repeat homelessness as yet another eviction notice lands on their doorstep. Shelter’s own research released this week shows that regularly having to move house has thrown more than a quarter of a million people into serious debt over the past year.

Social housing should be a refuge from the problems of the market. But perhaps surprisingly, Shelter’s landmark Living Home Standard found that conditions in the social rented sector were just as bad. It is clear that Grenfell residents will not be the only ones who feel ignored by the system. To return to the inquiry, there are more voices that must be heard.

The Prime Minister herself has accepted that a number of concerns have gone unaddressed for too long. How these will now be heard remains to be seen. We are told that the housing minister Alok Sharma will personally meet and hear from social housing tenants. Good. But “housing minister visits housing estates” is not an adequate response to an unprecedented social catastrophe. Everyone with influence over the housing sector must be prepared to engage in difficult conversations with people who too often feel unheard. Nothing less will do.

This is part of a series by Shelter on Grenfell Tower. To read the previous blog posts, click here.

Polly Neate is the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter. 

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