The fire at Grenfell Tower has highlighted a number of issues relating to government housing policy in recent years, not only the failure to apply proper safety measures but also its whole approach to social housing.
The 2012 national planning policy framework, often described as a “developers’ charter”, has given precedence to expensive private development while discouraging social housing. The result is that through land-banking, slow build-out rates and using the housing market as an investment, house prices have risen way beyond the reach of most average-wage earners. At the same time, an increasing proportion of the incomes of the lower paid is spent on rented accommodation, which is often of poor quality.
Official Statistics on social housing show that since 2010 the number of government-funded houses for social rent has plummeted by 97%.
Gavin Barwell, until recently housing minister and author of a white paper that offered proposals to ease development while doing little to promote social housing, has – like the government he serves – failed to act on the recommendations in the report on the fire at Lakanal House in 2009. Like previous Conservative minsters he preferred light-touch regulation so that warnings have been ignored at national and local government level.
The result is a system that has failed to protect our citizens – cost-cutting and reckless decisions were made with little fear of anyone being held responsible.
The Grenfell Tower fire and tragic loss of life can be viewed as an extreme element in the demonisation of social tenants that has been going on since 2010. They have been portrayed as part of the Tories’ “skivers” group, who need targeted welfare cuts (think the bedroom tax) to keep them keen. And London has seen extensive social cleansing as a result of government policy, with tens of thousands of social tenants being forced to relocate to the capital’s outer fringes or to northern cities.
Funding for social housing is now just 5% of what it was in 2010, with money reallocated to build “affordable-rent” homes and to help in various forms of low-cost home ownership. And the social housing sector has seen centrally imposed rent cuts to force social landlords to reduce community investment and services, while they consider a more commercial future.
Meanwhile, social tenants have been largely excluded from management and control of their housing, with active tenant involvement replaced with consumerist “scrutiny panels” and toothless “co-regulation”.
Britain needs to transfer control of social housing to its tenants and communities by extending mutual approaches. Co-operatives fortnight, running until 1 July, highlights successful examples nationwide of community mutuals, community-led housing innovation and tenant management co-operatives. But barely 3% of social housing stock is managed in this way, well below most other industrialised countries.
If Theresa May, or a future progressive government, wants to create a monument to the Grenfell Tower victims, let it be enabling social tenants and communities to control their housing.
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