The devastating fire at London's Grenfell Tower has highlighted the widespread neglect of the UK's residential high-rises, and the undeserved contempt held for the people that live in them, says Owen Hatherley.
This column was going to be about the election of a left-wing architectural historian and housing campaigner as Member of Parliament for Kensington in the UK's general election. Emma Dent Coad, whose academic work focuses on 20th century Spanish architecture, and who has campaigned on the disputed "regeneration" of council estates, won a seat which ranges from head-spinningly expensive real estate in South Kensington – much of it empty, sat on as investments or weekend retreats – to densely inhabited council estates in Ladbroke Grove which are, as she has pointed out, 'as poor as the Gorbals'.
But a lot has changed in the last three days. Now the other Kensington is on every newspaper front page. Each carries a photograph of Grenfell Tower, one of its high-rise tower blocks, engulfed in flames.
A read of Dent Coad's blog, which she has been running since 2010, will find dozens of stories about what residents of social housing in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have had to put up with. The list includes faulty repairs, appalling construction quality in new developments, poor estate management, unsafe practices and, to use the gross term used by councils and developers, "decanting" from their homes – which sit, after all, on some of the most valuable land on the planet – into often far-flung estates, often in other cities.
Much of the blog has been devoted to Wornington Green, the estate that has been redeveloped into the public-private Portobello Square development. But you can find similar stories in the blog kept by residents of Grenfell Tower, which has spent four years documenting power surges, piles of rubbish, and harassment.
"The Grenfell Action Group believes", they wrote last November, "that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord". Well, here we are. Many local people, interviewed and reprimanded for their swearing on the television news, have been firm about what they blame. "These people died because they were poor," as rapper and poet Akala put it.
It looks very plausible that contractors took major liberties in installing the cladding as, after all, it's only a council tower block, right?
To even begin to understand why there is this level of distrust, you have to know a little about the labyrinthine way that social housing is currently owned, procured and renovated. Increasingly little council housing is actually operated directly by councils themselves. Much of it has been given to Housing Associations, charitable bodies who build both market and social housing, who don't make a profit, but have been known for paying their executives six-figure salaries.
In many places, including Kensington, council stock is operated by Arms Length Management Organisations, and Tenant Management Organisations, which are in theory run by residents, but in practice are as often out of touch as any hostile council or Housing Association. When it comes to renovating buildings, councils have essentially been forced to abide by Design and Build contracts, and to use "best value', where they're legally forced into favouring third-rate design and construction. Contractors then sub-contract, causing a race to the bottom that is immediately visible in the cheap and tacky signs, fences, benches and cladding, frequently attached to buildings that were often once of a superior quality than their renovations suggest.
Although the inquiry will likely last years, the over-cladding of the Grenfell Tower has so far gotten most of the blame for the fire. Most expert assessments have spotted how it caught fire with terrifying speed, spreading right up the block in seconds, making the usual – and usually successful – advice that residents stay in their homes far more dangerous than in a normal fire.
Re-cladding of council towers shouldn't be controversial – many were re-clad in the last Labour government's Decent Homes programme. Most of the time it's done for thermal reasons, to lessen damp and cold, although in the 80s and 90s there was a certain amount of inept prettification too.
At Grenfell Tower it looks very plausible that contractors took major liberties in installing the cladding as, after all, it's only a council tower block, right? Given the British construction industry's widely reported blacklisting of trade unionists, who might be likely to raise safety concerns, a lethal failure of oversight like this was going to happen, sooner or later.
Undoubtedly, the Conservative government bears ultimate responsibility
Undoubtedly, the Conservative government bears ultimate responsibility, if not for the fire itself, then at the very least for the climate in which it happened. The recommendations of an inquiry into the last major high-rise fire, at Lakanal House, Camberwell, in 2009, were sat on by the housing minister – one Gavin Barwell, who lost his seat in the election and is now Theresa May's chief of staff.
Furthermore, the government's recent Housing and Planning Bill classes estates as "brownfield", a designation previously limited to industrial wasteland. And in areas of "high value", such as Kensington, councils are legislatively encouraged to sell their housing stock.
However Labour councils have their share of blame too. Many of the examples in the Grenfell Tower blog, of the council and the Tenants Management Organisation ignoring complaints and harassing complainers, will sound familiar to residents of currently endangered estates such as the Aylesbury in Southwark, or Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill in Lambeth.
Ideas for "regenerating" estates from too many Labour councils, and from too many architects and planners, hinge on using estates and the people who live in them as bargaining chips. A tower is demolished to make way for a new private tower (usually super-expensive, hence making the whole area more expensive, hence increasing housing need) to "cross-fund" another to be built there. Tacitly, many councils have decided their role is not to build and maintain social housing and social services, but to work as municipal marketing companies, encouraging "investment" into their areas to bring richer people into them.
Council-estate youth deserve to be treated like human beings with a right to housing
Somehow, this doesn't make residents less poor, though it may stop them being residents. "Trickle-up", Emma Dent Coad calls it.
In the 1990s, politicians rebranded poverty as "social exclusion". They said that what was wrong with estates was that the people who lived in them were confined to their own class and their own place. The best thing was for them to be made to "mix" with wealthier residents, which people in Ladbroke Grove have done for some decades now.
But as has been obvious in their response over the last few days, estate residents are not socially excluded – they are social. They don't need to be "mixed" into "mixed tenure" or "mixed developments", they already are mixed. Newspapers have called council-estate youth "feral", but they've proven to be vastly more civilised and decent human beings than tabloid editors. What they deserve is to be treated like human beings with a right to housing, rather than as the soon-to-be decanted residue of an embarrassing social mistake, when we once thought that the provision of decent mass housing for all was the business of our elected governments.
A decent first step, as Jeremy Corbyn among others has suggested, would be a little bit of redistribution – the requisitioning of the borough's many empty homes to house some of the hundreds of people made homeless, and whose friends and family have been killed, by greed and negligence.
Photograph is by Sarflondondunc.