What if.. we’re not the good guys?

My relationship with things related to the housing sector has felt a bit distant over the last three or so months. As I watched the Grenfell Tower burning on television, I felt an unhelpful sort of numb. I’ve still been going to housing events and I’m still talking to people – lots of different people – about housing stuff, but it feels different since the fire. For some, there seems to be a sense that everything will continue as before.

involvement

Many words are already written about the responses of communities and the emergency services. Reports over the last week of the scale of counselling and support needed by the emergency services are a chilling measure of the lengths they went to, to save and to try to save as many people as they could in the face of unfolding disaster. In the variable patchwork of support that’s followed the fire, this help thankfully seems to be part of the response for communities.

This distinct heroism, with firefighters in particular breaking all their own rules to try and save lives, sits at odds with the ways we often wrongly define heroism. I am still struck by the response of local communities. As the fire burned, and in the immediate hours and days afterwards, the response from local and national governments was an almost unbelievable inactivity. Beneath what was left of the tower, people and communities organised themselves to house, feed and clothe their neighbours.

As is often the case when people begin to talk about housing, the media, media commentators and social media all had their own opinions. At the time, I didn’t really know what mine were beyond an admiration for those acting and a sense I wasn’t immediately close enough to help, such was the horror of the death toll. A lot of things were said on the streets by people who lived in the tower and surrounding communities.

A lot of pledges seemed to be being made by people involved in politics and housing, about never letting things like this happen again. The sense of official paralysis finally gave way to an incompetent set of organisational responses that, more than three months later, still seem to have failed to understand what has happened, and what needs to happen.

The unwise promises of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, opaque to anybody with even a passing knowledge of the housing crisis, in London or elsewhere, remain unmet. How quickly people could be housed, how near to their former homes they would live, were uninformed pledges when they were made, and simply can’t be met. The narrow scope of the public inquiry might allow us an opportunity to discuss the things outside it, but it remains unclear how much resolution communities can expect from it.

My small bit of paid employment is about working to promote, encourage and nurture what I have always liked to think of as genuine co-regulation, co-production and, whatever connotations the word has, scrutiny. What the Grenfell Tower fire made me realise was that I, too am part of a system that needs to change if it is not to fail again. The price for this failure is too high. When I hear people talking about any good that might come out of what has happened, I flinch. This price of lives and homes and families is too high to be the cost of change.

It’s not just me that thinks things need to change. There have already been calls to reinstate some manner of national voice for tenants, not least to try and establish a framework that allows people who live in communities to raise issues about safety and risk without being dismissed as individual complainants, or worse still as troublemakers. Quietly, perhaps remarkably, the Housing Minister has been tasked with talking to tenants and has begun alongside DCLG officials to find ways to do so. The risk of this being a publicity exercise rather than a catalyst for redressing the balance between residents and everyone else remains high, but it’s a start.

I’ve known since getting to grips with the regulatory framework around ‘tenant involvement and empowerment’ that it’s a vague set of standards that doesn’t really impress any responsibility onto landlords, or perhaps residents, to meet the noble ideas it lays out. There’s nothing wrong with having flexibility so that different organisations have some leeway in how regulations are interpreted, but they are not in any real sense enforced in the same way as the governance and financial viability standards are.

Other factors are reducing the effectiveness of these standards further. The 1% rent cut legislated by government has seen budgets for bringing tenants into the decision making process for landlords cut, often long before other savings are made. The processes that are supposed to allow landlords to share power, and residents to get involved, are therefore at risk of being eroded. The goal of enabling people to inform the running of organisations and communities, supported variably at best, now seems to be moving further away.

Even in the too-narrow circumstances where we might consider landlords and residents to be getting it right, recent moves to professionalise Boards and a shift to use data rather than human voices are already making it potentially more difficult for communities to be heard. Whatever the idea behind cutting budgets for empowerment, it’s a false economy. Nobody knows where to cut services more effectively than the people who are receiving them.

If we’re going to avoid more disasters in the future, we will have to challenge and change some of the current systems – those that are supposed to be regulated and those that are designed between landlords and residents. There are things that already work in this space that we can learn from, and there are things that don’t work that we need to leave behind.

The initial focus can and should be about fire safety and the seeming inability of authorities to act on what they know. After Ronan Point, after Lakanal House, the failure of government to design and administer regulations that prevent people dying because of the actions of builders or local authorities, safety inspectorates or individuals should have changed. Grenfell Tower stands to remind us that the price of this failure is counted in human lives.

The existing cosy relationships of functioning tenant involvement and empowerment are not going to be enough, if we are serious about designing a future where supplying and maintaining homes communities can manage for themselves is any way meaningful. There’s little point in going to the trouble of tenants having voices, if the other people involved in their homes aren’t prepared to listen to what they’re saying.

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