Legacy of Grenfell

One year on from the tragedy of the Grenfell fire a public inquiry is underway to ascertain how such a thing could have happened in a modern building in the middle of London.

What has struck me about this whole event is the frustration and powerlessness that tenants and leaseholders express over the ability to control their own lives and safety.

Property tenure has changed greatly in recent decades. Right to buy has changed the composition of public housing developments. They will frequently include a mix of leasehold apartments, shared ownership and traditional council house tenancies.

Fourteen of the 129 properties in Grenfell Tower were owned by leaseholders, as well as an additional three in Grenfell Walk, all of whom have lost their homes.

Block management at Grenfell was undertaken by an Arm’s Length Management Organisation (ALMO) that was responsible for 10,000 properties across Kensington and Chelsea Borough http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-truth-about-tmos/.

The tenants at the Grenfell estate had no real say or power to control Health and Safety issues on their estate. As the LSE blog notes The Tenant management organization was “not community-based, not cooperatively run, not representative. It was set up to cover the whole borough and simply took on the existing council housing department and stock.”

Libdem Housing Policy should be based around a property-owning democracy. In the private rented sector, Libdem Policy aims to help people who cannot afford a deposit by introducing a new Rent to Own model where rent payments give tenants an increasing stake in the property, owning it outright after 30 years.

This could be extended to public housing stock with the use of a Commonhold tenure. Introduced in 2002 as part of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002.
It involves the indefinite freehold tenure of part of a multi-occupancy building (typically a flat) with shared ownership of and responsibility for common areas and services.

Public Housing tenants would pay a ground rent and building only mortgage payment to the local authority equivalent to the Local Area Housing Allowance that would be covered by housing benefit for many. Additionally, a homeowner maintenance fee would be payable to the estate TMO. These fees would be paid by the local authority for recipients eligible for housing benefit.

The benefit is that public housing tenants own their own property. They can sell their commonhold share realizing any equity in excess of the building only mortgage debt, and crucially it is homeowners who will make the decisions on the level of maintenance fees required to meet health and safety standards and the maintenance requirements of the common areas.
Existing blocks can be converted to commonhold and this would replace the current right to buy scheme for council flats.
New council flat developments would adopt this form of tenure from the outset.

* Joe is a Vice-Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats, Chair of ALTER and PPC for Brentford and Isleworth

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16 Comments

  • “One year on from the tragedy of the Grenfell fire a public inquiry is underway to ascertain how such a thing could have happened in a modern building in the middle of London.”

    The cause was obvious the following day and remains obvious. This was not a disaster with multiple, complex causes. If the flammable cladding and insulation hadn’t been fixed to the outside of the building then the fire would have been contained and put out in the single flat in the manner that the building had been designed for. Nobody would have died. Nobody would have been injured. One tenant would have been left with a charred flat, but nobody else would have been left homeless or bereft.

    Giving tenants increased powers over health and safety issues would almost certainly have been pointless, unless they happened to possess knowledge about construction standards, materials science and how fires spread. Market solutions fail when the consumer isn’t informed – it’s not just a question of them being powerless. We can’t all be experts on everything – that’s why we need clear regulations on things like building standards. This was a disaster that was caused by a lack of national regulation by a competent authority.

  • “Local councillors have no specific knowledge about construction standards, materials science and how fires spread. That is why they engage experts – something that can be done just as well by the occupants of an estate.”

    “Survivors of the disaster said on Wednesday they had raised fears about the fact that there was only one escape route. They also told the Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation (KCTMO) of their concerns over the placement of boilers and gas pipes, the absence of a building-wide fire alarm or sprinkler system, and piles of rubbish being dumped and causing a fire risk.”

    You prove my point – the occupants of Grenfell Tower never raised the issue of the flammability of the cladding and insulation prior to the fire, unless you have information to the contrary? Safety cannot be left to the consumer in the manner you suggest. The treatment of the residents’ concerns prior to the event and the neglect they have sustained post-event are a disgrace, but none of that had any bearing on the disastrous installation of the cladding and insulation.

  • John Marriott 14th Jun '18 - 5:47pm

    Entirely agree with David Raw (as usual). I gather that the decision to add cladding and new unsuitable windows was taken largely to make the view of the tower block more ‘pleasing’ to residents nearby (the ones presumably living in more expensive properties). It was this that made a previously safe structure a disaster waiting to happen. Perhaps we do need to adopt the Govian view of ‘experts’ after this.

    However, you have to question the ‘stay put’ advice given to residents, presumably by the Fire Brigade. Surely this needs to be revisited. Can this ever again be viewed as ‘best practice’?

  • John Marriott 14th Jun ’18 – 5:47pm……………..However, you have to question the ‘stay put’ advice given to residents, presumably by the Fire Brigade. Surely this needs to be revisited. Can this ever again be viewed as ‘best practice’?…………….

    I consider such criticism mainly driven by ’20-20 hindsight’. I seriously doubt the emergency services were aware of the cladding issue and, without such knowledge, would consider that the fire would be largely contained within the affected 4th floor.
    Unaccompanied, probably panicky, evacuation from floors above, through dense smoke, would have been hazardous.
    Before I spread the blame, and dilute it, I’ll wait for the final evidence.

  • David,

    People living in private apartment blocks collectively manage their community affairs perfectly well without having to rely on the council to do it for them. There is no reason to suppose that people living in public apartment blocks cannot do the same given the opportunity and freedom to do so.
    That doesn’t mean we don’t need national fire safety standards and regulations, but these apply to all buildings – private or public- and are a proper function of national government. Resident associations on public housing estates can call on people every bit as competent as private housing associations, who are perfectly capable of managing their communities affairs.

  • Expats,

    “Before I spread the blame, and dilute it, I’ll wait for the final evidence.” I think this is good advice and this is not the place or time to start apportioning blame.
    The Kensington and Chelsea TMO has handed back responsibility for management of public housing to the council, so there is no tenant organization in place at present.
    I think it is worth recalling the comments of the former Chair of the Grenfell residents association in which he describes the lack of accountability for the TMO and the lack of power for the residents as a contributing factor in this disaster. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/15/former-grenfell-tower-resident-demands-independent-inquiry-into-fire

    “previous incidents in the block led residents to worry about the functioning of the building’s safety systems in an emergency. There had been small fires before, and tenants had reported to the TMO that emergency lighting in the escape stairwell did not work on every floor…the TMO was “incompetent and inept”, rather than acting with malice in its dealing with Grenfell Tower residents, and that the lack of accountability and concern for tenants’ views and experiences was the biggest problem. [The TMO] weren’t bad people, but the organization wasn’t true to their values: they said they were resident-led, but did not listen to the residents at all. The lack of accountability for the TMO, the lack of power for the residents, it was a contributing factor in this disaster.”

    Collins and other residents spoken to by the Guardian called for the independent inquiry they had asked for previously to be held now, to acknowledge the concerns they had raised for years and explain why they were not listened to and acted upon. “I just want people to know that if they had listened to the residents, and acted upon what was told to them, it could have been different,” Collins said. “It’s impossible to know if this could have been avoided. But people lost their lives, and some jumped to their death and will have done so knowing the TMO didn’t listen.

  • John Marriott 14th Jun '18 - 9:21pm

    @expats
    Asking valid questions is hardly ‘spreading the blame’. You have partially validated this particular question in your second paragraph. If more questions had been asked AND addressed before the ‘beautification’ of the tower block had been sanctioned we just might not have had to cope with the tragedy that ultimately occurred. Who will ever know for certain? Glad you are prepared to wait ‘for the final evidence’. Please consider that some of us might just not be as comfortable as you are with how things are or how they just might turn out.

  • Little Jackie Paper 14th Jun '18 - 10:16pm

    I can only suggest a reading of this remarkable article (you will need some time).

    https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n11/andrew-ohagan/the-tower

    Food for thought – for everyone.

  • ohn Marriott 14th Jun ’18 – 9:21pm……………[email protected]? Glad you are prepared to wait ‘for the final evidence’. Please consider that some of us might just not be as comfortable as you are with how things are or how they just might turn out……………

    Would you make the same points in, say, a murder trial? Without hearing all the evidence any conclusions are unjustifiable and pointless.
    I certainly don’t feel comfortable about anything to do with this tragedy but if, as it seems, you are implying that the enquiry will not reach an evidence based decision what is your justification for such remarks?

  • John Marriott 15th Jun '18 - 6:07pm

    @expats
    My ‘justification’ is that I am entitled to have an opinion, even if you may consider it to be premature. I’m not quite sure how you work a murder trial into your argument. Could the fact that you added the word ‘murder’ imply that you see a connection with Grenfell? In any trial surely all possibilities need to be considered, which is what I am putting forward.

    Let’s return to my linking the Fire Brigade with ‘staying put’ and your assertion that perhaps the emergency services were not aware of the cladding issue. Perhaps, in future, all such services should have an accurate blueprint of the kind of structures they are potentially dealing with and a professional knowledge of the risks involved. Or are you saying that the advice to tenants, given what was clearly happening, was the correct advice?

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