‘Never again will we allow this to happen. But what has been so despicable about this, is that this has happened in the richest borough, in the fifth richest country in the world, where we have a government and a local council more interested in saving money than saving lives. If there is anything we can do in terms of the Labour Party, let’s make it absolutely clear: we will stand up against austerity when we go into government, we will end it. But above all else you know why this was caused, because of the crisis in housing, and particularly in this capital city. When we go into power, let me give this commitment. Above all else, we will house people. We’ve said we’ll build a million new homes, and half of them we’ll be proud to call council homes again. The memorial to the 72 will be the generation after generation that comes, that will be housed decently in our capital city.’
– John McDonnell, Labour Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer,
speaking at the Justice for Grenfell Solidarity March (16 June, 2018)
Where to begin with this?
1. The technical conditions that led to the Grenfell Tower fire are in place across the city and country, where similar cladding systems are currently in place on around 300 council-owned blocks and 500 privately-owned blocks a year after the fire. So far from never allowing this fire to happen again, it is waiting to happen right now.
2. The austerity fiscal policies of the Conservative government have almost nothing to do with the technical, managerial or politicial reasons why this fire happened, and to say otherwise can only conceal what those reasons are.
3. A Labour politician isolating the fire to the actions of a single – conveniently Conservative – council ignores the fact that the same privatised managerial structures with the same unaccountability to residents and resistance to public scrutiny are not only already in place all over this city in boroughs run by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat councils, but are being replicated by those same councils through the estate regeneration programme that is privatising their council stock, transferring it to housing associations, subjecting it to cosmetic refurbishment schemes, or simply demolishing it and replacing it with high-cost, low-quality housing. In numerous examples across London, from Oval Quarter in Brixton to Orchard Village in Rainham, Solomon’s Passage in Peckham to Portobello Square in Notting Hill, residents of these new developments are complaining about the same threats to their safety as those the residents of Grenfell Tower complained about, and like them are being ignored by the private management organisations to which the councils are handing over its housing stock.
4. Calling new developments ‘council homes’ does not define their cost, tenure or management. The Labour Party’s manifesto on housing promises that half of its promised one-million homes will be ‘housing association and council homes’ – not just council homes – and that these will be for ‘genuinely affordable rent and sale.’ ‘Council homes’, therefore, includes all the myriad definitions of affordable housing – including homes for social rent (but rarely and in tiny numbers), London affordable rent at roughly 1.5 times social rent, London Living Rent at 1/3 of median household income in the borough (roughly double social rent), and shared ownership homes selling for around £650,000 in Inner London, plus all the other categories like tenancy strategy rent (around double social rent) and target rent (for which I still haven’t found a fixed definition). Labour’s Green Paper on housing indicates just how large a role it anticipates housing associations playing in fulfilling a Labour government’s housing quotas, and with every merger – whether it’s Circle with Affinity Sutton (125,000 dwellings), or London & Quadrant with East Thames (90,000 dwellings), or Notting Hill with Genesis (64,000 homes), or Peabody with Family Mosaic (55,000 dwellings), or Amicus Horizon with Viridian (44,000 dwellings) – it becomes more apparent that housing associations are beginning to exert as large a monopoly over the provision of social housing in England as builders like Berkeley, Persimmon, Barratt and Taylor Wimpey currently exert over the provision of private housing. Calling the three-quarters-of-a-million pound properties housing associations are currently building in London on Labour council-implemented estate regeneration schemes ‘council housing’ – proudly or not – won’t make them any more affordable, either to rent or to buy, for the council residents evicted to build them.
5. ‘Decently’ housing future generations in London means maintaining and refurbishing the council estates the current generation lives in, not stock transferring them en masse to housing associations, not demolishing them and replacing them with unaffordable properties for capital investment, buy-to-let landlords and wealthy home owners, and not privatising them through Private Finance Initiatives or Special Purpose Vehicles that will subcontract out their maintenance and management to exactly the same private contractors responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire.
6. If we are to ensure that ‘never again will we allow this to happen’, we need to start by seeing clearly through the lies not only of the successive Conservative and Labour governments that told us that privatising and deregulating the process through which compliance with building regulations is approved would make us safer, but also the lies of current Labour party politicians like John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Sadiq Khan, David Lammy, Emma Dent Coad and all the others who are trying to make political capital out of this disaster at the expense of the truth about its causes, and in doing so concealing the threat this truth continues to hold for residents of social housing under Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat local authorities.
7. There is very little practical difference between the housing policies of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour Parties, and McDonnell’s promises of what a Labour government will do are backed up neither by the present policies of Labour-run councils and the Labour-run Greater London Authority, nor by the housing policies of the Labour Opposition under Jeremy Corbyn.
8. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves. By their fruit will you recognise them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?’
– Matthew, 7:15-16
Architects for Social Housing