ASH first encountered the Architects’ Journal in June 2015 when, together with Fight for Aylesbury and Class War, we organised a protest at the AJ120 Awards, and Will Hurst, at the time the Deputy Editor, appeared among our motley crew of squatters and class warriors resplendent in a navy blue suit, and engaged me in debate. The idea had been inspired by Fight for Aylesbury’s occupation the previous May of the offices of HTA Design, the lead architects on the Aylesbury estate regeneration, during a meeting in Camden with their fellow practices Mae, Hawkins\Brown and Duggan Morris Architects, and which had drawn Ben Derbyshire’s memorable response: ‘Well, thank you very much for your point of view. Would you be so kind as to leave now?’ Rather symbolically, the AJ120 Award ceremony was being held in a huge tent erected in the moat of the Tower of London, and in order to get our message past the line of bouncers we had printed out our protest on about two hundred sheets of A4 paper and folded them into airplanes. I remember opening our protest by launching the first plane, and by lucky chance it flew over the heads of security, across the battlement walls, down into the moat, and landed in one the champagne glasses lined up on the tray of a waiter. On the back of these sheets we had printed in large black letters:
Q. Why do architects always wear black? A. Because they’re the funeral directors of the working class.
As any good Deputy Editor should, Will tweeted this on his Twitter account, and the following week the protest was widely covered in the Architects’ Journal, with a mention in Rory Olcayto’s editorial, a feature by Colin Marrs including the full text of our protest, and even in that drunken-uncle-at-a-wedding rant of intellectual ideas that is Paul Finch’s personal column, then was followed up the following week by a page of responses from architects on the ‘ethics of regeneration’. Great, we thought, the conscience of the profession has been pricked! In the words of Humphrey Bogart, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As it turned out, this was the last time anything we wrote would appear in the pages of the Architects’ Journal. Shortly afterwards, Will asked us to write something about the Open Garden Estates event we had organised. We did, and sent it to him, but it was never published. A week later Owen Pritchard, the technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, contacted us to ask for an 800-word piece in response to the question: ‘Should architects view inhabited council estates as brownfield land?’ – an issue our previous text had already addressed at length. We wrote one, and sent it to them. The following week we received an edited version of our text with suggested deletions and requesting additional information to expand on and support various points we had made. We provided them, while also arguing for the inclusion of the political arguments the Architects’ Journal wanted to remove.
We were then informed that no lesser personage than Lord Adonis – the editor of the IPPR report City Villages that had proposed we view council residents as comparable to the toxic waste that requires clearing up from actual brownfield land – would be putting the other side of the argument. We would have hoped his 100-page report would have been sufficient; but in the light of George Osborne’s emergency budget, in which the then Chancellor introduced stronger compulsory purchase powers over brownfield land, we insisted on the importance of exposing the political motivations driving Lord Adonis’s proposal and the catastrophic effects it would have on Londoners. This, it seemed to us, was a far more pressing issue than debating the shortcomings of Section 106 agreements and the other technicalities to which we were being directed by the Architects’ Journal. Since we had also been informed that ASH’s contribution to the debate would still only be 800 words even with the numerous requested additions we had sent in, we asked to see the final proposed edit of our text before the Architects’ Journal went to press, as it increasingly seemed that we were being asked to fill in the blanks in an article they had already written.
The final edit was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, crudely stitched together from the few remnants of our original text plus excerpts from the additional information we had supplied, all of which has been further reduced to 750 words. The pages above show how much of our original text was cut out and, in the highlighted lines in the pages below, what it was the Architects’ Journal felt it so necessary to censor. We leave it to you to judge why; but our own suspicion was that the Architects’ Journal wanted to use us as the straw man in the appearance of a debate that would allow Lord Adonis to answer and refute the few minor concerns the Architects’ Journal wished to publish under our name, while refusing to print our arguments against his re-definition of the council estates on which millions of UK citizens live as ‘brownfield land’. We withdrew the article from publication in the AJ, of course; but the entire process confirmed what ASH had previously argued: that the fixation on technical issues by architectural periodicals presenting themselves as open forums for the architectural profession functions to suppress genuine debate about the role of architects in the programme of estate regeneration, as well as about the wider social context of what they design. As architects for social housing, ASH had no intention of contributing to this ideological myopia.
For the rest of the year, however, the Architects’ Journal could barely publish an issue without mentioning us, with no less than a dozen articles bearing our name in the seven months to Christmas. In none of them, however, was any reference made to our design alternatives for Knight’s Walk, Cressingham Gardens, West Kensington and Gibbs Green or Central Hill estates. Instead, we were consistently referred to as a ‘protest’ or ‘campaign’ group. And although both our protests and our campaigns were repeatedly covered – our demonstration at the 2015 Stirling Prize award, in particular, finding wide coverage in the architectural press – never again would we be asked to contribute to the pages of the Architects’ Journal. As for so many journalists and academics since, ASH would remain a megaphone-wielding band of easily dismissed protesters – good for a quote every time another government policy announced another assault on council housing, but whose critiques of the estate regeneration national programme, and whose design alternatives to the demolition of estates, represent far too dangerous a threat to the lucrative contracts of the numerous architectural practices complicit in that programme.
Nothing’s changed since then. But that doesn’t mean our conversation with the Architects’ Journal hasn’t continued – although at times it’s been a little one-sided and – given the profession’s head-in-the-sand attitude – repetitive. When the London Mayor, for example, reduced his electoral promise for affordable housing quotas on new developments from 50 to 35 percent; or the Secretary of State reversed his decision to stop Southwark council’s Compulsory Purchase Order on the homes of leaseholders on the Aylesbury estate; or when Patrick Schumacher announced he wanted to redevelop Hyde Park as high-density housing for the ‘amazing multiplying events’ of his party friends, the Architects’ Journal was the first to call us, angling for a quote. But after having our considered replies reduced to one-line misquotes once too often, we no longer waste our time responding. Instead, we keep up a lively commentary on those AJ articles which, dropping through our letterbox every Friday fortnight, always raise a smile on our lips at the yawning chasm between the bouncy castle in which the editorial team holds its round-table debates on housing and the very real assault on council estates from which so many Londoners are struggling to save their homes, and in which the architectural profession is complicit right up to its neo-liberal neck. As a record of this gap – and for your entertainment and amusement – here, dear reader, is a selection of the letters from Architects for Social Housing to the Architects’ Journal between June 2015 and July 2017.
In response to Alex Ely’s reaction to the AJ120 Awards protest by Fight for Aylesbury and ASH, allow me to correct the factual inaccuracies in the answers he gave to his own question about whether his practice, Mae, is acting ethically in participating in the £1.5 billion regeneration of the Aylesbury estate.
1. The Aylesbury estate is not being ‘regenerated’, it is being demolished for new developments.
2. The estate did not ‘vote in favour’ of demolition; on the contrary, at a 2001 ballot responded to by 76 per cent of residents, 73 per cent voted in favour of refurbishment and against demolition.
3. And far from the council’s decision to demolish being made ‘following extensive consultation’, in 2009 Aylesbury Tenants and Leaseholders First made a submission to the Government Inspector on the ‘systematic failings of the Aylesbury Area Action Plan consultation process’.
4. Finally, rather than ‘designing private housing to pay for social housing’, there will be 680 fewer homes in the projected development for social rent, and these will be for up to 80 per cent of market value, far beyond the financial means of the current council tenants.
The exact opposite of the ‘Robin Hood’ moral standpoint Ely rather grandly characterises himself as taking, Mae architects are stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Behind this facade of misinformation, assumed neutrality, and responsibility passed to no less a Notting Hill sheriff than ‘society as a whole’, it is with such collusion in the social cleansing of council estates and the communities they house that architects warrant their description as ‘the funeral directors of the working classes.’
Like Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, developers Native Land claim that Neo Bankside has paid for the construction of 132 affordable homes, 125 of which are completed, 7 of which are still under construction. 82 of these are for social rent and 50 for shared ownership. However, 20 social rent and 18 shared ownership homes were already being delivered or had been planned by housing associations on three of the six sites. Neo Bankside’s actual contribution was a total of 94 affordable homes, of which 62 are for social rent and 32 shared ownership. Even on its reduced affordable housing, Southwark Council has lost 38 homes. For these figures, see the article on Neo Bankside by the 35% Campaign.
Rather than sniping at us, why doesn’t the Architects’ Journal publish our petition to the RIBA? We waited until 9pm for a representative to come out and receive it, but perhaps the Taittinger detained you. Here it is in full:
ASH Petition to the Royal Institute of British Architects
Architects for Social Housing reminds the RIBA that in its Code of Professional Conduct published in January 2005, under Principle 3 on Relationships, paragraph 3.1 states that architects should: ‘Have a proper concern and due regard for the effect that their work may have on the local community.’
In addition, we remind the RIBA that in the Guidance Note 1 to the same Code, on the RIBA’s definition of Corruption and Bribery, paragraph 1.13 states that a bribe is: ‘An incentive to act against one’s professional obligations or duty to others.’
On behalf of our 400 members, and of every architect who does not want to collude in the social cleansing being pursued through Government and Council housing policy, Architects for Social Housing calls on the RIBA to lobby the UK government on existing housing policy and the Architects Registration Board for a review of the moral duties of British architects.
Specifically, we call on the RIBA to make the participation of the architectural profession in the following projects not a decision, as it is under current guidelines, for the conscience and ethics of the individual architect or practice, but professionally prohibited by a New Architects’ Code of Conduct:
• Projects in which there is no review process for viability assessments that undervalue the sales value of properties and land, thereby reducing the quota of affordable and social rent housing;
• Projects in which exceptions to Section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act regulations on affordable housing and social rent quotas have been triggered by payments in lieu to Councils, and therefore conform to the RIBA definition of a bribe;
• Projects in which affordable housing is not built on-site but relocated to land that is already owned by the Council, often on existing housing estates, which are then demolished without ‘due regard for the local community’.
Further, we call on the RIBA to lobby Government to fix the quota of affordable housing in any given project to a minimum of 50 per cent, and to index the definition of affordable to earnings, rather than the 80 per cent of market value currently in place, which makes a mockery not only of the laws of the English language, but of the London Mayor’s claims to be building homes for Londoners.
Finally, we object to the use of the term ‘brownfield land’ being applied to existing council housing estates, a usage that equates the residents of these estates to toxic or industrial waste that requires cleaning up before redevelopment, and we call on the RIBA to lobby for the rejection of the term’s use within this context in Government housing policy.
Oh dear, I didn’t realise I’d been outed by the Architects’ Journal! I thought that was the job of the Daily Mail. Or do I detect the McCarthyite hand of Paul Finch at work?
I wasn’t, in fact, at the Cereal Cafe protest, as I was too busy watching England lose to Wales. But I did write on the event page afterwards:
1. Opening a shop that sells children’s cereals for £4 a bowl in a borough in which 49 per cent of the kids are living in poverty is an insult to the thousands of Tower Hamlets residents who have to eat on less than £4 a day.
2. Estate agents growing rich from people’s struggle to keep a roof over their head are instruments of gentrification and the homelessness that is a direct result of it.
3. Demolishing council housing and evicting the people in them to build luxury apartments for the City boys who profit from their homelessness is social cleansing.
4. Cutting benefits to the poor in the name of austerity while cutting taxes for the rich is class war.
5. If you don’t already know this, you never will, which makes you part of the problem, if only for your choice to remain ignorant of social realities.
If you wanted to report the facts, AJ, you had only to contact me, rather than repeating the lies of the tabloids.
With regard to the decision-making process requiring what Ben Derbyshire calls ‘intensive involvement of the affected community’: at a 2001 ballot responded to by 76 per cent of Aylesbury Estate residents, 73 per cent voted in favour of refurbishment and against demolition.
As to reasons ‘to doubt the thoroughness of the process that gave rise to the Area Action Plan, which was adopted by residents of the estate’: in 2009 Aylesbury Tenants and Leaseholders First made a submission to the Government Inspector on the ‘systematic failings of the Aylesbury Area Action Plan consultation process.’
Where architectural practices such as HTA, Mae, Hawkins\ Brown, and PRP – to name just a few – come into estate regeneration with a fixed set of objectives, pre-determined by councils, housing associations, property developers and politicians, for the demolition and rebuilding of the existing estate, and then use the consultation process to generate the reasons and excuses to achieve this, Architects for Social Housing begins by asking the community about their needs and wishes, and uses these to generate objectives and initiatives to bring this about. It is a process that moves from the inside out, from community to genuine estate regeneration – one that leaves the existing community intact.
ASH – which is not, despite the insistence of the Architects’ Journal, a protest group – is employing this consultation model in our current architectural work with Central Hill and West Kensington & Gibbs Green estates. Last month, with just such a proposal, we helped save half the homes on Knight’s Walk estate, which you may read about here, since the Architects’ Journal has refused to publish our architectural work.
For those wondering – and it seems there are many who are, in the profession and outside – this is what an ethical architectural practice looks like.
‘A spatially fluid terrain, rich in its potential to support communal life’? You’re admiring the glint on the blade that’s poised over your own head. What form of community could afford to live in these homes? The first, last and only thing you need to say about this new development is that the five-bed apartments cost £2 million. A mortgage at half that price requires an annual salary of £200,000.
The bankers who will live here, or the property investors who invest here, will not be contributing to the ‘communal life’ of Shepherdess Walk. They won’t be drinking in the Wenlock pub, which the local community has fought long and hard to save from similar architectural contributions to the neighbourhood. These are a foothold into the City and nothing more, and their faceless, dark-windowed facades have all the sensitivity to their environment of a stretch limousine. Unfortunately, they’re not passing through.
May I suggest that from now on, as part of the data list accompanying building studies, the Architects’ Journal include the sale price of the resulting homes? Because after all the rhapsodic prose about rendering and form and exciting new typologies, it seems we still need reminding that these are homes for people to live in. If only we could. In the middle of a housing crisis, building homes for £2 million is a disgrace, and will only drive up house prices and rentals in the neighbourhood even further.
You don’t mention how much the ‘duplex penthouse’ costs, but building flats that start at £1.75 million in the middle of a housing crisis is a disgrace, only compounded by this article’s rhapsodic and slightly ludicrous (‘a rich bass-baritone of loadbearing brick’?) fetishisation of the building’s materials and forms.
So far so standard for an architectural magazine. But I admit you’ve surprised me by celebrating a building that uses architecture as a form of social segregation, in this case with the design of ‘poor doors’ for the social housing component. Your dismissal of this as a financial necessity is the same argument employed by all excusers of this disgraceful policy, from the poor doors at One Commercial Street to the rich gardens at One Tower Bridge.
I will be making this article and this building public to those in London’s housing movement who, admittedly, cannot afford a mortgage on a £1.75 million flat, but who take a critical and active approach to such social segregation, and the complicity of architects in designing its attitudes into our streets and homes. I wonder what this ‘thoughtful, refined project’ will look like with a group of banner-carrying protesters standing outside.
I hope this article isn’t a sign of what’s to come under your new Editor in Chief, but it’s not a good start, is it?
With regard to the options available in March 2015 when ASH was invited in by the Hands off Knight’s Walk campaign, I copy in this leaflet handed out at the public consultation with Lambeth Council on 3 March, 2015, which readers may find on their campaign website. Contrary to Director Alex Ely’s claims that Mae Architects ‘arrived collaboratively at a partial redevelopment proposal’, ASH was brought in by residents of Knight’s Walk to address precisely their dissatisfaction with both the consultation process conducted by Mae Architects and the options it had generated, all of which were for full demolition, as this document shows:
The Facts about the Public Consultation: A Statement by Knight’s Walk Residents
‘On Thursday 26th February, the Knights Walk Residents and neighbours attended a “consultation” evening held by Lambeth, Soundings and Mae architects. In the interests of accuracy, we have summarised the proceedings below:
‘The evening was extremely well attended by the vast majority of Knights Walk Residents as well as residents of neighbouring roads and estates including Ariel Court, Dryden Court, Vanbrugh Court and Renfrew Road.
‘Also present for the whole evening were our MP Kate Hoey, Kate MacKintosh (widow of the architect of Cotton Gardens Estate and Knights Walk, George Finch and herself a former Lambeth architect) and a number of other experts in the field of architecture and estate design.
‘Lambeth officials attempted unsuccessfully to prevent entry of neighbouring estate residents and were reluctant to wait for elderly Knights Walk residents to arrive.
‘The Knights Walk Residents state that the consultation exercise so far is in breach of the fundamental rights for a fair consultation as set out by the Supreme Court in 2014 [the “Gunning” principles] in all 4 principles. There has been no effective consultation.
‘Soundings reported that Knights Walk Residents are generally extremely satisfied with the estate with only minor criticisms.
‘Mae Architects on behalf of Lambeth presented 3 options for Knights Walk “regeneration”:
Option 1 – demolition of the whole of Knights Walk
Option 2 – demolition of the whole of Knights Walk
Option 3 – demolition of the whole of Knights Walk
‘They rejected and misrepresented an option suggested by residents and ignored all their other suggestions
‘All the Options proposed by Lambeth and Mae Architects were rejected outright by all present as totally unacceptable, including our MP Kate Hoey.
‘It was also revealed that there would be private housing included in the redevelopment despite the stated aim of the project to be to increase public housing.
‘It was admitted that residents would not receive “like for like” housing when rehoused.
‘Knights Walk residents fully accept the need for increased public housing on Knights Walk and Cotton Gardens Estate, are fully willing to cooperate and have many ideas of their own as to how this might be provided, but will not accept the planned complete destruction of their homes or this long established community.
‘Yes in our backyard – but not on our homes!’
Alex Ely, as he has in Building Design, may continue to lie about both Mae’s involvement in pushing through demolition schemes under the guise of regeneration, and about their practice of ignoring residents’ wishes at the behest of their council clients; but fortunately residents’ accounts of their campaigns to save their homes from demolition are a matter of record. As, too, is the appalling record of Lambeth Council’s ongoing assault on council housing, specifically in their plans to demolish Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill estates. No quantity of denials by the architectural practices involved, whether Mae or PRP, will lessen their role in the social cleansing of these estates.
‘This year’s Sterling Prize list is safe. There is nothing that is going to upset anyone on there and it’s unlikely we’ll see protesters gathering outside Portland Place like last year when Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ NEO Bankside made the list.’
– Laura Mark, showing, once again, why the AJ has its finger on the pulse of the nation . . .
For Laura Mark’s elucidation, the Heygate Estate, on whose ruins Sterling Prize nominee Trafalgar Square has been built, was completed in 1974, and provided 1,100 council homes to around 3,000 people. In 2002, the Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition Council announced the estate was to be demolished, with demolition costs estimated at £15 million. A further £44m was spent on emptying the estate, and £21.5 million was spent on planning its redevelopment: a total of £80.5 million. In July 2010, international property developers Lend Lease were given the redevelopment contract by the newly elected Labour Council, and the 22-acre site was sold to them for an astonishing £50 million, a total loss of £30.5 million. By comparison, in 2011 a neighbouring 1.5 acre site sold for £40 million. In 2013, the last resident was evicted from their home by Compulsory Purchase Order. The 1,100 council homes are to be replaced by 2,535 homes, with the promise that 25 per cent will be ‘affordable’, meaning up to 80 per cent of market rate, and a tiny 82 homes are promised for social rent.
Architects for Social Housing is delighted to announce that this year’s prestigious O. J. Simpson Prize, awarded for getting away with murder, and which in 2015 was won by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners for NEO Bankside, has this year been awarded to dRMM Architects for Trafalgar Place, the first phase of Lend Lease’s £1.5 billion Elephant & Castle redevelopment. Built on the ruins of the demolished Heygate estate, Trafalgar Square comprises 235 high-quality homes, with 25 per cent affordable housing at 80 per cent of market rate, and no homes for social rent. In today’s Zoopla, a 2-bedroom flat in Trafalgar Square is on sale for £725,000. Owners of a 4-bedroom council flat on the former Heygate estate were offered £190,000 in compensation for their demolished home.
In recognition of which, ASH will be awarding the prize to dRMM Architects at this year’s RIBA Sterling Prize Ceremony, to be held outside Portland Place on Thursday, 6 October, 2016.
‘Thanks to local involvement we think we’ve created a better proposal for current and future residents.’
– Eleanor Purser, Director of Regeneration, Notting Hill Housing
The Aylesbury Estate, which was completed in 1977, has around 2,700 flats that are home to 7,500 people. Once demolished, these will be replaced by 3,575 new homes, of which 1,470, it is promised by Southwark Labour Council, will be for social rent, a total of just over 40 per cent. However, according to research by the 35% Campaign, Notting Hill Housing, the Council’s development partner, has already substituted ‘affordable rent’ for ‘social rent’ on its Bermondsey Spar regeneration. In actual fact, Notting Hill’s contract with Southwark Council contains no reference to social rent. Instead it refers to something called ‘target rent’, which is set by Central Government. Even on its own planning application for the Aylesbury, Notting Hill Trust admits that there will be a net loss of 934 homes for social rent.
On the Aylesbury Estate, the Silwood Estate, Bermondsey Spar, the Elmington Estate, the Wood Dene Estate, the North Peckham Estate and the Heygate Estate, a net loss of 4,275 homes for social rent has resulted from Southwark Council regeneration schemes. Moreover, as with the Bermondsey Spar regeneration, the 3,168 homes for social rent the council has promised to rebuild are far more likely to end up as ‘affordable’ rents, which means up to 80 per cent of market value, bringing the total loss of homes for social rent to 7,442. In addition, the Greater London Authority has predicted that Southwark will lose an additional 2,051 homes for social rent as a direct result of schemes the Labour Council is currently proposing across the borough. That’s a total of 9,500 homes for social rent lost to ‘regeneration’ schemes.
At a 2001 ballot responded to by 76 per cent of the Aylesbury Estate residents, 73 per cent voted in favour of refurbishment and against demolition. Despite this, in 2002 the then Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition Council announced it was going ahead with the redevelopment. Four years later, in 2005, it claimed that the cost of refurbishment was £314.6 million, far beyond their means, apparently. In 2009 Aylesbury Tenants and Leaseholders First made a submission to the Government Inspector on the ‘systematic failings of the Aylesbury Area Action Plan consultation process.’ And last year, at the Compulsory Purchase Order inquiry, Professor Jane Rendell was able to demonstrate that the cost estimate for refurbishment had been artificially inflated by £148.9 million for what Southwark Council called ‘external improvements’. This made-up figure, for which Professor Rendell could find no justification, constituted half the total cost of refurbishing the Aylesbury estate, and made it, said the Council, ‘financially unviable.’
The total cost of emptying and demolishing the Aylesbury’s 2,500 homes has been estimated by Southwark Council at £150 million. That comes to around £60,000 per home. However, the Council has already spent an extraordinary £46.8 million on the Aylesbury regeneration scheme – £32.1 million on acquisition and demolition, and £14.7 million on management and administration (i.e. their own salaries) – in the process regenerating just 112 homes. That’s an average cost of £417,000 per home. Compare this with the £20,260 per home the Council has spent bringing 611 homes up to the Decent Homes Standard elsewhere on the estate.
The Taxpayer’s Alliance recently revealed that 5 Southwark Council officers have salaries over £150,000, including:
– The Director of Public Health, Dr. R. Wallis, on £169,906
– The Strategic Director of Finance and Corporate Services, D. Whitfield, on £162,489
– The Director of Housing and Community Services, G. Scott, on £155,945
– The Strategic Director of Environment and Leisure, D. Collins, on£154,171
In addition, no less than 28 Southwark Council employees have salaries of over £100,000 per annum.
Is it any wonder they say they can’t afford to refurbish the Aylesbury Estate?
Despite all of which, Ben Derbyshire, head of HTA Architects, defended the collaboration of his practice in the social cleansing of the Aylesbury community last November, even going so far as to claim that it was supported by the residents:
‘The decision-making process for appraising refurbishment versus redevelopment of housing requires intensive involvement of the affected community, professional input and a political process to determine the outcome – essentially a balance of costs and benefits. Although we were not involved in the process that led to the decision to redevelop Aylesbury, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the thoroughness of the process that gave rise to the Area Action Plan, which was adopted by Southwark and the residents of the estate as the basis for the redevelopment brief. Indeed we believe this enabled HTA Design as masterplanners, and the team of architects, including HTA Design, Hawkins\Brown, Mae, and Duggan Morris, to develop the adopted AAP proposals into the scheme now approved by the council and supported by the majority of residents.’
Ben Derbyshire has recently put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency of the RIBA.
Council Leader Robert Davis is right to worry about insufficient population density in the City of Westminster, where nearly 1 in 10 properties are owned by off-shore companies, and which, no doubt because of this, has a far lower density of residents (11,109 per km²) than the inner-city boroughs of Tower Hamlets (14,201 per km²), Hackney (13,850) and Lambeth (11,358).
To help remedy this situation, ASH is launching a petition to knock down Downing Street, Whitehall, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament (to start with) and replace them with much needed, high-density council housing. We recommend decanting Parliament to Leicester, which in addition to being the geographical centre of England, and therefore the ideal location for the Tories’ Middle-England voters, is badly in need of the boost to its economy that these company CEOs and hereditary millionaires will bring.
Meanwhile, ASH will be drawing up the plans for what we hope London’s council residents will universally vote for as Option 1: Full demolition of these newly designated ‘brownfield sites’. It’s not as if the Queen, the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament don’t have second (and third, and fourth) homes to go to.
ASH has conducted a preliminary viability assessment of these redevelopment plans, and the savings on state-funded expense claims for MPs and the extended Royal family, aligned with the state already having footed the bill for their homes outside London, makes this a sound financial investment, allowing the new developments to be 100 per cent council housing.
At a rough estimate, ASH estimates we can build 1,500 river-view council homes on Parliament Estate, the first phase of the development, and homes for a further 4,500 homeless families on Buckingham Estate, the latter to be put aside for young families whose children will benefit from the extensive attached gardens. The ASH masterplan for this newly-designated Opportunity Area also includes the James Estate, Home Estate, Westminster Estate, Abbey Estate, Treasury Estate, Guards Estate and Defense Estate.
ASH will shortly be announcing an open competition for architects to draw up plans for this much-needed housing on Westminster’s brownfield land, the development of which will go a considerable way to eradicating London’s current housing shortage.
‘It would be wrong to ignore the aspect of gentrification or, as the residents’ association has termed it, social cleansing.’
– Laura Mark
Opening with every cliché about council estates (failing, high crime, bland, a no-go zone, and a good trashing by Zadie Smith), this one sentence is the only reference in this article to any resident opposition to this development. Ignoring it is exactly what Laura Mark does; and she’s right, it is wrong. And the one thing missing from the list of project data and specifications – as always with articles in the Architects’ Journal – is the cost of the new apartments. But a 2-bedroom apartment was being advertised off-plan last year for £900,000.
Elsewhere in the Architects’ Journal the tenure mix for Ely Court is listed as 25 for market sale and ‘18 social affordable units.’ Which is it – social or affordable, or don’t you recognise a difference? Disinformation, a mouthpiece for Brent Labour Council and Catalyst Housing Association: the architectural profession in summary.
If this is Britain’s foremost architectural magazine, no wonder architects know nothing about the social consequences of estate regeneration.
Declaring the demolition of council estates, the eviction of their residents, and the replacement of their homes with real estate investments for the filthy rich a ‘distraction’ is not exactly the declaration of the social duties of the architectural profession we were looking for.
As you will find at 6pm on Thursday, 6 October, when you attend the Stirling Prize award ceremony at the RIBA, there are one or two people who have a slightly different conception of what architects and architecture is for.
If you, or anyone else in your ivory tower, would like to come down and join us, you’re very welcome to add your voice to the growing protest against the shameful collusion of the architectural profession in the social cleansing of London, and take more than a dim view of institutions like the RIBA handing out prizes to those who do so.
Built on the ruins of the demolished Heygate Estate, Stirling Prize nominated Trafalgar Place contains 235 so-called ‘high-quality’ homes, 52 of which are so-called ‘affordable housing’, which by now even readers of the Architects’ Journal must know means for sale or rent at 80 per cent of market rate. To get an idea of what market rate is for ‘high-quality’ homes in Southwark, in today’s Zoopla a 2-bedroom flat in Trafalgar Place is on sale for £725,000. In contrast, owners of a 4-bedroom council flat on the former Heygate Estate were offered £190,000 in compensation for their demolished home. A disgraceful 8 homes in Trafalgar Place have been allocated for social rent. The site on which this property speculator’s investment opportunity is built was previously occupied by the demolished Wyngrave House, which provided 104 council homes for the local community.
Whether you want it to be or not, Will, architecture is always political.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, perhaps your judges might try asking dRMM Architects – who on their website claim one of their strengths is ‘our ability to reflect on the bigger picture, discovering through local consultation what residents want’ – whether they consider the demolition of the 1,200 council homes on the Heygate Estate to be part of ‘the bigger picture’, and believe the eviction of its 3,000 residents from the borough to be ‘what they want’?
They go on to claim that ‘as London seeks to cope with its chronic housing shortage and improve inner-city living, we believe that an awareness of the effects of the built environment at a local level should be paramount.’ As you sit down to tea in Tintern Abbey, perhaps you could ask your faux panel of judges if they think the demolition of the 104 council homes of the former Wyngrave House and their replacement with 235 luxury apartments in which a 2-bedroom unit is selling for £725,000 is reducing the housing shortage in London and improving inner-city living for those of us not on a banker’s salary?
As for the RIBA, in nominating dRMM Architects for this year’s Stirling Prize, it described Trafalgar Place as ‘an outstanding site plan which connects the development to the local community.’ If you can drag your conversation away from whether you get ‘that’ feeling when you walk into Trafalgar Place, perhaps you could raise the question of how on-site security guards, gated access, anti-homeless spikes and CCTV cameras connect Trafalgar Place to a local community that cannot afford to buy or rent its luxury housing?
And if you run into the real Stirling Prize jury again, could you ask Rachel Whiteread whether she intends to cast the space where the Heygate Estate once stood?
On top of the demolition of 6 council estates, the closure of 10 libraries, the vanity project of the Garden Bridge and the eviction of the Brixton Arches, this is just what Lambeth needs: another Damien Hirst gallery selling Jeff Koons for $58.4 million. Another servile thumbs up by the architectural profession for the gentrification of another working-class neighbourhood. No wonder the Qatari Investment Vehicle has begun to take an interest in the area. As the jury said: ‘A generous asset to an evolving community’ – just not the one that currently lives there. There goes the neighbourhood.
Thank you for this brief mention in the otherwise blanket ban on reporting our protest by the architectural press. For the record, our catchy chant was:
Aylesbury Estate: Human Rights Violation Heygate Estate: Stirling Prize Nomination
The 2016 O. J. Simpson Prize (last year won by RSH+P’s Neo Bankside) was awarded to dRMM Architects for Trafalgar Place, built on the demolition of 104 council homes, now placed with 235 unaffordable homes with gated access, security cameras, homeless spikes and security guards nearly as violent as those guarding the RIBA.
And the inaugural Ben Derbyshire Foot in Mouth Award was won by an overwhelming majority vote for the following comment by the RIBA President elect:
‘Whilst many (me included) are concerned that current housing and planning policies do not serve the ambition to create mixed neighbourhoods particularly well, not everyone believes that public money should be used to subsidise families to live in areas they could not otherwise afford to.’
The often repeated lie that council housing is subsidised by public money is a myth propagated by the property developers and councils that want the land they are built on, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of the RIBA as an institution to hear it repeated from the mouth of its future President. What stops the families Ben Derbyshire so loftily dismisses from their neighbourhoods from being able to afford to live there any longer is precisely the demolition of the council estates they have called home for decades and their replacement with the luxury apartments the RIBA has seen fit to nominate for this year’s Stirling Prize.
Unfortunately, although it was a fine evening, very few architects came out to talk to us this year, though we saw much sniggering and tittering from behind your champagne flutes. But if anyone cares to know about the reasons for our protest, see our report here:
Someone once said that the overwhelming political motivation of the British middle classes is fear of embarrassment. We saw a fair smattering of that following Brexit, when London’s elite fell over themselves in shame to dissociate themselves from those nasty working-class Ukipers who had the temerity to disagree with them. And we’re seeing it again here with the Schumacher affair.
It is indicative of the moral timidity of the architectural profession that it has sat by in obedient silence while their clients have employed their skills to pursue a programme of social cleansing through estate demolition that has seen thousands of council homes demolished and tens of thousands of households made homeless, but when Patrik Schumacher talks about building on Hyde Park it’s up in arms.
There is nothing in Schumacher’s recommendations – whether about the privatisation of public land, the abolition of social housing and rent controls, or the manipulation of planners to push through private developments – that is not already being put into practice by London councils, builders, housing associations and developers, all aided and abetted by architectural practices like HTA Design, Mae, PRP, Karakusevic Carson, dRMM, Haworth Tompkins, etc.
Following the Government’s Housing and Planning Act, the building of social housing is a thing of the past. Under the estate demolition programme being pursued by Tory and Labour councils alike, social housing is, as Schumacher says, being ‘abolished’. Under the mass transfer of council housing stock to housing associations, public land is being privatised. And under the changes to planning legislation, not Hyde Park, but dozens of previously public parks are being handed over to private developers in sweetheart deals. And the Government, while seeing fit to cap benefits that will affect between a quarter and half a million children, has consistently refused to introduce any rent controls.
While we at ASH disagree with and oppose everything Schumacher has said, he has done nothing more than given voice to the class war that is being waged though housing in this country. I can understand his confusion at what all the fuss is about, and attempts to back pedal on his comments. But I’d have thought that, after all the years Patrik has spent in this country, he’d know that in England what you say – and not what you do – is what matters.
Very heartwarming. But Patrik Schumacher’s comments weren’t directed at moving people out of central London because of their ‘race, gender, creed or orientation’, but because of their class, their poverty, and above all because they are living in social housing, and therefore – according to the widely and willingly accepted propaganda about social housing – freeloaders living in homes that are subsidised by the state and standing on some of the most valuable land in the world.
Nor did Patrik wish to replace them with what he called ‘his people’ according to whether these latter came from an ethnic minority or were women, but because they were more ‘economically potent and productive’ and could ‘serve us most effectively’. In its celebration of the multiculturalism of it staff, Zaha Hadid Architect’s letter fails to take account of the class identity of the residents Schumacher’s speech identified for social cleansing.
As for its own claims to an ‘architecture of inclusivity’ delivering projects ‘for all members of the community’, a look at one or two of those projects should illuminate the extent to which Zaha Hadid Architects realised such values.
The Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan is one such project, commissioned by President Ilham Aliyev, an abuser of human rights whose corruption and nepotism has been likened to that of a feudal state. In the words of Baku, a quarterly magazine edited by the president’s daughter, the centre, named after the President’s father, was meant to transform Azerbaijan’s capital into the next ‘global cultural hot-spot’. But the fact it subsequently and predictably won the London Design Museum’s 2014 Design of the Year award must have been cold comfort for the 250 families expelled from their homes to make way for its construction. Does that sound familiar?
As for the Al Wakrah Stadium, designed for the World Cup in Qatar – where 1.8 million migrant workers are kept in conditions of semi-slavery, without pay, with their passports confiscated, living in work camps and working in 50 degree heat – do they count as members of the community that will benefit from Zaha Hadid Architects’ urge to ‘never – ever – stop imagining’? I wonder it any of its architects, whatever their ‘race, gender, creed or orientation’, can begin to imagine what it’s like to work in such conditions in order to build one of their ‘manifestos’.
To help them in their quest to ‘never stop questioning’, the International Trade Union Confederation has predicted that 7,000 construction workers will die on Qatar building sites in preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup. And yes, I know the stadium hadn’t even begun construction when these figures were produced, so you can keep your lawyer’s locked in their kennels. But nothing’s changed since then, and they are a far more accurate indication of the kind of clients and communities Zaha Hadid Architects engages with, the kind of boundaries it is willing to cross, than this fanciful letter.
As Zaha Hadid infamously declared: ‘I have nothing to do with the workers. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.’ Now there’s a statement more keeping in ethos with Patrik Schumacher’s wish to abolish social housing and evict its occupants from Inner London!
I am looking forward to debating these and other issues with Patrik in the new year, when he will have a chance to clarify and enlarge on his statements and we to relate the realities of the current programme of estate demolition in London – which we believe, contrary to Patrik, is fully deserving of the description ‘social cleansing’.
We invite everyone in the architectural profession to join us.
It’s hard to imagine a clearer image of the ivory tower (or in this case bouncy castle) in which architects live and think than this photograph of the Architects’ Journal roundtable of white men (and token woman) sitting down to sort out the challenges facing the profession. But with unerring – and typical – accuracy, you’ve identified the wrong question for debate.
The crisis in housing is not one of quality – which is another euphemism for the high-cost, unaffordable, luxury housing that is making such profits for builders like Berkeley Homes and (as Patrick Usborne of dRMM will know) developers like Lendlease – it’s a crisis of affordability.
If you look up from your Bento boxes long enough you’ll find that a recent report by the charity Shelter showed that 43 per cent of homes in Britain fail to meet their newly launched ‘living home standard’, and that, unsurprisingly, 73 per cent of these homes are in London. But 56 per cent of London homes fail the living home standard not on the criteria of their quality, the amount of living space, the stability of tenure or the surrounding neighbourhood, but on the fifth criterion – their affordability. Across the whole of Britain, the homes of 41 per cent of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, and 31 per cent of skilled workers, fail to meet the standard of affordability.
Still, I’ve no doubt that if you order another mineral water you can turn this problem into a challenge and, with a sake for the road, an opportunity.
Well, well, well. Christine Murray urging architects to stand up to Donald Trump, an interview with Paulo Mendes about politics in architecture, and even Paul (‘I’m alright, Jack’) Finch quoting Richard Rogers’ dictum – made famous at an RIBA protest – that ‘All architecture is political’. For a moment there I thought you were actually going to confront Santiago Calatrava with the turgid history of financial manipulation, reduced affordable housing quotas and government threats of withheld grants that led Greenwich Labour Council to hand over Greenwich Peninsula to the Hong Kong corporation Knight Dragon to do with as it pleases. But be still my fluttering heart! It seems the ivory tower is cracking . . .
Of course, it’s typical that in addressing the issue of women in architecture you focus on the pay gap between male and female company partners, just as the focus of your hopes that the profession regains its political voice is directed at Trump and Brexit and other issues over which architects have little influence.
As one of the protesters that Christine Murray describes the profession ‘politely ignoring’ at last years’ Stirling Prize protest, may I once again remind the members of that profession that the real and very present political issue in architecture – one in which they are guilty of colluding up to their armpits – is that of housing estate demolition? And that the real issue of women in architecture is not that of partners on £95,000 complaining about the salaries of their better paid male counterparts, but in the disproportionate effects the demolition of council housing has on women?
It is the working-class women and single mothers, on rather less annual remuneration than company partners, that make up the largest portion of the tenants whose homes councils are demolishing to make way for the luxury developments the directors of those architectural practices are only too happy to design. And not only design.
Besides Richard Rogers’ appropriated quote, another of our slogans is that ‘Architects are the funeral directors of the working class’ – which Will Hurst was once kind enough to post on his Twitter account. Not once in your article on councils’ setting up of special purpose vehicles like Brick by Brick and Homes for Lambeth do you mention that these housing associations will effectively transfer public land and housing into private hands. Nor do you mention the role of real estate firm Savills in setting up and advising every one of these SPVs in Labour boroughs across London, from Hackney, Haringey and Waltham Forest to Lambeth, Southwark and Croydon.
Of course, the RIBA has recently seen fit to make £185,000 per year Croydon CEO and estate demolisher Jo Negrini an Honorary Fellow, following the decision by Brick by Brick – which will received £250 million of public money – to sign up no less than seven architectural firms – including those old Architects’ Journal favourites and estate demolishers HTA, Mae and Mikhail Riches – so we understand the reasons for your reluctance.
Nice try, AJ, but the politics you are trying so hard to divert our eyes from does not lie in the obscenities of Trump or the threats of Brexit, but in your own hands.
If you want to know what a genuine political architectural practice is, look at our alternatives to demolition for West Kensington, Gibbs Green, Central Hill and Knight’s Walk estates. We’ve presented these designs at the CASS, the Bartlett, the Architectural Association, Westminster University, the University of East London, Cambridge House, the Royal Academy, the Western Front Society of Vancouver and the Architectural League of New York. Perhaps one day you’d care to see them.
Oh dear, where to start with this issue? Three paragraphs devoted to how Michael Heseltine inconvenienced the AJ photographer, another repetition of the story about the ceremonial mace, but nothing to say about the confession by the man placed at the head of our national estate regeneration strategy that he was ‘surprised to hear’ about what is happening at the Heygate and Aylesbury estates.
For future reference, the question the cutting-edge journalists at the Architects’ Journal should have asked is: how does the enforced eviction of thousands of residents from these and other estates conform with with Heseltine’s statement that estate regeneration should be ‘resident led’? Instead, we get the unquestioned reporting of the usual platitudes about ‘putting residents at the heart of shaping their estates’. We would suggest the question on everyone’s lips here would be: then why has neither the Estate Regeneration National Strategy nor the Greater London Authority’s Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration made resident support a condition of such regeneration – which as we know in practice means demolition?
And why you’re at it, perhaps another question you may have liked to have asked Lord Heseltine (in between listing the architects he likes best) is how demolished estates are meant to remain in public hands when the government has allocated a mere £140 million for the ‘Blitz’ on 100 estates, and he himself says the money will come from the private sector? His suggestion that it will come from the local authorities his Party have deliberately starved of funding is, of course, another meaningless statement this article fails to challenge.
What else? Perhaps ask why a man with an estimated fortune of £264 million – who has never lived on, known anyone who has lived on, or visited a council estate without a retinue of bodyguards – is in charge of the nation’s estate regeneration strategy? Or whether his justification for the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens estate because he ‘doesn’t like the look of it’ is a criterion he will be applying to the 100 as-yet unidentified estates his panel intends to ‘Blitz’?
But let’s pass on to the other burning (but apparently unrelated topic) of this edition of the Architects’ Journal – MIPIM, the International Market for Real Estate Professionals. The subject of both Will Hurst’s editorial and its own article, this, it seems, is where our post-Brexit architectural practices must go now to sell their services to the world.
Unfortunately, neither editorial nor article mention what is also being sold at MIPIM. Even in that little bubble where the editorial board for the Architects’ Journal meets to discuss world affairs over sushi, it can’t have escaped your notice that the Haringey Development Vehicle that was announced this week, and which will demolish thousands of council homes on Broadwater Farm, Northumberland Park and Sky City estates, was brokered at MIPIM. Or that the development partner selected by Haringey Labour council for this mass privatisation scheme is Lendlease, whose comparable deal with Southwark Labour council for the demolition and redevelopment of the Heygate estate was also cut at MIPIM.
While celebrating MIPIM as the panacea for all those lost commissions for British architects, perhaps the Architects’ Journal would like to reflect on where the land for all these new projects is being found? You excitedly announce that 2,000 architects will be in attendance next week; but what you fail to mention is how many Leaders of London councils – accompanied by their Cabinet Members for Housing and Regeneration, regeneration officers from the private sector, advisors from Savills, and of course members of the national estate regeneration panel headed by Heseltine – will also be there, selling off the land on which the homes of hundreds of thousands of council tenants live.
It is on the mass eviction of these residents, and the privatisation of the land their homes are built on, that the commissions British architects win next week in Cannes will be built. Is this not something your readers in the profession – who in our experience are ostrich-like in their ignorance of estate demolition – should be told about? Or would they rather hear about what colour jumper Tarzan was wearing?
So the answer to London’s shortage of homes Londoners can afford to live in is not – it turns out – to demolish our council and social housing in the middle of a housing crisis and replace it with property investments for international capital designed by social cleansing practices like HTA Design, Mae, PRP Architects, Hawkins\Brown, dRMM, Haworth Tompkins and Karakusevic Carson (which the Evening Standard this week identified as the ‘go to practice for estate regeneration’ for the social cleansing of the King’s Crescent estate in Hackney – a bargain at £120,000 for a 25 per cent share in a 2-bedroom flat or rent from £1,100 per month), but to increase their housing capacity with infill.
Now why didn’t we think of that?
Who knows, maybe Patrik Schumacher will turn the full 180 degrees and suggest the funds raised from the private sales and rents are invested not only in building more homes for social rent on the estate, but invested in refurbishing the council homes that have been neglected by councils for so long?
Go on Patrik! You may not have the courage to meet us in a public debate, but one day you could be known as the Saviour of London’s estates, and no-one will remember your ‘theoretical’ speech in Berlin. And we promise you and whoever this bloke Kelly is can take all the credit. Architects have short memories.
P.S. Once again, and for the umpteenth time, we remind the Architects’ Journal that ASH are not activists but architects. Our alternative designs to the demolition of West Kensington and Gibbs Green, Central Hill and Knight’s Walk, using infill and roof extensions and refurbishing the existing homes, can be viewed on our website here:
Just got the latest edition of the Architects’ Journal, and as expected there’s a lot of talk about the Grenfell Tower fire, including an editorial by Emily Booth moaning about the lack of architectural representation on the independent group set up by Sajid Javid to advise on the immediate measures necessary to ensure the safety of tower blocks; a detailed article by Ella Braidwood on the failings of the Building Regulations in ensuring the fire safety of cladding added to tower blocks; and an opinion piece by Catherine Slessor looking at the fire in the context of changing attitudes to council housing in the UK; plus a bunch of letters on the failure to retro-fit sprinklers in tower blocks, the failure of the RIBA to show leadership (surely not!) in the wake of the fire, and the failure of architects in general offering professional insight into its causes.
Not once, though, in all this breast beating, is estate regeneration mentioned. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the application of flammable cladding to a reinforced concrete tower block was just some crazy idea that the council came up with, rather than part of a UK-wide programme of estate regeneration being implemented through Private Finance Initiatives which – whether as the Haringey Development Vehicle that is handing £2 billion of land and 21 council estates over to property developer Lendlease, or with Homes for Lambeth, which will similarly hand the redevelopment and management of 6 estates over to private contractors and management teams – is replicating the same managerial and technical conditions that led to the Grenfell Tower fire. There are 170 London estates that we know of that are threatened with, or already condemned to, privatisation, demolition and social cleansing by Labour councils alone.
Sure, call loudly for a review of Document B on fire safety that the Department of Community and Local Government has sat on for 4 years, bleat about not having a seat at the big table, or shed a few tears over the treatment of the poor, but for Christ’s sake don’t say anything that might damage your commissions on one of the largest sources of income for architects through the estate regeneration programme in which the entire profession is complicit but which it refuses to question. No wonder architects haven’t been invited to share their professional opinion on what caused the Grenfell Tower fire: they can’t even speak the truth to each other.
In 1960 the Fourth Conference of the Situationist International was held in London’s East End. This was the SI’s only visit to the land of Les Rosbif, and while here they were invited to speak at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at its old site in Dover Street. After their presentation – which largely consisted of rejecting the art world’s attempt to recuperate their actions as ‘Situationism’ – the British public – which largely consisted of that mix of bourgeois, bohemians and bankers still recogniseable today – started demanding clarifications. At which point Guy Debord got up to leave, but not before saying in demotic English: ‘We’re not here to answer ******* questions!’
Fifty-seven years later, and as part of their In formation programme, the ICA has invited Architects for Social Housing to take up residency in their Upper Galleries from Monday 14 to Sunday 20 August. Using it as a work space to collaborate with other groups and individuals, we will be hosting informal discussions on aspects of the housing crisis through the week from 7pm-9pm. On Tuesday 15 Co-ops for London will present their report ‘Co-operate Not Speculate’. And on Wednesday 16 August Achilles Fanzine will hold a workshop on ‘Urban Myths’. ASH has recently published a report on the Grenfell Tower fire, which we will be holding a meeting about on Thursday 17 August, also from 7pm-9pm. At the end of the residency we will exhibit the alternatives to demolition we have designed for the estates ASH has worked with, as well as a new map of London’s existing estate regenerations, photographs of estates and campaigns by L.G. and Alessia Gammarotta, as well as work by Architectural Workers. The show will be open to the public on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 August from 11am-6pm. The exhibition opening will be held on Saturday evening from 7pm-11pm, and everyone is welcome.
Architects for Social Housing
Set-up in 2015, ASH organises working collectives tailored for individual projects. These teams are made up of architects, urban designers, environmental engineers, surveyors, planners, film-makers, photographers, web designers, artists, writers and housing campaigners. We operate with developing ideas under set principles, first among which is the conviction that increasing the housing capacity on existing council estates through infill and design, rather than demolishing and redeveloping them as luxury apartments, is a more sustainable solution to London’s housing needs than the privatisation and demolition of the city’s social housing during a housing shortage, enabling, as it does, the continued existence of the communities they house.
ASH offers support, advice and technical expertise to residents who feel their interests and voices are increasingly marginalised by local councils or housing associations during the so-called ‘regeneration’ process. Our primary responsibility is to existing residents – tenants and leaseholders alike; but we are also committed to finding viable alternatives to estate demolition that are in the interests of the wider London community.
Co-ops for London is part of the London Cooperative Housing Group (LCHG) and campaigns for more housing cooperatives in London. Housing policies that prioritise financial value over social value have led to the growth of pseudo-public housing associations and Tenant Management Organisations that in reality offer limited tenant involvement (as we have seen in the tragic events at Grenfell) and are contributing to the social cleansing of London via the introduction of insecure tenancies and rising rents. Our report ‘Co-operate Not Speculate’, launched earlier this year, argues that the housing co-operative model offers a viable alternative because tenants manage and own their properties collectively, helping to keep rents low and tenancies secure. Coops for London also want to reframe the way we talk about housing – we avoid using depersonalized (and financial) developer’s language like ‘units’ and speak more about the homes and communities that make London. In our talk we will be explaining the basic principles of housing co-operatives and how you can help to set up a housing cooperative in London.
An urban myth is defined as ‘a humorous or horrific story or piece of information circulated as though true,’ a glitch of perception which mutates and becomes a caricature of reality, consumed as fact. In our world of fake news and perpetual story-telling, a few do the writing and many do the reading. The stories are traditional in their impulse to create a baddy, a figure of the ‘other’, and social housing and those who need it have been vilified: the architecture a source of crime and isolation, the residents ‘Council Housed And Violent.’ This workshop is a space to challenge such narratives and create alternative media made by those who have experienced and care about social housing. Achilles fanzine invites participants to engage in a critical analysis of representations of social housing and create individual zines in response, using collage and drawing throughout. The session is led by Lilah Francis, project director of Achilles!, a fanzine made with some of the residents of the Achilles estate in New Cross, South-East London, under threat of demolition by Lewisham council.
We unionise all architectural workers in these beliefs: we fight against the architecture that capitalises on crisis; we know that housing can be truly affordable; we oppose the eradication of bodies, memories, and landscapes; we believe in an equal right to housing; we will not be exploited to push out the exploited; we take responsibility for our actions; we acknowledge that our lives have been built on the destruction of others; we will not disguise destructive development with a friendly facade; we do not see beauty in death; we will destroy the image; we will expose the corruption; we refuse to be complacent or complicit; we speak alongside the people whose voices are systematically silenced; we will not weed our streets to sow the seeds of regeneration; we are against the architecture of control; we do not accept that demolition is necessary or inevitable; we believe in building social and economic networks before physical structures. Architecture is inherently a practice of change. We have the power to choose how.
Please join ASH during our residency at the ICA. If you would like to propose a talk, help us with the exhibition and map, or just fancy a chat, come down to the Upper Galleries, or write to us at: email@example.com. Unlike the Situationists, we’ll do our best to answer any questions.
On Thursday, 22 June, 2017, in response to the Grenfell Tower fire the previous week, Architects for Social Housing held an open meeting in the Residents Centre of Cotton Gardens estate in Lambeth. Around 80 people turned up and contributed to the discussion – residents, housing campaigners, journalists, lawyers, academics, engineers and architects. Below is an edited film of the meeting made for us by Line Nikita Woolfe, with the assistance of Luc Beloix on camera and additional footage by Dan Davies, and is produced by her company Woolfe Vision. The presentations we gave that evening are the basis of this report, to which we have added our subsequent research as well as that collated from the numerous articles on the Grenfell Tower fire published in the press and elsewhere, to which we have attached the weblinks, with the original documents included whenever they are available.
On the Saturday after the Grenfell Tower fire we ran into a member of the Tenants and Residents Association for Cotton Gardens estate, which includes three 20-storey blocks, and she told us that she had received over 50 calls from residents worried about the safety of their homes. We decided, therefore, to call a meeting on the estate to try and answer their questions and those of residents from other estates alarmed by the reports in the media about the safety of council estate tower blocks, and give them any advice we can on how they can put pressure on their landlords to improve that safety. To do so, we started looking at the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire – not only the technical causes but also the management structures and political decisions that led to them. In addition, we ourselves have been alarmed by the increasingly loud and widespread narrative being spread in the media that council estates are inherently unsafe and that the proper response to this disaster is to demolish all council tower blocks.
As any resident who has been consulted by their local council on the ‘regeneration’ of their estate knows, their responses to seemingly innocuous questions are similarly used to justify the demolition of their homes. As an example of which, one of the questions put to residents of Central Hill estate by Lambeth council at the beginning of their consultation was ‘would you like a new kitchen?’ Two-and-a-half-years later the same council used the answers to these consultations to justify the demolition of the entire estate. In the same way, opinions about living in council tower blocks voiced in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire are not made in a political vacuum. It is entirely understandable that a resident pulled from the hell of the Grenfell Tower fire and shoved in front of a camera crew should call for the demolition of similar tower blocks; it is something very different for a journalist who has never lived on an estate to do the same in a national paper, as it is for a politician who has promoted London’s programme of estate demolition to describe tower blocks as ‘criminally unsafe’ on a news programme watched by millions. This report makes no claim to be the truth about the Grenfell Tower fire, but it is a contribution to the attempt to find it, which also means exposing and refuting the lies being spread about its causes. In trying to find that truth, we should be aware of the difference between voicing our personal opinions and formulating conclusions based on what we know.
We wanted to use this meeting, therefore, to counter the misperceptions and misinformation being propagated in the media, not only about the Grenfell Tower fire but about the council estate it belongs to, and to begin to organise opposition to the use of this disaster and the lives it has claimed to further promote the already widespread programme of estate regeneration that threatens the homes of hundreds of thousands of Londoners. In order to cover these issues in what turned out to be two-and-a-half hours, the meeting was divided into four sections, each with a clear objective: 1) to share what we know collectively about the technical causes of the Grenfell Tower fire; 2) to expose the management structures and political decisions that allowed these technical conditions to be in place; 3) to advise residents of council tower blocks on the safety or otherwise of their homes, and what changes need to happen in order to stop such a disaster ever happening again; and 4) to organise opposition to the use of the Grenfell Tower fire to promote London’s programme of estate demolition. In writing up our presentations, however, we have expanded this report into six parts:
1. Technical Causes of the Grenfell Tower Fire
Grenfell Tower Building Regulations Grenfell Tower Cladding
2. Management Decisions responsible for the Grenfell Tower Fire
Part 1. Technical Causes of the Grenfell Tower Fire
ASH visited Grenfell Tower on the Thursday after the fire, which started shortly before 1am on Tuesday, 14 June. The neighbouring Silchester estate is under threat of demolition by Kensington and Chelsea council, and we know residents in the campaign who live on Silchester Road, 100 metres north-west of Grenfell Tower. We were therefore able to pass the police cordon and get a close look at the burned-out building. The residents showed us photos of the tower that they had taken from their back garden, and told us that the fire, which began in a fridge-freezer of a flat on the north-east corner of the fourth floor, spread up the corner cladding in a column of flame that reached the roof, twenty floors above, within 15 minutes. It then moved laterally across the cladding in a diagonal line, moving around both sides of the building, meeting at the south-east corner, and eventually encasing the entire tower in flames. Footage confirming this account was taken by fire-fighters approaching the scene, and the question they ask each other several times in disbelief is: ‘How is that possible?’
Grenfell Tower Building Regulations
A building is the sum of its parts, and works holistically. Any changes to its constituent components will therefore alter the fire strategies that are intrinsic to the design of the building. All works to buildings, whether refurbishment or new build, need to pass the 2010 Building Regulations. These regulations are updated regularly, and particularly in response to incidences of fire, which are contained in Approved Document B, which was produced in 2006 and amended in 2010 and 2013. There are several ways that designs get Building Regulations approval from local authorities. 1) The drawings can be sent to the local authority and be approved by their Building Control department as part of a Full Plans application, which generally takes around 8 weeks. 2) Alternatively, it is also possible to submit a Building Notice to the local authority and start construction on site 48 hours after the submission and potentially long before the designs are completed. The difference is, the Full Plans application receives design approval from the council before construction starts, whereas the Building Notice receives a Completion Certificate once the works are completed. In both routes to approval, the building works are inspected throughout construction by an in-house inspector from the council’s Building Control department. According to the Planning Portal, with a Building Notice:
‘Plans are not required with this process so it’s quicker and less detailed than the full plans application. It is designed to enable some types of building work to get under way quickly; although it is perhaps best suited to small work.’
There are also works for which a Building Notice is excluded, including building work which is subject to section 1 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971, for which a certificate issued under this Act by the fire authority is compulsory. Under a Building Notice, the local authority is simply informed about the works and monitors it as it progresses to ensure the work complies with Building Regulations.
Building Regulations are updated in order to accommodate the use of new technologies, so alterations or additions to existing buildings that, like Grenfell Tower, have been standing for 40 years must first ensure that any work done to that building – whether remedial, cladding or refurbishment – works in conjunction with that building and doesn’t compromise the building’s existing integrity. This means the fire safety and risk measures need to be re-analysed and the new conditions under which they function taken into account. In the case of Grenfell Tower, the new works appear to have compromised the existing fire safety of the building. In an interview about the fire, Arnold Tarling, an Associate Director of Hindwoods Chartered Surveyors and a member of the Association for Specialist Fire Protection who has also advised the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, gave a detailed account of what he thought had happened in the Grenfell Tower fire (illustrated in this BBC diagram below) and why the Building Regulations didn’t prevent it happening:
‘There was an initial source of fire. That cause is entirely irrelevant to what happened later. What happened is the fire got out of a flat, maybe from an open window or through a broken window from the heat. And then it started heating the panelling and the insulation above [yellow in the diagram below]. That then set a chain reaction, in which the panel started to burn.
‘The panels, being aluminium, melt at 600 degrees or thereabouts. But the Fire Brigade cannot put out any of the fires behind these panels, because there’s metal there. You also have a wind tunnel effect sucking the flames up between the insulation and the external cladding, melting the solid polyethylene above, and continuing the fire right up the height of the building.
‘The cladding system is combined polyaluminum sheets with a filler of polyethylene. And that is what has caused the problems, because the polyethylene melts at a very low temperature and it catches fire. It is basically like a candle which is sandwiched between two sheets of metal.
‘The building regulations we have in this country are not fit for purpose with regards to this form of cladding. All that you require to meet the standards is that the outside surface shouldn’t allow the spread of flames. What is going on behind the metal or the other surface is entirely irrelevant to Building Regulations.’
This account of the combustion of the cladding panels and insulation was corroborated by Deputy Superintendent Fiona McCormack, who is overseeing the police investigation into the fire. She confirmed that preliminary tests of the insulation samples collected from Grenfell Tower showed they combusted soon after the tests started, and that the cladding panels also failed the safety tests – with the insulation proving, she said, ‘more flammable than the cladding.’
Close-up photographs of Grenfell Tower after the fire, when both the insulation and the panelling had mostly burnt away, show some of the metal fixings for this cladding system, as seen in the detailed plan below from the manufacturers’, Arconic. In practice, moisture penetration at these points can corrode steel-reinforced concrete structures and considerably shorten the life of the building; and in such instances cladding not only does not fix internal issues, such as the thermal performance of the building, but actually makes them worse, while also creating new problems.
The most lethal of the new problems created by the attachment of cladding to Grenfell Tower was that the panels appear to have circumvented the firestops that were part of the fire safety measures of the original design of the tower. As in all tower blocks, these firestops sub-divided the building into discrete compartments separated by fire-resistant walls, floors and doors which are designed to slow the spread of fire from one compartment to another through their resistance to collapse, the transfer of heat and penetration of fire. Under Approved Document B (fire safety) of Building Regulations 2010 it states:
‘If a fire-separating element is to be effective, then every joint, or imperfection of fit, or opening to allow services to pass through the element, should be adequately protected by sealing or fire-stopping so that the fire resistance of the element is not impaired.’
In 2015 the London Fire Brigade was so concerned about the failures of councils to take responsibility for the risks consequent upon refurbished high-rise blocks that it issued all 33 local authorities with an audit tool to aid them in conducting a risk assessment. According to the Observer, only 2 of London’s 33 councils – Enfield and Kingston upon Thames – confirmed they had applied the audit in full. Part of the London Fire Brigade’s campaign Know the Plan, which was launched in response to their fears that competition to reduce costs had led to the refurbishment of estates being signed off by council’s without adequate scrutiny, the audit states:
‘London Fire Brigade is concerned about the arrangements in place for protecting the fire safety precautions of a building, especially if it has been refurbished or if any modification or maintenance projects have been carried out. In the Brigade’s experience, buildings can and do become compromised in fire safety terms by works carried out. These works can be high or poor quality; they might be carried out for very desirable reasons; but sometimes many different types of works can unintentionally damage the fire safety arrangements of a building.’
The question we need to ask, therefore, is how the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower compromised the effectiveness of the firestops to the degree it did, to the extent that fire doors and walls that should have contained the initial fire in the flat in which it started for at least an hour instead allowed the fire to spread up to the roof within 15 minutes and then engulf the entire building within the next 2 hours. A previous fire in Grenfell Tower that started in a lift lobby in April 2010, long before the refurbishment, was contained within the designed fire compartments without any resulting injuries, let alone loss of life. So what was it that made this fire, seven years later, so deadly?
Grenfell Tower Cladding
In 2016, as part of the refurbishment of the Lancaster West estate to which it belongs, Grenfell Tower was fitted with external cladding. This consisted of three layers:
1. A 150mm-thick layer of Celotex RS5000 thermal insulation (yellow in the diagram above) fixed onto the precast concrete panels (brown in the diagram) and the reinforced concrete frame. We found charred remains of this insulation material lying everywhere around the base of Grenfell Tower, together with the thin foil sheets that covered it. The Architects’ Journal has indicated that in the designs for the cladding this insulation layer had a timber backing. Celotex, which is made from polyisocyanurate (PIR), has a Class 0 fire performance rating, the highest rating a material can get in the Building Regulations. However, as Arnold Tarling said, this rating indicates surface spread, not resistance, and its Health and Safety Datasheet notes:
‘The products will burn if exposed to a fire of sufficient heat and intensity. As with all organic materials, toxic gases will be released with combustion. Fire fighters should attack the fire according to the combustible materials present, and use breathing apparatus.’
Celotex is manufactured by Saint Gobain UK, and the Times has revealed that the company’s technical director, Mark Allen, sits on the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, a non-departmental public body that advises Sajid Javid, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, on making Building Regulations and setting standards for the design and construction of buildings. Following the fire Saint Gobain confirmed that they had supplied Celotex RS5000 for use at Grenfell Tower, and not Celotex FR5000 (FR indicating fire resistant) as had been specified in the August 2012 Sustainability and Energy Statement that was published as part of the Planning Application by the engineering consultants for the refurbishment, Max Fordham. Saint Gobain has since announced they will be discontinuing the supply of Celotex RS5000 ‘for use in rainscreen cladding systems in buildings over 18 metres tall.’
2. A cavity or gap of 50mm between the first layer of thermal insulation and the cladding panels in order to allow any build up of moisture to evaporate.
3. An outer layer of cladding (grey in the diagram) consisting, on the ground floor columns, of BCM glass reinforced concrete (GRC), then from the mezzanine to the roof of Reynobond aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen cassette panels. This is a sandwich of two coil-coated aluminum sheets, each 0.5mm thick, fusion bonded to a 6mm-thick core, the purpose of which is to give strength and rigidity to the panel. A company director for Omnis Exteriors, the company that supplied the Reynobond panels, has told the Guardian that the companies that refurbished Grenfell Tower asked them to supply Reynobond PE cladding, which is £2 cheaper per square metre than the alternative Reynobond FR, which stands for ‘fire retardant’, and which contains a mineral core. The cheaper Reynobond PE contains a polyethylene core, which burns slowly, even after being removed from a flame.
The Principal Designer for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was Studio E Architects, which has subsequently removed all information from its webpage on the refurbishment. Before they did so, however, an architect with considerable experience of fire safety took this screen grab of a photograph (above) of the cladding and sent it to ASH. What it clearly shows is that in addition to the 50mm gap between the rain-screen panelling and the insulation, there is a considerably larger void between that and the ten concrete rotated pillars that run up the building, not only creating a series of full-height vertical voids for smoke and flames, but completely bypassing the horizontal fire stops at each floor, thereby rendering them useless. This is confirmed by the plan detail in Studio E’s drawings for the cladding (below).
At the four corners of the tower the cladding formed large boxes around the concrete pillars, creating even larger cavities for the heated air, which would account for the fire moving up from the fourth to the twenty-fourth floor in just fifteen minutes. And as the architect who sent us the screen grab observed, whatever cavity stops there were between the cladding and the concrete wall were only as secure as what they were fixed to – which, given the rapidity with which the fire spread up the cladding, doesn’t appear to have been much. On the contrary, it appears that the fire stops at each floor of the tower stopped short at the insulation, and didn’t extend into the plane of the rainscreen panels (as illustrated in the Guardian diagram below).
A further effect of the cladding was that its installation appears to have moved the position of the windows in the tower block outwards, creating a gap between the window frame and the concrete wall through which smoke could pass. In a detailed blog post by technical designer and housing campaigner Ian Abley titled ‘Mind the Planning Approved Interface Gap at Grenfell Tower’, a photograph (below) reproduced from a Grenfell Tower Regeneration Newsletter dated August 2014 shows cladding samples in situ. Again, the extent of the void between the cladding and the concrete walls is revealed, but also how far back the existing windows are set as a result.
The concomitant re-positioning of the windows was proposed in changes to the design made by Studio E Architects and planning consultants IBI Group and accepted by Kensington and Chelsea council planners in January 2015 (application NMA/14/08597). The Studio E drawing (below) shows the existing window position in black, with the proposed window position indicated in red. This meant pulling the windows forward of the original concrete structure. It was proposed that the existing window frame could be retained under the proposed linings, and that the new window could be located within the rainscreen system, attached to the support of the concrete structure on brackets. This created a gap between the new window frame and the existing concrete structure, shown to be partially filled with different insulation to that in the rainscreen panelling.
As Ian Abley warns, this is only a drawing at the planning stage of the refurbishment process, and therefore a snapshot in time; but the planned separation of the windows from the concrete meant that this gap would have been technically critical for the spread of the fire from the initial source in the flat to the cladding:
‘The several materials and products within the interface gap became the only construction stopping a fire inside a flat from reaching the insulated cavity, inside the rainscreen build up, and then the cladding on the outside of the building. If fire got inside the cavity through the interface gap between window and concrete only non-combustible cladding and insulation would resist ignition.
‘If a fire happened in a flat compartment, it is likely too that the window glass would shatter and fall away. Fire could flare through the opening and scorch the cladding externally. The cladding face might resist some spread of flame. But if exposed for long enough only a non-combustible cladding would resist ignition. A flat fire happened.
‘Once inside the rainscreen, having bypassed the window, the fire could spread via variously combustible products. Fire would bypass any cavity fire barriers installed. It would spread upwards and across, from window to window opening. Fire in the cladding and involving the insulation might be able to break back into flats at every level through the same interface gap around the window frames’
Finally, in addition to the cladding, there is also the question of how the fire safety of Grenfell Tower was compromised by the maintenance of its interior – something residents complained about since 2013, long before its external refurbishment in 2016, and to which we will return in Part 4 of this report. This maintenance work – or lack of it – undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the fire internally and the difficulty residents had in escaping from the building; but from our analysis of how the fire spread we believe that it was not the cause of the rapidity with which it engulfed the building, making it impossible for the London Fire Brigade to fight it effectively. Rather, the technical conditions that made the fire in Grenfell Tower so deadly to its inhabitants, consuming the building with a speed and ferocity which the approaching fire fighters didn’t believe was possible, was a direct result of its refurbishment, which not only circumvented the firestops at each floor level, but in addition created a chimney effect between the cladding and the insulation that swept the smoke up the building. Footage of the fire (below) taken by witnesses shows that this chimney effect was strongest in the column cladding running up the building, where the gap between the insulation and the concrete was at its largest. This chimney effect heated up the panelling before setting it on fire and ignited the flammable insulation, which in turn released the hydrogen cyanide that would have overcome most of the inhabitants before the flames reached them. In an interview with the Architect’s Newspaper, a firefighter from the London Fire Brigade said:
‘If the cladding hadn’t been there then the fire definitely wouldn’t have spread that quickly. Usually, in tower fires, the concrete levels act as a sealed lock to contain the fire, but this has not happened here.’
But if this tells us something about how the residents of Grenfell Tower died, it still doesn’t tell us why it was that this 24-storey tower block in the Notting Barns ward of North Kensington was fitted with a cladding system that architect and fire safety expert Sam Webb described to the Guardian as ‘a disaster waiting to happen’.
2. Management Decisions responsible for the Grenfell Tower Fire
Grenfell Tower is part of the Lancaster West estate, the rest of which is made up of three 5- and 6-storey finger blocks between which lie landscaped gardens. Before the council took the land away from them to build the new Kensington Aldrige Academy secondary school – for which the refurbishment that killed the residents was offered as a form of compensation – there were several football grounds and other games courts to the north of the tower. When construction was completed in 1974 the original estate would have been a paradise to the tenants fortunate enough to be housed there. And rather than a ghetto for the poor that council estates have subsequently been denigrated as, the community included a mix of social classes. Grenfell Tower was built to Parker Morris Standards, with the top 20 storeys containing 120 flats. Built around a central core containing the lift, staircase and vertical risers for the services, each floor had four 2-bedroom and two 1-bedroom flats, making a total of 200 bedrooms. Communal facilities included a nursery on the first floor (or mezzanine level) and the Dale Youth amateur boxing club, which moved into the ground floor of Grenfell Tower in 2000. As part of its refurbishment in 2016, both nursery and boxing club were relocated, respectively, to the ground and third floor (or walkway level), and an additional six 4-bedroom and one 3-bedroom flats added on the first and fourth floors. This brought the total number of flats in Grenfell Tower up to 127, and the number of bedrooms to 227.
In an interview in June 2016 with Constantine Gras, an artist who was commissioned by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation to make a film about the refurbishment, Nigel Whitbread, the architect of Grenfell Tower, said of its original construction:
‘Ronan Point, the tower that partially collapsed in 1968, had been built like a pack of cards. Grenfell Tower was a totally different form of construction, and from what I can see could last another 100 years. I’m very much against knocking things down unnecessarily. I had heard that there had been problems a few years ago with the heating and that it was no good, and talk of the whole block having to come down. And I thought: if my heating goes wrong, I don’t want to pull my house down!’
Grenfell Tower Management
In 1996 the entire council housing stock of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was transferred to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which currently manages 9,459 properties, of which around 6,900 are tenant-occupied and 2,500 leasehold properties, and from which it collects £44 million in rent and £10 million in service charges every year. The KCTMO is unique in also being an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO), which means that activities between it and the council are viewed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as non-trading activity, so any profit arising from it will not be taxable. KCTMO has a board which at the time of the Grenfell Tower fire comprised eight residents, three council-appointed members and two independent members. Their identities have now been removed from the company website, but at the time of the fire they included:
Fay Edward, the Chair and Resident Board Member since 2012 and recipient in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List 2015 of the British Empire Medal. It was she who awarded the contract for the fatal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower;
Conservative councillor Maighread Condon-Simmonds, the Lady Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea until May 2017;
Labour councillor Judith Blakeman, who sits on the council’s Housing and Property scrutiny committee, and who in December 2015 dismissed calls by the Grenfell Action Group to investigate the KCTMO;
Council-nominated Board Member Paula France, a former employee at the government’s Homes and Communities Agency who has held senior positions in Circle, Thirty Three, Look Ahead, Network Housing and Shepherd’s Bush housing associations and now runs her own consultancy business;
Independent Board Member Simon Brissenden, a Management Consulting Professional who until March of this year was employed to deliver Health and Safety Compliance in the Asset and Investment portfolio for Genesis Housing Association;
Independent Board Member Anthony Preiskel, since 2012 a Non-Executive Director of the government’s Homes and Communities Agency.
The KCTMO is not a co-operative, which means that although it was created under the government’s Housing (Right to Manage) Regulations 1994, it was set up under corporate law. And although the housing stock it manages is still owned by the council, as an ALMO (the only UK TMO, apparently, that is also an ALMO) it is exempt from Freedom of Information requests (not that councils answer these either, or when they do the information requested is redacted). The distinction between public and private means very little these days, and one look at who sits on this board shows that it’s run by housing professionals fronted by politicians with the acquiescence of compliant residents – in other words, the same privatised management structure being put in place for every other estate regeneration scheme in London.
Grenfell Tower Refurbishment
As this diagram from the Guardian illustrates (below), Artelia UK, which specialises in cost management, was contracted by KCTMO to be project managers on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, which was carried out in 2016. On its website page on residential services, Artelia says that it ‘works closely with our clients to understand what success looks like to them and how we can make that success a reality’; and among its past experiences lists ‘refurbishment projects for local authorities.’ On its page on Health and Safety Management Artelia says it’s management results in a ‘safer, better, more cost-effective project.’ And on its page on Design and Construction Management Artelia says ‘we take full responsibility for architects, engineers, contractors and suppliers in a seamless process that drives out inefficiencies.’ Again, it cites its experience in working on programmes ‘where continuous reduction in construction costs is considered a non-negotiable contract deliverable.’ On the page describing its ‘involvement in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project’ Artelia says that it was appointed as the ‘Employer’s Agent, Construction, Design and Management (CDM) Co-ordinator and Quantity Surveyor.’ Artelia describes the Grenfell Tower fire as a ‘tragic event.’
On the Designing Buildings Wiki page it says that the Construction, Design and Management Co-ordinator (CDM) role is to:
‘Advise the client on matters relating to health and safety during the design process and during the planning phases of construction.’
‘Notify the health and safety executive of the particulars specified in schedule 1 of the regulations.’
‘Advise the client as to the adequacy of resources.’
‘Co-ordinate health and safety aspects of design work.’
‘Advise on the suitability, co-ordination and compatibility of design in relation to health and safety.’
‘Advise on the adequacy of the construction phase plan before construction works begin.’
‘Advise on the adequacy of any subsequent changes to the construction phase plan.’
‘Prepare or compile the health and safety file and issue it to the client at the end of the construction phase.’
So far, therefore, Artelia seems to be the company responsible for the health and safety of the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, its design, planning, compatibility with the existing building, construction and materials used.
However, on 6 April 2015, the year before the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower began, the Construction, Design and Management Regulations were changed, with the role of the CDM Co-ordinator transferred to a Principal Designer, which is responsible for the pre-construction phase, and a Principal Contractor, which is responsible for the construction phase. Under the new CDM regulations the client, which in this project was Kensington and Chelsea TMO, is responsible for ‘ensuring that both the Principle Designer and Contractor are complying with their duties, and for making Health and Safety Executive notification.’ However, as an article on these changes published in the Architects’ Journal observes: ‘this may be difficult where the principal designer has no direct contractual authority over [the other designers].’ In effect, the article concludes, the role of the CDM Co-ordinator has been abolished. As Quantity Surveyor for the project, therefore, Artelia was responsible not for ensuring Health and Safety regulations were met in the refurbishment, but for reducing the costs of refurbishment.
The Principal Designer and Principal Contractor on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower were, respectively, Studio E Architects and Rydon, a construction, development, maintenance and management group. In response to the Grenfell Tower fire, Studio E Architects, which as we said has removed its webpage on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, has written that it will be ‘ready to assist the relevant authorities as and when we are required.’ Despite the fatal design fault which, as we have seen, effectively turned the cladding into a vast chimney for the flames, Studio E also describes the Grenfell Tower fire as a ‘tragic incident.’ Rydon, which also describes the fire as a ‘tragedy’, has also removed its webpage on the refurbishment, and replaced it with a statement about Grenfell Tower saying:
‘Rydon Maintenance Limited completed a partial refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for KCTMO on behalf of the Council, which met all required building regulations – as well as fire regulation and health and safety standards – and handover took place when completion notice was issued by Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea building control.’
This Completion Certificate for the refurbishment work on Grenfell Tower, issued on 17 July, 2016 by John Allen, the Kensington and Chelsea Building Control Manager, reads:
‘The Council hereby certifies under Regulation 17 that as far as could be ascertained, after taking all reasonable steps, the building work carried out complied with the relevant provisions. This certificate is evidence, but not conclusive evidence, that the relevant requirements specified below [Schedule 1] have been complied with.’
This is equivocal enough. But the Kensington and Chelsea council website page on the refurbishment work to Grenfell Tower (application FP/14/03563) also lists the status as: ‘Completed Not approved’. No date is given for this decision. However, in an ‘Important Update’ to this page, the council adds this addendum:
‘People searching for application FP/14/03563 please note that the status “Completed Not approved” does not mean that the work was not approved under the Building Regulations. The formal signing off of the work was provided by a Completion Certificate and not by a Full Plans decision notice, which was not required in this case. The system status “Not approved” appears because a decision notice was not issued. However, a completion certificate was issued signing off the works under the Building Regulations.’
So, who is responsible for fitting Grenfell Tower with flammable insulation and a combustible cladding system that acted as a chimney for the fire?
Grenfell Tower Responsibilities
In response to the Grenfell Tower fire, ASH received several e-mails from a senior architect who wishes to remain anonymous, but who gave us permission to publish his comments, which we include at length here:
‘If, as has been reported in the Guardian, the design of the cladding was different to that which was detailed in planning documents, were the architects (Studio E), in charge of the refurbishment works under a traditional building contract? That is unlikely. In the climate of Private Finance Initiative design-and-build contracts, the architects are engaged only to add gloss to the project marketing – to raise the Right-to-Buy value of the property under the coinage of “architect designed”. If the architects were not in charge of enforcing compliance with contract specifications, then they would have been cut to the bone by the contractor to maximise every penny of profit. PFI contracts are bought and sold on the open market like any other commodity.
‘Regardless of the route to compliance with Building Regulations, on completion of the works the conformance authority, in this case Kensington and Chelsea Building Control, must issue a Completion Certificate, without which the refurbished building cannot be insured – for example, for fire.
A further e-mail continued:
‘There are two things here: 1. The insulation fixed over the existing external walls; and 2. The cladding fixed on top of that, with a gap between the two. The cladding has a material which is the sandwich fill between the two layers of thin aluminium. If we are talking about the second issue, the cladding, no one in their right mind would specify the combustible type, partly because of case law, where architects who did specify that lost their defence at appeal in the High Court in 2003. You might as well clad the building in ten-pound notes dipped in Napalm.
‘The Principal Designer (in this case Studio E Architects) would normally seek written advice from the supplier – with a quote for supply – that the material is fit for purpose. In this case it is inconceivable that the manufacturer of Reynobond (Arconic Europe) would not recommend their “A2 Fire Solution”, comprising an incombustible sandwich core that conforms with European fire certification EN 13501-1, class A2.
‘However, in PFI and design-build projects, the designer is not in charge of the job. Instead, an unregulated yes-man, or yes-woman, is employed to deliver the project. The contractor (in this case Rydon) submits a price, and the public employer (in this case KCTMO) will select the lowest in the interest of the public purse. The contractor (Rydon) has in mind ways to cut costs to maximise profit on tight margins, while the designer (Studio E Architects) wants to protect the quality of the build. So the procurement process can be adversarial.
‘The local authority (Kensington and Chelsea council) has a statutory role to inspect and approve that the materials and construction conform to regulations. Frequently, these days, private firms can do this, and are generally better and more efficient than a local authority. In the case of Grenfell Tower the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) Building Control were responsible, but the contractor chose not to submit Full Plans of construction details for approval; rather, they relied on site inspections – presumably in order to accelerate the project, but, one might argue, also in order to avoid having to commit construction details and material specifications documentation to the record.
‘Because of the nature and scale of the project, it is unusual for the Building Control department to accept Building Notice at all. It would have been better had they insisted on Full Plans submission, especially because there were architectural drawings available. So there is a question that points to a “chemistry” between the contractor and the Building Control department.
‘Around the world – for example, in France – it is mandatory to have a registered architect and/or Maitre d’ouvres, or Architect of Record, in charge of all construction projects over a minimum threshold size of 70m2. In Britain that isn’t the case. The perception is that an architect’s appointment adds onerous unnecessary cost, so the delivery of the building works is reliant on the trust and integrity of the builder, and on effective Building Control site inspection that what is carried out is compliant. In this case, and countless others procured under Private Finance Initiative terms, that failed.
‘Since PFI was introduced by Thatcher we have a legacy of hundreds, if not thousands, of sub-standard buildings – schools, hospitals, police stations, etc – that the taxpayer is still paying extortionate rents for under the terms of the 30-year lease-back deal that is PFI. This is her legacy of cosy relationships between local authorities, quangos and their chummy contractors. It is a culture of de-regulation, of private profit before public good. Thomas Dan Smith, the Leader of Newcastle City Council from 1960 to 1965, went to gaol in 1974 for dodgy dealings with local authorities in property development, albeit from a different motivation; but what the public must demand and get now over the Grenfell Tower fire are criminal convictions, and soon.’
3. Political Context for the Grenfell Tower Fire
So much for those responsible for the deadly refurbishment of Grenfell Tower; but why was it deemed necessary to clad the tower in the first place and who made that decision?
Grenfell Tower Regeneration
In February 2009, eight years before the Grenfell Tower fire, Urban Initiatives Studio, a practice specialising in urban design, planning and change management, was appointed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to create a masterplan for the regeneration of Notting Barns South, an 18 hectare site in North Kensington containing the Silchester and Lancaster West estates, including Grenfell Tower. 6 months later they produced Notting Barns South: Draft Final MasterplanReport, which included the following observations and recommendations, beginning with this Executive Summary:
‘The area suffers from housing stock in need of ongoing and expensive refurbishment, a range of social deprivation and other issues often associated with large post-war housing estates. This context means that land values are artificially depressed closer to the centre. The Far-sighted Option aims to maximise overall value in the long term and create a high quality new neighbourhood. This requires a number of significant interventions. We estimate that the project could deliver significant returns to the council. In order to present the most attractive offer in a competitive bidding process the winning consortium would need to adopt the most optimistic approach to cost and/or values.’
To back up the necessity of the council adopting their proposals, the report also addresses what it calls Issues and Opportunities, the former of which include the following:
‘Although a diverse population in terms of age, ethnic and religious backgrounds, the area is limited in terms of its economic profile and is predominantly made up of social housing tenants. The ward of Notting Barns South suffers substantial issues of deprivation relating to employment, health and crime, however, the intensity of deprivation varies. The Lancaster West estate (east) is within the 10 per cent most deprived areas in the country, and similarly crime is more severe in the east of the study area.’
Now, in fact, as shown by these two screen grabs (below) from the Indices of Deprivation 2015 interactive map, although Lancaster West estate does lie within the 10 per cent most deprived areas (left), its crime rates are shared by 40 per cent of areas (right), and is in fact far lower than in surrounding areas where terraced housing predominates. This accords with the figures on every estate ASH has researched, from Broadwater Farm to Aylesbury and Central Hill. Behind the unsubstantiated and easily-accepted assertions of reports like this one, crime levels on council estates are in fact consistently lower than in the surrounding area, contradicting everything we are told about council estates and their communities by terrace-dwelling journalists and developer-lobbied politicians. Not only are estates not ‘breeding grounds’ for crime, as they are characterised in both Fleet Street and Westminster, but the close-knit communities that form within them significantly reduce crime rates. As in just about everything else being said about council estates in the wake of the GrenfellTower fire, estates as homes to anti-social behaviour, crime and drug dealing is another myth that is being used by architects, developers, councils, journalists and politicians to promote estate demolition, privatisation and redevelopment.
In the Urban Initiatives report, particular attention is given to the development options on the towers in the area, starting with the four 22-storey towers on the Silchester estate:
‘It would be very challenging for the scheme to reprovide this number of homes should they be demolished. Therefore our preferred approach is to assume retention and refurbishment. In certain cases it may be possible to transfer these towers to private sector developers to provide private sale or rent units.’
Grenfell Tower, by contrast, has no such reprieve:
‘We considered that the appearance of this building and the way in which it meets the ground blights much of the area east of Latimer Road Station. It also provides no outdoor space for residents and is likely to be of a type of construction that is hard to adapt. It does contain 120 homes. On balance our preferred approach is to assume demolition.’
The report goes on to outline the Phasing and Delivery of the proposed 15-20-year masterplan, from which we have extracted the following:
Phase 1. ‘Includes the construction of the new school immediately to the east of the railway line on the existing Games Court and Kensington Sports car park. Adjacent to the station two private 12-storey towers are erected.’
Phase 2. ‘East of the railway the eastern part of Lancaster West is demolished together with Grenfell Tower. This building blights the area, provides no outdoor space for residents and is difficult to refurbish. The remainder of Lancaster, which is being refurbished, is completed into a closed street block with infill development. By the end of this phase the regeneration of the Silchester and Lancaster area is almost complete.’
Citing the area as providing no outdoor space for residents as a justification for the demolition of Grenfell Tower in Phase 2 is ironic at best given that Phase 1 began with building the Kensington Aldrige Academy – which was also designed by Studio E Architects – on that outdoor space, thereby taking it away from residents; but like the stereotypes about crime in the area this doesn’t halt the concluding phases, when the ‘Far-sighted Option’ that aims to ‘maximise the overall value’ of the area comes into its own:
Phase 3. ‘This phase realises a large proportion of high-end, high-value market housing.’
Phase 4. ‘New housing can benefit from the proximity to and overlooking of the park, and market housing is expected to realise increased values.’
Phase 5. ‘During this phase 610 units are developed or refurbished with a high percentage of private units.’
All of which leads the authors of this report, Matthias Wunderlich, Stuart Gray and Dan Hill, to the following conclusions:
‘The farsighted option for the masterplan presented within this report has the potential to transform the social and physical characteristics of Notting Barns in a positive manner. Because of the existing tenure mix and the decline of Right to Buy, the estate will never become a more mixed and integrated community. This work shows how sensitive the potential residual land values are to residential sale values and, in particular, to the potential values for high end flats and houses. To achieve the highest values, the area will need to undergo significant change to improve its visual appearance.’
Grenfell Tower Appearance
Following the financial crash, house prices in London in 2009 had fallen for the first time in decades; and presumably for this reason, which may have dissuaded development partners, Kensington and Chelsea council declined the ‘Far-sighted Option’ (above) and chose, instead, what the report called the ‘Early Value Option’ (below). In its broad outlines this is the masterplan which, updated in May 2016 by CBRE building consultancy, continues to threaten the residents of the Silchester estate with the demolition and redevelopment of their homes – the most recent plans for which were exhibited in April 2017 – and has already built the Academy on the playing fields, but which also refurbished Lancaster West estate, including Grenfell Tower. The reason for doing so, however, had not changed from that which targeted it for demolition as a ‘blight’ on the area – that is, its appearance.
‘The materials proposed will provide the building with a fresh appearance that will not be harmful to the area or views around it. Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east. The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area. Therefore views into and out of the conservation areas will be improved by the proposals.’
The planning considerations listed include: ‘The impact of the works on the appearance of the building and area, and views from the adjacent conservation area.’ The materials used on the external faces of the building used were chosen ‘To accord with the development plan by ensuring that the character and appearance of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected’. While the windows and doors were chosen ‘To ensure the appearance of the development is satisfactory. The re-clad materials and new windows will represent a significant improvement to the environmental performance of the building and to its physical appearance.’ The application concludes: ‘The changes to the external appearance of the building will also provide positive enhancements to the appearance of the area.’
On the webpage (now removed from their site) where Grenfell Tower was listed as a case study, Rydon wrote: ‘Rain screen cladding, replacement windows and curtain wall façades have been fitted giving the building a fresher, modern look.’ And Nicholas Paget-Brown, the now ex-Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Conservative council, is quoted on the council webpage on the refurbishment as saying: ‘It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower.’
Studio E Architects’ webpage on Grenfell Tower – again, sent to us by an architect before it was taken down – shows an artists’ impression (below) for the client of what the refurbishment would look like, complete with the white, middle class residents drawn to attract investors into the area, and who are so at odds with the racial and class demographic of the tower revealed by the hundreds of photographs of missing residents put up around the burnt out carcass of the building by families and friends. This is the external view of the Grenfell Tower for which the people who lived inside the building died.
Grenfell Tower Profits
Nicholas Paget-Brown became the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Conservative council in May 2013, when residents of Grenfell Tower first began complaining about fire safety in their block. He has been a councillor in the borough since 1986, and previously occupied the position of Cabinet Member for Community Safety, Regeneration and the Voluntary Sector, in which capacity he was responsible for driving a range of capital investment projects in North Kensington. A former City marketing manager for the international news agency Reuters, Paget-Brown is currently Managing Director at Pelham Research, which analyses government policy and offers management briefings on public policy for businesses and local authorities.
The Deputy Leader of the council, also appointed in May 2013, as well as Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration, is Rock Feilding-Mellen, who owns a £1.2 million 3-storey townhouse in the ward. Having lost the St. Charles ward, where he had been councillor since 2006, Feilding-Mellen was parachuted into the Holland ward in 2010. He was subsequently made Cabinet Member for Civil Society, which meant he was responsible for the council’s policies on community safety, economic development, the voluntary sector and community engagement. Until becoming Deputy Leader, Feilding-Mellen also sat on the Major Planning Development Committee. In addition to his responsibilities on the Kensington and Chelsea council, Feilding–Mellen is also the Leader’s Committee Deputy, Lead Member for Economic Development and Regeneration, Lead Member for Housing, and Lead Member for Employment and Skills for London Councils, the cross-party local government association, think-tank and lobbyist for Greater London. In his spare time Feilding–Mellen is also the Director of property developers Socially Conscious Capital Ltd, Director of SCC Longniddry Ltd, Director of Vilnius Investment Management Ltd, and Director of UAB May Fair Investments, a real estate company registered in Lithuania.
In 2016 both Nicholas Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen attended MIPIM, the world’s leading international fair for property professionals in Cannes, where London councils – among other landlords – agree deals with property developers for the land on which residents in their boroughs are still living. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, both Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen have resigned from their Cabinet positions, although not as councillors, the former saying in his resignation statement that he has to ‘accept my share of responsibility for these perceived failings’. Both men described the Grenfell Tower fire as a ‘tragedy’.
Nicholas Holgate was appointed Chief Executive and Town Clerk of Kensington and Chelsea council in December 2014. A career public servant who was previously Chief Operating Officer at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Holgate joined the borough in 2008 as Executive Director for Finance, Information Systems and Property. In 2016-17 Holgate’s salary was £187,780, with a bonus of between 3 and 10 per cent based on performance. For this he was expected to work 4½ days per week. In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire Holgate was compelled to resign by Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. However, the Daily Telegraph has reported that Holgate will be entitled to compensation for losing his job, understood to be equivalent to at least six months’ pay, or around £100,000.
Robert Black, a former Executive Director of Services at Circle Housing Group, was appointed Chief Executive of the Kensington and Chelsea TMO in 2009. He too has resigned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire – according to an announcement by the KCTMO board, ‘in order that he can concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry.’ Together with Barbara Matthews, the Executive Director of Financial Services and Information and Communication Technology, Yvonne Birch, Executive Director of People and Performance, and Sacha Jevans, Executive Director of Operations, Black was part of a team of ‘key management personnel’ which, according to the latest accounts filed by the KCTMO with Companies House, collectively earned £760,000 last year. In accounts for the financial year ending March 2016, KCTMO’s income was £4.42 million, with a turnover just over £17.6 million.
The Times has reported that documents from June and July 2014 reveal that KCTMO sent an ‘urgent nudge e-mail’ to Artelia UK, the project managers on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, saying that they had a meeting the next morning with Councillor Feilding-Mellen, who was overseeing the refurbishment. The e-mail reads: ‘I have been reminded that we need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!’ The e-mail went on to list three options for reducing the cost of cladding. One of these was to use panels made of combustible and flammable aluminium with a polyethylene core rather than a non-combustible zinc with a mineral-rich fire-retardant core that was proposed by Studio E Architects and approved by residents in 2012. This swap, which was made after tender, could mean, the e-mail says, ‘a saving of £293,368’. Asked about these e-mails, Artelia responded that it is ‘bound by a duty of confidentiality in its contract with KCTMO.’
According to a report in the Guardian, the BCM glass reinforced concrete (GRC) panels that were used to clad the columns on the ground floor of Grenfell Tower have the highest fire rating of A1, and have been used on luxury apartment complexes, including high rises. However, industry sources said glass reinforced concrete panels cost around twice as much as the polyethylene aluminium panels used on the rest of the building, and would have increased the refurbishment costs by at least £1 million.
The Reynobond PE panels used on Grenfell Tower are prohibited on high-rise buildings in the USA and, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government, also breach the UK’s Building Regulations 2010, which restrict their use on buildings over 18 metres tall. Arconic, the company that manufactures Reynobond PE, has published guidelines warning that the PE cladding is unsuitable for buildings above 10 metres tall, and even the FR cladding is only suitable up to 30 metres, after which it advises that the non-combustible A2 model should be used. Despite this, e-mails obtained by Reuters show that in July 2014 Deborah French, Arconic’s UK sales manager, and executives at the contractors involved in the bidding process for the refurbishment contract, were involved in discussions about the use of cladding on Grenfell Tower, which is 60 metres tall. Asked about these e-mails, Arconic, which has since discontinued the sale of Reynobond PE on high-rise buildings, replied that ‘it was not its role to decide what was or was not compliant with local building regulations.’ In its 2016 brochure on ‘Fire safety in high-rise buildings’, Arconic warned:
‘When conceiving a building, it is crucial to choose the adapted products in order to avoid the fire to spread (sic) to the whole building. Especially when it comes to facades and roofs, the fire can spread extremely rapidly.’
The reductions in cladding costs were among savings of £693,000 required by the Principal Contractor, Rydon, which won the contract in June 2014 by undercutting estimates from the original contractor. The Leadbitter Group had estimated the project in 2012 at a cost of £11.3m, considerably higher than Kensington and Chelsea council’s target budget of £9.7 million. Rydon offered to do the refurbishment for £8.7 million, and were awarded the contract, according to a report by Kensington and Chelsea’s housing and property scrutiny committee, following a ‘value engineering process’. Last year Rydon made a pre-tax profit of £14.3 million on revenues of £271 million, and paid investors a dividend of £2 million, the largest slice of which went to Rydon’s Chief Executive and largest shareholder, Robert Bond, who also earned a salary of £424,000, a pay rise from £392,000 the year before.
In 2015 Harley Curtain Wall won the £2.6 million contract from Rydon to install the Reynobond PE panels. But after being pursued for almost £2.5 million by HM Revenue & Customs for involvement in alleged tax-avoidance schemes the company went into administration later that year, before the work had been completed. However, Managing Director Ray Bailey was allowed to purchase his old business for just £24,900 and continue trading under the new name of Harley Facades. The company has since removed all details about the contract from their website ‘as a mark of respect to the people of Grenfell Tower.’
At the time of the fire, Kensington and Chelsea Conservative council had £283 million in its reserves – although it has since claimed that the Housing Revenue Account, whose management is delegated to the KCTMO, only contained £21 million. This didn’t stop the council from offering rebates to borough residents who were paying the top rate of council tax. According to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act and published in the Observer, as of spring 2016 the Conservative council has moved 1,668 homeless households living in temporary housing outside the borough – the joint highest figure in England alongside fellow London council Newham, which is Labour-run. Of those households, 902 had been ‘temporarily’ rehoused outside Kensington and Chelsea borough for at least a year – the second highest such figure in the country. Hundreds more have been sent to outer London boroughs such as Barking and Redbridge, or outside London altogether, to Kent and Essex. The latest figures for Kensington and Chelsea council reveal that, as of March 2017, the council only has 433 properties for let in a borough with around 1,000 homeless households living in temporary accommodation. It also had 2,677 households on the housing waiting list in 2014, a drop from 8,493 households just a year earlier. This reduction, which is representative of London councils, follows the introduction of the 2011 Localism Act, which radically changed both the criteria by which households qualify for council housing and the duty of care the council has to house them. A survey by Inside Housing in March 2016 found that, since the Localism Act came into effect in June 2012, 159 English councils had struck 237,793 people off their waiting lists and barred a further 42,994 new applicants. Meanwhile, a BBC report has revealed that, under Section 106 agreements in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, Kensington and Chelsea council accepted £47.3 million from developers in lieu of affordable housing in 2016 alone, with just 336 affordable units having been built in the borough since 2011.
In contrast to this demand for housing, the failure to build it, and the relocation of homeless households outside the borough, the latest figures for Kensington and Chelsea reveal that, as of July 2017, there are 1,857 vacant private dwellings in the borough. 111 of these are classified as unoccupied and substantially unfurnished; 50 as unoccupied with works in progress for less than 12 months; and 696 as empty for more than 2 years. In a report published by the council’s Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee in July 2015, it was found that of the 941 dwellings then classified as unoccupied – half the current number only two years ago – around 50 had stood empty for between 11 and 15 years. And as shown by Private Eye’s interactive map of properties in England and Wales acquired by overseas companies between 2005 and 2014, most of these are registered to companies based in tax havens like the Virgin Islands.
To address this, a tax on vacant homes such as Vancouver, for example, has recently introduced to address the housing crisis in Canada would be a start; but it’s not likely to deter offshore companies registered in tax havens. We need new legislation compelling a dwelling to be used as such, and giving those in need of housing the right to occupy – and if necessary pay council rent on – empty properties. For a start, the laws on squatting, which were altered in 2012 in anticipation of the thousands of empty properties London now has, need changing. Under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, properties classified as residential, no matter how long they have stood empty and unused, cannot be legally squatted, and to do so is now a criminal offence punishable by up to 51 weeks imprisonment. As a result, as of February 2016 – not including the City of Westminster, which refused to supply numbers but where where 1 in 10 properties are owned by off-shore companies – more than 22,000 properties in London have been left empty for more than six months. More than a third of these, 8,560 properties, have been empty for over two years; and 1,150 properties have been empty for over a decade. This in a city where 250,000 households are on council housing waiting lists; 240,000 households with 320,000 children are living in overcrowded accommodation; and over 53,000 households with over 90,000 children are homeless and living in temporary accommodation. But to free up properties purchased for their exchange value and make them available for the use of the people who need them, a more fundamental change in our laws needs to happen, whereby the rights of people to use a property as a home takes precedence over the rights of ownership over that property. That’s only ever going to happen, though, through mass occupations of empty properties following – for example – a disaster that makes hundreds of people homeless in one of the wealthiest boroughs in the UK.
There was nothing wrong with either the original design or build of Grenfell Tower. Four decades of developer-led housing policy, government cuts to local authority budgets, the financialisation of housing in the UK, the managed decline of our estates by councils preparatory to their demolition and redevelopment as properties for capital investment, the privatisation of council housing management through ALMOs, TMOs and the stock transfer of council estates to housing associations, the unaccountability of local authorities increasingly run as private fiefdoms by councillors who are little more than lobbyists for the building industry, and the recourse to Private Finance Initiatives to build housing whose safety is subordinate to the profits of developers, builders, architects and estate agents getting rich on the UK’s housing crisis – that’s what killed the residents of Grenfell Tower, not its architecture.
4. The Fire Safety of Council Tower Blocks
Out of the 600 tower blocks over 18 metres tall and fitted with cladding that are undergoing tests in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, 181 council-owned blocks in 51 local authorities across England have failed to meet the necessary standard of fire resistance as of 2 July, with a 100 per cent failure rate on those tested. In London alone this number includes 3 tower blocks in the borough of Barnet, 2 in Brent, 5 in Camden, 1 each in Hounslow, Islington and Lambeth, 2 in Lewisham, 3 in Newham, 2 in Tower Hamlets and 2 in Wandsworth, a total of 22 tower blocks so far. Even then the tests, which are being carried out by the Building Research Establishment on behalf of the Department of Communities and Local Government, have been criticised for undertaking combustibility tests on the aluminium composite material in the rainscreen panels, while experts have warned that what determines how a fire spreads is the cladding support system, the insulation it protects, and the fire breaks in the cavity. What requires testing, therefore, is not only the combustibility of the various component materials, but how they respond to fire within the cladding system. In response to these criticisms, the government set up an independent Expert Advisory Panel that has advised the BRE to conduct 6 fire tests on 3 different cladding systems, comprising core filler materials of unmodified polyethylene, fire retardant polyethylene, and non-combustible mineral wool, each in combination with 2 different types of insulation, polyisocyanurate foam and non-combustible mineral wool. Potentially and probably, therefore, the number of tower blocks whose fire safety has been compromised by the addition of cladding to their exterior may be even higher. And there are fears that the tests will have to extend beyond the public sector into private tower blocks, as well as including universities, hospitals and care centres fitted with cladding. So how could such a widespread compromise of UK building fire safety have been allowed to happen?
Grenfell Tower Precedents
In July 2009 a fire started on the 9th floor of Lakanal House, a 14-storey block on the Sceaux Gardens estate in Camberwell, and quickly spread up 5 more floors of the building, killing 6 people. It later emerged that the block, which had been refurbished by Southwark council, had been fitted with a similar rainscreen cladding system as that which was later applied to Grenfell Tower by Kensington and Chelsea council. The 2013 inquest into the fire concluded that years of botched renovations had removed fire-stopping material between flats and communal corridors, and that this allowed the fire, which as in Grenfell Tower had started with an electrical fault, to spread both vertically and laterally, with the exterior cladding panels burning through in just four and a half minutes. A change in the law in 2006 meant Southwark council was responsible for fire safety checks in its flats, but by the time of the fire, 3 years later, the council had not carried out these checks at Lakanal House or any other residential block. This didn’t stop the council, however, from managing to carry out fire-safety checks at buildings where its own staff worked. In February of this year, at Southwark Crown Court, Southwark council, for its culpability in the safety failings at Lakanal House, was issued with a £270,000 fine (reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty) plus £300,000 costs – exactly £9,500 for every resident killed in the fire. Nobody was convicted.
Following the Lakanal House fire the coroner’s report, which was sent to the Department of Communities and Local Government in March 2013, made a series of recommendations to the government, including that the Department provide national guidance to:
‘The “stay put” principle and its interaction with the “get out and stay out” policy, including how such guidance is disseminated to residents.’
‘Awareness that insecure compartmentalisation can permit transfer of smoke and fire between a flat or maisonette and common parts of high-rise residential buildings, which has the potential to put at risk the lives of residents or others.’
‘Encourage providers of housing in high-rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises to consider the retro fitting of sprinkler systems.’
‘Provide clear guidance in relation to Regulation B4 of the Building Regulations, with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of the building and the circumstances in which attention should be paid to whether proposed work might reduce existing fire protection.’
In his response to the coroner’s report, Conservative MP Eric Pickles, then the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wrote that following the Lakanal House fire and deaths, in 2011 his Department had published detailed national guidance that:
‘Takes a practical approach to ensuring that those responsible for the safety of residents and others in purpose built blocks can take a comprehensive and pragmatic approach to managing risk effectively within the context of the Housing Act 2004 and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. It addresses in some detail the rationale for the stay-put principle and provides detailed advice on the fire safety information that should be made available to residents in the light of the findings of a risk assessment.’
None of this guidance, therefore, took account of the recommendations of the Coroner’s Report published in 2013. To the coroner’s recommendation that sprinklers be retro-fitted in high-rise residential buildings, Pickles responded that: ‘My officials have recently written to all social housing providers about this.’ And on providing guidance on Approved Document B (fire safety) of Building Regulations with regard to how external cladding can reduce existing fire protection he wrote:
‘The design of fire protection in buildings is a complex subject and should remain, to some extent, in the realm of professionals.We have commissioned research which will feed into a future review of this part of the Building Regulations. We expect this work to form the basis of a formal review leading to the publication of a new edition of the Approved Document in 2016/17.’
An article in Construction News has revealed that in January 2012 a final impact assessment, titled Removing inconsistency in local fire protection standards, was published by Stephen Kelly, who was subsequently appointed Chief Operating Officer for Government and Head of the Efficiency and Reform Group, and Brian Martin, the Principal Construction Professional in the Building Regulations and Standards Division at the Department of Communities and Local Government, that recommended repealing 23 local building acts across England. Signed off by Andrew Stunell, then the Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for the DCLG and now House of Lords construction spokesperson, this document argued that the repeal of the acts was an ‘appropriate deregulatory measure that reduces procedural and financial burdens on the construction industry’. The assessment estimated that over a 35-year period, between £116,334 and £357,400 of capital savings could be achieved by not installing or maintaining sprinklers in tall buildings, and between £195,300 and £600,000 could be saved from not installing smoke extractors. In addition, it estimated that sprinkler maintenance could cost between £300 and £800 per building, and that implementing safety measures held within the local acts would add up to £1.1 million to the costs of a building over a 35-year period. Based on figures sourced from the Home Office on fire incidents between 1994 and 1999, and drawing on statistical research from a report published in 2005 by the Building Research Establishment – the same organisation that is conducting tests on the cladding systems of over 600 tower blocks – the final impact assessment concluded:
‘Local acts have no statistically significant impact as far as life safety aspects are concerned. For tall buildings there was little benefit, as the inherent degree of compartmentation is sufficient to prevent most fires getting too “big”.’
In December 2012 Eric Pickles announced the repeal of Sections 20 and 21 of the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1939, which contains legislation precisely on precautions against the danger of fire in buildings higher than 100 feet and the use of non-combustible materials and self-closing fire doors.
In August 2016 a fire broke out in Shepherd’s Court, an 18-storey tower block in Shepherd’s Bush, and spread rapidly up the outside of the building. In response to a Freedom of Information request by Inside Housing, the London Fire Brigade has since released the results of its investigation into the spread of the fire and the role played by the external panels, which were installed during window replacement work more than 10 years before. The report revealed that the panels were made of 17-23mm plywood board covered by blue polystyrene foam, 1mm steel sheet and decorative white paint:
‘As a fire develops and grows further, it is possible that a wide flame front could end up acting on the steel sheet of the panel. The heat from the flames would be conducted through the steel sheet and would therefore melt away the blue foam layer underneath. This would occur in a progressive fashion as the fire develops and would ultimately lead to the steel sheet not being held in place by sufficient bonded blue foam. The weight of the steel sheet would then ensure that it would become detached from the remainder of the panel (likely fall away) and expose the heat damaged blue foam and plywood layers to the developed flame front. This situation is likely to have occurred to the panels above the flat of fire origin when the living room windows of the flat of fire origin failed during the fire at this scene.’
Inside Housing requested further information from Hammersmith and Fulham council, including the panels’ fire protection rating, whether they are installed on any other buildings in the borough, plus a fire risk assessment for Shepherd’s Court – but the council refused the FOI request. The panels still appear to be fixed to Shepherd’s Court, with the exception of six floors on one side, where fire damage is still visible and tarpaulin sheets are draped across the building; and identical panels appear to be in use on three neighbouring towers, Bush Court, Woodford Court and Roseford Court.
‘The fact that there is competition puts pressure into the system, by potentially diminishing rigour in an effort to win work. Some in-house teams express fear that their own council colleague project officers could choose other providers. Projects are signed off before they should be because of pressure for schemes to be completed.’
Over a year before the Grenfell Tower fire, Kensington and Chelsea council had been issued with fire safety Enforcement Notices in December 2015 and January 2016 for two of its other tower blocks following a fire at one of them, Adair Tower, a 14-storey block of 78 flats, that broke out in October 2015. Having examined the fire safety conditions in the block, the London Fire Brigade ordered KCTMO to provide self-closing devices on front doors and to improve fire safety in escape staircases in both Adair Tower and in a second block, Hazelwood Tower, that was built to the same design. These, however, were only 2 of the 43 Enforcement Notices on its properties Kensington and Chelsea council has received from the London Fire Brigade over the past three years since July 2014.
Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the BBC has reported that a dozen letters sent to them by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group reveal that since 2010 four successive government officials in the Department of Communities and Local Government, beginning with Eric Pickles, have been warned by them that residents in high-rise blocks are at risk.
In a letter to Liberal-Democrat MP Stephen Williams, then Parliamentary Under-secretary at the DCLG, dated March 2014, Ronnie King, the Honorary Administrative Secretary of the Fire Safety Group, wrote about installing automatic fire sprinklers in certain types of dwellings in the wake of the Lakanal House fire:
‘Surely, when you already have credible evidence to justify updating a small but important part of the guidance in the Approved Document, which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years, in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?
‘It seems astounding to me that, although clarification was given by the Department at the inquest, that the composite panels under the external wall window sets of flats at Lakanal House were only required to be class “0” to comply with Building Regulations, and need not have had the fire resistance required under the former Section 20 London Building Acts [removed by Eric Pickles]; that this dangerous situation (allowing fire to spread externally into flat 79 within four and a half minutes) has still not been corrected in the Approved Document guidance.
‘As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?’
After further correspondence MP Williams finally responded:
‘I have neither seen nor heard anything that would suggest that consideration of these specific potential changes is urgent and I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward.’
To which the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote that they:
‘Were at a loss to understand how you had concluded that credible and independent evidence, which had life safety implications, was NOT considered to be urgent. As a consequence the group wishes to point out to you that should a major fire tragedy, with loss of life, occur between now and 2017 in, for example, a residential care facility or a purpose built block of flats, where the matters which had been raised here, were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention.’
In December 2015, the Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote again to Conservative MP James Wharton, Parliamentary Under-secretary in the DCLG at the time, warning him about the risk of fires spreading on the outside of buildings with cladding:
‘Today’s buildings have a much higher content of readily available combustible material. Examples are timber and polystyrene mixes in structure, cladding and insulation. This fire hazard results in many fires because adequate recommendations to developers simply do not exist. There is little or no requirement to mitigate external fire spread.’
The fourth and final minister to ignore the warnings was Conservative MP Gavin Barwell, until the last election the Minister of State for Housing and Planning and now the Chief of Staff in Downing Street, to whom the Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote in September 2016. The following month, at a Parliamentary debate on Building Regulations, Barwell said:
‘We have not set out any formal plans to review the Building Regulations as a whole, but we have publicly committed ourselves to reviewing Part B following the Lakanal House fire.’
At the time, the Lakanal House fire had happened seven years ago, and the coroner’s report was then three years old. In February of this year the Department of Communities and Local Government published a summary report of study into the ‘usability’ of Building Regulations, including Approved Documents B (fire safety). Since then, Document B still hasn’t been updated, and nothing has been published looking into the technical content of the fire safety regulations. When asked about the review of Document B in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire the government said work is ‘ongoing’.
It is a measure of how dissatisfied the residents of Grenfell Tower were with the KCTMO that they set up their own community representatives under the name of the Grenfell Action Group. This was formed in 2010 to oppose the construction of the Kensington Aldridge Academy and the rebuilding of the Kensington Leisure Centre (KALC project), which – with the first development opening in 2013 and the second in 2015 – would incrementally consume most of Lancaster Green, the only local green space available for the residents of the immediately adjacent Grenfell Tower and the two blocks of Grenfell Walk. The group has since formed alliances with numerous housing campaign groups across London, including Architects for Social Housing.
It’s hard to know exactly where to pick up the hundreds of complaints and warnings issued to the KCTMO by the Grenfell Action Group and recorded on their blog; but in January 2013 they published a post drawing attention to the impact the loss of the Lancaster Road car-park to the KALC project was having on the fire safety of Grenfell Tower. Because vehicle access to Grenfell Tower is severely restricted, the Lancaster Road car-park had served a vital function over the years as parking space for residents, service and delivery vehicles, as well as backup parking area for the London Fire Brigade. With the loss of the car park there is barely adequate room to manoeuvre for fire engines responding to emergency calls, and any obstruction of the emergency access zone, they warned, ‘could have lethal consequences in the event of a serious fire or similar emergency in Grenfell Tower.’ The post publishes some of the accumulated photographic evidence of the numerous occasions on which precisely this had happened.
‘From the asset records provided to me by the TMO, the emergency lighting and fire alarm systems, along with the dry riser, fire fighter lifts and the hose reels installed in this building, are all subject to a maintenance contracts. Testing, servicing and maintenance is being carried out by professional third party contractors on a planned preventive maintenance programme, with records kept centrally by the TMO at the “Hub” and by the contractor for all these systems. No test certificates have been seen to confirm this.
‘RGE Services Ltd are under contract to the TMO to provide portable fire fighting equipment, testing, servicing and maintenance. The fire extinguisher in this building, the basement boiler room, the lift motor room, the ground floor electrical room plus other areas were out of test date according to the contractors’ label on the extinguishers. The last test date was on the 8th August 2011. Some located in the roof level areas had “condemned” written on them in large black writing, with a last test date of 2009 or 2010. This seems to indicate that monthly occupier inspections are not being carried out.
‘It is not known if the caretaker is undertaking the monthly occupiers’ tests of the installed emergency lighting system, fire extinguishers and structural items as per the caretakers check list. This would include the external stairs and lift checks, with the results being kept as a record of testing having been undertaken.’
The following month, March 2013, a follow up blog post reported that neither the Fire Risk Assessment nor their report had received any response from the KCTMO. Then in May Grenfell Tower experienced power surges during which residents witnessed smoke coming out of light fittings and other electrical appliances, including computers, washing machines and televisions, some of which exploded. This was reported to the KCTMO on 11 May. The problems escalated on 29 May, when residents saw and smelt smoke coming from various electrical appliances, and eventually the whole electrical system went into meltdown, with several key meters fused, and electrical appliances in 40 individual residences damaged or destroyed. Among their fears for their safety, and anger at why the problem of the power surge was not taken seriously when it was first reported, residents voiced particular concerns about the emergency lighting system in the fire stairwell from Grenfell Tower whose testing the Risk Assessment questioned:
‘A single staircase with no natural light is the only emergency exit route from Grenfell Tower. The emergency lighting system in that stairwell should be thoroughly checked to ensure that neither the system itself, nor any of the individual battery packs, has been damaged by the power surges of recent weeks.’
The Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association followed up these concerns by presenting a petition to the Kensington and Chelsea Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee at a meeting the following July. In response a member of the KCTMO present at the meeting told residents that ‘There was no smoke. It was in fact steam caused by water from a leak dropping on to something hot in the flat below.’ The Committee responded to the petition with an update which, dated 16 July 2013, more than two months after the earliest reports of power surges, stated that ‘it is too early to say whether the problem has been fully resolved, and where responsibility lies for the cause. It is possible that the fault that has been rectified is not the primary cause.’This primary cause was thought to have been arcing in the mains supply cable, but no attempt was made to explain what caused the arcing. And despite the petition being signed by 94 Grenfell Tower residents out of the 120 households, Laura Johnson, the Director of Housing and author of the update, followed this lack of information with the claim that:
‘There has been a considerable volume of communication from a small number of residents in the form of blogs and open “round robin” e-mails, some of which is from people who are not residents of the block. This communication contains a lot of speculation about the cause of the problem. KCTMO has not responded directly to this communication and has focused on keeping residents informed of the facts through direct communication.’
Later that month Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair, both presumed by Kensington and Chelsea council to be contributing authors to the Grenfell Action Group blog, were among the residents sent a letter (below) from the council’s Legal Services accusing them of being ‘critical of everything that takes place at Lancaster West in relation to investment on the estate’ and of making ‘direct accusations about unfounded criminal actions’. Stipulating a deadline of 29 July 2013, the senior solicitor, Vimal Sarna, asked that they:
‘Remove from the blog unfounded accusations against named individuals which are your personal opinions and are likely to be considered defamatory and also likely to be perceived as harassment by the individuals concerned.’
Both Mariem and Nadia are among the still uncounted missing lost in the Grenfell Tower fire.
In March 2015 nearly 100 residents, representing over 50 households in Grenfell Tower, gathered in the Community Rooms to discuss the problems the Grenfell Tower Improvement Works were causing residents. These included the lack of meaningful consultation from the KCTMO and the concern that the contractor, Rydon, intended positioning boilers in residents’ entrance hallways; that exposed hot pipes would provide a health and safety problem; and more generally at the poor standard of the work. At the end of the month residents formed Grenfell Community Unite, and the following month they sent a letter to the KCTMO requesting a public meeting with members, as well as representatives from Rydon, Studio E Architects and Max Fordham engineering consultants. Claire Williams, the Project Manager, responded with a letter in which she refused to acknowledge Grenfell Community Unite and therefore to meet with it in a public meeting along with the project contractor and consultants.
Jump forward to November 2016, and in a post titled ‘Playing with Fire!’, the Grenfell Action Group made this fateful – and now famous – observation:
‘It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.’
The post goes on to cite the fires in Adair House in 2015 and Shepherd’s Court in 2016 and the Enforcement Orders issued against the KCTMO. It also questions the advice – delivered, it says, by a temporary notice stuck in the Grenfell Tower lift and a single announcement in a regeneration newsletter – that residents should ‘stay put’ in the event of fire. In response, in March 2017, the KCTMO finally installed fire safety instruction notices in the entrance hallway to Grenfell Tower and outside the lifts on every floor of the building. Put up just 3 months before the fire, these would have been the instructions residents would have had in mind on the night of June 13-14:
‘There is a “stay put” policy for residents unless the fire is in or affecting your flat.
‘IF YOU DISCOVER A FIRE IN YOUR FLAT/BLOCK
Leave at once shutting the doors behind you.
Use the staircase and exit the building.
Telephone the Fire Brigade by dialing “999” or “112” and advise – “Fire at Grenfell Tower, Lancaster West Estate, W11 1TQ”. Wait for the Fire Brigade. Do not re-enter the building
‘IF YOU ARE SAFELY WITHIN YOUR FLAT & THERE IS A FIRE ELSEWHERE IN THE BLOCK
‘You should initially be safe to stay in your flat keeping the doors and windows closed. On arrival the Fire Brigade will make an assessment and will assist with evacuation if required. If you wish to evacuate, leave closing the door behind you and exit the building.’
These instructions comply with the evacuation strategy contained in the Fire Risk Assessment of November 2012, which advises residents ‘to remain within their own dwelling during a fire incident unless the fire is in that dwelling or it is otherwise affected, in which case they should immediately evacuate the dwelling.’ However – and here once again we come back to the effects of the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower in 2016 – this advice is based on the assumption that:
‘The flat or maisonette will have a high degree of compartmentation and therefore there will be a low probability of fire spread beyond the flat or maisonette of origin, so simultaneous evacuation of the building is unlikely to be necessary.’
In the building information for this assessment, which was conducted in 2012, the assessor notes:
‘As far as I am aware the construction and any refurbishments of this building have gone through the Building Regulations process. Information has been gathered from the building’s occupants and employees of the TMO, and from an analysis of documents provided by the TMO there is no external cladding on this building.’
The Metropolitan Police Force has since confirmed that an exploding fridge-freezer started the fire in Grenfell Tower. This cannot be divorced from the long history of complaints about smoking and exploding electrical appliancesmade against the KCTMO. Residents have also reported that the central fire alarm in the building did not go off, and they were only alerted to the fire by the actions of other residents – many of them Muslims awake during Ramadan – who banged on their front doors. The Evening Standard has since revealed that the property services group responsible for installing the alarms, Lakehouse, which last year posted a £31.7 million operating loss, is currently under a three-year investigation by the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad. The company is under suspicion of providing defective safety equipment that was installed in hundreds of properties across London, with ten people having been arrested after Hackney Council received allegations of ‘fraud and overcharging’ from whistleblowers. Survivors from the fire have also said that the emergency lights in the fire escape route did not come on – just as the Grenfell Action Group had feared.
Most worryingly of all, the London Fire Brigade said on the Thursday morning after the fire that they had not been able to put out the flames until they had isolated a ruptured gas mains in the tower block. Some months after the refurbishment was completed in May 2016, the National Grid installed gas risers and pipes in the fire escape stairwell and landings. On 27 March residents had been assured by Sacha Jevans, Director of Operations at KCTMO, that they would be boxed in with ‘fire-rated’ protection, but according to a report in the Guardian, two-thirds of the horizontal pipes were still exposed when the fire broke out on 14 June. In an e-mail to Kensington and Chelsea at least three months before the disaster, Tunde Awoderu, Vice-chair of Grenfell Tower Leaseholders’ Association, wrote:
‘This exposed gas pipe throughout the building has put our life in danger and we don’t feel secure in the building any more. If there was a gas leak on one of those pipes and someone was smoking that would be the end of the building.’
Following a gas leak, the works were originally undertaken by the National Grid’s gas distribution arm; but in March 2017 the firm was sold to investors, which included the Qatari Investment Authority, and renamed Cadent Gas. In response to questions about the works a spokesperson confirmed that ‘the riser in the stairwell had been boxed in when the fire occurred, and work was still ongoing to box in the lateral pipes.’ What the rupture of this gas mains did to the spread of the fire inside the building can only be imagined, but its effects were there for everyone outside the building to see.
A further possible contributing factor was that Max Fordham, the engineering consultants on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, in its Sustainability & Energy Statement from 2012, recommended ‘partially removing the fire stopping between floors and replacing it after the new pipework was installed’ as part of the option to install new central heating pipework within all six service risers in the building. It is not clear whether this recommendation was acted upon, and the company website makes no mention of Grenfell Tower.
Despite this catalogue of criminal negligence towards the fire safety of Grenfell Tower in the years and months leading up to the fire, we still believe that the spread of the smoke and flames through, up and across the combustible cladding system and its ignition of the flammable insulation were the two primary causes of the rapid spread of the fire over the building’s fire stopping; and that the lack of sprinklers, the failure to install self-closing fire doors, the absence of a working central fire alarm, the evacuation strategy advice based on absent conditions, the malfunctioning of emergency lights in the escape stairwell, the installation of an unprotected gas mains up that stairwell, and the difficulty the Fire Brigade had gaining access to the tower block were all contributing but secondary factors towards an already deadly fire. Nevertheless, the responsibility for this lack of fire safety inside Grenfell Tower lies with those who, at every level of design, management, maintenance and repair, failed for year after year to ensure these fire safety conditions never arose and, when they did, that they were quickly addressed and fixed. So why were the repeated fears and warnings of residents and the Grenfell Action Group ignored in the face of the mounting evidence of the risk of fire in Grenfell Tower?
Grenfell Tower Deregulation
In an interview with the Guardian after the Grenfell Tower fire, architect and fire safety expert Sam Webb, who sits on the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, said:
‘We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down. I really don’t think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government’s mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren’t good enough.’
In February 2014, Conservative MP Brandon Lewis, then the Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Communities and Local Government but the future Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Services, in a Parliamentary debate on Fire Sprinklers Week, explained at length how the coalition government’s ‘One-in, two-out’ policy on new regulation – which meant that for every pound that newly-made regulation costs businesses, existing regulations whose compliance costs businesses two pounds must be removed or modified – would be applied to Building Regulations relating to fire safety:
‘Many in the fire sector have at times argued for more regulation to require sprinklers in domestic properties. Since taking office in 2010, the coalition Government have been very clear about their policy on sprinklers, but I want to put it on the record again. Sprinklers work. We know that. No one can deny it. They are an effective way of controlling fires and of protecting lives and property. That is why they are required in certain higher-risk premises, under Building Regulations, and why all guidance that we make available to support compliance with the fire safety order highlights sprinklers as an effective risk-mitigation measure.
‘However, not all buildings carry the same level of risk. Those with responsibility for ensuring fire safety in their businesses, in their homes or as landlords should and must make informed decisions on how best to manage the risks in their own properties. In our commitment to be the first Government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation. In that context, Members will understand why we want to exhaust all non-regulatory options before we introduce any new regulations.
‘There are always calls for Government to change Building Regulations, and that is often the default position of those who see regulation as an easy answer. However, it is not the only answer. We should intervene only if it is entirely necessary, and only as a last resort. Although we have not carried out a fundamental review of Building Regulations for fire safety, we recognise that it is important to maintain and update standards. No doubt, the use of sprinklers will form part of that work.
‘We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation. The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building – something we want to encourage – so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.’
According to a report in the Guardian, on the same morning as the Grenfell Tower fire the Red Tape Initiative convened a pre-arranged meeting of a panel to investigate housing regulations. Formed in April 2017 to take advantage of the opportunities for deregulation offered by the UK leaving the European Union, the Red Tape Initiative is an extremely well-connected cross-party organisation. Chaired by Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin, the former Minister of State for Government Policy who after the 1985 riots had co-authored the infamous memo about Broadwater Farm estate, the initiative included on its advisory panel Conservative MP Michael Gove, until he was appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs three days previously, and has been offered the support of Conservative MP Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Undeterred by the tower of smoke issuing from the inferno in West London, the housing panel met to consider a document titled The EU’s Impact on the UK Housing and Construction Industry. Targeting Construction Products Regulation (EU 305/2011) as ‘expensive and burdensome for small businesses’, the document was written by Alex Hackett, the Executive Director of the new Conservative-led lobbying firm Hanbury Strategy, which was set up by the Director of Communications for the Vote Leave campaign, Paul Stephenson, who was also the former Director of Strategy for the former Prime Minister David Cameron. Among the expensive burdens this document wished to see removed from EU regulations is the requirement that:
‘Construction works must be designed and built in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire the generation and spread of fire and smoke within the construction works are limited.’
The Red Tape Initiative has close links to Policy Exchange, the neo-liberal Conservative think-tank set up by, among others, Michael Gove, and which is rated one of the three least transparent UK think-tanks with regard to where its funding comes from. Among those sitting on the advisory panel of the Red Tape Initiative is Archie Norman, the former Conservative MP, CEO of Asda and founder of Policy Exchange; as well as Charles Moore, the former editor of the Telegraph and the Chair of Policy Exchange; while present on the Red Tape Initiative housing regulations panel the morning of the Grenfell Tower fire was Richard Blakeway, Chief Adviser to Policy Exchange’s Housing and Urban Regeneration Unit, who was also Deputy Mayor for Housing, Land and Property at the Greater London Authority for eight years, as well as Chair of the Homes for London board, and is currently a Board Director at the Homes and Communities Agency.
Policy Exchange is perhaps most famous for producing an anti-Muslim report in 2007 titled The Hijacking of British Islam: How extremist literature is subverting mosques in the UK, which was subsequently accused of manufacturing evidence, and whose widespread coverage in the right-wing press was potentially responsible for the attack on the Finsbury Park Mosque, which the report falsely identified as a distributor of Islamist literature, on the Monday after the Grenfell Tower fire.
Less well known is that in January 2013 Policy Exchange produced the report Create Streets, which recommended that all the high-rise estates built in London between 1950s and early 1980s – but presumably not the Barbican estate – be demolished and replaced with mid-rise blocks built on London’s so-called ‘traditional’ street plan. To this end they estimated that 360,000 council homes (housing around a million residents) should be demolished. In 2012 Policy Exchange had also published a report titled Ending Expensive Social Tenancies that recommended accelerating the sale of high-value social housing in London, using the receipts to build affordable housing, and moving previous tenants to the periphery of the capital. To back up its argument the report asserted – but produced no proof – that ‘the majority of social tenants are either totally or largely reliant on benefits.’ As a measure of the political influence Policy Exchange exerts, four years later this recommendation on the sale of high-value social housing became legislation enshrined in UK law under chapter 3, part 4 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016.
‘Against the febrile backdrop of the Grenfell tragedy, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has signalled the need for further urban and estate regeneration in the capital. He is right to prompt councils to look beyond refurbishing old council stock and seek fundamental change to bring forward a bigger number of higher quality homes and better places. Rethinking land use around big estates to include traditional street patterns, mid-rise buildings, mansion blocks, terraced housing and well-designed public space with greenery not only contributes to higher densities that big cities need but neighbourhoods communities want.’
5. The Programme of Estate Regeneration
The victims of the Grenfell Tower fire were killed by a programme that threatens the residents of every council estate in London – the programme of estate ‘regeneration’. Just as we have seen this programme being implemented by Labour and Conservative councils alike, so we are now seeing the same cross-party manipulation of this disaster to promote further estate demolition from journalists and politicians from both the Conservative and Labour parties. Sir Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Evening Standard, the Times and the Economist, and currently a journalist for the Evening Standard and the Guardian, wrote in the latter paper:
‘Residential towers are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and never truly safe.’
Andrew Gimson, a biographer of Boris Johnson and journalist for the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, wrote in the latter about his visit to the site of the disaster:
‘We saw in plain view the blackened shape of Grenfell Tower, standing among several other towers of seemingly identical design. And I could not help reflecting that I would not ever want to live in any of those towers. I prefer my little terraced house. So, if they can, do most people. Those towers were indeed built, for the most part, for the poor, not the rich. The architects who designed them and the planners who gave consent for them very seldom chose to live in them. They were a shoddy, second-rate solution, masquerading as some sort of progress. Grenfell Tower was the expression of a zeitgeist that seemed unstoppable. But can’t we now stop it, tear down these repulsive blocks and get back to building the decent, modest streets where people actually want to live?’
In his eagerness to tar every council estate with his aesthetic distaste, Gimson was perhaps unaware that two of the residents who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi, were in fact architects. But their presence on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower didn’t fit Gimson’s sneering narrative of council estate poverty. His claim, however, that architects don’t live in council estates or tower blocks, is the kind of ‘common knowledge’ Architects for Social Housing – many of whose members live in both – is used to hearing in the mouths of politicians seeking excuses to knock them down and give the land they stand on to their partners in the building industry. David Lammy, for example, the Labour Member of Parliament for Tottenham, wrote in the Guardian:
‘There are 700 tower blocks of 11 storeys or more in the capital alone, the vast majority of which were built in the 1960s and 1970s. The conditions in Grenfell Tower are mirrored in housing estates across the country. For decades we have consigned people to live in overcrowded conditions that are not just unacceptable but that, in many cases, are criminally unsafe. Families live in hutches, not houses.’
‘Many of us across the country have been caught up in an election, knocking on housing estate doors right across the country, travelling up to the top floors of tower blocks, and we know as politicians that the conditions in this country are unacceptable. Those 70s buildings – many of them should be demolished.’
Not to be outdone by a Labour MP’s enthusiasm for estate demolition, Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green – who in the three years between January 2011 and February 2014, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions oversaw the death of 2,650 people who had been found fit for work following disability benefit assessments by Atos Healthcare – spoke in Parliament about the Grenfell Tower fire with the following suggestion:
‘I ask the Prime Minister to add one further remit to the Public Inquiry: to look at whether the whole process of retrofitting old tower blocks is viable at all, and at whether there is a better way to house and support tenants in these areas without the use of the many incredibly badly designed and very faulty tower blocks. Will she ask the Public Inquiry to look carefully at whether it is feasible to bring some of the blocks down and provide more family-friendly housing?’
Most dangerously of all, however, given his support for London’s estate demolition programme as London Mayor, Sadiq Khan – who in last year’s Draft Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration reneged on his election promises that resident support must be a condition of estate regeneration and that demolition would not go ahead if it resulted in a loss of social housing, and has steadfastly refused to give residents the right of veto over the demolition of their homes – wrote in the Guardian (and it is this statement to which the Policy Exchange article referred):
‘The greatest legacy of this tragedy may well end up being the skyline of our towns and cities. In the postwar rush to reconstruct our country, towers went up in large numbers, most of which are still here today. Nowadays, we would not dream of building towers to the standards of the 1970s, but their inhabitants still have to live with that legacy. It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.’
It should be clear from our report that none of these claims have any factual basis – and worse, that in calling for the demolition of tower blocks on council estates they are actively concealing the truth about the political context for, managerial decisions that led to, and the technical causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. But why are politicians from both the Labour and Conservative parties so eager to see the only homes working-class Londoners can still afford to rent ‘systematically torn down’?
Grenfell Tower Opportunism
Let’s start with David Lammy, who since the fire – despite it happening on the other side of town in a Conservative-run borough – appears to have been elected the Labour Party’s spokesperson for the residents of Grenfell Tower. As evidence of his claim that 700 tower blocks across London are ‘unacceptable’ and even ‘criminally unsafe’, David Lammy cited the Broadwater Farm estate in his own constituency. In fact – rather than in the political rhetoric and tabloid journalism about the estate – Broadwater Farm, just like the Lancaster West estate, has a far lower crime rate than the surrounding area. In a 2003 survey of all the estate’s residents only 2 per cent said they considered the area unsafe, the lowest figure for any area in London. It also has the lowest rent arrears of any part of the borough. The estate’s notoriety, however, as home to rioters in 1985 and again in 2011, placed it on the list of estates tarred by David Cameron as ‘sink estates’ in January 2016, when he announced the Estate Regeneration National Strategy that is targeting 100 estates across the UK. Along with Northumberland Park, which is also in Lammy’s constituency, Broadwater Farm is one of 21 estates in Haringey that has been condemned for demolition under the Haringey Development Vehicle into which – against resident’s similarly ignored wishes – Haringey Labour council has entered with international property developers Lendlease as part of a £2 billion sale of public land and assets.
As anyone engaged in trying to resist the programme of estate demolition knows, there really is no depth to which politicians won’t sink to push their privatisation schemes through under the guise of improving the lives of residents whose homes and safety they have neglected for years; but presumably Lammy doesn’t include the Barbican estate, for instance, in his list of London’s 1960s and 70s tower blocks he thinks should be ‘demolished’, or the deposit boxes in the sky Lendlease is throwing up in the Elephant and Castle on the ruins of the Heygate estate – where 1,200 demolished council homes are being replaced with 2,535 luxury homes of which a mere 82 will be for social rent – and which they will no doubt be erecting with a similar proportion of social housing on the public land they have been handed by Haringey council.
For his efforts Lammy was subsequently elected to the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee. In his nomination statement Lammy wrote:
‘In light of the Grenfell Tower fire it is my intention that the Committee will conduct an inquiry into Building Regulations and fire safety in tower blocks and social housing as soon as possible.’
All well and good, but he said nothing about the estate regeneration programme that made that fire so lethal, and that has condemned council estates in his own Tottenham constituency to privatisation, demolition and redevelopment under a programme that will replicate everything that led to the Grenfell Tower fire. A former barrister at Lincoln’s Inn who studied at Harvard Law School, Lammy has previous in this sort of careerism. In March 2016 he was fined £5,000 for instigating nearly 36,000 automatic phone calls urging people to back his campaign to be London Mayor. This didn’t stop him, on the day before the Labour Cabinet voted in favour of the Haringey Development Vehicle that will make thousands of his constituents homeless, from being quoted in the Observer claiming: ‘I have always seen my primary job as being to represent my constituents or people like them.’
Lammy has taken care to write several letters to the council raising his ‘concerns’ about the Haringey Development Vehicle, but none of them confront the reality of estate regeneration, which is designed to evict estate residents from their homes, and no manner of tinkering with its processes will ameliorate its effects. Even if they had the mind to – which they do not – councils that hand over estate land to property developers have no response to the viability assessments which their private ‘partners’ produce – usually commissioned from estate agent Savills – showing just how few homes for social rent their profit margins will permit. Lammy’s subsequent suggestion that, instead of entering into a PFI deal with Lendlease, Haringey Labour council set up a Special Purpose Vehicle that will allow it to act as a housing association, shows just how little he knows about, our understands, the failings of such SPVs in Labour-run boroughs. Under the name of Southwark Housing Company, or Homes for Lambeth, or Croydon’s Brick by Brick, or Newham’s Red Door Ventures, some of the greatest loss of social housing is resulting from estate demolition and redevelopment by the very privatisation schemes Lammy is promoting.
ASH visited Grenfell Tower on the Thursday after the fire, and one of the things that struck us from an architectural point of view was that – even after two days of burning – the 1970s reinforced concrete building was still structurally sound and intact. In contrast, the 2010s inflammable insulation and combustible aluminium composite rainscreen pannelling the council paid a private contractor to attach in order to improve the view for property investors in the area lay in burnt fragments across the neighbouring gardens and streets. Lammy is right to say that ‘the conditions in Grenfell Tower are mirrored in housing estates across the country’, but those conditions are the ones that have been imposed as part of their regeneration under PFI and SPV schemes that are handing over the management, refurbishment and redevelopment of our public housing to private contractors.
It’s not for us to speculate whether David Lammy is cynically manipulating this disaster to further his own career or simply out of his depth; but once again we have a politician who has no knowledge of what he is talking about tarring all council estates with the same brush in order to promote London’s estate demolition programme. As any housing campaigner will tell you, that’s nothing new – but in this case it’s dipped in the blood of the dead and homeless of Grenfell Tower. We strongly condemn the use of this man-made disaster by politicians, journalists and think-tanks to promote a programme that threatens hundreds of London estates with the same privatised management structures and developer-friendly regeneration schemes that caused it. Estates don’t need demolishing and redeveloping by the private companies getting rich on the housing crisis; they need maintaining, refurbishing and making safe by the councils that are paid by residents to do exactly that. If, as Grenfell Tower is revealing, councils are unwilling to carry out their duty of service to residents, other means of management must be considered. We will return to the question of what at the end of this report.
Grenfell Tower Politics
The Grenfell Tower fire happened in a Conservative-run borough, but the series of management and political decisions that led to the fire – the indifference of the Tenant Management Organisation to residents, the contracting out of the refurbishment to a private company specialising in cost management, the cost cutting that led to flammable insulation material being used, the negligence that led to the use of a combustible cladding system that acted as a chimney for the fire, the ignoring of warnings by the London Fire Brigade and residents about inadequate fire safety in the block, and the financial motivations for the refurbishment itself – are being replicated across London. And although the Labour Party has sought to turn this disaster into a stick with which to beat the Conservative government, the estate regeneration programme that caused it is primarily being implemented in Labour boroughs, where more than 170 estates that we know of are under threat of privatisation, demolition and social cleansing by the regeneration schemes of Labour-run councils.
If you’re wondering why both Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith are so keen on ‘tearing down’ London’s council estate tower blocks, a 2-bedroom apartment in Lambeth’s Oval Quarter, built on the 305 demolished homes of the Myatts Field North estate in Brixton, is selling today for £595,000. The 58 leaseholders were offered on average £114,500 compensation for their demolished homes, which was nothing like enough to buy a home on the new development, where 503 properties for private sale were built on the cleared land, 105 of which were for shared ownership. Not one was for social rent. Effectively, every one of the 247 council tenants whose homes were demolished to make way for Oval Quarter was socially cleansed from the estate. The remaining 172 council homes were refurbished to the Decent Homes Standard by – of all people – Rydon, the same company contracted by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation to refurbish Grenfell Tower, and the same complaints by residents there have been made against Lambeth council, which is Labour-run. These include faulty electric sockets and dangerous wiring – something, as we have seen, that the residents of Grenfell Tower complained about to the KCTMO since the block-wide power-surge in March 2013, and is likely to have started the fire that killed them. And like them, the residents of Myatts Field North have been ignored for the past three years by Lambeth council, which has handed over the running of the estate to a private consortium, Regenter, which has in turn subcontracted out the servicing and maintenance of the estate to a housing management company.
After the Lakanal House fire, Arnold Tarling, the quantity surveyor and fire safety expert who described the spread of the fire across the cladding on Grenfell Tower, visited Brittany Point, one of three surviving tower blocks on the Ethelred estate, which is also in Lambeth, and which is run by the Ethelred TMO. In a BBC report, Tarling described the tower block as a ‘disaster waiting to happen’, citing flammable expanding foam around windows that would give off a thick black smoke if set alight; a 13-year gap in recorded fire-hose services; gaps underneath fire-resistant panels that render them useless; and panels containing a polystyrene which could melt, give off smoke and add fuel to flames. The Chair of the Ethelred Towers Residents’ Association came to the ASH meeting on Grenfell Tower, and the following Tuesday the TRA held their AGM. Among the many questions about the fire safety of the Ethelred estate tower blocks, residents complained that – just as in Grenfell Tower – gas mains were running through the escape stairwell, and as part of the ongoing regeneration of the estate services have been left passing into the common stairwell without fire stopping. One resident said: ‘The lack of proper procedures and services and communication in place here are exactly the same as what led to the Grenfell Tower fire.’ A woman with four kids who lives on the 16th floor of one of tower blocks said: ‘The council shouldn’t have elderly and babies and young children above the 8th floor.’ Another said: ‘The system is fundamentally flawed. Subcontractors take a cut at every stage. We are getting a poor service for large sums of money.’ Waving a printed copy of the BBC report, residents angrily demanded to know whether anything had been done to fix the problems identified by Tarling 8 years ago. The officers from Lambeth Labour council that were present at the AGM – which included Tim Davies, the Fire Risk Assessor – didn’t respond.
As we said, Rydon has removed its webpage on the deadly refurbishment of Grenfell Tower; but it has left up the page on its refurbishment of the Chalcots estate in Camden – where several thousand residents have been made homeless while the same combustible and flammable aluminium composite material Reynobond panels are removed – and at the very bottom of the page it says: ‘Rydon is maintaining the properties for the duration of the PFI contract.’ Camden council, in other words, has contracted out not just the refurbishment, but also the maintenance, servicing and fire-safety of residents’ homes on the Chalcots estate to the same private company that was the principal contractor on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, and which used the same subcontractor, Harley Facades, to install the panels. In privatising the servicing of the Chalcots estate the Labour council has, if anything, created an even more unaccountable management structure than the KCTMO created by the Conservative council, which had similarly contracted out the fire safety of Grenfell Tower to RGE Services. And it was another Arms-Length Management Organisation, Hackney Homes – which was set up by Hackney Labour council in 2006 in order to receive its allocation of the government’s £1.6 billion Decent Homes programme – that signed off the defective fire safety work in their properties, including the installation of smoke and fire alarms, by Lakehouse, the company responsible for installing the same alarms that didn’t go off during the Grenfell Tower fire.
Despite this, Labour politicians like David Lammy and their supporters in the press are attributing the responsibility for this disaster to the Conservative Party alone, while absolving the Labour Party of all complicity in estate regeneration. At the same time, under the guise of various ‘grass-roots’ fronts, Labour activists are turning this disaster into a bid to take over the running of Kensington and Chelsea council. At the Kensington and Chelsea council meeting on 19 July, the Leader of the Labour Group, Councillor Robert Atkinson, declared:
‘The thing we must start with is to change the entire political culture of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I am now confident that at the council elections next May the old regime will be swept away, and a new listening and united council, led by Labour councillors, will take its place. From now on, this council must do things with its residents, and not to or for them. Previously, you Tories have gone through the motions of public consultations and involvement, but as one of your own side said: “We hear but we do not listen”. The Labour opposition in this council has repeatedly warned that your Tory housing and regeneration policies were breaking up our communities and exiling people who in many cases have lived here for generations. Assisted by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has credibility and a democratic mandate, we need to get on with rebuilding the borough.’
Perhaps the only people capable of fully appreciating the bare-faced cheek of this statement are the tens of thousands of residents who, on the Heygate estate, on the Ferrier estate, on Woodberry Down, on Cressingham Gardens, on Broadwater Farm and across London, have been consulted by Labour councils prior to the demolition and redevelopment of their estates for private ownership and capital investment, and who have looked in vain to the London Mayor to honour his election promise to give residents veto over the demolition of their homes. Councillor Atkinson was right to denounce what he called ‘the social cleansing practiced by this council in its regeneration policies and it failure to build new homes for all but the very wealthiest’, but his statement completely ignores the fact that exactly the same fire-safety conditions, unaccountable council, privatised management structures and estate regeneration schemes that led to the fire in Grenfell Tower also exist in every Labour-run borough in London.
The disaster of the Grenfell Tower fire is the very worst thing that can result from estate regeneration carried out not for the benefit of residents, but to win government funding that has been withdrawn from council budgets, raise residual values for council-owned land and maximise profits for private companies under PFI deals; but these financial incentives and the management structures designed to realise them are in place in every London borough. Many people have been won over by Jeremy Corbyn’s response to this disaster, which has been in stark contrast to Theresa May’s typically awkward indifference and lack of leadership; but it would be wrong to think that conditions are any different on estate regeneration schemes being implemented by Labour councils, all in accordance with Labour housing policy. Corbyn has given his direct backing and support to Lambeth Labour council’s estate privatisation programme, Homes for Lambeth, and has remained resolutely silent on the Haringey Development Vehicle – as he has about the social cleansing of estate communities from their homes by the regeneration schemes being implemented by Labour councils across London, whether by SPVs or PFIs. To ignore this fact, or to try and suppress it for the sake of party political allegiance, is not just morally indefensible, it is a betrayal of the people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire and the thousands more who are demanding the truth about why they did.
A tragedy – which is how this fire is being described by politicians, councillors, the media and the contractors and consultants responsible for its deadly effects – is something that happens to someone as a consequence of their arrogance and greed. The residents of Grenfell Tower may have died because they were poor, as has widely been claimed, but it wasn’t their poverty that killed them. The fire that consumed their homes and lives is not a tragedy but a man-made disaster that should never have happened. Unlike a tragedy, the victims of this fire are entirely innocent of the disaster they foresaw. It remains to be seen whether those whose arrogance and greed caused it will be held to account. But it is up to us to ensure that such a disaster never happens again, and that the political decisions, management structures and technical conditions that led to the fire are not ignored and suppressed as they were eight years ago after the Lakanal House fire.
Grenfell Tower Community
Beyond the technical, management and political causes of the Grenfell Tower fire, there are the cultural and ideological ones, including the fear of the black communities that live on council estates (criminals, single mothers, drug dealers, rioters), fear of the Muslim communities that live on council estates (foreigners, breeding families, religious extremists, terrorists), and disgust with the working-class communities that live on council estates (anti-social, work shy, state-subsidised, benefit scroungers).
After the attack on London Bridge less than a fortnight before the Grenfell Tower fire, the newspaper columnist and former radio presenter Katie Hopkins, one of the loudest mouthpieces of this fear and disgust, called for a ‘final solution’ to what the disgusted home-owners in nearby Kensington Row – where some of the survivors of the fire have been promised housing – who were worried about the devaluation of their multi-million pound properties, called ‘these people’. As its numerous precedents forewarned, the Grenfell Tower fire is an inevitable result of the national strategy of social cleansing through estate regeneration – a strategy that is the basis to the housing policies of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, but which can only be implemented by Labour and Conservative councils politically, economically and technically on the foundation of cultural and ideological fear and disgust. Cladding is the blinkers on the eyes of the property-owning classes who don’t want to be reminded that council tenants live among them. The truth is, poor people died because rich people didn’t want to see where they lived. Or where they died.
On Sunday 18 June, while an unknown number of working-class, black and Muslim bodies lay unrecovered in the smoldering crematorium of Grenfell Tower, Holland Park Opera went ahead with its production of Don Giovanni less than a mile away. The Opera received funding of £450,000 per year from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea until 2015, when it received a final grant of £5 million. Picnic hampers for audience members are available for £265.
There is, however, one positive to come out of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. From Conservative central government to Labour local authorities and the developers, contractors and consultants they employ, council estates have been universally slandered as breeding grounds for anti-social behaviour, havens for crime and drug-dealing, homes to rioters and broken families. What we have seen in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, by contrast, is the strength of the Lancaster West estate community in the face of disaster, the valued place it occupies in the surrounding community of North Kensington, and the courage and dignity of Grenfell Tower residents in the face of unimaginable loss.
The Grenfell Tower fire was not an accident but an inevitable result of the managed decline of council estates as a principle of our housing policy, the deliberate neglect of maintenance to homes preparatory to their demolition and redevelopment, and the unaccountability of councils, tenant management organisations and the private contractors they employ to the concerns and even the lives of residents. From the government’s Estate Regeneration National Strategy and the London Mayor’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration to the individual schemes of London’s councils, existing policy is to demolish our estates, evict their residents and redevelop the land as luxury apartments for home ownership and capital investment. If – as politicians never tire of telling us – we must ‘learn the lessons’ of this man-made disaster, we should start by stopping the social cleansing of communities like that of Grenfell Tower and start investing in the maintenance, refurbishment and security of London’s council estates and the residents who call them home. Our homes need maintaining by accountable and repesentative bodies, not managed decline by private management and developers trying to profit from this disaster.
Everything that created London’s housing crisis is being replayed at Grenfell Tower. The bodies of the dead haven’t even been counted yet, and already this fire is being used to promote the very estate regeneration and privatisation programme that caused it – and by those who have the most to gain from its implementation. If we don’t stop this now, one day we might be forced to admit that the only thing worse than people burning to death in their homes because of greed and corruption is the way their deaths were shamelessly used to promote further greed and corruption. From Prime Minister and London Mayor to local councillor and national journalist, the servants of the state are working overtime to reduce the complexities of what caused this disaster to the simple equation that serves them best: ‘Council estates are dangerous: so we must demolish them!’ Anyone who supports this lie does so on the graves of the Grenfell Tower dead.
As this report demonstrates, the reason the Grenfell Tower fire was not contained by the fire stops in the building and put out by the fire brigade as a matter of routine, but instead spread up and across the tower in minutes, had nothing to do with it being ‘badly designed’ or ‘faulty’ – as Iain Duncan Smith claimed – or because the ‘building standards’ of the 1970s were inadequate – as Sadiq Khan equally erroneously said. On the contrary, it is the current Building Regulations, which have been sat on for four years by the DCLG against warnings from coroners and fire experts in the wake of the Lakanal House fire, that are inadequate to stop the criminally negligent refurbishment of council blocks under PFI and SPV schemes. If the conditions in Grenfell Tower are – as David Lammy claimed – ‘mirrored in housing estates across the country’, it is only on those to which inflammable insulation and cladding systems have been added by private contractors under pressure from privatised management organisations to cut the cost of these schemes, even when it puts the lives of residents at risk. If the ‘greatest legacy’ of the Grenfell Tower fire is that the only housing hundreds of thousands of Londoners and millions of UK citizens can afford to live in is – in Sadiq Khan’s idiotic phrase – ‘systematically pulled down’, we will have learned nothing from this disaster except – as we saw with Orgreave and Hillsborough – how to turn another national tragedy into another national cover-up.
It is in the nature of capitalism to capitalise on any disaster, whether natural or man-made, and turn it into a market opportunity. The culpability of the police in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in 1989 was covered up by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and blamed instead on crowd behaviour. This lead to the introduction of all-seater stadiums in the top two tiers of English football, doubling the entrance price overnight and preparing the way for the social cleansing of the British working class from its own game that we have today. In the same way, politicians lobbying for builders and developers are already trying to turn the effects of the criminally negligent regeneration of an estate, which Kensington and Chelsea council wanted to demolish in the first place, into a further reason to demolish every estate standing on London’s immensely valuable land, further increasing the social cleansing of working-class communities from London. It is not by chance that when the Hillsborough disaster that killed 96 people happened, the Football Spectators Bill 1989, which gave the Secretary of State the power to make the seating of spectators a condition of issuing an authority the licence to admit spectators, was being read in Parliament. In the same way, the Housing and Planning Act 2016, the Estate Regeneration National Strategy 2016 and the GLA’s Good Practice Guide to Estate Regeneration will determine how the Grenfell Tower will be interpreted for the public. Of this we are certain: it won’t be long before the first London council declares that the Grenfell Tower fire is proof that refurbishment of post-war housing is not a valid option, and that the only way to regenerate deliberately run-down council estates is to demolish and redevelop them.
6. Accountability for the Grenfell Tower Fire
In November 2016, in the blog post that predicted the Grenfell Tower fire, the Grenfell Action Group wrote:
‘It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!’
Among the thousands and thousands of messages written in tribute books, on message walls, on placards tied to railings and on banners carried on protests expressing sorrow and loss and anger, the overwhelming demand is for the truth about what happened and justice for the victims. But what justice can balance the scale of this disaster, and who will be found guilty in its scales?
Grenfell Tower Inquiry
Well, even by the terms of the fateful predictions of the Grenfell Action Group, it hasn’t been a good start. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, who refused to meet with residents when she visited Grenfell Tower on the day after the fire, responded by announcing a public inquiry. A public inquiry is ordered by the government in order to investigate certain events, such as when a death or deaths have occurred, or issues of serious public concern. The Minister calling the inquiry – which in this case is Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Goverment – sets the ‘terms of reference’ that determine the scope of the inquiry, making them as wide or narrow as he deems fit. Although findings and recommendations could be relevant to future civil or criminal proceedings, under the Inquiries Act 2005 an inquiry cannot rule on civil or criminal liability. As the explanatory notes published with the Act makes very clear:
‘There is often a strong feeling, particularly following high profile, controversial events, that an inquiry should determine who is to blame for what has occurred. However, inquiries are not courts and their findings cannot and do not have legal effect. The aim of an inquiry is to help to restore public confidence in systems or services by investigating the facts and making recommendations to prevent recurrence, not to establish liability or to punish anyone’
In an inquiry, survivors, family members of the deceased and interested groups – which in this case would include the Grenfell Action Group – are called ‘core participants’; these can all benefit from public funding for legal representation, and employ lawyers to question witnesses. The conclusions of an inquiry are written in a report, given first to the government and then published for the public. Having wide terms of reference can prolong the time an inquiry takes to complete – with the Iraq Inquiry, for example, taking seven years – but the inquiry can also produce a preliminary report in a relatively short period of time on matters of immediate concern. In the Grenfell Tower Inquiry these would include identifying any urgent action that needs to be taken towards fire safety standards in similar buildings as well as how they have been compromised by estate regeneration schemes. In response to public complaints about the original deadline, the period for consultation on the terms of reference for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has been extended to 28 July 2017.
However, Theresa May followed her announcement up by appointing Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a recently retired Court of Appeal judge who specialised in commercial law, to lead the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Among the cases testifying against Moore-Bick’s suitability for this role was his 2014 decision – later overturned by the Supreme Court – that allowed Westminster council to rehouse a single mother with five children 50 miles away in Milton Keynes. The decision had been welcomed by Dominic Raab – at the time the Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Civil Liberties and now the Minister of State for Courts and Justice – who also praised Moore-Bick’s decision to deport a foreign-born criminal whose young children lived in Britain as ‘some long-awaited common sense on the application of Article 8 [of the European Convention on Human Rights]’.
This was bad enough, but then the Director General and Secretary to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was named as Mark Fisher, who under Iain Duncan Smith’s murderous regime was Social Justice Director in the Department for Work and Pensions, where he was responsible for the prevention of welfare dependency. Fisher had previously overseen the design and delivery of the Work Programme, under which 120,000 people claiming Jobseekers Allowance were forced to work 30-hour weeks unpaid for a month or have their benefits sanctioned for half a year, a Mandatory Work Activity scheme that was exploited by 534 companies, charities, religious groups and other organisations.
Finally, Sajid Javid announced that the Chair of a new panel set up to advise the government on its response to the Grenfell Tower fire has been named as Sir Ken Knight, the government’s Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser for England between 2007 and 2013. In his August 2009 report on the Lakanal House fire for the DCLG, Knight – a former London Fire Commissioner – wrote:
‘It is not considered as practical or economically viable to make a requirement for the retrospective fitting of fire suppression systems to all current high-rise residential buildings. However it is a matter for individual housing owners and landlords to decide if automatic fire suppression is required as part of their fire safety strategy based on their fire risk assessment.’
As if that weren’t enough, in May 2013 Knight wrote a further, widely criticised report recommending £200m worth of cuts to the fire service. Since then, Brandon Lewis, in his role as Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Services, repeatedly used Knight’s report to deflect questions about government cuts to fire safety budgets.
The Grenfell Tower community has not been alone in expressing its doubt that anyone who looks for justice from three government-appointed officials with such histories of injustice and even cruelty will look in vain. However, there is another issue, which is broader than the integrity or records of the individuals appointed to the public inquiry.
In the face of the mounting evidence of corruption at every level of involvement in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower it is important to distinguish between individual and systemic corruption. As an example of the former, the blog of the Grenfell Action Group has revealed that Councillor Feilding-Mellen, in his capacity as Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration, was ultimately responsible for Kensington and Chelsea council’s 2015 decision to lease North Kensington Library to Notting Hill Prep School, thereby taking it out of public control and use. However, at the time of this deal – which was strongly opposed by the local community – Feilding-Mellen had two children on the long waiting list for the £5,800-a-term private school, which as part of the deal was allowed to skip the first year’s rent of £365,000. This is just another example – of which the Grenfell Action Group blog exposes many – of the way individuals in positions of authority on Kensington and Chelsea council and the Tenant Management Organisation have used that authority for their own personal benefit.
The corruption that led to the Grenfell Tower fire, however, is of another kind. Even to call it ‘corruption’ is not strictly accurate, as to do so would imply that its workings are corrupting an otherwise uncorrupt system; when what the Grenfell Tower fire is revealing to those who didn’t know already is that the system that produced this disaster works by corruption. The corruption that has embraced everyone from the manufacturers of flammable insulation for people’s homes, to the architects that included it in a cladding system the Fire Brigade had issued warnings about, to the contractors that undercut their competitors to win the refurbishment contract, to the subcontractors that installed it on Grenfell Tower, to the project managers that cut costs with residents’ safety, to the Tenant Management Organisation that demanded those cuts, to the council that profited from them, to the ministers who sat on reviews of fire safety regulations in tower blocks, all the way up to the council leaders and housing ministers of the political parties – both Conservative and Labour alike – as well as the London Mayor, that have promoted an estate regeneration programme that places increased land values for local authorities and the profits of private contractors over residents’ needs and safety – is quite clearly not a ‘regrettable chain’ of instances of individual failings – as the public inquiry will doubtless find – but rather an example of the same systemic corruption that has produced the housing crisis from which so many private companies and public servants are profiting at the expense and lives of residents like those in Grenfell Tower, and in which the public inquiry has been called to help restore the public’s confidence. As such, although every individual culpable in this lethal chain of greed and criminal negligence should be arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced – rather than, as is currently happening, being allowed to resign on a severance package – simply removing them from their positions – as in fact has already been done at Kensington and Chelsea council – will do little or nothing to stop the same systemic corruption that threatens the homes and lives of hundreds of thousands of estate residents across the UK.
Police surveillance is a constant if you live on a council estate, in the helicopters that hover overhead, in the armed squads that patrol the grounds, in the threats stuck up on every noticeboard, in the strip lighting that turns every walkway into a high-security prison, in the CCTV cameras that record your every move. In contrast, those responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire have been left free to destroy the records of their culpability, and every witness and suspect can deflect public questions about their responsibility with the excuse of ‘not wanting to prejudice the Public Inquiry’, while politicians, corporate CEOs, BBC directors, newspaper editors, police commissioners and high court judges agree in advance exactly which minor official will be the scapegoat. Incredibly, the only people to be arrested so far in relation to this fire are a man who, finding a body bag left outside his front door, took photographs and footage of the partially exposed body and posted them on social media; and another man who tried to claim financial support by falsely claiming he had lost his wife and son in the fire. Both were insensitive and reprehensible acts, no doubt, but hardly comparable to the actions of Councillor Rock Feilding-Mellen, whom the police appear more intent on protecting than arresting.
The first thing the announcement of a Public Inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire has done – long before it is due to convene this September – is to have removed all transparency and accountability for the investigation from public scrutiny and placed it in the hands of the very people who are responsible for this crime. As we have indicated throughout this report, much of the information gathered here is no longer available on the websites of the private companies and public bodies involved. The same chain of corruption that led to hundreds of residents burning to death because rich people didn’t want to acknowledge their existence is being repeated in the chain of secrecy that will – like every public inquiry before it – absolve the links in that chain of all responsibility for those deaths. In this respect as in so many others, the Grenfell Tower fire is like a mirror: the political decisions that created the conditions for the disaster are being reflected in our responses to it. We believe that one of the ways we can honour the memory of the dead is to identify and change the system that caused their deaths. If we don’t, this will not be the last loss of life we see on London’s council estates.
Grenfell Tower Inquest
In response to the government’s announcement of a Public Inquiry there have been criticisms of both the time it is likely to take, the fact that its terms of reference have been set by the same people who are responsible for the disaster, and especially that it will not lead to criminal proceedings. This has led to the Grenfell Tower community calling for a coroner’s inquest, such as the one carried out after the Lakanal House fire. Unlike a public inquiry, an inquest is part of a legal investigation carried out by a coroner, the scope of which is to establish who, where, when and how a person or persons died. As such, its scope is narrower than that of a public inquiry. Unlike an inquiry, an inquest must be open to public scrutiny to a degree sufficient to ensure accountability. Coroners will identify ‘properly interested persons’ – which could be family members of the deceased – and allow them to question a witness; but they are not guaranteed full legal representation or funding. Sometimes a coroner will carry out the inquest alone and on other occasions they will call a jury to decide. However, a coroner cannot attribute criminal liability, but can only make recommendations, and they have no power to enforce these recommendations. Under the Inquiries Act, a Minister has the power to suspend an inquiry in order not to prejudice the determination of any civil or criminal liability; while a coroner must suspend an investigation when certain criminal investigations are brought. After the inquest, the coroner will make a statement about the cause of death, with descriptions ranging from accidental death – the verdict returned in 1991 by the Hillsborough Inquest, which it took more than 27 years to overturn – to misadventure, lawful killing, unlawful killing or an open verdict.
In response to a question asked in Parliament in December 2009 about when an inquiry instead of a coroner’s inquest will be established in circumstances where an inquest would normally be held, Lord Bach, who was then Parliamentary Under-secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice, replied:
‘The criteria for considering the establishment of an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, when a coroner’s inquest cannot be held, will be the existence of highly sensitive matters – including, for example, intercept material – which are directly relevant to the purpose of the inquest, and which may not be disclosed either to a coroner or a coroner’s jury, and where there is no alternative way of ensuring the matters are protected from public disclosure.’
It seems that, whether by public inquiry or coroner’s inquest, the truth about Grenfell Tower is unlikely to be revealed soon, if ever. This raises the question of what the community itself can do, independently of the authorities who, at council and government level, have failed them. Increasingly, residents on estates threatened with regeneration by equally unaccountable authorities unchecked by government legislation have started proposing their own alternatives to demolition under the name of a ‘People’s Plan’. Architects for Social Housing has designed several such design alternatives for the West Kensington and Gibbs Green and Central Hill estates, to name just two. While the public inquiry to which the public is barred deliberates on what terms of reference it feels inclined to investigate, now might be the time to set up a ‘People’s Inquiry’ in order to address in public the question so many people are demanding be answered: who is responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire?
In writing this report, it has become apparent to us that in the circumlocution office of responsibility for this disaster there have been individuals who have acted morally, who knew that such a fire would happen – in Grenfell Tower or on another estate – and who tried to prevent it with warnings and recommendations. Among these are the coroner on the inquest into the Lakanal House fire, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, and the London Fire Brigade. But all their warnings and recommendations have fallen on the deaf ears of politicians and civil servants who have shown neither morality nor responsibility, each and every one of whom should be investigated and questioned about their role in this disaster. Those politicians who are subsequently trying to make political capital out of this disaster are, in our opinion, no less lacking in morality if not responsibility.
Between these two camps – the experts whose job is to prevent such a disaster from happening, and the politicians whose job is to promote estate regeneration and redevelopment no matter what the cost to the homes and safety of the residents that live on them – is the third party in this disaster: the private contractors and consultants employed to design, manufacture, build and manage the regeneration process, who at every step were under pressure from the client – and who in turn placed pressure on their subcontractors – to cut costs that incrementally created this ‘disaster waiting to happen’. But whereas politicians, civil servants, coroners and fire-safety experts are – at least theoretically – there to ensure the safety of the citizens over which they have jurisdiction, the subcontractors that built this death trap have obligations only to their shareholders. Their bottom line is profit, not safety; and it is indicative of the inversion of these priorities in UK housing in general, and in the estate regeneration programme in particular, that the fire-safety conditions inside Grenfell Tower that placed residents at risk, which they complained about for over three years, and which required urgent maintenance and refurbishment, were ignored by the council and the Tenant Management Organisation; whereas the appearance of the tower from the outside that had been identified as artificially depressing the potential residual land values in the area received nearly £8.7 million for a face lift.
This does not mean that the links in the chain of culpability that starts at the suppliers of flammable cladding to a high-rise tower and links together every private company that contributed to it becoming the Grenfell Tower conflagration is free of responsibility. But that they are responsible for the deaths of the residents is because they were placed in this position by the continuation of that chain through the hands of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and Council, and from there all the way up to the Department of Communities and Local Government that placed the deregulation of fire safety standards – which in their eyes represented an unnecessary obstacle to the profits to be made from the UK housing boom – above the safety of residents, and the political parties, both Conservative and Labour, who at council, mayoral and ministerial level have unreservedly promoted the programme of estate regeneration that killed the residents of Grenfell Tower.
This is a starting list of the more than 60 individuals we believe should be immediately arrested by the police and their records seized, investigated for their role in the Grenfell Tower fire, and where necessary put on trial in a criminal court:
Private contractors and consultants on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment
Mark Allen, Technical Director of Celotex, and member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee
Deborah French, UK Sales Manager, Arconic
Ray Bailey, Managing Director, Harley Facades
Bob Holt, Director and Executive Chairman of Lakehouse services
Bob Greene, Technical Contract Manager, RGE Services
Roger Greene, Managing Director, RGE Services
Chris Train, Chief Executive, Cadent Gas
Andrew McQuatt, Partner, Max Fordham engineering, and Lead Engineer on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment
Mark Palmer, Senior Partner, Max Fordham engineering, and Senior Engineer on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment
David Lloyd Jones, Founding Director of Studio E Architects
Andrzej Kuszell, Founding Director of Studio E Architects, and lead architect on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment
Mark Mitchener, Managing Director, Rydon Construction
Jeff Henton, Managing Director, Rydon Maintenance, and Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors
Robert Bond, Group Chief Executive, Rydon, and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building
Philip James Boulcott, Director and Chartered Quantity Surveyor, Artelia UK
Ian Bailey, Director and Public Sector Lead, Artelia UK
Board Members and directors of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation
Simon Brissenden, independent Board Member, KCTMO
Anthony Preiskel, independent Board Member, KCTMO and Non-Executive Director of the Homes and Communities Agency
Paula France, council-nominated Board Member, KCTMO
Judith Blakeman, Labour councillor and council-nominated Board Member, KCTMO
Maighread Condon-Simmonds, Conservative councillor and council-nominated Board Member, KCTMO
Fay Edward, Chair and Resident Board Member of the KCTMO
Claire Williams, Project Manager on Grenfell Tower refurbishment, KCTMO
Laura Johnson, Director of Housing, KCTMO
Sacha Jevans, Executive Director of Operations at the KCTMO
Yvonne Birch, Executive Director of People and Performance at the KCTMO
Barbara Matthews, Executive Director of Financial Services and Information and Communication Technology at the KCTMO
Robert Black, former Chief Executive of the KCTMO
Councillors and officers on Kensington and Chelsea council
John Allen, Building Inspector, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council
Vimal Sarna, Senior Solicitor at Legal Services, RBKC
Michael Clark, Director for Corporate Property and Customer Services, RBKC
Jonathan Bore, Executive Director for Planning and Borough Development, RBKC
Nicholas Holgate, former Chief Executive and Town Clerk, RBKC
Elizabeth Rutherford, former Member of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Adrian Berrill-Cox, former Member of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Eve Allison, Member of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Will Pascal, Member of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Matthew Palmer, Member of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Kim Taylor-Smith, Member of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee and current Deputy Leader, RBKC
Tony Holt, former Vice-chairman of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
David Nicholls, Vice-chairman of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Quentin Marshall, former Chairman of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Sam Mackover, Chairman of the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee, RBKC
Ruth Angel, Senior Project Manager in Housing Regeneration, RBKC
Catherine Faulks, former Cabinet Member for Education and Libraries, RBKC
Emma Will, former Cabinet Member for Family and Children’s Services and current Cabinet Member for Education and Libraries, RBKC
Paul Warrick, former Cabinet Member for Facilities Management and Procurement Policy, RBKC
Timothy Coleridge, former Cabinet Member for Environment, Environmental Health, Leisure and Arts, RBKC
Mary Weale, former Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care and Public Health, RBKC
Tim Ahern, former Cabinet Member for Planning Policy and Transport, Kensington and Chelsea council, RBKC
Warwick Lightfoot, former Cabinet Member for Finance and Strategy, RBKC
Gerard Hargreaves, former Cabinet Member for Civil Society and Community Safety and current Chief Whip, RBKC
Marie-Therese Ross, Mayor, RBKC
Rock Feilding-Mellen, former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration, RBKC
Nicholas Paget-Brown, former Leader, RBKC
Members of Parliament and civil servants
Stephen Kelly, Chief Operating Officer for Government and Head of the Efficiency and Reform Group
Brian Martin, Principal Construction Professional in the Building Regulations and Standards Division in the Department of Communities and Local Government
Andrew Stunell, Construction Spokesperson in the House of Lords and former Parliamentary Under-secretary of State in the Department of Communities and Local Government
Ken Knight, Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser for England
Richard Blakeway, Chief Adviser to the Housing and Urban Regeneration Unit at Policy Exchange, and Board Director at the Homes and Communities Agency
Stephen Williams, former Liberal Democrat MP and Parliamentary Under-secretary of State in the Department of Communities and Local Government
James Wharton, Conservative MP, Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for International Development and former Parliamentary Under-secretary of State in the Department of Communities and Local Government
Oliver Letwin, Conservative MP, former Minister of State for Government Policy and current Chair of the Red Tape Initiative
Eric Pickles, Conservative MP, United Kingdom Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues and former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Theresa May and former Minister of State for Housing and Planning
Brandon Lewis, Conservative MP, Minister of State for Immigration and former Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Services
In addition, we believe the Leaders, Cabinet Ministers for Housing and Regeneration, Chairs of the Housing Scrutiny Committee, Chief Executives and Executive Directors of every council that has fitted inflammable and potentially deadly cladding on over 600 tower blocks in the UK as part of estate regeneration schemes should be questioned; as should the Ministers of State for Housing for the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties, and the London Mayor; as well as the Chairs of the think-tanks and CEOs and Managing Directors of the property developers, builders, estate agents and architectural practices involved in promoting and implementing the programme of estate regeneration. Only then will we be able to establish how many tower blocks on how many estates have had their fire safety compromised, carry out the actions necessary to ensure the safety of residents, and in doing so put a stop to the estate regeneration programme whose motivations, mechanisms and consequences for residents – not only those whose lives it has already taken, but also those whose homes it threatens – the inferno of Grenfell Tower has illuminated for all to see.
Grenfell Tower Legacy
When the bodies of the dead have still not been recovered, the survivors of this disaster have still not been rehoused, and the community of North Kensington is still in mourning, it might be argued that now is too early to talk about the future. However, while we mourn and wait on a Public Inquiry that will take years to draw its inevitable conclusions, the perpetrators of this disaster are acting, not only to cover their responsibility and culpability, but to determine the future of Grenfell Tower – what Sadiq Khan called the ‘legacy’ of the fire. Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has placed Kensington and Chelsea council’s housing, regeneration, community engagement and governance services under a Grenfell Fire Response Team, which is led by a group of chief executives from councils across London. The spokesperson for this team is Eleanor Kelly, the Chief Executive at Southwark Labour council, which has perhaps the worst track record of any council in London for demolishing estates, relocating their communities outside the borough, and redeveloping the land as high-value properties for investment by oversees and offshore companies. This is the clearest indication of how the government intends to capitalise on the Grenfell Tower fire.
In response to the disaster, the Conservative government of Theresa May has pledged £5,500 in emergency funds for every household that lost their home in the fire. In contrast to this miserly sum, the public has been hugely generous. In addition to an estimated 174 tonnes of donated items, which are being handled and distributed by the British Red Cross, an estimated £20 million in cash has been donated, with £5.5 million from the London Community Foundation/Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund; £5.1 million from the Kensington & Chelsea Foundation; £4.7 million from the British Red Cross; £4 million from more than 700 individual appeals on the websites like JustGiving and GoFundMe; and £500,000 from four Muslim charities. However, as of 18 July only £800,000 of that money has been distributed, and a tiny £158,000, less than 0.8 per cent of the total, to a mere 16 survivors from the Grenfell Tower fire. It is crucial that the donated funds are not siphoned off by Kensington and Chelsea council, predatory charities and legal firms or property developers with an eye on the land from which the ruin of Grenfell Tower will be dismantled.
What the Grenfell Tower fire has exposed is that the separation between the public and private spheres in UK housing no longer exists in any qualifiable sense, and any trust we may once have had that the duties of the former are independent of the interests of the latter has no foundation in practice. From our work with council estate communities trying to save their homes, and from our own experience of living on council estate tower blocks, ASH has become increasingly interested in the potential of a third sphere of activity, which is neither public nor private. What those commentators on council estates who live – to use Andrew Gimson’s description – in their ‘little terraced houses’ do not understand is that the most important space on a council estate does not fall into the clear distinction between private and public that terrace-dwellers cross every time they step outside their home and into the street. In seeking to recreate the street life of working-class communities, post-war council estates designed communal spaces into their architecture. These include not only the community halls in which residents meet – and which because of this are always the first part of the estate to be shut down by councils intent on demolishing it – but the internal hallways and external walkways between individual homes; the numerous landings outside lifts; the lifts themselves – where in the few seconds it takes to ascend or descend relationships with neighbours are made and maintained; and above all in the entrance halls – in many cases later additions to address the teething problems of this new form of communal living – and in which the concierge, known to every resident and therefore knowing every resident, is the presiding spirit of the estate, setting the tone for its cordiality, its fraternity and its ethos of mutual support.
All of this is unknown to the dwellers in privately-owned homes and fenced-in gardens; but it is where the collective life of a council estate takes root and grows. Most importantly, it is a space which is neither private, and therefore subject to the property or tenant rights of the individual or household, nor public, and therefore the province of the council. Rather, it is a collective space, over which no resident has rights, which none of them own, but for which they all take responsibility and share in its benefits. As the corruption of the public sphere by the private accelerates under increasingly accommodating government policy, mayoral direction and council practice, and the lives of those under the management and care of these public bodies are increasingly put at risk of eviction, homelessness and even death, ASH believes this third sphere, the space and activity of community, must be reclaimed.
Once the charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower is buried and the land cleared for redevelopment, it will still be in the hands of Kensington and Chelsea council. Worse still, the fire has brought about precisely that demolition of the ‘blight’ that Grenfell Tower, in the eyes of the council and the TMO, represented, freeing up the land it stands on for the potential residual values the original masterplan for the Lancaster West estate envisaged activating through its redevelopment as ‘high end’ properties for home ownership and capital investment. Were this to come about – and under existing ownership and policy there is nothing to stop it happening – it would be the greatest betrayal of both the dead and the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire.
To oppose this, therefore, ASH proposes that a portion of the £20 million donated by the general public – and which the government should be invited to match – be used to purchase the land on which Grenfell Tower stands and place it in Trust for the survivors and the surrounding community; and that in its place housing is built that is neither owned by the council nor run by the KCTMO, but owned and managed as a Community Land Trust or Housing Co-operative by the residents themselves. From the ashes of Grenfell Tower, and the forces of private greed and public corruption that burnt it to the ground, a new Community estate could rise – as a home for the homeless of Grenfell Tower, and as a model of communal housing for the hundreds of thousands of Londoners currently threatened by the programme of estate regeneration.
The official figures from the Metropolitan Police Force are that 255 people escaped from Grenfell Tower on the night of the fire and around 80 died. This last figure is a rough estimate based on the ongoing forensic investigation by the Disaster Victim Identification unit that has so far made 87 ‘recoveries’ of human remains. Police have been able to speak to residents who lived in 106 of the flats in Grenfell Tower, and to establish how many people were in them at the time of the fire. 18 of the identified deaths were from these flats. The remaining 62 deaths were from what the Met say are 23 flats between the 11th and 23rd floors of the building whose residents they have been unable to trace. On 14 June, 26 separate 999 calls to the London Fire Brigade were made from people who said they were inside one of these 23 flats. Pending the Public Inquiry the Met records are not available to the public, but these figures are based on what they say were the 129 flats in Grenfell Tower, whereas according to the 2012 planning application the building would have contained 127 flats after its refurbishment. We hope this is a misunderstanding on our behalf and not theirs.
These official figures, however, have been consistently questioned by the local community, whose members argue that a total of 335 residents in 227 bedrooms doesn’t reflect what they know about the density of occupation in Grenfell Tower – which they say housed many unregistered residents – or the many visitors they argue would have been present when the fire broke out shortly before 1am during the month of Ramadan, and the numerous Muslim residents and their neighbours would have been having their late-night meal and prayers before the next day’s fast.
As of 20 July, 40 people have been formally identified by the Met in agreement with the Westminster Coroner, Dr. Fiona Wilcox. At the request of their families, 22 of these identified people have not been named. The Met has not yet been able to identify the other remains, or anyone else who might have been present in what Dave Barclay, the former head of the Physical Evidence unit at the National Crime Faculty, has said would effectively have been a crematorium, with temperatures up to 2,000 degrees centigrade at the top of Grenfell Tower.
In writing this report we have tried to remain as objective as possible in the face of this terrible disaster, and never to presume to speak on behalf of, or in place of, the residents and community directly affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. We offer this report to them in the hope that it will aid them in their struggle for some form of justice, and their search for the truth about why this fire happened. Since we have named those we hold accountable for their deaths, we will end by naming those they killed whose names their families have made public, and who must stand here for those who are unnamed, those who are still missing, and those who will never appear on any list of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire:
Mohammad Alhajali, a 23-year-old man
Ya-Haddy Sisi Saye, also known as Khadija Saye, a 24-year-old woman
Anthony Disson, a 65-year-old man
Abufars Ibrahim, a 39-year-old man
Khadija Khalloufi, a 52-year-old woman
Mary Mendy, a 52-year-old woman
Abdeslam Sebbar, a 77-year-old man
Isaac Paulos, a five-year-old boy
Sheila, an 80-year-old woman
Gloria Trevisan, a 26-year-old woman
Marco Gottardi, a 27-year-old man
Berkti Haftom, a 29-year-old woman
Zainab Deen, a 32-year-old woman
Hamid Kani, a 61-year-old man
Yahya Hashim, a 13-year-old boy
Ali Jafari, an 82-year-old man
Majorie Vital, a 68-year-old woman
Logan Gomes, who was stillborn in hospital on 14 June
On the weekend of 10-11 June ASH attended the Housing Justice conference being held as part of the ‘Small is Beautiful’ festival in Wales, and for something to read we took Anna Minton’s new book, Big Capital: Who is London For?a copy of which, signed by the author and sent to ASH, had arrived earlier that week.
Reading it, however – and particularly the third chapter on ‘Demolitions’ – was a strange experience, like reading a summary of just about everything ASH has written about and published on our blog over the past two years. That’s not surprising, as we met Anna in 2015, and she and Paul Watt had invited us to publish our October 2015 blog article ‘The London Clearances’ in the special feature of City they were editing on housing activism. I remember Anna had been generous in her appraisal, arguing that this text, which was one of the first to identify the threat the IPPR report City Villages represented to council estates, should be more widely published. In fact, in the days when Labourites still read the ASH blog, and following the demonstration we organised in January 2016 against the Housing and Planning Act, this single article was visited over 15,000 times on the ASH blog. Ah, heady days!
Since then we have introduced Anna to some of the estates ASH has worked with, taking time out to show her around Central Hill, and at their invitation we presented our design work on West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates at a conference she and Paul organised at the University of East London.
I never realised, however, just how closely Anna – who almost never posts on our Facebook page – appears to have read our blog articles. Flicking through her book I felt like Michael Douglas in the Bill Hicks sketch about the ‘Goat-boy’ edit of Basic Instinct (the lead actor’s role has been removed and replaced with 3 hours of Sharon Stone ‘eating out’ another chick): ‘I could’ve sworn I was in that film!’ (‘Goat-boy called it like he saw it, Mickey’ . . .)
Here’s Anna writing about Starter Homes supplanting homes for social rent in Section 106 agreements, something we first wrote about in January 2016 in ‘Blitzkrieg! Sink Estates and Starter Homes’, and which I remember Anna announcing, with some surprise, at the UEL conference after sitting through the presentation in which we’d just brought it up.
Here she is observing that the Housing and Planning Act 2016 grants planning permission in principle on ‘brownfield land’, the redefinition of which through accompanying policy to include housing estates ASH was the first to write about in March 2016 in ‘The Doomsday Book: Mapping London’s Housing Crisis’. To my knowledge this aspect of the new legislation was deliberately suppressed (even if the authors were aware of it) in every other article written about the Bill precisely because it implicates Labour councils in the estate demolition programme.
Here she is writing about the dirty tricks employed by the Conservatives to push the Bill through the House of Commons, something ASH reported on our Facebook page over several months in considerable detail, organising a round table discussion to pick apart the Bill’s legislation, speaking to several campaigns from Focus E15 Mothers to Save Cressingham Gardens on what it would mean for them, and culminating in May 2016 in our blog article ‘Resistance Begins at Home: The Housing and Planning Act’.
Here she is with residents of the newly-named Macintosh Court in June 2016, celebrating its stay of demolition at Open Garden Estates, the yearly event organised by ASH, and to which we had invited numerous film makers, campaigners and journalists like her to come and write about the victory over Lambeth Labour council. The point of this event is to link the estates hosting it and their campaigns to save their homes, and by removing the rare victory at Macintosh Court from Open Garden Estates Anna’s book isolates it from this wider struggle.
Here she is on Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and his decision to refuse the compulsory purchase order on leaseholders on the Aylesbury estate on the grounds it infringed their Human Rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and breached the Equality Act 2010, something which – in response to the misinformation and inaccuracies being published in the press and on social media – we picked apart in careful detail and published in September 2016 in our blog article ‘Financial Compensation for Human Rights: The Aylesbury Estate’ the day after the decision was made.
Her she is discussing the London School of Economics report commissioned by the Berkeley Group to promote the Berkeley Homes redevelopment of the demolished Ferrier estate as Kidbrooke Village, something I spoke about at the Resist festival in September 2016 and whose subsequent write-up the following month, ‘The Intellectual Bloodstain: Academia and Social Cleansing’, is to my knowledge the only article exposing this collusion between academia and estate demolition.
The strange thing is, not once through the entire book is either the ASH blog that carries these articles or, in the case of Open Garden Estates, the events ASH organises mentioned, let alone footnoted.
In keeping with academic procedure – which is necessary for it to contribute to the research rating of the department in which Anna is employed – there are copious footnotes in the book; but in keeping with academic seclusion, these almost all reference other academic articles; or, at least, not one of the ASH articles on which Anna’s book seems to draw over and over again appears in the footnotes.
Now, I don’t want to appear bitter. Yeah-yeah, I know: ‘If you don’t like it, write your own book!’ It’s sound advice, which we liberally dispense to those who tell us at great length exactly and precisely what they think ASH should be doing. But because of who and what our work threatens – from the politicians promoting estate demolition to the architects and developers getting rich from implementing it – the ASH blog is never going to get anything like the coverage of mainstream news outlets, newspapers, architectural magazines and even academic books.
Because of this, we don’t mind journalists nicking our stuff – and the list of journalists who have done so is as long as Sadiq Khan’s nose. That’s partly the point of publishing these articles on our blog, so that – even if in watered down form – the information we have researched and the arguments we have formulated get disseminated in the wider public sphere.
That’s also how this stuff works as a collective endeavour, and not the work of a single author. In recognition of which, the blog posts ASH publishes draw on the research of many other writers, for instance the work of the 35% Campaign, which I understand Anna herself has drawn on in the past in her report on the revolving door between councilors and developers in the demolition of the Heygate estate. Because of this, ASH always takes care to recognise our sources – not out of conformity to academic procedure, but in a spirit of mutual generosity and recognition that unfortunately is not always apparent in the little fiefdoms, political manipulations, censorship and careerism that are increasingly characterising the struggles within the housing crisis.
We’re flattered, of course, to discover that Anna is such a diligent reader of the ASH blog; but given how much time we have spent taking her around places like Central Hill estate, answering her many questions about individual campaigns, inviting her to events like Macintosh Court, and generally treating her like a colleague – if not quite a comrade – in this wave of shit we’re struggling against, it would have been nice for her to return the compliment. There’s perhaps not a lot journalists and academics in this deeply apolitical country can do to help the work of ASH, but if the ones who draw on our work were more diligent in formally recognising it – either in links to our blog in their articles or in footnotes in their published books – our proposals would perhaps find greater reach in the newspapers and architectural journals that continue to refuse to publish the truth about estate demolition.
This weekend, apropos an excellent article by Richard Godwin in, of all places, the London Evening Standard – in which an interview with ASH is finally quoted accurately and at some length – I couldn’t help making a somewhat sly reference on our Facebook page to the comparative absence of acknowledgement in Big Capital. In response Anna wrote back asking ‘Are you implying I’ve somehow nicked your work? I don’t appreciate that.’ Only Anna can really answer that question, though the fact she’s asking it is perhaps its own answer. She also reminded me that it was she who put the author of the Standard article onto us, which I hadn’t forgotten and for which we are grateful.
But to respond to Anna’s question: what we appreciate is recognition of our work when it’s due – partly out of courtesy and that equally abused term ‘solidarity’ – but far more importantly because of how it can help to spread the truth about the motivations for estate demolition ASH has spent the past two years working to expose and propose alternatives to. In this work – for which we don’t receive a lecturer’s or journalist’s salary or a government research grant – we can do with all the help we can get; and so far – while there have been many generous individuals who have contributed their time and skills and creativity to working with ASH – we’ve had almost no assistance from any institutions, whether architectural, academic or journalistic.
This isn’t to say, however, that ASH doesn’t appear in Anna’s book: we do, three times.
The first is in the opening chapter, where I appear personally as a fire-breathing activist standing outside the London Real Estate Forum last year with Class War and the Revolutionary Communist Group, issuing Lear-like threats against the international property developers within. This is an image of ASH that the architectural establishment appears to be comfortable with. The only time we’ve appeared in the pages of the Architects’ Journal, for example, it’s either as ‘protest group Architects for Social Housing’ or ‘campaign group ASH’ – very much, in other words as we do in Anna’s book. After more than two years’ work, over a hundred articles, and architectural design alternatives to demolition for five estates, ASH still hasn’t been published in a single architectural magazine or newspaper. When we present our work at the numerous conferences we speak at on an almost weekly basis the first thing other architects and housing campaigners say to us is: ‘How come we haven’t heard about this?’ But then why should they have, when the only time we get a mention in articles in magazines like the Architects’ Journal, newspapers like the Guardian and books like Big Capital is as a protest group?
That’s not entirely true. The second time we appear in Anna’s book is on the second last of its 130 pages, where she recalls Geraldine taking her around Central Hill estate – which until recently Anna refused to believe Lambeth Labour Council would demolish – and finally writes something about our designs in this single, somewhat breathless sentence:
‘The ASH plan would raise revenue to repair the homes from existing rents and from the sale of the additional 230 new homes they would build which would not fundamentally change the architectural plan.’
Which – given all we’ve said and done – isn’t much. No reference is made for those who might be interested in our alternative to demolition for Central Hill published on the ASH blog, or to any of our other architectural alternatives we’ve designed for other estates.
And finally, in the list of acknowledgements at the book’s end, our blog article on ‘The London Clearances’ is cited with reference to its publication in the special feature of City of which Anna was co-editor, and which is only accessible online through a paywall. Again, no reference is made to the ASH blog, where the article is freely available, and is linked to all our other work.
Big Capital is a good summary of what’s been written about London’s housing crisis over the past two years. What it lacks – as other commentators have pointed out – is precisely what ASH offers, which is the beginning of a solution to this crisis. No doubt that’s outside the limits of academic discourse, as we’ve discovered when articles we’ve submitted to academic journals about our practical work have been rejected because they ‘don’t reference the academic discourse in the field’. As a former academic I know its back-scratching conferences and its fear of anything that goes on outside its ivory tower, which it either ignores while it’s happening or appropriates when its over. But the housing crisis isn’t the topic of a conference debate; it isn’t archive material for a peer-reviewed book; it isn’t a contribution to a department’s research rating; and it isn’t the subject of government grant-sponsored research into gentrification. It’s a struggle for survival.
What we need, in the immortal words of Elvis Presley, is a little less conversation, a little more action. And – if I might add a line to the verse – a little more generosity in what we are constantly told should be a unified front in a collective struggle. On the title page of the copy of the book she sent Geraldine Anna wrote ‘Thank you for all your help.’
Towards the middle of May, Architects for Social Housing became aware that we were being subjected to what appeared to be a trolling campaign on Twitter. Knowing its origins – both the people behind it and their motivations – we blocked them and ignored it, hoping that they would tire of the publicity they got from attacking ASH and eventually go away. However, over two months later the trolling has not stopped, and has in fact expanded to include anyone who has anything to do with ASH, including the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whose conference on ‘Housing Justice’ we spoke at in June, and the Architectural Workers, who last month organised a debate on ‘What is the Architect’s role in the housing crisis?’ at which we also spoke; as well as general call-outs to individuals and groups such as the Focus E15 Mothers and others not to share a platform with us. I must admit we sort of hoped that a knight in shining armour would come along and defend our blemished honour, but – alas! – it seems these days a girl must fight her own battles. Also, a number of people attacked by association have asked us why we haven’t responded. Unpleasant as it is, therefore, we feel we must explain where these attacks are coming from and why, and refute the accusations they make against ASH.
1. With Friends Like These
The first tweets to be were directed at us were posted from the accounts of @RabHarling, @BalfronSocial and @PplRism. These, we know, are just some of the different Twitter accounts of the same person, Rab Harling, but we suspect he has more, as he appears to keep a close track of what we’re doing. I think we probably met Rab at the Real Estates exhibition put on by Fugitive Images in March 2015, around about the time we set up ASH. We were impressed by his photos of the inside of Balfron Tower, where Rab was living. I don’t think I’ve met Rab in person more than two or three times, as he’s very much the keyboard activist; but ASH held a meeting in Balfron Tower in August of that year, where he spoke about his photographs. Since then ASH has been supportive of Rab’s work, advertising his exhibitions on our Facebook page. Personally, however, I never managed to make it to any of his exhibitions, despite being asked by Rab, which may have caused some resentment. We communicated quite a lot on Facebook messenger however, but I noticed he kept leaving membership of the ASH page, and I kept having to let him in again. Last June he told me that he had unfriended me on Facebook because I never commented on his posts, which gives you some idea of his narcissism. That same month Rab sent me a draft copy of a book of his photographs that he’s hoping to publish, and asked me to write something for it. Again, I was extremely busy at the time with ASH work and never found the time to do so. I also remember that Rab made a few snarky comments about the times I appeared on RT news talking about the housing crisis. At the time I took them as a good-natured dig by a mate, but I was wrong.
Things came to a head, however, when the Royal Academy announced a panel discussion called ‘Forgotten Estates’, to be held in September 2016 and focused on Robin Hood Gardens estate. Rab was furious that the panel included Mark Crinson, a professor of Architectural History at the University of London; Paul Watt, a Reader in Urban Studies, at Birkbeck College; Kate Macintosh, an architect and designer of Dawson’s Heights, among other estates; and Jessie Brennan, an artist who had made work about Robin Hood Gardens. Rab’s photographic work was focused on Balfron Tower, but he regarded neighbouring Robin Hood Gardens as very much his domain, and that July wrote a letter to the event Chair, Owen Hopkins, asking to be put on the panel. I was a little surprised when Rab copied me into the letter, as his desperation for acceptance by the establishment ‘elite’ he makes such a song and dance about hating was at odds with his otherwise rebellious persona:
Owen – in a message that Rab also copied me into – responded by inviting Rab to join the audience. Rab’s response – to me, not Owen, though he might have sent something similar to him – was this:
This childishly narcissistic reaction didn’t really surprise me. When we met Rab he was embroiled in a legal case, the details of which I never fully grasped, resulting from a long Twitter trolling campaign of a Tower Hamlets councillor, I think, and which culminated in Rab threatening him online. Rab was subsequently arrested, and in all the time I knew him he was living under the cloud of what the repercussions would be. I was told that at the trial Rab was instructed by the judge that if he didn’t plead guilty he was facing a custodial sentence, so Rab did as he was told and got off – I imagine with a caution and a restraining order. I wasn’t particularly aware of all this, but I began to realise that Rab had a problem when, the week after his trial, when I was congratulating him on not being sent down, he told me he had started another Twitter campaign against a Guardian journalist, Dawn Foster, whom Rab accused of stealing his research.
Now, from my experience of writing for ASH, I know that journalism is largely based on theft; but while it is unpleasant to have academics and journalists steal your stuff and publish it in the mainstream press, the bigger picture is that your message gets out to a much larger audience – even if you’ve been cut out of that picture; but Rab’s trolling of this journalist made me realise that what he wanted above all was not to make the social content of his work public but to receive public recognition for it. From what I’ve seen from his recent Twitter exchanges with Dawn Foster, Rab is still chiseling away at this particular chip on his shoulder.
I wasn’t that surprised, therefore, when last September, having not been accepted onto the ‘Forgotten Estates’ panel, Rab announced that he was leaving London to take up an artist’s residence at a gallery in Amsterdam. I asked him if it was a permanent move, and the real reason for him leaving London became apparent:
Shortly after, ASH was invited to speak at an exhibition called ‘Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens’, that was being held in October. I wrote to Rab to ask whether he was exhibiting, and also about the people holding the show and what their agenda was. He responded that he wasn’t and that the people looked sound. That was the last time Rab and I exchanged messages.
Now, I wouldn’t usually share what are personal messages between me and a former friend, but Rab’s subsequent and unrelenting attacks on both ASH and individual members have been so vitriolic and personal that I feel I need to explain – partly to myself – what is motivating them. Since these attacks started in May, we’ve been informed by someone who knows both us and Rab that the watershed was a follow-up panel discussion to ‘Forgotten Estates’ titled ‘Future Estates’, which was also held at the Royal Academy, and to which ASH member Geraldine Dening was invited to speak alongside other architects.
We hadn’t attended the previous discussion at the Royal Academy, though I had watched the recording of the live stream. Rab had urged ASH to organise a protest outside – which was of course ridiculous; if we were to protest every panel discussion on housing that didn’t include exactly who we thought should be on the panel ASH would be – as some try to characterise us – nothing more than a protest group. Rab himself, naturally, organised nothing. In the event, the art-historical contribution of Mark Crinson was borderline absurd in its seeming indifference to the fate of current residents; but Paul Watt, in particular, spoke very well, and both Jessie and Kate made informative contributions.
When the invite to speak at ‘Future Estates’ came, therefore, we accepted, and did what we always do when speaking from within the institutions of power. In both Geraldine’s presentation and in my own comments from the floor, we were critical of the role of the other speakers in colluding with the demolition of the estates whose ‘future’ we were supposedly there to discuss. In particular, we accused Adam Khan, an architect, of being involved in the social cleansing of Marian Court in Hackney, and John Lewis, the Executive Director of Peabody’s Thamesmead estate regeneration scheme, of deceiving residents about what would be built in its place. Rab wasn’t at the discussion, but we have subsequently been told that our attendance marked some sort of turning point for him, and that from now on ASH was to be the object onto which he would offload his resentment at not being invited to speak at events, not financially compensated for his work, and generally being ignored.
In truth, though, Rab was being a little too modest about his success as an artist. A look at his website shows that since graduating with an MA in Photography from the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts, London, he has exhibited his work and given talks at numerous shows, including at the UCL Slade Research Centre at University College London; the Royal Geographical Society; the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London; the Centre for Social Justice & Inequality in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick; the London School of Economics & Political Science; the Limehouse Art Foundation, London; and, most recently, at the Diffusion International Photography Festival 2017. Rab has also been invited onto the panel at the screening of Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle in the Glasgow Film Theatre. Besides his residency in Amsterdam – from which I presume he has now returned from what, judging by the photos, was a rather nice flat on one of the canals – Rab has also been a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence, again at University College London, and has just accepted another residency, again at another art gallery, in Prague this time.
Despite this rather impressive CV, which shows Rab being well nested in both the art and academic worlds, his initial attacks on us were directed against our own educational backgrounds – Geraldine having studied at Cambridge University and I at University College London. It’s a little bizarre, given Rab’s own long history of exhibiting at UCL and those other ‘elite’ academic institutions from which he has such a need for acceptance, and suggests his real motivations lie elsewhere. The particular focus of Rab’s plentiful bile, though, was the accusation that ASH is participating in ‘art-washing’.
People with a grudge often need to find a larger canvas on which to paint their resentments, turning personal grievances into political posturing; but ‘artwashing’ is an issue within London’s estate demolition programme. ASH has been critical of its use in places like Balfron Tower, where artists were invited to occupy and use flats evicted of tenants to put the gloss of gentrification on the social cleansing of the estate community by Poplar HARCA. It’s ironic – to put it mildly – that Rab was one of these artists, living in Balfron Tower on a two-year residency and pursuing his career as an artist from doing the very thing he is now accusing ASH and everyone else of doing. Ah, that green-eyed monster strikes again!
As an architectural practice, however, ASH’s focus has been less on artists, who play a minor role in the propaganda of social cleansing, and more on architectural practices, who play a far larger one. From the protest we organised at the AJ120 Awards in June 2015 through to our protests at the Stirling Prize in October 2015 and 2016, as well as our critical debates with the RIBA and our public condemnations of individual practices such as Mae, PRP, HTA Design, Levitt-Bernstein, Hawkins/Brown, Haworth Tompkins and Karakusevic Carson, ASH has sought to bring attention to the role architects play, not only in managing estate residents on behalf of councils and developers, but of actively colluding in the false image of estate regeneration presented to the public. As anyone who has followed our campaigns knows, ASH doesn’t need lessons in challenging ‘art-washing’ from an artist who thinks a twitter account makes him an activist.
But where, then, did the accusation come from that ASH, against all expectations, is suddenly involved in ‘artwashing’? And not only in art-washing but in ‘plotting to profit from estate demolition’, in ‘illegally engaging in political activity’, in ‘complicity with the establishment in the housing crisis’, in ‘promoting establishment values’, in ‘offering a socially cleansed vision of London for the rich’, in belonging to the ‘Oxbridge establishment’, indeed in ‘social cleansing’ itself?
2. Antagonisms of the Academic
At this point we need to introduce the second character in this two-and-a-half month trolling drama, someone who tweets under the name @etiennelefleur. This is Stephen Pritchard, a PhD student writing his dissertation on art-washing. Like Rab, Stephen is well entrenched in the academic world, having taught or presented at the Royal Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, Durham University, the University of Warwick and the Arts Council of England. This is how Stephen describes himself in the entire page he devotes to himself in his blog, ‘Colouring in Culture’:
‘I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher. I like to move from outside in and inside out. I’m interested by the spaces in which we live. I’m an art historian, writer, activist and community arts practitioner. My starting point for this blog: Everybody’s socially engaged nowadays. I enjoy the tensions created by antagonism.’
We can’t answer for the truth of these rather self-regarding descriptions, since we’ve never met Stephen. The first time we heard about him was when Paul Sng – the director of Dispossession, and also a friend of Rab Harling – sent us a text Stephen had written about Loretta Lees, Professor of Human Geography at Leicester University, who had just won a research grant for £615,341 to study ‘Gentrification, Displacement, and the Impacts of Council Estate Renewal in C21st London’. From my own brief time in academia I know that nothing brings out the green-eyed monster in academics like the grant they didn’t get, and Stephen’s text was highly critical of the research project’s involvement with the arts organisation Platform 7.
Stephen had a point, as Platform-7 looks exactly like the kind of corporate front involved in art-washing; but his argument, as far as I can remember, was restricted to tracing the business links of the organisers and the boards they sat on. Stephen wanted ASH to publish his text on our blog, but we refused for two reasons. First, the text was all insinuation, and never actually made the argument about how Platform-7 are engaged in ‘artwashing’. In other words, it was a bad article, and I didn’t have the time to research and rewrite it for him. Just as importantly, though, Stephen refused to put his name to the text, without which it was no more than slander, whose repercussions would be felt not by him but by ASH. I told Stephen why we refused his text, and also said that part of being an activist is standing up and putting your name to something, not hiding behind an alias – or, I could have added, behind an anonymous Twitter account. Stephen accepted this, but said that as a PhD student he was afraid of jeopardising his chance of getting a job in academia. So much for moving ‘from outside in and inside out.’ The text Stephen wrote ended up being published – still anonymously – on the London School of Economics’ blog of some students, at which point Loretta Lees called her lawyers and had it removed. That’s another story, but again, it gives some insight into the motivations – and character – of the people who have been attacking ASH.
Like Rab Harling, Stephen Pritchard is someone who works within academia while at the same time leading a fantasy life of rebellion (‘gamekeeper turned poacher’), all the while desperately hoping for a securely remunerated position in that world. I know that position well, having flirted with it myself for a few years in my long-lost youth, and I know its resentments, its humiliations, its desperations, its indignities, its self-loathing, and above all the fantasies on which it relies to maintain is self-deception. It’s a form of false consciousness particular to artists and academics that like to think of themselves as community-based activists and campaigners. As Stephen describes himself on his blog:
‘I’m a final-year PhD researcher at Northumbria University exploringhow activist art and radical social praxis might create spaces for acts of resistance and liberation. The research particularly focuses on interventions which support movements that oppose gentrification, displacement and corporate capitalism and seek creative new approaches to developing radical socialist democracies. My work is deeply rooted in critical theory. My deeply intradisciplinary approach spans urban geography, aesthetics, politics and political theory, cultural policy, economics, decolonisation and border thinking, psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theories, sociology, and visual and material cultures.’
I’m only surprised Stephen doesn’t have his own theme tune embedded in this page. So what – besides us rejecting his text for publication on the ASH blog – could have turned such a multi-talented radical against us?
3. The London Festival of Architecture
Over the past three years ASH has organised Open Garden Estates, an event hosted by London estate communities whose residents organise walks around their estate, show visitors into their homes, tell them about their campaigns to save their estate from demolition, and also make contacts with residents from other campaigns facing the same threat. In 2015 Open Garden Estates was hosted by the three estates ASH was working with; last year it was hosted by around a dozen estates across London; this year three estates hosted the event. The last two years we have advertised the event as part of the London Festival of Architecture, which runs through June. This has meant that, in addition to other residents, architects and those interested in architecture, particularly the post-war Brutalist estates most under threat of demolition, visit the campaigns to save them. ASH has been anathematised in the architectural press because of our criticism of the profession’s role in estate demolition, so advertising Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture is also a way for us to circumvent the lack of publicity about our work and make our design alternatives to demolition more widely known to other architects and the general public. More importantly, though, the more people turn up to the individual estates and talk to residents, the stronger their campaign will be.
For Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, however, none of these benefits outweigh the corporate links to the London Festival of Architecture. We didn’t actually follow what the argument was – if indeed there was one – but I think the accusation was that the LFA had given a platform to Poplar HARCA, the housing association responsible for the demolition, privatisation and social cleansing of numerous Tower Hamlets estate, including Balfron Tower. At ASH we have no time for this sort of virtue signaling, which is always a substitute for the action neither Rab nor Stephen have ever engaged in. Instead, again and again their tweets begin with the repeated accusation ‘Artwashing!’ – which for them has come to represent the key crime in the estate regeneration programme, rather than the actual estate demolition it is meant to conceal – about which they are unable to do anything from the safety and comfort of their academic and art institutions. As in so much within the so-called activism of so-called radicals within the so-called housing movement, the accusation of ‘artwashing’ has become the fetishised substitute for action, the jealously guarded archive of their academic studies, the topic of their art practice, the political justification for their personal grudges, the hook on which to hang the hooded top of their inactivity. For ASH – which is more interested in opposing the actuality of estate demolition rather than deconstructing its representations – there is no contest between, on the one hand, the purism of the principles of student radicals about who and what they associate with in the virtual reality of their keyboard activism, and, on the other, the real world benefits the increased publicity of advertising Open Garden Estates in the London Festival of Architecture brought to residents fighting to save their homes from demolition.
As an example of which, during Open Garden Estates ASH visited the Excalibur estate, which is under threat of demolition by Lewisham Labour council. On the edge of the estate is the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which was originally set up in December 2014 by Elisabeth Blanchet and Jane Hearn, and on Saturday 24 June it hosted an open event at which they showed films by Lucia Tambini and Elisabeth Blanchet that told the history of the estate and the campaign by residents to resist its demolition. Elisabeth had previously got in contact with ASH, and the organisers made the event part of this year’s Open Garden Estates. Because ASH member Senaka Weeraman had taken the initiative to advertise Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture under the title ‘Estates of Memory’, the online architectural magazine Dezeen listed Excalibur estate as one of its ‘top ten picks’ of the Festival, and every ticket on the Eventbrite invitation was taken. A map allowed visitors to take a self-guided tour around the estate, and after the films residents and organisers answered questions about the history of the prefabs and the campaign to save their homes, and we followed our visit up with a report on the campaign.
We know neither of these keyboard inactivists would bother to leave their late night tweeting and make the visit to meet them, but we invite Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard to explain to the residents of the Excalibur estate faced with losing their homes exactly why they shouldn’t advertise their campaign in the London Festival of Architecture. They won’t, not only because their so-called activism is entirely inactive, but because to do so would be ridiculous and insulting to the residents they daren’t face.
Besides which, neither Rab nor Stephen manage to maintain the same high principles when it involves their own work at institutions like the London School of Economics and University College London, both of which have been complicit in estate demolition and social cleansing. Rather, both have sought to build a private fiefdom within the housing movement out of their career interests. Indeed, they have recently founded a group with the familiar title of ‘Artists Against Social Cleansing’. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in order to advertise themselves these green-eyed sons seem a little too intent on killing their symbolic father – such Oedipal fantasies being characteristic of the eternal rebel . . .
If Rab and Stephen had been genuinely concerned about the London Festival of Architecture giving a platform for social cleansing, they could have turned up at the events at which this platform was held and voiced their protest. For example, unknown to us, Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Labour council, appeared on one of the festival’s platforms to congratulate herself on working with Lambeth’s communities to build more homes. As chance would have it, that same evening the residents of Central Hill estate – which the Cabinet she heads had just condemned for demolition – were attending the Scrutiny Committee they had called to review the decision. What an opportunity for them to voice their protest at the Leader of Lambeth council’s estate demolition programme! Neither Rab nor Stephen turned up, of course; and to our knowledge neither have once left their laptops to voice their disagreements in person with the speakers at the platforms they accuse the London Festival of Architecture of giving to social cleansers. But then that, of course, would require action.
By contrast, in the weeks leading up to the General Election ASH attended several hustings across London at which we voiced our objections to the local programme of estate demolition, and on 31 May we organised our own hustings for the Vauxhall constituency. We weren’t surprised that our two Twitter trolls didn’t turn up, but instead confined themselves to calling on the candidates not to participate – ‘no platforming’ being the signature inactivism of the student radical.
On 17 May ASH also spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Art on a panel discussion on ‘Urban Planning as Social Cleansing’. This drew paroxysms of rage and incensed accusations of ‘artwashing’ from our armchair inactivists. The fact that at the talk ASH met residents from three estates who wanted to work with us meant nothing to them. Nor that the story we told about estate demolition was entirely new to most of the audience. How could it – when they were both safely tucked up behind their keyboards, polishing their principles into the small hours when it seems most of their tweets against us are rubbed off?
In response to our talk at the ICA, ASH has subsequently been offered the use of the Upper Galleries for one-week this August. We will be exhibiting the design alternatives to demolition from our work with various estates across London, as well as collectively creating a map of every estate regeneration currently taking place in the capital. We’ll also be hosting various talks by other groups about the housing crisis, as well as holding a meeting about the Grenfell Tower fire, on which we have recently published an extended report. As we anticipated, this has drawn further vitriol from our two Twitter trolls; but we can safely say we don’t anticipate seeing either of them turn up to give voice to their tweeted insults in any public forum more exposed than an anonymous social media account.
4. Blogs, Lies and Innuendo
In the meantime, the next product of their anonymous clictivism arrived on 22 May, when Stephen published a blog post titled ‘ASHwash: Architects for Social Housing AND for Establishment Values?’ As those who read the ASH blog know, we often publish articles that are a form of investigative journalism, producing a case study of a particular estate regeneration or analysis of a piece of housing policy. Reading Stephen’s post we were struck by how much it tried to imitate the ASH articles, reproducing screen grabs of apparently damning information, including footage of incriminating evidence of art-washing, highlighting textual proof of criminal behaviour, etc. However, much like his earlier text we had refused to publish on the ASH blog, Stephen’s article – which is less investigative and more Carry-On journalism – is a series of innuendos and nudge-nudge wink-wink questions his argument is too weak to answer. The responses of people who read his post and contacted us ranged from ‘Pathetic’ and ‘So what?’ to ‘I find this kind of purity competitiveness both pathetic and pointless.’
As an example of the sort of innuendo on which Stephen’s article relies and which Rab’s trolling repeats ad nauseum, the blog post starts with a photograph of Central Hill estate taken by ASH and used by us to publicise Open Garden Estates. So beautiful is the image of the estate that it has also been used widely in numerous articles, including that by Zoe Williams, who reproduced it without our consent in an article about estate regeneration that nevertheless praises the work of Studio Egret West, an architectural practice working with Poplar HARCA on the regeneration of Balfron Tower. Without any argument actually being made, therefore, Stephen’s caption to the image insinuates that because ASH took the photograph we are somehow connected with the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. That’s about the level of critique in the blog post; however, since we’re discussing this, I’ll very quickly answer the questions he asks.
As if unearthing the Hitler Diaries, Stephen has ‘discovered’ that ASH is a Community Interest Company, something we became in September 2016 as a condition of a (failed) grant application to the Tudor Trust. This required that we set up a bank account for any anticipated funds before making our application, and in order to receive funding ASH had to have a constitution. We looked at the options, and a Community Interest Company (CIC) fitted our needs and abilities best. It also means that any payments we receive for design work, such as we are currently receiving from the Patmore Co-operative, are registered in the ASH bank account, and will appear on our tax returns lodged in Companies House. But Stephen needn’t get too excited about what he and Rab have denounced as our ‘profiteering’; the grand total of payments ASH has received this year is £6,000.
That’s about it, as far as the attack on ASH goes. There’s another issue Stephen raises about the political dimension of our activity, which I’ll return to later; but the rest of his blog article is about the association of Geraldine Dening, the co-founder and director of ASH, with SPID Theatre. This make up by far the largest part of the article, and consists of a series of snide insinuations about Geraldine’s integrity based on deliberate or otherwise misunderstandings and lies. Geraldine does indeed have her own private practice, but – alas! – it did not win the RIBA National Award 2013, as Stephen wrongly asserts; and although many years prior to this she did, as a young architect, work for larger practices designing schools and other developments, she does not now. It’s not exactly clear what crime would have been committed if she had, except in the unemployed mind of the perpetual student Stephen is; but one would hope a PhD candidate had a better comprehension of a CV than this demonstrates.
The focus of Stephen’s expose, however, is the entirely unclassified information that in February 2014, one year before ASH was formed, Geraldine became a Board Member – not a Director, as Stephen inacurrately asserts – of the SPID Theatre Company. We had first attended several of SPID’s productions several years ago and liked what they do; and when they asked Geraldine to sit on the board she agreed to act as an architectural advisor. Stephen’s blog post is largely taken up with tracing the connections between SPID Theatre and Kensington and Chelsea council, and specifically the work SPID has done with Trellick Tower, which lies within the borough. Again and again he demands that the reader – those who have stayed with him through his gripping account – look at SPID’s sponsors, which include such corporate criminals as the Twentieth Century Society; but he never bothers to make any argument more damning than the one that people who work on other arts organisations like the Battersea Arts Centre and the Tricycle Theatre also sit on the board of SPID Theatre, or that members of the council and TMO who own and manage the estate on which SPID Theatre is based do too.
Such relations with councils inevitably come with their own compromises and dangers, and that is not a route ASH has chosen to take – even if there were a council left in London that would talk to us! But the alternative is not always available for a theatre company that does not have private financial backing, does not operate – as Rab Harling does – out of paid residencies in art galleries, and does not have a government grant – as Stephen Pritchard does – in an academic institution. In attacking such arrangements with empty insinuations, Stephen betrays his own lack of knowledge of how to work outside the paternal institutions in which he lives and studies; but he also – to my ears – protests too much and too loudly to cover up his own protracted adolescent dependence upon them.
To substantiate his demonisation of SPID Theatre as a corporate front for – you guessed it – ‘artwashing’, Stephen includes the link to a BBC report of SPID’s production at Trellick Tower, which Geraldine and I attended, and writes: ‘There is a whiff of artwashing here.’ Cutting edge stuff, Steve. It is clear, however, that neither he nor Rab have ever been to a SPID Theatre production – just as they will never visit the similarly attacked Excalibur estate – so let me fill these armchair inactivists in on the work they so bravely expose.
SPID Theatre is based in Kensal House, a council estate in Labroke Grove. It produces plays that are written by its own members and which dramatise contemporary issues, particularly those facing children and young adults in London today. What makes the productions we’ve seen particularly compelling is that the plays are acted and co-produced by young people from council estates in the borough. We have seen a number of productions in both Kensal House and Trellick Tower, and have always been struck by the confidence and abilities of the young people given the responsibility of putting them on. Beyond the social issues dramatically explored in the plays, the productions themselves act as a means for the young people in them to explore the world outside the council estates on which they live.
To dismiss the benefits such involvement can potentially have for these children both socially and creatively as – in Stephen Pritchard’s words – ‘bang on, straight-down-the-line arts and cultural policy speak’ – is the judgement of someone who comes from a world where theatre and creativity were the price of a ticket away. Similarly, to denounce the theatre group that gives these young people this chance in the name of an academic critique of ‘artwashing’ is the action of someone who has no knowledge of the stigma that comes from living on a council estate, and no interest in the potential of the children who live on them. To troll both in order to further your own career in academia is the action not of an ‘activist and community arts practitioner’, as Stephen describes himself, but of a careerist and green-eyed opportunist.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, SPID Theatre and its young actors put on a benefit production of their play iAm 4.0 at the Playground Theatre in North Kensington, and in the process raised £1,700 for the Grenfell Tower Fund. I’m willing to bet that’s £1,700 more than either Stephen or Rab have ever raised or given in their time or work to any council estate community.
What Stephen Pritchard hasn’t bothered to reproduce in his blog post is the film SPID Theatre produced themselves called Cheltenham Tales, which they screened at this production, and which far from being artwashing for the regeneration of the estate is about precisely the threat to the graffiti wall and skateboard park that regeneration presents. Perhaps, if he left his ivory tower in Northumbria University and visited the people and places his mass of theoretical models are so clueless about, Stephen Pritchard, PhD, might find a way to apply the many and truly astonishing array of gifts he claims he has to the world outside his social media accounts.
5. Architects for Social Housing
Stephen Pritchard admits he has never met us – and of course, just like Rab Harling, he has never worked with us; so let me tell him a little bit about what Architects for Social does. Perhaps this will give both of them an idea why the institutions whose acceptance and invitations they are so desperate to receive invite us to speak at their venues. Who knows – one day, if they leave social media and do something worth talking about, they may have something worth listening to.
ASH is an organisation that sets up working collectives for the various projects we’re engaged in. After two-and-a-half-years of work, we’re receiving an increasing number of offers from architects, students, writers, photographers, film makers and others to work with us on these projects. In most cases, after a long day’s work with which Stephen and Rab – to judge by their plentiful Twitter activity – are completely unfamiliar, young architects meet with us in the evening to offer their labour for free on our design work. Sometimes, as in the case of West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, this leads to us being commissioned to produce a feasibility study report, for example, on ASH’s designs; and when we receive payment for our work that money is used to pay the architects working on the designs. But by far and away the bulk of the work we and those who work with us do is done for free.
Despite this, neither ASH nor anyone who has worked with us has been spared their accusation that we are somehow ‘profiteering’ from estate regeneration. Since neither Rab nor Stephen appear to have any idea of what goes on outside their keyboard worlds, they won’t know that it is work like this that constitutes a housing campaign – not virtue signaling and trolling on social media. Their accusations that the architects giving their time and labour and skills for free on ASH’s projects are somehow profiteering from their labour are the fantasies of keyboard onanists.
Where ASH has been paid for its work – specifically on our designs for West Kensington and Gibbs Green, who were able to raise funds from charity grants – we were paid around a tenth of the usual cost for such work. Indeed, we were originally approached by the campaign to find an architectural practice for the brief, but no-one would touch it at the price. All the funds we received were spent on paying the architects who worked on the designs. The hundreds of hours of other work we spent on consultations, workshops, publicity and all the other myriad things ASH does when it works with residents was done for free.
On Central Hill estate, with which ASH worked for two years, architect Geraldine Dening – the target of continuing online insults by the brave Rab Harling – gave an estimated £20,000 of her labour to drawing up an entire design alternative and feasibility study for free. As, indeed, did everyone who worked with ASH on this project – architects, photographers, film-makers, writers, graphic designers, environmentalists, quantity surveyors, engineers, campaigners – everyone who gave their time and skills for free because they believe in ASH’s larger project.
For artist Rab Harling and academic Stephen Pritchard, remunerated and housed by institutions of culture and higher learning, to dismiss the enormous generosity and energy of the people who have worked on ASH’s projects here and at numerous other estates across London as ‘profiteering’ really is beneath contempt – and if we thought either had the character to do so we would demand an apology on their behalf.
6. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn
But if the cause of Rab Harling’s apparently unending spite is his long nurtured professional jealousy and resentment towards ASH, what is the motivation for Stephen Pritchard, someone we’ve never even met? I must admit that this was a cause of some confusion on our part. All this bile and slander because we wouldn’t publish his scribbles on our blog? Even taking into account the pettiness of Twitter trolls it didn’t make sense. Then I decided to have a look at Stephen’s Twitter page – which by the sheer number of his tweets seems to be where he lives out most of his life – and the penny dropped.
Last September Stephen, like so many student radicals, joined the Labour Party, and a quick look through his Twitter account will show the depth of his fervour for Jeremy Corbyn. Now, as anyone who reads our blog will know, for the past two years ASH has been consistently critical of the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils, which we have designed architectural alternatives to as part of our support for resident campaigns. But we have also been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s silence on estate demolition, and in the weeks leading up to the election we published a number of articles on the housing policies of the Labour Party. These that revealed that – far from there being a split between the practices of Labour councils and the principles of Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour manifesto based its housing policy on the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils.
This is a bitter pill to follow for the acolytes of Jeremy Corbyn, but two years of fighting Labour councils has shown us that in a choice between the residents whose homes are threatened by Labour housing policy and the electoral hopes of the Labour Party, Labourites will always chose the latter. And so it is with Stephen Pritchard, who despite painting himself as a ‘intradisciplinary, border thinking, psychodynamic’ champion of working-class residents, is more than willing to sacrifice them to Labour council demolition schemes if it means getting Jeremy Corbyn into power. For him, as for so many housing campaigners who have placed their faith and hope in Corbyn, anything that contradicts this message is a threat to their simple narrative. ASH’s article on the contents of Labour’s manifesto, the publications of Labour’s Housing Minister, the statements at Labour’s conferences, and above all the practices of Labour’s councils, was a fart in their lift to heaven.
In his hatchet blog job on ASH, therefore, Stephen dug up a condition of our conversion to a CIC, this being that we will not be ‘a) a political party; b) a political campaigning organisation; or c) a subsidiary of a political campaigning organisation’. On this sleuth-like piece of detective work this PhD researcher comments most solemn like: ‘ASH needs to be very careful to differentiate between its social enterprise function and its broader, collective functions.’ Thanks for that bit of advice, Steve. In fact, from the very beginning of ASH’s existence activists of every political stripe have tried to divide our design work – which they are happy to accept for free – from the political dimension of our campaigning, which has consistently highlighted the Labour Party’s collusion with the programme of estate demolition.
But to put Stephen’s investigative antennae to rest, ASH is not a) a political party; nor are we b) a political campaigning organisation such as Momentum, to which we wouldn’t be surprised to learn he belongs; nor are we c) a subsidiary of a political campaigning organisation, such as Axe the Housing Act or the Radical Housing Network, both of which are pullulating with his fellow Born-again Corbynites. Unlike these grass-roots fronts, whose overriding concern is the electoral victory of the Labour Party, ASH has no interest in Parliamentary politics. Our concern is for the estates and communities the political parties in Parliament threaten. Whether Stephen regards this as political activity depends on his academic understanding of the term, in which we have not the slightest interest; but his attempt to expose us with this bit of information really is pretty weak. I hope his PhD has a better grasp of what constitutes primary research, or the academic standards of Northumbria University must have fallen.
This is not the first time ASH has been targeted by Labour activists and apologists for estate demolition – far from it. Ever since we started identifying the Labour Party as complicit in this programme, Labour activists from Momentum and the Radical Housing Network have periodically trolled us on our Facebook page and even gone as far as to warn residents against working with us. In the case of Central Hill estate, this extended to a campaign with which we had been working for a year-and-a-half, and for which, as I said, we had produced an entire design alternative to demolition for free. None of that mattered to the members of Unite the Union and Lambeth Momentum, who successfully managed to convince the organisers of the Save Central Hill campaign to denounce us publically. It’s unclear to us exactly what Lambeth Momentum offered in our place, except their subsequent betrayal and denunciation of the Save Central Hill campaign when it attacked the Labour council that threatened their homes. But it is clear to us that Stephen’s empty insinuations were simply another attempt to discredit us and what we do in the weeks leading up to the General Election. Unfortunately for the Corbynites, everything ASH has published on Labour housing policy – unlike Stephen’s article on us – is based on facts and not innuendo, reasoned argument and not sly insinuations; and until Stephen or some other Labour activist can refute either we will continue to hold the Labour Party accountable for its record of estate demolition.
7. Trolling in the Real World
What has disgusted us most about these attacks on ASH is not, however, either their vitriol or even their personal nature, but how both Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard are willing to use their supposedly heroic defence of estate residents to promote and further their own careers as artists and academics within the safety net of the institutions they inhabit. Over the past three years we’ve watched with increasing amusement at the fetishisation of the activist as the latest figure on the scene of identity politics. It’s for this reason we’ve always refused the description of what we do at ASH with this meaningless term. ‘Activists’, for us, are the earnest young people who door-knock for Labour MPs at election time and wear T-shirts saying ‘We love Jeremy!’ But there is, also, a strange sense of entitlement among those who, having marched to Parliament one weekend or titled their Twitter account something like @BalfronTower, rather grandly designate themselves as ‘activists’, and – without having actually done anything – regard any platform, conference, exhibition, workshop or panel discussion to which they haven’t been invited as a personal sleight on their green-eyed ambition. It never seems to occur to them to do anything that the organisers of these platforms would want to invite them to talk about, or – Jeremy forbid! – create a platform themselves. In this respect, the yawning gap between the actions of keyboard inactivists like Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, and their sense of entitlement to speak at events they treat as an opportunity to further their careers, is an example of precisely the sort of artwashing and careerism they accuse everyone but themselves of being party to.
As I said, the trolling of us by these two over the past two-and-a-half months is no longer confined to ASH, but has extended to the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whom they called on to ban us from their conference; the Focus E15 Mothers, whom they have warned not to share a platform with us; the Architectural Workers, whom they accused of being social cleansing profiteers; a resident of Cressingham Gardens who used the London Festival of Architecture to launch a book containing testimonies from her fellow residents facing demolition, and whom they also accused of art-washing; as well as the candidates for the Vauxhall constituency, whom they called on to boycott the Lambeth Estate Hustings organised by ASH. Even the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire didn’t stop Rab Harling from attacking the Green Party’s GLA member Siân Berry, one of the handful of London politicians to speak out against estate demolition, for the ‘crime’ of having attended Oxford University. There are no doubt even more groups and individuals these two trolls have targeted – either because of association with ASH or because Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, from the glorious purity of their keyboards, deem them to be ‘artwashers’ – but since we have blocked all communication with them we are, thankfully, spared both their bile and their ambition.
Unfortunately, however, this trolling has not been without consequences in the real world. Last September ASH was contacted by residents on Hackney’s Northwold estate, which is under threat of demolition by the Guinness Partnership. Since then, we have worked with their campaign to save their homes, advising them on the tactics that would be employed against them and some of the things they might want to do in setting up their own campaign. We have published several articles publicising that campaign, including exposing the Guinness Partnership’s plans and motivations for the demolition; held a number of open meetings with residents about what estate ‘regeneration’ will mean for them; and with the collaboration of individual architects and the Architectural Workers, ASH has produced a preliminary design alternative to the planned demolition that equals the increased housing capacity proposed by the Guinness Partnership without demolishing a single existing home. We have done this for free – not, as Rab Harling claims, in order to profit from the housing crisis, but because we believed in the Save Northwold campaign and wanted to help residents in their struggle to save their estate from demolition.
We thought, therefore, that we’d at least earned a little solidarity in return. Unfortunately, one of the residents and organisers of the Save Northwold campaign is also a member of Artists Against Social Cleansing, the pet project of Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling. When she told us about the project we thought it a good idea; but under the influence of these two Twitter trolls she has subsequently shared and publicised their innuendos and attacks against us. And – quite incomprehensibly for us – despite the fact that ASH has given several hundred hours of our time and labour to their campaign, Save Northwold has similarly shared in spreading these attacks on social media.
When we contacted the members of Save Northwold to point out the motivations of their new collaborators, and asked them why they would attack ASH, which they were expecting to work with over the next few years, the member of Artists Against Social Cleansing – whom we won’t name here because we believe she has been badly misled by these two careerists – wrote back: ‘There are important debates to be had and in the interest of all in this struggle’. Yes, there are, but we don’t see how those are being had through the public trolling of ASH on Twitter by her fellow members.
Speaking on behalf of the Save Northwold campaign, one of the organisers subsequently wrote to us – not to explain how they had made a mistake and to unreservedly condemn the slurs against Geraldine they had unwittingly shared – but to inform us rather grandly that: ‘We need to be clear about boundaries, transparency, and what we are each getting out of any future collaboration.’ If the Save Northwold campaign wished to know about ASH’s structure, they had only to ask us at the meeting we were about to have with them to discuss our future collaboration in producing a design alternative to the demolition of their estate over the next year. For future reference, publically re-tweeting a personal attack on the integrity of our lead architect, and refusing to condemn snide insinuations against ASH after we have given so much of our time to their campaign, is not the way to build trust, establish transparency or promote future collaboration. As for our own future collaboration, as a result of this trolling and the breakdown in trust and respect it has fostered, ASH is no longer working with the Save Northwold campaign. We trust they will find their future collaboration with Artists Against Social Cleansing more conducive to their needs; and we hope this article will provide the transparency about their new collaborators they asked for.
ASH does not have the financial backing and support of academic institutions, art galleries, unions, the Labour Party or private benefactors, and we are not in receipt of any grant funding. We are an entirely voluntary organisation working almost entirely for free. As such, we have no obligation to work with anyone, least of all those who attack us, whether for political or personal reasons, or out of some bizarre sense of entitlement to our time and labour. We will make the results of the design work we have already done available for the use of Northwold estate residents; but it should be clear – and if it isn’t we make it clear now – that ASH cannot enter into a long term contract with groups or individuals with whom there is a lack of trust, and we will not work with groups or individuals who attack us or seek to undermine us, or with groups or individuals who openly support and promote groups who attack us or seek to undermine us. The open season on ASH is over.
Once again, we regret having to address this rather sordid matter in public and at such length; but there comes a time when you have to defend yourself and those who work with you against sly innuendo, slander, accusations and personal attacks from careerists and disgruntled artists. This is our last word on the matter. We leave it to you to decide whether you wish to work with ASH in the future – and, of course, whether you choose to associate with the green-eyed Twitter trolls whose behaviour has compelled us to make this public statement. We’ll leave you with this public statement from Rab Harling, artist and housing activist:
Across the country, Labour councils are putting Labour values into action in a way that makes a real difference to millions of people. It is a proud Labour record, and each and every Labour councillor deserves our heartfelt thanks for the work they do.
In the lead up to last night’s decision by Haringey Labour council to go ahead with the transfer of £2 billion of land and assets, including thousands of council homes, into the hands of international property developers Lendlease, Aditya Chakrabortty, who has been following the Haringey Development Vehicle, and who is the best of the journalists writing on housing at the Guardian, published an article highly critical of Haringey and other Labour councils implementing social cleansing through estate privatisation and demolition.
In response he was widely attacked on Twitter by Labourites, whose spluttering objections can be narrowed down to the one that indignantly demanded: ‘How is this helping the Labour Party!’ This conforms to everything we’ve been writing not only about the Labour Party’s antagonism to the truth, but it’s belief that the homes and lives of residents it threatens should be sacrificed to its electoral success. Apparently Chakrabortty was also told that the Haringey council leadership regard him as a ‘one man left wing Daily Mail’ (welcome to our world, Aditya: at least they didn’t denounce you as a Tory, as they have us). However, in his article Chakrabortty couldn’t refrain from absolving the Leader of the Labour Party from his accusations of corruption.
‘However easy it is for pundits to conflate today’s Labour party with Jeremy Corbyn, to do so ignores the daily experience of people under many Labour councils that are his ideological opposite. Such as the zombie Blairites who run Haringey, and who bear as much resemblance to Corbyn’s Labour as Jive Bunny does to Death Metal.’
It’s a strangely dismissive and overstated comment in an otherwise serious and measured article, and suggests the difficulty Chakrabortty has in believing what he asserts. Is Corbyn really the ‘ideological opposite’ of the Leaders of Labour councils? Is Corbyn’s Labour really Jive Bunny to Claire Kober’s Death Metal? And if so, why has Corbyn consistently refused to condemn the actions not only of Haringey council but of every other Labour council engaged in the social cleansing of working-class communities through estate regeneration schemes?
There was a strange phenomenon, which continues to this day among his admirers, that absolved Adolf Hitler from knowledge of and therefore culpability in Nazi atrocities, and even the Final Solution. The cult of Der Führer that the Nazis created around Hitler meant that not only were his decisions unquestioned, but also pure of all culpability in the event of their failure or exposure. Now, I hope it’s clear that I’m not comparing Corbyn to Hitler, but it is increasingly apparent that there is something cultish about the absurd position Corbyn’s idolisers have placed him in of being guiltless – and even ignorant – of what the Party he leads is doing, not only at council level, but even of its housing policies.
A similar sort of reverence surrounds the President of the United States of America. I remember after 9/11 when George Bush was coming out with the line that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the attack, even though every bit of intelligence pointed to Saudi Arabia as the culprits, and in response to questions to this effect aides replied: ‘This is the President of the United States speaking here, and we need to listen.’ In response to the completely absurd and slightly worrying adulation Corbyn enjoys among his supporters, observers have pointed out that he is already assuming a Presidential air – precisely that Presidential air Tony Blair assumed when he sent us to war in Iraq on a similarly fabricated ‘evidence’.
Now, cults are based on belief, not reason, so I have no expectation of converting those of you who have taken the veil. But anyone looking for evidence that Corbyn lacks neither knowledge of nor culpability in the social cleansing of London communities through estate privatisation and demolition has only to read the Labour Party’s manifesto on housing – which ASH has written about here, and the statements by Corbyn and his Housing Ministers on the actions of the Labour councils about which he is supposedly so ignorant, which you can read about here. If you feel like stopping the chanting for a bit, getting up off your knees and having a rational discussion about what the Leader of the Labour Party is promising to do with our homes – let alone what Labour councils are already doing with his support – have a read.
Architects for Social Housing
Below is the updated list of 170 London housing estates we know of that are under threat of or already condemned to privatisation, demolition and social cleansing by Labour councils.
Did I hear right, or was I making it up? As I stood outside the pub having a fag, the crowd shuffled past, branded like an Olympic team with flags and banners and placards bearing the logos of every Labour-affiliated union and other left-wing group, including several I thought no longer existed. I recognised the tune – it was the opening bars from the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army – but what were the words being sung over the top? Was I imagining it, or were they really chanting ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ over and over again? We’d listened to a couple of speeches outside the BBC, where the People’s Assembly demonstration – titled ‘Tories Out!’ – had assembled, but this was too much. We decided right there and then to abandon any idea of joining the blushing throngs.
Later on in the day we joined Class War in the Chandos off Trafalgar Square for an ill-earned pint. A small commando team had gone off to ambush Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square, and while waiting for him to arrive confronted Len McCluskey – the General Secretary of Unite the Union, which pretty much funds the Labour Party – with the record of Labour councils socially cleansing working-class communities from London through council estate privatisation and demolition. He simply turned his back on them, showed not the slightest interest in hearing what they had to say, or even in looking at the posters they held up listing just some of the 155 London council estates threatened by Labour councils.
Later on the Messiah himself arrived, and rather like Moses parting the Red Sea the crowd fell back to let him through. Quick as a flash Lisa Mckenzie of Class War ran up behind him and confronted Corbyn with the same question she had asked McCluskey. It’s a simple question, one we’ve been asking the Labour Leader for two years now, so far without receiving an answer: ‘When are you going to stop Labour councils socially cleansing people out of London?’
Corbyn turned briefly to glance at the poster Lisa was holding up, a frown across his face. I guess, when everyone you meet wants to touch the hem of your garment, it must be surprising to see someone actually challenge you on your record rather than the rousing rhetoric and empty promises with which a nation has been deluded. But just like McCluskey, Corbyn turned immediately away and continued walking between the chosen people, who recovered from the shock of finding a heretic among their ranks and quickly closed in around their Saviour. Like McCluskey, Corbyn showed no interest in what Lisa had to say. Rather, like the practiced, professional politician Corbyn is, he immediately recognised that here was someone who hadn’t swallowed his lies, and walked quickly away – as practiced politicians do – and engaged in a far more pressing conversation with yet another Labour-branded functionary.
Class War continued to shout out their question, hold their posters up, and let the people around them know about Labour’s record of estate regeneration – precisely the estate regeneration programme that killed the residents in Grenfell Tower, about which not a single Labour speaker all day could end without saying something typically vague about poverty and austerity. What not a single speaker said was what had killed them.
In response to this intrusion by Class War, the Labourites first asked the watching police to disperse them, and when the constables didn’t oblige formed up in a line in front of them, held up their branded placards in front of the Class War posters, and started chanting the same chant I’d heard in the marching crowd: ‘Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn! Oh, Je-re-my Cor-byn!’ They too – like Len McCluskey, like Jeremy Corbyn, like Momentum, like the People’s Assembly, like Unite the Union, like the Socialist Workers Party, like the Radical Housing Network, like the increasing number of so-called anarchists who voted for Labour, like, it seems, anyone who believes Corbyn is some kind of socialist and the Labour Party a social movement – had not the slightest interest in hearing about what Labour are doing to the lives and homes of working class people. Similarly, the leaders and speakers and followers who have filled the airwaves with their lamentations and fury over the Grenfell Tower fire have shown not the slightest interest in hearing about the estate regeneration programme that caused it. On the contrary, they are willing to sacrifice everything – the hundreds of thousands of Londoners whose homes and businesses are being demolished by Labour councils and the truth about what killed the people in Grenfell Tower – to the electoral hopes of the Labour Party.
The Cult of Corbyn
Something very strange is happening to the Labour Party. As we know, the neo-liberals that make up its Parliamentary Party loathe Jeremy Corbyn, and even after the election that gave them back their seats they have continued to speak out against his promises of re-nationalisation (though less about his retention of Trident and government cuts to benefits). Because of this, and because of the huge support Corbyn enjoys personally from the party membership, under John McDonnell’s stewardship Labour now calls itself a ‘social movement’. Without anything being said to this effect, this allows the Labour membership to believe that, once their Leader is in power, it will be they, and not Labour’s Members of Parliament, who will dictate policy. ‘Vote us into power’, they tell us, ‘and we will return Labour to its real values’. However imaginary and divorced from history those values have become under the propaganda of, for instance, films like Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, this belief allows the growing Labour membership to imagine its collective will – embodied in the fast becoming sacred figure of Corbyn – will one day govern the country. The fact the UK is a parliamentary monarchy and Labour a parliamentary political party which, if elected to government, will be subject to the vote not of its membership but of its members of parliament, is conveniently ignored.
That’s not quite accurate: not ignored, but suppressed, silenced. That’s why Class War and ASH and the Focus E15 Mothers and the RCG repeatedly drawing attention to the actions of the Labour Party at council level have met such extraordinary hostility from members of the Labour Party who are otherwise – that is, in Conservative-run boroughs – opposed to estate demolition. In the case of ASH, we know that residents have been told by members of the Radical Housing Network not to work with us because of our criticisms of the Labour Party and its support for the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils. Against the promises of Labour’s manifesto on housing – which is in fact based on these demolition schemes – this is a rude reminder that far from being a social movement Labour is a political party seeking election to power of the government of the UK, and if we want to get an idea of how that government would govern we should look at the actions and attitudes of these councils.
From this inconvenient truth has sprung the mantra, repeated by Momentum et al, that Labour councils are run by ‘Right-wing, Progress, Blairites’ at odds with Corbyn’s housing policies – as if the Labour MPs so many Corbynites voted for at the last election are any different. ASH showing in detailed arguments based on Labour’s own public statements that not only is there no difference between the housing policies of the Labour Party and those of Labour councils but that, on the contrary, the former is based upon the latter, has fallen on ears as deaf to the truth as the crowd of chanting believers in Parliament Square.
Under the chants of ‘Oh, Jer-e-my Cor-byn!’ Neil Coyle can be re-elected Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, while his record on the planning committee of Southwark Labour council’s estate regeneration programme is drowned out; Helen Hayes can be re-elected Labour MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, while her collusion in the demolition of the Heygate and Central Hill estates and the eviction of the Brixton Arches is drowned out; Diane Abbott can be re-elected Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, while her record of failing to oppose the demolition of 18 estates by Hackney Labour council is drowned out; David Lammy can be re-elected Labour MP for Tottenham, while his record of standing by as the Haringey Labour council sells off £2 billion of land to property developers Lendlease, including two council estates in his own constituency, is drowned out.
Ideology under capitalism works not by censorship but by noise. Within increasingly reduced limits we can say what we like, but no-one will hear us over the noise of those with access to the media. We’ve seen this principle at work in the reaction of Labour politicians to the Grenfell Tower fire. Beneath the cries for justice and truth repeated again and again by Labour MPs David Lammy and Emma Dent Coad, the actual truth from which justice alone will emerge is being drowned out. Because Labour does not yet have the power to exert control over the media, which has been virulently opposed to Corbyn since his election to the leadership, it must make use of disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire and turn it to its own political ends. Labour, led by Corbyn, has shown absolutely no compunction in cynically using the dead of Grenfell Tower to attack the Tory party, while drowning out the truth about its own role in what killed them.
However, since the Labour Party’s surprising returns at the General Election, the media is beginning to change its attitude towards Corbyn. He still hasn’t got the newspaper barons on side though, as Tony Blair took care to prior to his election as Prime Minister. The primary medium of Corbyn’s propaganda, therefore, is events like yesterday’s. Exactly as Trump – a similar political outsider without the support of his party – did with far greater success, Corbyn and his team have described their political ambitions as a ‘movement’, and have adopted the guise of being outsiders in their own party. This exactly replicates the feelings of those millions of Labour supporters who, reared on 13 years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have returned to the ranks and ballot box of the Labour Party with the dream that they may, once again, find themselves represented in it. The student radicals, middle-class liberals and elderly members of Momentum are all agreed on one thing: that they do not recognise themselves in the mediocrities that make up the Paliamentary Labour Party or the stony-faced ruthless businessmen and women that sit on Labour councils. So instead – again, very much as the rust-belt proletarians of the US did with New York billionaire Trump – they focus all their attention on the figure of Corbyn, who in their eyes is relieved of all responsibility for the actions of the political party he leads.
The Spectacle of Activism
It’s clear that, against our own predictions, the Labour Party is on the up. Not only are the MPs that twice voted no confidence in Corbyn now opportunistically reconciled to his leadership, but Labour’s strategists seem to have accidentally laid their groping fingers upon the quickening pulse of politics in capitalist democracies. Labour’s electoral team has remarked how much they have learned from Bernie Sanders, members of whose campaign team came over to the UK to instruct Labour activists in the lead up to the General Election. It’s typical of Labour that they chose to be instructed by a campaign that lost; but looking at the spectacle they put on in Parliament Square earlier this year, at which Guardian journalist Owen Jones and Labour Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott spoke out against the election of Donald Trump, and hearing the chanting marchers yesterday, deaf to anything but their own declaration of absolute and unshakeable faith in their Leader, it seems to me that it is to the campaign and tactics of Donald Trump’s electoral team that Labour have been looking. However, it’s not merely ironic that in condemning the election of Trump to the Presidency of the United States, Jones and Abbott used exactly the same propaganda tools and tactics that brought him to power.
Like Trump, Labour have adopted the spectacle of street politics – of a social movement, of political protest, of ‘grass-roots’ activism, of the until-now-suppressed and overlooked outsider, of the silenced ‘99 per cent’, of the rhetoric of rebellion and even revolution, of justice ‘for the many, not the few’ – to call for the election to the government of the UK of a social-democratic political party that runs 110 councils and unitary authorities across the UK, have directly elected Mayors in London, Manchester, Liverpool and 11 other local authorities, 13 seats in the European Parliament, 262 in the House of Commons and 202 in the House of Lords of a capitalist country with the sixth largest economy in the world. I can’t remember any other leadership of either the Labour or the Conservative parties holding demonstrations that deliberately imitate the language of street protest, while at the same time having the political clout and financial resources to close down Regent’s Street with a campaign bus on a Saturday afternoon or – as they did in February – hold a rally that erected a temporary stage in Parliament Square in the middle of a Government Security Zone.
Not only is this an appropriation of a form of protest created to oppose power by those who sit in positions of power, but in doing so it subsumes every other protest into its ranks, reducing the multiplicity of campaigns to the simple equation that lent its title to Saturday’s demonstration: ‘Tories out!’ What this simplistic message silences is, of course, what will take their place. Momentum, for one, has been very open about this colonisation of localised campaigns by Labour’s imperial ambitions for power, and it is typical of the naivety of the largely middle-class students who make up its activists that this ambition is accepted at face value. Of course, as marketing companies know, the best salesman is the one who believes in his product; and the first customer of Labour’s sales pitch are the salesmen and women who sell it on the voters’ doorsteps, who organise these demonstrations, who write propaganda about Labour policy, who promote Labour’s ideology in their media outlets, who make nostalgic films about Labour values, who dedicate poems to Corbyn, who invite him onto popular culture platforms, who have elevated him to his current and slightly absurd position as Saviour of the People. Anyone who is critical of this sales pitch or who seeks to challenge its relation to the reality of the product it’s selling is anathematised as an unbeliever – or worse, a Tory – and subject to slanders against them personally and attacks on whatever organisation or group they speak from. As an example of which, for drawing attention to Labour’s complicity in estate demolition ASH has been the subject of repeated attacks from Labour activists individually and collectively almost since we formed over two years ago, and they show no sign of abating.
The evidence that increasing numbers of British voters have fallen and are falling for this illusion of Labour as a social movement is a measure of just how successful it has been as a campaign strategy. Initially adopted in response to the peculiar circumstances of Corbyn’s enormous popularity within the party membership and equally enormous unpopularity among his fellow MPs, it has subsequently turned a necessity into a virtue and embraced the spectacularisation of politics in which the USA leads and instructs the world, and which was pioneered by the fascist and totalitarian political parties and regimes of the Twentieth Century. Like Trump’s Republicans and Corbyn’s Labour, these regimes understood that what the masses want is faith in a Leader, not detailed explanations of policy; subsuming within a collective identity, not the burden of individual responsibility; the comfort of banal slogans, not questioning of political practice; the illusion of ideology, not the inconvenient truths of reality. Anyone who believes that the 184 Labour MPs who abstained from voting against Tory welfare cuts will, upon forming a government, turn around and vote for Corbyn’s increases to corporation tax, or to re-nationalise the railways, post office, water and energy companies, or to build half a million homes for social rent is living under this illusion.
In contrast, anyone who is engaged in trying to dispel this illusion knows that Western democracies – which is to say, the world’s declining capitalist economies – are moving towards a new totalitarianism that is once again looking to the lessons of fascism in how to govern an increasingly impoverished, scared and potentially rebellious population. The Conservative government knows this, and over the past decade and more has quietly gone about effecting our transition to a state built on fear, hate and anger, with unmatched powers of surveillance, a press and media run by corporate interests, and a judiciary and parliament colluding in stripping our human rights. Theresa May’s electoral team tried to promote her as the Leader of this brave new world, but fortunately for us they had the worst possible material for the future they wanted to paint, and one who visibly fell apart under the gaze of the media and questions of the press. Corbyn, by contrast, whose team has been in campaign mode since his election to the Leadership of the Labour party two years ago, has emerged from the General Election not as Prime Minister, but as the Populist Leader the state needs and the terrified masses seem to want. If the press is changing its attitude towards him, it’s an indication that the captains of industry and members of the establishment that run this country no matter who is in power are beginning to think so too. The ruling class of the US has for some time now realised that they can run the most powerful nation in the world through an actor, buffoon or game-show host. I’m beginning to think that the ruling class of the UK is beginning to think so too.
Just as Corbyn’s enormous popular appeal among the masses as Leader of the Labor Party has all but silenced any questioning of the role of Labour councils in demolishing our homes and selling off public land to private developers, so Corbyn as Prime Minister may be just the figurehead the corporate leaders of our economy need to silence opposition to the sell-off of every public asset this country owns. In the same way that the Press and City turned to Tony Blair in the 1990s as the free-market Leader the UK economy needed at the moment of its expansion, so Jeremy Corbyn may be the Leader the nation needs at this moment when that economy is collapsing in on itself, and the British people are discovering our masters have sold all the life jackets to foreign investors.
Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting Corbyn is a fascist, or that he shares the same politics as Trump, or that the UK is a totalitarian state – not yet, anyway, though it is undoubtedly moving towards being one. What I’m pointing to is the increasing spectacularisation of politics in the UK following the US model, in which elections are won or lost on image rather than reality. Of course, politics has always been about image; or rather, politics exists in the gap between image and reality. But just as the gap between the rust-belt workers in the US and the New York property developer they voted for has never been wider, so the gap between the rhetoric of Corbyn and the record of the Labour Party in power – in local authorities, in council town halls, and in the Greater London Authority – has also never been wider. It is essential that the noise of Labour propaganda, of which Saturday’s ‘Tories Out!’ march was an example, does not drown out the reality of the Labour Party’s policies, particularly on housing, and its record in local government.
The belief that the Labour Party will suddenly start representing the working class whose organised resistance to capitalist exploitation it was formed to manage and placate would be laughable if the consequences of that belief weren’t so dire for the millions of people who live on the housing estates Labour councils threaten with demolition, the thousands of small businesses Labour councils are driving out of London, and our continued public ownership of the land Labour councils are selling off to private companies. What is perhaps most worrying about the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn is not only that it is fully supporting this attack on working class homes, businesses and communities, but that under Corbyn’s leadership it refuses even to acknowledge that this is happening. Far from being a politics – as the Labour slogan goes – ‘for the many, not the few’, this is an ideology that deliberately deafens the many to the reality of both its policies and its practices, and tries to silence those who work to expose that reality. As the Leader and embodiment of this ideology, Jeremy Corbyn is complicit in its lies, its deceptions and its social cleansing. He may continue to turn away from us, as he has done for two years now, but we will continue to confront him and his chanting followers with the threat he presents to the working-class communities of Britain.