Radical Housing Network submission to Grenfell Tower Inquiry terms of reference consultation
The Radical Housing Network
- The Radical Housing Network is an alliance of over 30 housing groups and campaigns in London. Grenfell Action Group, who consistently brought attention to failures of the council, TMO, and the risk posed by the tower in years preceding the tragedy, are an active member group of the Radical Housing Network.
Introductory Remarks and scope of the submission
- The Radical Housing Network believes that the public inquiry must cover both the immediate and root causes of the fire, and should not restrict itself to a narrow or solely technical framing of the issue. The Chairman of the inquiry has suggested that he is “doubtful” that the inquiry can deliver the “much broader investigation” which those directly affected by the fire want. Our submission is that the terms of reference must be broad and political as well as technical. If the inquiry does not set its terms of reference at this breadth, RHN believe it will fail to address the root and immediate causes of the fire, and to prevent further tragedies. The inquiry must have regard to all matters which can be reasonably said to pertain to the circumstances which led to the fire, and must not restrict itself from doing this at the outset, by selecting narrow terms of reference.
- This submission will not address directly the immediate causes of the fire and its spread (cladding, sprinklers, white goods, and so on). Instead it is concerned to ensure that the inquiry has regard to the social, political and economic factors which has led to these failures. A number of robust submissions have been made which cover the immediate causes of the fire, for example those of the Fire Brigades Union, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The inquiry should follow the guidance contained therein.
Resident and community participation
- It is Radical Housing Network’s submission that the primary means by which a broad inquiry can be achieved is by putting those individuals directly affected by the tragedy, both from the tower itself and the broader Lancaster West community, at the centre of the process. As is well known, numerous members of the Grenfell and Lancaster West community had been highlighting safety and other concerns to both the TMO and RBKC for a number of years. These voices and concerns appear to have been ignored. The inquiry must not risk replicating this. Members of the local community, and representative community groups, must be ‘in the room’ for the establishment of the terms of reference. An inquiry which fails to deliver a process which is satisfactory to those people most directly affected is clearly completely inadequate. The residents have a unique and privileged knowledge of the matters which pertain to the causes of the tragedy, and must be central to the inquiry. This goes beyond involvement at the stage of establishing terms of reference. Residents must also be directly involved in the process of the inquiry, and given ample opportunity within the inquiry to question individuals called to give evidence.
The need to consider social policy
- The deep sense of national outrage which followed the fire was perhaps unprecedented, and flows from both the scale of the tragedy, and its occurrence in the richest borough in the UK. There has been a widespread sense among the general public that the fire was directly attributable to the failings of social policy, and a stark indication that the housing, health, safety and wellbeing of certain people mattered more than those of others. For these reasons, the inquiry must have regard to, and channel, this widely felt anger. The inquiry must not ignore the social policy context which has led to the fire.
- At the very minimum, the inquiry must have regard to those elements of housing policy which pertain to the causes of the fire.
- The inquiry must examine whether social housing legislation and practice in the UK has created a situation in which accountability and responsibility for social housing and its residents have become obfuscated, and housing related service provision less and less transparent It must ask whether systemic changes in the ways that social housing and regeneration is managed has led to a situation in which the views and needs of residents have been sidelined as a matter of regular practice. This will involve asking whether the legislative shift towards outsourcing and for-profit organisations playing prominent roles in the sector has created a situation in which the voices and concerns of residents are not effectively heard, or cared about, due to a prioritising of cost-cutting over the quality of work delivered, as well as a lack of clear channels of democratic accountability. This investigation should include, but not be be limited to, scrutiny of ALMOs and PFI-run housing estates. The inquiry must ask whether social housing should be brought back under direct Local Authority control.
- The inquiry must examine whether the underfunding of social housing is a contributing factor in the Grenfell tragedy. It must ask whether social housing has been adequately funded over recent decades. The inquiry should speak to housing experts and campaigners to examine whether the Grenfell fire was a predictable outcome of underfunding of the housing options available to those least economically advantaged members of society. It must examine whether Local Authorities and other social housing providers have been both properly funded and incentivised to maintain safe and high quality existing social housing stock. It must examine whether Grenfell should be a turning point after which the government once again celebrates and values it social housing stock, and initiates a massive programme of public investment therein.
- The inquiry must examine whether the present housing offer in the UK, for individuals with the least economic advantage, is adequate. Grenfell has starkly illustrated that the housing options for individuals who experience the highest degree of economic exclusion can be lethally unsuitable. By speaking to residents, experts and housing campaigners, the inquiry should investigate whether the current UK housing system is adequately providing for many of the least well off in society. The inquiry should note that at the same time as Grenfell was a tragedy of the social housing sector, almost 2 million households are on the waiting list for this tenure, nationally. The inquiry must investigate whether the conditions for those people, excluded from social housing, and at the bottom of the private rented sector, are acceptable. It must ask whether the £25 billion spent annually on housing benefit, much of which flows to the private rented sector, is an effective, cost efficient means of providing decent housing for low income individuals and families. It must ask whether the dramatic real terms reduction in social housing stock, with over 1.5 million homes lost from the social housing sector since 1980, have led to the ‘residualisation’ of the tenure, whereby it is only now accessible to those at the most severe disadvantage, and who possess the least social and economic power in society. It should ask whether such a ‘ghettoisation’ of the tenure has contributed to social and economic circumstances which have led to the Grenfell tragedy. The inquiry should examine whether Grenfell should be a turning point after which the government once again initiates and funds a massive programme of public house building, to improve the housing offer for those with the least economic and social advantages, and broaden the availability and composition of the tenure.