Column: Decent housing for everyone in society should be entitlement of all

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower seems to epitimise Britain's social inequalities and the long-term neglect of public goods, writes senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam, Bob Jeffery.

Thursday, 30th November 2017, 2:52 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 4:13 am

The fact is that many of the residents – of whom at least 80 have perished – are known to be among the poorest in the country.

And yet, the tragedy unfurled within sight of the luxury homes of the richest borough in London.

And also the fact that the cheapest materials were used in recladding the tower and they are now known to be flammable.

In addition, that fire-safety inspections have been cut back and out-sourced in the name of ‘cutting red tape’. That the heroes who fought the fire and saved lives have seen their terms and conditions cut in the name of austerity.

As an academic who works on social policy, I believe that there are clear arguments that recent government policies contributed to the tragedy, as well as the actions of the local authority, which is ultimately responsible for the tower’s maintenance.

Indeed, I am also wary of the term ‘tragedy’, with its suggestion of ‘a natural disaster’.

Even when the causes of disaster are due to an act of nature, be it the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina or of the outbreak of foot and mouth in my home county of Cumbria, the impacts tend to shine a light on political choices that reinforce inequalities and increase exposure to physical, economic and psychological harms.

Yet to understand what Grenfell Tower represents, we should go beyond recent policies to acknowledge a longer-term trend; that is the abandonment of social housing in the UK.

First of all, it is worth recalling the reasons why public housing came into existence in the first place.

In the Victorian period the creation, distribution and maintenance of housing was left entirely in the hands of the ‘market’.

Because of this the results for the poor in society were very cheap and flimsy ‘jerry-built’ homes, lacking in amenities and space, crowded together in slums. Things began to change in the early twentieth century as many local authorities engaged in the first programmes of mass house building, a process that was greatly accelerated by the need to replace bomb-damaged buildings after the Second World War.

Some of these houses that were built – famously those authorised by Nye Bevan as housing minister – featured multiple bedrooms, two toilets and were built from local cut sandstone.

Yet building of these homes did not keep pace with demand and the 1950s saw a shift to cheaper materials and ‘system-built’ methods of construction. The weaknesses of these methods were amply demonstrated by the partial collapse of Ronan Point in 1968.

These new ‘estates’ into which working class people were placed took little account of the human-scale, and they ignored people’s needs in terms of access to them, community or privacy and they came to be seen as profoundly alienating in the years that followed.

Yet what really undermined social housing was the new politics forged by Margaret Thatcher and the idea of a ‘property owning democracy’.

The flaws of social housing ‘estates’ were argued to be flaws with the very institution itself, and this justified the selling off of council homes under right-to-buy scheme. Though no-one can argue that this enabled many ordinary people to buy their own homes, there were consequences.

Firstly, the decision not to allow local government to replace the stock that was sold off led to fewer and fewer houses being built.

Unsurprisingly, large private house builders had an interest in keeping supply below the level of demand, contributing to ever increasing house prices. It also led to a serious depletion of the social housing stock, which came to be reserved for those in the greatest need.

Most fair-minded people would agree that this was the right thing to do, but it served to concentrate those who were struggling the most in the least desirable areas, concentrating disadvantage and stigmatising the inhabitants. This tainting of people and places, further eroded public support for social housing and led to a vicious cycle of declining investment and maintenance, so clearly apparent in the facts around Grenfell Tower.

With the benefit of hindsight, offering discounts to council tenants to buy their homes but preventing any new ones being built looks a lot like a political bribe that could only ever be offered to one generation.

Most recently, local authorities have sought to ‘regenerate’ neighbourhoods through demolition, private house building and even the re-cladding of council tower blocks to improve the image of neighbourhoods.

But changing specific neighbourhoods won’t alter the fact that the UK is one of the most unequal developed countries on earth, where two-thirds of poverty is suffered by those who are in work.

Demolition and rebuilding can move poverty around, but it takes different sorts of policies to eradicate it.

Large-scale investment in subsidised public housing would be a way of society saying that there are basic standards of space, building-materials, amenities and, perhaps most importantly, right now, safety, to which we are all entitled, regardless of income.