Video: Architects for Social Housing’s Powerful Public Meeting, ‘The Truth About Grenfell Tower’, and Their Detailed Report

25.7.17

Grenfell Tower, photographed on the afternoon of June 14, 2017, about 12 hours after the inferno began (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.

 

On June 22, a week after the dreadful Grenfell Tower inferno in west London, which I wrote about here and here, Architects for Social Housing (ASH), an organisation set up two years ago to oppose the demolition of housing estates for profit, and for social cleansing, which, instead, can be refurbished, held an open meeting to examine what caused the Grenfell fire, and what lessons can and must be learned from it.

I attended that meeting, in the Residents Centre of Cotton Gardens Estate in Lambeth, which was attended by around a hundred people, including residents, housing campaigners, journalists, lawyers, academics, engineers and architects. It was an articulate and passionate event, and I’m delighted that an edited film of the meeting is now available on YouTube, made by the filmmaker Line Nikita Woolfe (with the assistance of Luc Beloix on camera and additional footage by Dan Davies), produced by her company Woolfe Vision.

The meeting was hosted by Geraldine Dening and Simon Elmer of ASH, and a prominent guest was the architect Kate Macintosh, who, at the age of 28, designed the acclaimed Dawson’s Heights estate in Dulwich. Her late husband, George Finch, designed Cotton Gardens, another acclaimed estate, and one whose structural integrity, it became apparent at the meeting, had not been compromised as Grenfell Tower’s had, with its chronically ill-advised refurbishment leading, in no uncertain terms, to the terrible and entirely preventable loss of life on June 14.

The 80-minute video is posted below, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in what happened at Grenfell and why — and what we can do about it.

ASH have also produced a powerful report (also here as a PDF) following on from the meeting, in which they follow up on the four themes of the meeting:

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;

4) to organise opposition to the use of the Grenfell Tower fire to promote London’s programme of estate demolition.

In their report, they pull no punches, forensically analysing the greed, the deregulation (the “red tape” the Tories so gleefully boasted about getting rid of), the absurd self-certification processes that have replaced anything resembling accountability in the private sector’s multi-faceted takeover of social housing, and the murderous indifference of the council and the management organisation responsible for all of Kensington and Chelsea’s social housing, to name just a few of the more prominent themes investigated.

A few key passages leapt out at me as I read this compelling report — the senior architect, who wished to remain anonymous, but who wrote that, at Grenfell, those responsible for the refurbishment of the tower “might as well [have] clad the building in ten-pound notes dipped in Napalm,” and this passage, from that same architect, about PFI:

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 … what the public must demand and get now over the Grenfell Tower fire are criminal convictions, and soon.

I was also aware that the following discovery, based on analysis of Grenfell and the surrounding area, is never reported in the mainstream media — that “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.”

There are other passages that leapt out at me — the following, for example — but I do encourage you, if you can find the time, to read the whole report:

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.

After coming up with “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,” including private contractors and consultants on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, board members and directors of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, councillors and officers on Kensington and Chelsea Council, and Members of Parliament and civil servants, the report concludes with the following paragraphs:

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.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, promoting the video of ‘The Truth About Grenfell Tower’, an open meeting that Architects for Social Housing called the week after the Grenfell disaster, which I attended, and which was called to examine what happened at Grenfell, and how to prevent if from happening again. It was a fascinating meeting, making clear, on many levels, how greed and deregulation led to this terrible and entirely preventable loss of life. I also link to ASH’s just-published report following up on the meeting, in which they call for criminal charges to be brought against those responsible for the disaster – including members of the management organisation responsible for Grenfell, members of Kensington and Chelsea Council, contractors, MPs and civil servants.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone taking an interest in this. Check out Channel 4 News’ latest damning investigation: https://www.channel4.com/news/grenfell-tmo-spent-millions-on-management-fees-rather-than-refurbishment

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    There’s a good New York Times op-ed here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/grenfell-fire-london.html

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s the Guardian on the recent tense meeting at which residents called for prosecutions: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/25/residents-call-for-chair-of-grenfell-tower-inquiry-to-bring-prosecutions

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s the BBC on how “Kensington and Chelsea Council was warned as early as 2010 that building a new secondary school at the base of Grenfell Tower could block emergency vehicles’ access”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40717226

  6. Tom says...

    The US equivalent of this social cleansing continues. Some people in the Bay Area in California who are well paid engineers and other IT pros are now homeless. Despite the salary, some couldn’t afford the rent to stay in metro San Francisco (less commuting is a reasonable request). One person was living in a tent until the cops forced her to move.

    It’s a sad out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Tom. Unfortunately, homelessness has rarely been a topic that has attracted widespread public indignation, so now its increase, which is including working people as well as the more established and recognised examples of homelessness, is still failing to get the attention it deserves.
    I see there’s quite a lot of coverage in the San Francisco Public Press: http://sfpublicpress.org/news/homelessness/navigation/2017-06/as-city-clears-homeless-camps-team-works-to-prevent-return
    And here’s a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, with the following key passages:

    [F]or a dramatic shift in the number of people on the streets, San Francisco would need substantial investments in low-income housing from the federal government.

    “Like cities around the country, we’re dealing with an 80 percent reduction in federal spending on housing (for) low-income people since 1978,” [Jeff] Kositsky [the director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing] said.

    See: http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/The-Bay-Area-s-Long-Road-to-Ending-Homelessness-11259388.php

  8. damo says...

    social cleansing seems to be going on everywhere went to east london to see friends who live on the boundary estate in shoreditch over the last couple of years the estate has been left to become more and more run down basic maintainence not being done …that estate is due to its location worth billions i wonder how long it will last before the tennants are evicted looking in the windows of the local foxtons flats on that very same estate are being rented for………..£1500,,,,,per week wow ,but then who would want to live in shoreditch now the place which 20 years ago nobody cared about is now the poster boy for the ills of gentrification gone insane ….a souless dead retail experience…full of rich generic people….like ….invation of the body snatchers,lol

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Damo. The Boundary Estate’s not on Architects for Social Housing’s expansive list of estates being socially cleansed by Labour councils, and it’s so historically important that I think its destruction would face significant opposition from heritage organisations, who have some weight on these issues. Also, I think maybe quite a lot of the flats are in private hands – and, I’m sure, some wealthy private hands – making it harder for compulsory purchases of leaseholders’ properties. That said, anything possible when, as you say, the land beneath your feet is apparently worth billions.
    If you haven’t seen ASH’s list, do check it out here, in ‘Vote Labour? The Aims and Values of Estate Demolition’: https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/vote-labour-the-aims-and-values-of-estate-demolition/
    ASH’s work is really worth reading. Here’s another article from May that I just came across – ‘Social Housing: Demolitions, Privatisations & Social Cleansing’ – check out the review section! https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/social-housing-demolitions-privatisations-social-cleansing/

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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