Grenfell and the Social Housing Crisis: How Kensington and Chelsea Council Behaved Like “A Property Developer Masquerading as a Local Authority”

25.6.18

Justice for Grenfell: banner on a march in central London on June 16, 2018, just two days after the first anniversary of the fire in June 2017 that killed 72 people (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

In a meeting of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on June 20 to discuss ‘Local Authority Support for Grenfell Tower Survivors’, Ed Daffarn, one of the survivors of last June’s entirely preventable tower block fire, in which 72 people died, reported an exchange with Kensington and Chelsea Council’s Chief Executive, Barry Quirk, who took on that role a week after the fire, which cuts to the heart of the problems facing those living in social housing in Britain today.

Daffarn told MPs that, at a meeting wth survivors’ organisation Grenfell United, Barry Quirk “said that RBKC [the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea] were a property developer masquerading as a local authority.”

Daffarn added, “Think about that. They were property developers masquerading as a local authority. They failed to keep us safe because they had higher priorities – getting their hands on the land, this massive goldmine they had.”

The confession by Quirk, who was formerly the Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, is significant because, when every aspect of social housing is made subservient to the money-making opportunities offered by housing development, residents of social housing are no longer actually safe in their homes.

In many cases, as can be seen across London, and up and down the country, residents become an inconvenience, to be swept aside as their estates are cynically judged to be in need of demolition, instead of the much less costly refurbishment, so that they can be moved out and the land on which their homes once stood can be sold to developers who then replace their homes with generally unaffordable replacement housing — and which, in another cynical twist, all those involved in approving it, marketing it and selling it pretend is actually “affordable.”

In the worst case scenario, as at Grenfell, it becomes apparent that the disposability of social housing tenants even extends as far as their lives. Grenfell Tower was not immediately scheduled for destruction, unlike many dozens of estates across London, which then tend to have their maintenance budgets cut as part of a deliberate programme of “managed decline”, and which is then used to justify the intended demolition; but the Grenfell residents were victims of institutional cost-cutting and a lack of concern for tenants’ safety above all other concerns throughout the entire housing sector, from central government to local government to management companies to whom councils’ social housing had been transferred, and to the array of contractors involved in the maintenance and refurbishment of properties.

Writing about the Committee meeting in the Guardian, Robert Booth noted that Kensington and Chelsea Council “said it accepted Daffarn’s remarks and agreed”, adding that the council “indicated its strategy has changed since the fire, which sparked the resignations of the leader and deputy leader, Nick Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen, the latter of whom works as a property developer.”

Kim Taylor-Smith, the council’s current deputy leader, said, “We know we have to change, to listen to our residents and to act on their wishes. We respect Ed Daffarn’s views.”

Taylor-Smith also said, “The new council has pledged to build new social homes in the borough and have also taken on private developers like Capco, who are building high-end flats in Earl’s Court, and have made them include more social homes in their developments.” Those views, however, require serious scrutiny rather than being taken at face value.

Daffarn’s statement came early in the meeting, in response to a question from Matt Western, the Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington, who was elected last June, in the General Election that took place just four days before the Grenfell fire. Western said, “I had been here just four days when this terrible tragedy happened, and it seemed to have very strong echoes of Hurricane Katrina and the magnitude of that event”, and asked, “Given the scale of the tragedy and its consequences, do you think that the Government should have put the council into special measures almost immediately, recognising how complex the consequences of this would be, whether for mental health, housing, immediate needs and so on?”

This is Daffarn’s full statement running up to his report of what he was told by Barry Quirk, and I think the entire section is worth repeating, to add to Daffarn’s previous assessments of the Grenfell situation — his repeated warnings, before the fire, as one of the authors of the Grenfell Action Group’s posts, and his recent appearance on Channel 4 News, which I posted and reported about here.

Daffarn said:

Within the first couple of weeks we went to visit Secretary Javid, and we told him explicitly that what he needed to do at that time was put the council into special measures. He chose not to take our advice, and the decision to do that is evident now. The local authority does not have any authority. If you see the meetings it holds in public, you will understand what I am saying.

It has lost trust and it has lost its legitimacy. The only way that could have been re-established was for the council to have been placed under special measures, but that didn’t take place. There is now this vast chasm of distrust between the community and the council that, at best, will take many, many, many years to rebuild.

Do you want me to say a few words about that at the moment? The opening gambit at the public inquiry, which we will not go into too much, was that the council was dreadfully sorry about what happened, and it was determined to get to the truth. Then the opening statement doesn’t get to the truth and is not honest about what was going on at RBKC.

It is not honest about the little cabal of senior councillors and council officers from housing, from corporate property and from planning who had decided to asset-strip the whole of our community, sweat our public buildings, disregard the people who live there, and force us from the land that people were living on because it was a goldmine—they just didn’t have to mine it; they just had to marginalise the people living there.

That was what was going on at RBKC. That is why Grenfell happened. If they had been concentrating on keeping us safe in our building—if they had had their eye on the ball—Grenfell could have been avoided. If they had treated us with the respect that we deserved, Grenfell could have been avoided. There is this mass chasm. For trust to be rebuilt, RBKC need to start telling the truth. They need to be honest about what was going on. They need to admit what was going on. They have not done that, and that is so offensive and so upsetting, because it goes back to what happened at Hillsborough, and goes back to that feeling that we are not going to get justice and we are not going to get truth.

We deserve truth and justice after what happened. RBKC need to speak with their lawyers and come out with a different way of dealing with this problem. They need to be honest. They all know what was going on there.

This was the point at which Daffarn spoke about Barry Quirk admitting that RBKC were “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”, and it was followed by further criticism on Daffarn’s part, when he stated that, despite all that has happened in the last year, “we have those same senior officers at RBKC in position. We have the same senior councillors who chaired the scrutiny committee that, as residents, we went to and begged for help. We were ignored. Not only were we ignored, we were pushed to one side—marginalised completely, on two different occasions. The last occasion was when we went and spoke to them about the appalling refurbishment works at Grenfell.”

This criticism touches on an issue that keeps surfacing in discussions amongst housing activists — in Lewisham, where I live, and where I set up the ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ campaign, but is also part of discussions everywhere else that estate demolitions are planned, and social housing is being undermined: the crucial role played by the unelected officials who actually make most of the decisions behind the scenes, shielded by the councillors who actually engage with the public, and who, in turn, rely for their own opinions on what these same officials tell them.

While one of the legacies of Grenfell has to be a resolute refusal to allow central government, Kensington and Chelsea Council, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation and contractors to evade their responsibility for what happened last June, and another needs to be a perpetual call for existing social housing to be respected, and for new social housing to be built, it seems to me that we also need to work out ways to start shining a spotlight on the decision makers behind the scenes, who wield vast power without any accountability whatsoever.

Note: If you haven’t already seen it, do check out the video of my song ‘Grenfell’, performed with The Four Fathers and beatboxer The Wiz-RD, and recorded by a German TV crew last autumn. We’re making a studio recording of the song in three weeks’ time, so please get in touch if you’d like to be informed about its release.

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, focusing on a Parliamentary meeting last week, at which Ed Daffarn, who survived the Grenfell fire last June, and was one of the authors of the Grenfell Action Group’s posts that foresaw the disaster, explained how Kensington and Chelsea Council’s new Chief Executive, Barry Quirk, said at a meeting with survivors’ organisation Grenfell United that the council “were a property developer masquerading as a local authority.”
    I’ve focused on this because, as I describe it in my article, it’s “significant because, when every aspect of social housing is made subservient to the money-making opportunities offered by housing development, residents of social housing are no longer actually safe in their homes”, as the Grenfell disaster showed.
    I also pick up on Daffarn’s comments about how it is not just elected officials, but unelected official behind the scenes, who bear significant responsibility for what took place last year – and point out how, for the sake of accountability, we should all start looking much more closely at how these unelected officials operate, not just in Kensington, but across London and across the rest of the country as well.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    If you haven’t seen it, do check out spoken word artist Potent Whisper’s response to the disgraceful 60,000-word feature on Grenfell by Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books, which has profoundly tarnished its reputation by publishing O’Hagan’s biased article: https://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2018/06/20/grenfell-narrative-o%27hagan-response

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Also see Simon Elmer’s devastating put-down on the ASH (Architects for Social Housing) website: https://architectsforsocialhousing.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/the-tower-rewriting-grenfell-ash-response-to-andrew-ohagan/

  4. Tom says...

    What’s the average rent in a building like Grenfell?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Tom,
    Social rents are about £100pw for a two-bedroom apartment. Those are the rents charged by councils and housing associations. But some of the flats had been bought under the ‘Right to Buy’ policy introduced by Margaret Thatcher, and may well have been several hundred pounds a week.
    Social rent is the rate that almost all politicians want to do away with. London’s new Mayor, Sadiq Khan, for example, who is Labour, has set a new, allegedly ‘affordable’ rent – London Affordable Rent – which is actually around 63% higher than social rent. Now that’s still considerably less than market rents, but it’s a huge increase – and it’s always worth remembering that market rents are, to be blunt, insanely high, and that the first priority should be to tackle that and to discuss rent capping.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    After my friend Tashi Farmilo-Marouf posted some crying emojis, I wrote:

    Thanks for caring, Tashi. Unfortunately, the establishment is now trying to shift the blame for the disaster – via Andrew O’Hagan’s disgraceful London Review of Books article, and also through efforts to blame the Fire Brigade because of the “stay put” policy that led to so many deaths. However, crucially, the Fire Brigade didn’t create the conditions for the fire in the the first place, and, shockingly, no one had ever seen anything like Grenfell before, and had no preparation for it.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    What a horrific event and what really upsets me too (besides so many innocent souls dying in such a torturous manner) is that the community was doing its best to communicate the problems that existed, they were campaigning for change, yet their warnings only fell on deaf ears.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s the really damning truth about the fire, Tashi – that people whose safety was dependent on those who managed their homes were let down so badly – fatally, in fact, in 72 cases. it means there needs to be huge overhaul in the way tenants are perceived, but that goes against the way social tenants have come to be regarded as second-class citizens since the 1980s.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Anita Tuesday wrote:

    Change towards social justice only seems to happen when powerful people back it. And even then, it’s often short-lived.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Anita, that is certainly how things have often happened. However, it’s interesting that, with Grenfell, what’s taking place is a genuinely awakened community, in significant numbers, who won’t be easily placated, and who are also – as on the Silent Walks – joined by many other people from across London, and even out of London, who also feel part of this new community-based political resistance. There is something about it that involves a vision of a better, people-centred world, which is something we clearly need, and maybe the post-Grenfell solidarity is a way to achieve it. After all, no one in authority can talk down to the survivors and the local community, and it’s rare for the establishment to be so disarmed.

  11. Tom says...

    One tactic that many city govts here are using re: rent? Many like NYC have controlled rent. But the current laws say that once it goes up to a certain amount, the tenants lose that protection. Then the landlords can raise it as high as they like (or what they think the market will bear). Now if you’re retired, disabled, etc. and this jump happens, what do you do then? In San Francisco, there are IT engineers making 6 figure salaries who are living in tents because they can’t afford rents in the Metro.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s such a mad situation, Tom. It just seems completely unsustainable. I googled ‘San Francisco housing crisis’ and loads of articles turned up. This, for example:
    http://uk.businessinsider.com/san-francisco-housing-crisis-history-2017-7
    In my ways, of course, London isn’t dissimilar. Unless you have a protected rent, via a pre-2010 social housing tenancy, more and more people are simply getting priced out.

  13. Tom says...

    Just to ask. Have you ever had anybody in the govt. attack you directly for the good work that you’ve done and continue to do?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

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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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