Grenfell: taking stock

The Grenfell Tower fire has exposed several injustices, and compels our society to guarantee safe housing for everyone

By Jonathan Schifferes, RSA Associate Director, Public Services and Communities

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchifferes

The best way to honour the dead and those displaced by the fire at Grenfell Tower is to improve the quality of housing for the rest of society from this point onwards. That does not just mean banning certain materials and strengthening regulations specific to fire safety. It means creating a climate where it is both morally unacceptable and legally impossible to maintain a home where certain risks are present and proven. It means building a system that hunts down and acts to minimise risks, and that is blind to the wealth of the adults and children who sleep under a particular roof on a particular night.

This cannot be left to the market to organise. Every person needs adequate housing to live, but children, many elderly people and many adults cannot earn an income for themselves, or live off salaries that mean they rely on accommodation that is subsidised in some way. The government therefore needs to be the ultimate guarantor of decent housing.

Since post-war global institutions defined universal human rights almost 70 years ago, we have done more to address hunger and disease than to improve access to good housing. The number living in ‘slums’ globally rose from about 700 million to 900 million between 1990 and 2015. Today, one in eight of us lives in a home that is unsound: lacking clean drinking water or sanitation facilities, adequate space, or adequate materials to shelter us from our climate. Even in wealthy global cities the most disadvantaged sometimes live without any of these things. City growth has meant economic growth, but many of the people fuelling that growth do not have safe, healthy, secure or sustainable homes.

In 1942, William Beveridge identified squalor as one of the five ‘giant evils’ facing the UK. The post-war government organised the rebuilding of British cities and created whole new towns to house a growing population, completing 3,000 new homes every week during the 1950s. At the dawn of the 1980s, a third of UK households rented homes from the government. Among the richest 20% of households, over a quarter rented a home from the government.

Since the 1980s, the UK housing market has become a vast engine of inequality. Social housing is no longer as inclusive. About 1.8 million homes were effectively privatised, sold by the government to their residents at a subsidy worth £40bn. Of those homes, 40% are now rented privately and very few rich people live in social housing today. As the TV cameras panned out from Grenfell Tower, we saw a borough with about £40bn of residential property concentrated in five square miles. The preventable tragedy of the Grenfell fire happened within one of the most affluent urban districts the human race has ever built.

While the housing market has made millions of people very rich, ironically, the wealth generated through property has only served to make the elimination of squalor more difficult to achieve. To subsidise housing in this climate costs the government more, while new affordable housing is primarily funded by developers of private housing, who rely on profits (and rising prices) to cross-subsidise.

Figures for England show that the number of households in overcrowded rented accommodation has risen by 68% in the past 20 years. At the same time, ‘under-occupation’ (households with at least two spare bedrooms) rose substantially over the same period, and now applies to 52% of owner-occupiers. For some, buying additional bedrooms is driven more by the promise of a return on investment than just practical convenience. The government’s own strategy for future housing policy describes the housing market as ‘broken’.

The American philosopher John Rawls made popular a powerful concept — the ‘veil of ignorance’ — that proposed that in thinking about what is fair we should ask: if we had no idea about which family, household and community we would join when we were born, what kind of conditions would we want to live in? A good measure of a society should be how well the poorest and most disadvantaged people live, and whether the rest of us would be prepared to live that way.

Grenfell has unveiled ignorance in many forms: ignorance about the purpose of regulation and ignorance about the suffocating frustration of renting a property from an authority that is compelled to cut costs. It should serve to remind us of how a dysfunctional housing market can compound deeper injustices as wealth cascades over generations. The total value of the annual transfer of private property wealth down the generations in the UK is roughly equal to the government’s annual budget for paying state pensions through taxation.

A further good measure of society should be how it rebuilds after a disaster and rehabilitates those who have faced injustice. The law serves to protect a society from abuses by others, and to a large extent to protect people from harm, including through enforced regulation. Our public services also do this, and provide a safety net so that extreme suffering is avoided. Both failed at Grenfell Tower. In a building owned and managed by a branch of the government, recent refurbishment created extreme risk for residents. And the government’s response to the human emergency faced by those displaced by the fire was clearly inadequate. With Grenfell Tower still smouldering, the victims and those close to them quickly articulated that their concerns on the specific issues of fire safety had been neglected by relevant authorities. Barely 48 hours after the fire, local residents stormed the town hall demanding action and answers, and pursuing justice.

Grenfell is the worst UK public safety disaster since 96 football supporters died at Hillsborough in 1989. It took several inquiries and individual court cases before six suspects were formally charged with crimes, 28 years after Hillsborough, and, as it happened, two weeks after Grenfell burned. The difficulty ordinary people face in achieving justice when those at fault are in positions of real power shames us as a nation. To support those pursuing justice for Grenfell, we are all implicated in a wider quest: to improve the protection afforded by our laws and to assure that all people can sleep safely in decent housing.

It is in this challenging context that we need a national plan to improve the 3.5 million homes in England that have been estimated to have a serious health or safety risk. The moral argument for this aligns with cold-hearted, rational public sector economics. Since the NHS foots the bill for most of those who suffer illness or injury from their homes, an investment of £10bn in resolving the majority of hazards would be worth about £1.4bn annually to the NHS in avoided costs. This represents a ‘payback period’ of just seven years, according to calculations by the Building Research Establishment in 2014. The same analysis shows serious fire risks in 130,000 English homes. Fires are less common in recent years, thanks to both education and prevention, as well as safer appliances and mandatory fire-resistant materials in furnishings. But one in six private rented homes still do not have a smoke alarm.

The fundamental question is therefore what kind of standard is acceptable for a home and how we should enforce it. Most homebuyers commission a property survey that covers fire risk and other hazards; indeed, most mortgage lenders require this too. But once a mortgage lender is satisfied, there is nothing else to compel anyone to act on the observations of the surveyor. The mortgage lender is focused on the value of the property versus the value of the loan, and it is the risk of the property failing that is the concern, not the risk to life for its inhabitants. As for renters, most enter properties with almost no information about the state of the property or the risks of living there beyond what they can assess with their own eyes.

Homes are owned by millions of different people and organisations, making an investment programme to comprehensively remove risk difficult to organise. In pockets of the country, communities are self-organising cooperative models for housing, making management and safety a shared responsibility. On a more systemic level, raising awareness and providing penalties and incentives could go a long way without significant government expenditure. Licensing private landlords has reduced unsafe living conditions in several local authorities in England where it has been introduced. Prosecutions can be made for poor maintenance, and inspections can be proactive. This goes far beyond the planning enforcement regime, which sees the state inspecting property for safety as part of authorising planning applications that seek either to make alterations or to construct new buildings.

Think about what we have achieved in the past in responding to disaster. Within two years of the Titanic sinking — infamously, only one third of its passengers were evacuated on lifeboats — the world’s maritime regulators created a global convention: everyone aboard a ship should be guaranteed in law a space on a lifeboat. Thousands of lives have been saved since.

As a car or bus passenger in the UK, you are more than 10 times safer today, per mile travelled, than in the 1960s. The car industry today has a culture of safety innovation.

We expect an airbag as standard, and almost all cars come with them, despite the law not strictly requiring them. Many car manufacturers promote their vehicles on the basis of safety features and their safety record, and the press report on these. As a society, we do not yet have the same relationship with housing.

We should take inspiration from one of humanity’s most impressive achievements: we have created widespread, affordable and incredibly safe passenger air travel. Accidents still occur, but with less relative frequency and loss of life. The culture of aviation safety improvement employs systematic techniques to analyse and define procedures, acknowledging ‘near misses’ in practice and amending training programmes.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of aviation’s success has been the rise of low-cost, ‘no-frills’ travel. Under conditions of intense cost-cutting, the poorest in society have been increasingly able to travel by air. Safety has not been compromised. Ryanair and EasyJet are among the largest airlines in Europe, as well as being ranked among the safest and the cheapest. Quite rightly, we treat the safety of the poorest airline customers exactly the same as those who fly first class. I cannot imagine our society tolerating anything different.

A renewed conversation about how we improve our housing stock is needed, reconsidering the existing financial models that force millions to live in conditions that can prove deadly, even in the world’s wealthiest cities. Just as we would not tolerate our airlines making an emergency oxygen mask an optional extra to be paid for, citizens must demand that government and business work as partners to improve and assure health and safety in the homes of rich and poor alike. Achieving this would be relatively straightforward with existing technologies, but would involve a complex infrastructure of accountability that would test the strength of our democracy. Dodgy housing will strive to exist outside state enforcement; indeed, lots of building work already happens without planning permission. But this same challenge does not discourage us from licensing taxis, alcohol or fishing. Notably, shipping, automotive and aviation brands have provided a form of accountability that extends globally. Housing is still local.

Pinned to a fence near Grenfell Tower, part of the informal memorial, is a printout of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

In communities across the world, we have not organised ourselves successfully to ensure that our fellow citizens can sleep safely and soundly every night. Until we restructure our relationship to housing, our conscience should not rest.

This article appears in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2017