Post-Grenfell tower fire social housing reforms unveiled

Landlords in England are to be held more accountable, the government has said, as part of social housing reforms three years after the Grenfell fire.

They include a charter setting out what tenants can expect from a landlord, including to be safe in their home and to know how the landlord is performing in areas like repairs and complaints.

The housing secretary says it will give tenants “a much stronger voice”. But Labour said the reforms “appear to water down previous proposals”. Housing charity Shelter warned there was a “chronic shortage of social housing” and that “any new dawn for social renters must come with major investment in new homes too”. The proposals are part of a “fundamental rethink” on social housing following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.


The first phase of the Grenfell inquiry concluded that cladding put on during a refurbishment fuelled the fire in June 2017, which led to the deaths of 72 people. It is now examining how the tower block blaze could have happened in the first place.

  • ‘More powers’ for social housing tenants
  • Shortage of affordable homes, report warns
  • ‘I’ve spent 18 years on housing waiting list’

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the Social Housing White Paper had been drafted with the views of those devastated by Grenfell in mind. Ministers say they will “deliver on the commitment we made to the Grenfell community that never again would the voices of residents go unheard”. The White Paper – a document setting out proposed new laws before they are formalised in a government bill – pledges that complaints to landlords should be dealt with promptly and fairly, and tenants should expect to be treated with respect alongside the backing of a consumer regulator.


Alongside these promises, residents have also been told they will have a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in. Ed Daffarn, a Grenfell survivor and member of bereaved families and survivors group Grenfell United, said: “If this White Paper is going to make a difference, the (social housing) regulator and the ombudsman need to understand the devastating impact bad landlords can and do have on people’s lives.

“We have little faith that bad landlords will improve themselves – so the responsibility now lies with the regulator and ombudsman to use their new powers to ensure no residents are ever treated how we were.

“Ultimately it will be for residents themselves to determine if these changes go far enough to making their lives better and homes safer – and creating a lasting legacy for the 72 innocent lives so needlessly lost at Grenfell.”

The Social Housing White Paper was born from the shock and grief of Grenfell. The prime minister at the time, Theresa May, told a hushed House of Commons that she would ensure the voice of those living in social housing could never be ignored again “Long after the TV cameras have gone, and the world has moved on,” she said, “let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead to gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process.”

There was to be legislation to ensure her promise would be met. Parliament was told it would be a “wide-ranging top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector” and the “most substantial report of its kind for a generation”. But four housing ministers, three housing secretaries and more than three years later, we have only just seen the government’s proposals for the first time.

Few will argue with the measures to give tenants a greater say and to strengthen their rights. But only last September, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick also referred to how the White Paper would “boost the supply” of social housing. There are, however, no firm commitments to increase the number of council houses in England. In the summer, a senior committee of MPs told the government the country needed a net addition of 90,000 social-rented homes a year. Although the White Paper does refer to increasing the supply of social housing (it could hardly fall any lower), its focus is on general affordability, with particular emphasis on what they call “affordable home ownership”, a product that is out of reach for those on the lowest incomes. For some, this is the great hole in the middle of this White Paper.

The prime minister says the proposals will ensure “social housing tenants are treated with the respect they deserve”, but critics argue there is too little for the 93,000 households in England currently stuck in temporary accommodation, or the estimated 3.8 million people in need of social housing.

Mr Jenrick has also announced a consultation on making smoke and carbon monoxide alarms mandatory in all rental properties. He said the reforms would bring “transformational change” that would give social housing residents “a much stronger voice”. “I want to see social housing tenants empowered by a regulatory regime and a culture of transparency, accountability, decency and public service befitting of the best intentions and deep roots of social housing in this country,” he added. But Labour’s shadow minister for housing and planning, Mike Amesbury, said: “The government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy has been slow at every stage. They were slow to re-house residents, slow to remove deadly cladding, and slow to come forward with social housing reforms. “Two years late, this White Paper appears to water down previous proposals. The government must do all it can to ensure a disaster like Grenfell can never happen again. That means tackling stigma, putting tenants’ voices centre stage, and ensuring the regulator has real teeth.

“Today’s proposals contain nothing to help the thousands struggling in the private rented sector, make up for a lost decade of social housing, or tackle the housing crisis.”

Post-Grenfell social housing reforms in England to be unveiled

Millions of tenants could be offered greater protection from wrongdoing by landlords in long-awaited social housing reforms to be announced this week, more than three years after the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is preparing to unveil new policies for England, which are expected to include a strengthened regulator with a mandate to check council and registered social landlords in England, listen to tenants and maintain standards of homes.

Under a parallel reform, tenants are also set to be given a more direct way of raising complaints without having to go through local councillors or MPs.

The planned changes were prompted by the June 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower, which followed a refurbishment project beset by tension between residents and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management organisation.

People who raised concerns about the renovation were branded “rebels” by the council’s contractor, according to evidence heard at the public inquiry, and were dismissed as “persistent and aggressive”. Ed Daffarn, a survivor who spent years trying to engage with the landlord about the works, labelled the social housing regulation system “the dog that didn’t bark”.

The reforms have been repeatedly delayed as they have passed through the hands of three different housing secretaries and were held up by the pandemic. In August 2018, then housing secretary James Brokenshire published a green paper setting a goal to “rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords to ensure issues are resolved swiftly and residents’ voices are heard” and “address the stigma that for too long has been associated with social housing”.

But housing campaigners fear the social housing white paper, which will apply only to social housing in England where it accommodates about 9 million people – is unlikely to address the wider problem of a shortage of supply. On Sunday, the Local Government Association said council housing waiting lists could nearly double to 2 million households next year as a result of the economic impact of Covid-19. While unemployment is set to drive up demand, completion of social housing fell to its lowest level since at least 1978 this spring. In 2019, 34,000 new council and housing association homes were completed, according to official figures.

Social landlords told the Guardian they are braced for a new system involving more inspections of consumer standards, ranging from the safety of homes to their quality and how well landlords listen to and respond to residents. Currently the regulator of social housing is only reactive. Five million households live in social housing in the UK and in the last year the regulator identified 15 cases that required its intervention because of problems that threatened serious harm. Problems with electrics, fire safety and asbestos were among the most common. They are also poised for indicators to be published spelling out how well landlords are doing.

James Prestwich, policy director at the Chartered Institute of Housing, said he expects inspections of consumer standards “to be more proactive”. Currently the regulator has to be satisfied that a landlord’s conduct threatens “serious detriment” to tenants before it steps in. This threshold is expected to be lowered.

“This will set out proposals about how tenants’ voices can be heard,” he said. “We are keen to see how that focus on consumer regulation is going to work. Greater consumer regulation is a good thing but when we’re talking about social housing we need the government to grasp the nettle and invest in more social housing.”

The tenant engagement service TPAS has said it believes the white paper will “ask organisations to evidence their performance to show that they are listening to and engaging with tenants”.

Leslie Channon, a tenants’ rights campaigner who helped the government stage consultation events about the policy, said landlords should have to show, for example, that they have taken tenants’ views into account when they are deciding how to spend money – for example whether better lifts are more important than landscaping.

She wants regulation of consumers’ rights to finally be put on a par with the regulation of social landlords’ financial stability and good governance.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government was approached for comment

Regeneration shame of Grenfell Tower

What began in the stunned aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017 continues at the public inquiry. Establishing, through an examination of the facts, who was responsible for the deaths of 72 people and the loss of hundreds of homes is the first step towards holding those people or organisations accountable.

Nicholas Holgate, chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council at the time of the fire (though not during the tower’s refurbishment), was the first authority figure to quit his post, a week after the tragedy. Pressured to resign by the then communities secretary, Sajid Javid, Mr Holgate said his presence would be a “distraction”. A week later, Nicholas Paget-Brown resigned as the council’s leader. Robert Black, the chief executive of the tenant management organisation (TMO) that ran the block, also stepped aside in June 2017 to “concentrate on assisting with the investigation and inquiry” (for which he initially continued to receive a salary). The TMO was later dissolved, as the council took back responsibility for its social housing.

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Under a new leader, Elizabeth Campbell, the local Conservatives – who have run Kensington and Chelsea council since it was formed in 1964 – stabilised. Members who were not closely tied to the decisions made about Grenfell spoke to journalists and television crews. In 2018, less than a year after the fire, they emerged victorious from local elections – losing just one seat (to Labour). In December last year, a Tory, Felicity Buchan, took the Kensington seat in parliament from Labour.

Flammable cladding has proved as difficult to shift as the Tories in Kensington. In June this year, a deadline for Grenfell-style material to be removed from all high-rises was missed, leaving tens of thousands of leaseholders trapped in unsellable homes during lockdown. A pledge by ministers to end no-fault evictions remains unfulfilled, despite Labour offering to back it. Proposals for a new regulator have gone nowhere.

With no arrests made, for now survivors’ hopes are pinned on Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry. The announcement last December that the London fire brigade chief, Dany Cotton, would retire six months early was greeted with relief. Ms Cotton had said in her evidence that the fire was as unexpected as “a space shuttle landing on the Shard”, and that she would do nothing differently if faced with the same situation.

But there have also been frustrations, including a ban on observers at the hearings due to the pandemic and the time taken to appoint a third panel member after a previous appointee was forced to step down due to a connection with the cladding manufacturer. Last week, that hiatus ended with the announcement that Ali Akbor, a housing association chief, had been selected.

Since campaigners have always believed that the council and the TMO’s attitude to their North Kensington neighbourhood was a factor in the way that events unfolded, the contribution of a person with first-hand knowledge of community relations was felt to be essential. That perception has only been strengthened by evidence at the inquiry, such as the discovery that the tower’s refurbishment was described by a council officer as an attempt to “prevent it from looking like a poor cousin”. Recent hearings have focused on repeated efforts to drive down the cost of the building work, including by Laura Johnson, the director of housing for Kensington and Chelsea council, who overruled the TMO by deciding to ditch the original contractor and re-tender, with “value for money” the top priority. (This despite the council’s claim in its opening submission to the inquiry that the TMO was in charge.)

Last week, the inquiry heard details of a “secret” and “offline” meeting between David Gibson of the TMO and the contractor, Rydon, in which it was agreed that £800,000 in savings would be made, including by switching zinc panels for the aluminium ones that became the main cause of the fire’s spread. The conversation took place despite warnings from the TMO’s lawyers that such negotiations would break EU regulations.

The time for definitive and official conclusions remains some way off. There is, however, every reason to believe that the fury of Grenfell’s survivors will turn out to have been not just understandable but correct.

Crackdown on slum housing used to accommodate Hull’s most vulnerable

A new crackdown on slum housing used to accommodate vulnerable people is set to be rolled out across Hull.

Around 600 properties owned and run by a variety of landlords and organisations currently operate outside of existing contracts between Hull City Council and other housing providers.

They provide accommodation for roughly 1,400 people who have typically previously lived in hostels and have a history of long-standing drug and alcohol misuse and mental health issues.

Although the city council is responsible for the supported housing it contracts, the authority has little influence over this largely unregulated privately-run sector offering similar accommodation with non-commissioned private landlords funded directly by the government through housing benefits.

Poor management of some properties and a lack of support and supervision for the people living in them have triggered a series of complaints by neighbours in some parts of the city in recent years.

There have also been claims of deliberate over-crowding in some small terraced homes originally designed for families but now divided into flats.

At one address, in Ferndale off Newland Avenue, a private landlord was recently forced to shut a property being used for supported housing after complaints by neighbours were submitted to the police about noise, anti-social behaviour and fly-tipping at the premises.

Now the council has been awarded nearly £800,000 by the government to review the quality and value-for-money of non-commissioned supported housing in the city.

The grant is one of five awarded to local councils across England amid continuing worries over poor living conditions, the way some properties are managed and whether legislation over the issue needs tightening.

It is expected to fund an increase in property inspections and more in-depth reviews on how people are actually being supported.


Councillor Roise Nicola
, who chairs the council’s finance scrutiny committee, said: “I have always had great concerns about housing providers just taking the money and not doing any providing so it’s good to see something positive happening on this.”

 

Professionals want to ensure a Grenfell tragedy never happens again.

There are some events so huge they have a profound impact on the nation. The fire at Grenfell Tower a year ago is one of those rare events. The scale of the tragedy was so vast, and the human pain we felt so raw and immediate, that we all, in our anger, knew things had to change.

If that was generally true, it was even more so for those of us who work in housing. If you lead an organisation that provides homes, your worst nightmare is that someone dies because of actions or decisions you have made, or failed to make. Grenfell was that nightmare at a level beyond imagination or comprehension. The sense that we had to make sure it never happened again remains real and profound.

Grenfell was that nightmare at a level beyond imagination or comprehension

Since the fire, the sector has been checking and re-examining how safe our buildings are. This was most urgent for those who own or manage high-rise buildings, but it was true for everyone. Many housing associations with two- or three-storey street properties have carried out new fire and safety risk assessments. Fire wardens have been deployed and updated information provided to residents.

At a national level, we have engaged with government, the Grenfell public inquiry and Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations and fire safety. Despite significant challenges and obstacles, remedial work has started on two thirds of social housing blocks with combustible cladding and work on the remainder is planned.

Most importantly, though, we’ve learned this was a monumental system failure. The building control system failed. We’ve understood from the Hackitt report that the whole industry complied with a deeply flawed regulatory regime rather than taking ownership of being responsible for safety.

This has to change, in the social sector and the private sector – indeed, anywhere that people sleep. At an even more fundamental level, we learned that there is, in many places, a crisis of trust. Too many people feel they can’t trust their landlord, local authority, buildings or their government. Too many people, in social and privately owned blocks, feel voiceless and ignored.

Housing associations are determined to rebuild that trust and ensure communities not only feel they are listened to but are confident they can influence what happens to them.