We must challenge the administration’s market forces-driven approach to housing, callously indifferent to the lives of the poor and marginalised, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, says Catherine Slessor
The cataclysm of Grenfell Tower joins a national lineage of building disasters, from Ronan Point and Summerland, to King’s Cross, Bradford, and Hillsborough. Whatever unpalatable truths emerge from the promised public inquiry, they will have a systemic impact on building regulations, fire engineering and health and safety issues.
But beyond the dry technicalities, the diagrams of cladding and sprinkler systems, beyond the squads of lawyers being briefed, beyond the justifications being prepared and excuses rehearsed, beyond municipal and government obfuscation there is a growing and justifiably indignant awareness about what this entirely preventable tragedy represents.
Architects have become the obliging pawns of venal developers, happy to provide the glitter on the dungheap
Grenfell Tower is emblematic of a dismaying new social and economic order. With the comprehensive dismantling of affordable housing provision, initially through the Thatcherite right-to-buy policy of the late ’70s, the notion of housing as a social good for which the state is responsible has been recklessly abandoned.
Housing is now seen as a commodity, and cities, especially London, are being eviscerated and stratified by wealth, class and race. In such a radically reordered terrain, architects have become the obliging pawns of venal developers, happy to provide the glitter on the dungheap. Far from helping to drive a progressive social agenda, as their Modernist forebears once did, their status is now pitifully marginalised.
Yet for all the witterings from architectural commentators, like the superannuated Simon Jenkins condemning priapic tower blocks and musing wistfully on the ‘charm’ of Kensington’s squares, this is not really about ‘architecture’. Modern residential high-rises work perfectly well and are liked by those who live in them. The issue is not built form, but its procurement and stewardship, its management and maintenance, all invariably proportionate to the affluence and social standing of a target clientele. Grenfell Tower’s residents were on low incomes and many were migrants, therefore they lacked agency, despite expressing their concerns about how their block was being managed in a forceful and articulate manner.
The issue is not built form, but its procurement and stewardship, its management and maintenance
‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’ Berthold Lubetkin once said. But clearly, in the case of Grenfell Tower, there are limits to what ordinary people can expect, defined by an attitude that sees the poor as feckless and undeserving, rather like the old establishment view of football supporters as dangerous animals to be corralled in pens, which ultimately led to Hillsborough.
Such shameful disdain finds material expression through the dead hand of cost-benefit analysis, its sphincter-clenching parameters set by an administration largely indifferent to the quality of life of its less fortunate citizens, yet prepared to spunk billions on an obscene and obsolete nuclear defence system. Spending cuts, deregulation and outsourcing have transformed the state from a supportive armature into a market forces-driven mechanism for exploiting and punishing the poor. Austerity is a political choice.
Last April the UN communicated its concerns to the UK government, stewards of the sixth richest economy in the world, about the corrosive effect of its austerity measures on housing standards. It recommended that it ‘take corrective measures to address sub-standard housing conditions’. This was politely rebuffed, as was an amendment to the 2016 Housing Bill proposing new rules requiring private sector landlords to ensure properties were fit for human habitation.
It is unconscionable that it takes the loss of nearly 80 lives to catalyse any sort of government action. However, the impact and lessons of Grenfell Tower should not just be confined to a modest tinkering with fire and building regulations.
To focus on technicalities addresses the immediate battle but not the wider and more damaging war. Instead, it should be seen as a chance to reconceptualise housing policy through cross-party consensus and action, overcoming decades of ideological deadlock. This is a truly decisive moment. It must be seized.