The Grenfall Tower fire highlights a broken social housing system

Residents of a nearby estate watch the fire on Wednesday. Image: Getty.

I grew up in social housing. It provided a stable and secure (albeit overcrowded and cold) home for my family, for life. As fire tore through Grenfell Tower, just 500 metres from where I was staying in London, I witnessed the complete and terrible destruction of 120 homes just like the one I grew up in. In the morning, I passed the police cordon and saw dozens of fire fighters standing in complete, abject shock.

Yet as the ashes settle, it is clear that the threat of ruin extends well beyond Grenfell Tower. Indeed, the policies which I argue have contributed to this disaster have been rolled out across social housing projects both in the UK, and across Europe. Earlier this year, not far from Grenfell, local residents in Westminster voted against any form of refit to their notoriously poorly-maintained Brunel Estate. And many residents across London fear the prospect of “urban regeneration”, seeing it as a type of social cleansing, shorthand for a modern form of slum clearance.

Residents worry that any improvements will set them on a slippery slope to gentrification and eventual displacement. Over the years, I have watched with dismay as successive governments – both Labour and Conservative – have depleted the available housing stock through schemes such as right-to-buy, while also running down the standard of the remaining housing stock with constant budget cuts. Faced with this gradual depletion and dilapidation, many family homes languish in a state of disrepair, while tenants’ fears that they could lose their homes go unassuaged.

This is not just a British problem. During my academic research in France I have seen deplorable incidences of housing stock that are not fit for human habitation, and where repairs are routinely neglected. Where regeneration does take place, I fear it is often done with little consultation and even less accountability.

A warning

As Londoners get to grips with the tragic losses at Grenfell Tower, reports have emerged about a recent refit that the tower underwent. Only last year, the site was given a £8.7m refit, during which a new central heating system was installed, more homes fitted in the lower levels and new cladding added to the outside of the building, among other things.

Yet a local residents action group claims that throughout the process, their concerns about fire safety risks – relating to cluttered exits, lack of emergency access and faulty wiring – were ignored by both the building owners, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), and the local authority, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

It has also emerged that the new cladding was made of aluminium – a heat conducting material which did nothing to halt the spread of the flames. This type of cladding is commonly used across Europe, and indeed the world, to cover the outside of buildings to improve insulation – and also appearances. Indeed, a spate of fires in Dubai, where the cladding is very common, forced authorities to change building regulations.

During my research in Roubaix, in the north of France, another residential block – the Mermoz Tower – was also refitted with aluminium cladding, as part of a redevelopment to add a shopping mall to the base of the estate. The residents I spoke to there for my research were concerned about the quality of the refit, and felt that their worries went unacknowledged. Some time later, a fire broke out and spread up the outside of the building, just as we saw in London. A report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation later indicated that combustible cladding can play a role in the spread of fire, listing the Roubaix fire as a case in point.

KCTMO said in a statement “it is too early to speculate what caused the fire and contributed to its spread. We will co-operate fully with all the relevant authorities in order to ascertain the cause of this tragedy.” A spokesperson for the council said: “We have heard a number of theories about the cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower. All of these will be thoroughly investigated as part of the formal investigation which has already begun.” The construction company behind the recent refit of Grenfell has also said it would “fully support” an investigation, and that the work met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards.

Redressing the balance

But the regeneration agenda has not only contributed to the destruction of social housing – it has also made it much more difficult to hold those responsible to account.

Since urban regeneration became a policy priority in the 1990s, such schemes have become increasingly complex. New Labour touted “the third way” as a means of drawing private companies and funding into urban regeneration schemes. The goal was to harness the efficiency of the private market while undertaking repairs and building schemes. The result was a labyrinthine system, wherein private building contractors are given complex and far-reaching responsibilities for social housing sites.

Grenfell Tower is a case in point. Owned by the local council, it is managed by KCTMO, which is a separate tenant management organisation and which sub-contracts repairs out to further private operators.

All affected: Grenfell (left) and other towers in West London. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

As the inquiry into this disaster unfolds, it is likely that the decision-making mechanisms and accountability structures in this complex arrangement will be examined carefully. Yet as social housing tenants who complain about repairs will know only too well, it is likely that the investigators will find it difficult to determine exactly what has happened – and which party in this confusing arrangement is at fault.

The tragedy which occurred at Grenfell Tower exposes the problems with the successive reforms to social housing in the UK. All too often, I see profit and regeneration being placed above the safety and satisfaction of residents. In the wake of this catastrophe, political and community leaders must work to rebalance the scales of power toward the residents themselves, and away from the interests of private developers.

The ConversationMy grandmother grew up in the terrible slums that the Grenfell tower replaced. When asked about rehousing options, she chose uncertainty and a new start in a pre-fabricated house in the suburbs. As I was on the phone to my extended family – who still live in the house – we were very pleased she did.

Joseph Downing, is Marie Curie Fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.