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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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