Grenfell was two years ago. So why are social tenants still waiting for their regulator?

Two years on. Image: Getty.

This week marks the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people, including 18 children, and irrevocably changed the lives of many more. But two years on we haven’t seen the changes needed to ensure that all social housing tenants can be guaranteed safety and security in their homes.  

We know Grenfell residents voiced concerns about fire safety and other maintenance problems time and time again well before disaster struck.  What’s more, it’s clear that Grenfell tenants are not alone in having concerns about their safety and well-being and not knowing to whom they can turn.   

Shelter have this week released figures showing over half (56 per cent) of all social renters in England have experienced a problem with their home in the last three years – including electrical hazards, gas leaks and faulty lifts. Among those with a problem, 10 per cent had to report the same problem more than 10 times. Almost three-quarters of social renters have never heard of the current regulator.  

The official inquiry into Grenfell is still ongoing, but we don’t need to wait for it to report to see the problems that exist in the regulation of social housing and the obvious solutions. As part of my work for Shelter’s Social Housing Commission, we backed the call for a tough, new consumer regulator. Social tenants need an organisation that focuses solely on their protection, by carrying out regular inspections and responding to the concerns of tenant groups before problems put them at risk.  


The existing Regulator of Social Housing mainly oversees the financial viability of social housing, including whether it’s value for money. This regulator provides no guarantees for the protection of tenants. The current system for enforcing standards in social housing plainly isn’t working. It’s that simple. Tinkering around the edges or “beefing up” what already exists just won’t be enough.    

There is no solution to the broken housing market which doesn’t include massive investment in social housing. It has the potential to provide secure, genuinely affordable homes to the millions of people who desperately need them. That is why the Commission, which involved people across the political spectrum, called for 3.1 million social homes to be built over the next 20 years.  

If we want to grow the numbers of people who call social housing their home, then we need to make sure these homes are well regulated, so that they’re decent and well-managed. We need to make sure tenants are listened to and protected no matter what. We need to ensure that they can feel safe in their homes and, if they don’t, then they can ask a tough regulator to take action on their behalf.  

Strengthening the regulation of consumer standards in social housing has been on the government’s agenda since the disaster, but we need to see more action and real change. A disaster of this scale demands real urgent change, as a clear signal that the government is serious about tenant health and safety. Implementing a new regulator will be no mean feat, but it’s a job that must be done.  

Grenfell was a tragic and appalling wake-up call about the value we place on social housing and the people that live in it. It’s time to act. 

Ed Miliband is the MP for Doncaster North, and was leader of the Labour party from 2010 to 2015.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.