Grenfell: Suitable, safe, secure?
The Grenfell Tower fire demonstrates that social housing is in crisis. In the aftermath of the disaster, Jayesh Kunwardia considers the challenges facing the survivors and the lawyers representing them
The horrifying Grenfell Tower fire that has left at least 80 people dead or missing and displaced countless families has shaken the nation. In the days since the disaster, and amid the devastation and loss, there is a palpable sense of anger nationwide.
First, there has been anger and frustration at the government delay in responding to the immediate needs of those affected and the lack of transparency from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in terms of re-housing survivors in the short and long term, especially in the first week after the disaster.
Second, there has been outrage spilling onto the streets over the history of problems with not only the maintenance of Grenfell Tower but also in relation to building regulations and safety rules that have been left ignored for decades.
Concerns over re-housing
Certainly, before the news that the RBKC had purchased flats in a £2bn luxury Kensington apartment block, there was widespread confusion about the stance taken by the council and the government over how, and more pertinently, where the residents who survived the disaster would be re-housed.
RBKC’s basic homelessness duties require that any accommodation offered must be suitable and this is to be assessed on the particular circumstances of each case. Among the factors that must always be taken into account – such as employment, education, family support, etc – is location. The law requires that a council must offer accommodation within its own district ‘so far as reasonably practicable’. Where this is not possible, the accommodation that may be offered outside the district should be ‘as close as possible’.
The problem with this duty for RBKC, as is faced by all London boroughs, is the fact that London continues to suffer a housing crisis, with a severe shortage of social housing. Those who find themselves homeless and the organisations that work with them are reminded daily of this reality.
As a social housing lawyer, I have come across countless cases against every London borough council where families who are homeless and in priority need are offered accommodation far away from the capital without first having their housing needs properly assessed. Properties offered are regularly not merely on the outskirts of London but in the West Midlands and beyond. All the while, the justification on the offer letters for making such offers is the major shortage of social housing within London and the South East.
It was, therefore, natural for the survivors, the public, and lawyers to be extremely concerned about where in the country the former residents of Grenfell would be offered accommodation in the short and long term. Then came reports that the survivors were being pressured to move to places as far away as Preston. This felt far too familiar and simply outrageous.
However, as the Grenfell survivors urgently waited for the government to shed light on their fates and the rest of us expressed our outrage over RBKC’s purported plans to discharge their housing duty, some very welcome news was received on 21 June when the Corporation of London confirmed it had purchased homes within the more affluent south end of RBKC to be part of its social housing stock.
It is understood that the ‘luxury apartment complex’ with 68 one, two, and three-bedroom flats, where prices start at £1.6m, will be made available to the displaced families in July or August this year. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the expectation is that these new properties will be offered as one of the options to permanently rehouse residents from Grenfell Tower.
What does this mean for our earlier concerns about families being moved out of London? First, it must be said that RBKC and the government should have reassured the survivors and formulated a plan like this long before 21 June. However, it is commendable and right that there is a push to open up properties in RBKC in this way so the displaced families, who have already suffered an unimaginable ordeal, do not find themselves cast out of London through no fault of their own. I, for one, see this as a very positive sign that the government is taking into account the real urgency of this highly exceptional situation.
Moreover, this shows that local authorities can formulate such plans to secure social housing for those in desperate need and so we must now surely seriously question their lack of drive to take such an approach generally to meet the inequality in social housing across Greater London.
Responsibilities beyond re-housing
Grenfell Tower is located in a borough which serves as a fitting example of our country’s current climate of disparity between the rich and the poor. As a result, this tragic disaster has put into the limelight the plight of those in our society who live in highly deplorable social housing properties. It is no wonder that the public is taking to the streets in protest.
Although the exact cause of the fire is as yet unknown, this is only one part of the issue. The one currently at hand is the state’s role in the disaster. At present, there are questions over England’s building regulations and reports of the council ignoring safety warnings and complaints. But at present what is being most heatedly discussed is the council’s failure to prevent the use of flammable cladding on Grenfell Tower.
In the days since the disaster the cladding used on the tower has been widely blamed for spreading the blaze. Shockingly, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, noted that his understanding was that the ‘flammable’ cladding used on the tower is banned throughout Europe and America.
Since then, Theresa May has announced that tests on tower blocks following the Grenfell fire have shown that cladding on a number of them is combustible.
The latest reports have confirmed that 60 high-rise blocks in 25 areas across England have been found to have unsafe cladding. Hundreds of residents of Chalcots Estate in Swiss Cottage were evacuated after Camden Council declared that five tower blocks were at risk following the Grenfell blaze. At the time of publication, details are still yet to be released for 27 towers in 11 other areas of the country. The fire and rescue services will follow up the inspection of any buildings identified as high risk and safeguard residents where required.
In the Queen’s Speech, it was announced that the government will initiate a full public inquiry to ascertain the causes and to ensure that the appropriate lessons are learnt. To support the victims the government plans to take forward measures to introduce an independent public advocate, who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests.
The reports circling about the council’s actions, or lack of, in the context of the Grenfell fire are shocking. However, those of us who are social housing law practitioners can too readily vouch for the fact that the government and local authorities have been failing to adequately meet their specific and general housing duties. This includes their responsibility to ensure social housing accommodation is suitable, safe, and secure. It also includes their responsibility to empower tenants, particularly to take legal action where necessary to force landlords to ensure acceptable conditions. Instead we see a languishing social housing market compounded by the government’s failure to secure more social housing to meet demand, countless properties in serious states of disrepair, and exploitative landlords.
Furthermore, when a social tenant should be entitled to bring a claim against their landlord they are severely restricted in their ability to do this due to previous legal aid cuts. The government cannot escape from the fact that it is against this backdrop that the Grenfell fire occurred and it has an obligation to ensure appropriate accountability and safety in the months and years to come.
Advice and support for survivors
Following last month’s tragedy there is certainly a great deal to take away for the government and it has brought to light very uncomfortable, yet real, issues in our society. Nevertheless, while there has been immeasurable suffering and pain, tragedies like this also bring to light community strength and unity.
In the short period of time since the fire, the news has been overwhelmed with stories of people coming together nationwide to offer help. On this front, the legal profession too has united to do what it can to support and advise any affected individuals. Lawyers and specialist housing advisers from homelessness charity Shelter and the Housing Law Practitioners Association have been working with North Kensington Law Centre to run free daily drop-in advice clinics.
Law firms and chambers have also been providing support separately by making relevant information and advice accessible via media outlets, offering free advice sessions, and setting up specific helplines – all available to the survivors or residents in similar properties regardless of their financial circumstances. It is immensely uplifting to see such a positive combined effort from the legal profession and I sincerely hope that together we can help all those in need of our specialist services.
Image copyright Natalie Oxford
Jayesh Kunwardia is a partner and head of the social housing team at Hodge Jones & Allen