Tenants become accustomed to their lot
Social housing tenants must be treated with dignity, not dismissively, urges Russell Conway
I was born in a council flat. I lived in one until I was 20. After university I qualified as a solicitor in a small legal aid firm. I had been attracted to them because they dealt with landlord and tenant and social housing issues. I never left, and for most of my professional career I have dealt with the problems experienced by tenants in both the public and the private sector.
Tenants tend to have rather a hard time. Local authorities have reduced budgets, are unable to carry out maintenance quickly, and treat disrepair matters not only with a healthy skepticism but also with a degree of contempt. Tenants frequently tell me the same story: no working boiler, water leaks, infestations, and broken lifts.
I am always concerned at the level of incompetence demonstrated by local authorities and private landlords. They seem to have a rule book which says, ‘Do nothing unless the tenant instructs a lawyer.’ Some private landlords are even worse and do nothing unless the matter goes to court.
There can be an air of resignation about tenants who quite often exist in appalling circumstances and feel unable to complain for fear of eviction.
Shortly after the Grenfell disaster I saw a young girl walking along Ladbroke Grove putting up missing posters showing a picture of a friend or relative. She did so with a quiet dignity, despite struggling to make the posters stick to the difficult surfaces of trees and lampposts. All around this area are similar posters. Closer to the tower are many impromptu shrines and memorials to the dead. Above everything looms the black tower like something out of a science fiction film.
It is all very moving. All very tragic. It begs the question as to how such a disaster could happen in a sophisticated and apparently wealthy area. But Kensington and Chelsea is a Jekyll and Hyde borough. In the centre and south are £10 and 20m houses; one-bedroom flats go for £3m. We have royal parks and palaces. But in the north there is extreme poverty. Densely populated council estates and poor maintenance. These are the forgotten people of Grenfell and its surrounds.
After the tragedy, I checked my database and found we had acted for about 20 Grenfell residents over the years. One had died in the fire. All those clients had instructed us on a variety of matters such as domestic disputes, disrepair, and divorce up to 2013. We have not had any new clients from Grenfell since 2013. Why? Well, one theory is that following LASPO a large number of people assumed that legal aid had been abolished.
Some social landlords even perpetuated that myth. In fact, there does remain some legal aid, especially for homelessness, serious disrepair, and possession actions. But did the tenants know that? Could they have been helped if, for example, a full structural survey of the building had been undertaken by a surveyor instructed under the legal aid scheme? We shall never know. But if any good can come of this appalling disaster, it must be that tenants are in future treated with the dignity they deserve and no longer given the dismissive brush-off of the past.
Russell Conway is senior partner at Oliver Fisher