The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower was a disaster of enormous proportions that destroyed lives, homes, families, relationships, friendships, and devastated a community. Our deep and most sincere sympathies go out to everyone touched by this terrible event.
The public services connected to the fire and its aftermath have been criticised by the survivors, the community, and the government: they could have done better, they could have done more. And there is undoubtedly truth in this. But let us not forget that many public sector workers have individually and collectively made contributions that can only be described as heroic.
Most of the survivors have yet to be settled into permanent new homes, where they can rebuild their lives. Many lost all of their possessions, including every shred of proof of their identity, every shred of clothing, every item of value, every sentimental memento. They are having to manage their grief and trauma, rebuild their lives, and despite their incredible resilience, every step forward is incredibly hard. These are not easy issues, and try as they may, public services cannot make the journey painless.
The surrounding community continues to be affected by proximity; their lives hugely disrupted by evacuation, loss of amenities such as power and water, and the emotions of losing friends and family and coping with what they experienced. Many local people are seething with anger because the tragedy, they say, could have been avoided if only they had been listened to.
There will be an inquiry. How did the emergency services perform? How did the local government emergency response perform, at borough and at London-wide level? Lessons will be learnt. Scapegoats will be found, criminal charges brought. The media hounds are already baying for blood, and the chief executive and the leader of Kensington & Chelsea council are only the first to be brought down.
Local government itself is being positioned as a scapegoat. The minister’s speech at the LGA conference, whilst acknowledging that there have been long standing failures in public policy, suggested that it is local government that has lost the trust of the community.
It’s a local issue, was the thrust of his message. Certainly, Kensington & Chelsea council has a major problem, but local government as a whole? What is the minister seeking to achieve by presenting things in this way?
Government housing policy is the beast the hounds have not yet caught scent of, and if the minister has his way the hounds will be so busy hunting down local politicians and local service providers they won’t ever get to the real culprit.
London itself has been a victim of government housing policy. In a market where supply will never meet demand because of restrictions imposed by unavailability of land, by planning laws and policies, and by construction methods, house prices will keep on rising.
Rental prices will follow, and this means people on a low income increasingly can’t afford to live in London any more. Combine that with a policy of reducing welfare benefits, and you compound the issue. Reduce the size of the publicly owned housing sector in London with a reinvigorated right-to-buy policy and you aggravate it still further. Squeeze buy-to-let landlords with tax hikes to reduce the supply still further.
There are those who suggest all of this is quite deliberate rather than just inept; a kind of social cleansing. It has certainly been said in the context of Grenfell Tower. Meanwhile, the demand for housing in London continues to increase, because of its continuing economic success.
Councils have choices about their own housing policy. They can choose what to spend on building new housing, within the limits imposed by their funding and appetite for risk. They can control local planning policy: principally the density and the proportion of affordable housing they will accept from developers. But they cannot work miracles.
The minister implied that the answer is to build more housing in London. This is at best disingenuous. The other elements of housing policy, which are currently working against there ever being an achievable solution, must be reviewed and radically re-thought. Otherwise the consequences will be even more overcrowding, growing numbers in temporary accommodation, growing numbers of rough sleepers, inadequate private housing stock with low standards, and in a shrinking public housing sector, poor quality management as any remaining talent leaves the sinking ship.
At a time like this, the public sector needs leaders that can rally it to perform even better. A divisive approach reveals something of the true nature of the beast.
Agent151 is a senior local authority finance director.