The Grenfell Tower tragedy shows how little our institutions care for the lives of black or poor people, writes LIZ DAVIES
THE Grenfell Tower fire is one of those dreadful defining moment, which can change public policy. The 1966 Aberfan disaster led to improved safety legislation for mines and quarries. The 1996 Dunblane shooting led to restricted gun ownership.
Immediately, public authorities must rehouse the residents (of the tower itself and the low-rise block in its shadow), provide mental and physical health services and help them to rebuild their lives. The council was slow to respond appropriately. Political pressure has led to rehousing plans which are far more than the legal minimum required.
That’s unsurprising given the tragic circumstances and the public reaction. But it also shows up just how inadequate the legal minimum is: homeless families who have become homeless for the more usual reasons of eviction or relationship breakdown are entitled to temporary accommodation while they wait for an offer of a 12-month private rented tenancy.
Both the temporary accommodation and the tenancy could be anywhere in the country, provided that the council considers it to be “suitable” — a very low threshold.
The government’s announcement that people made homeless from the fire will receive permanent accommodation in the locality within a year is appropriate; a better society would give the same offer to all homeless people.
In the long-term, those bereaved, displaced, traumatised need justice. “Justice4Grenfell” is already a slogan, the name of a campaign group and a Twitter hashtag.
What does “justice” mean in practice? It means not being put in a worse position than they were: rehoused, given facilities and compensation (although money is never an adequate remedy for this trauma).
It means not being treated harshly: those residents who might have had uncertain immigration status should not be deported. And it means answers so that it cannot happen again.
So the Moore-Bick inquiry, if it is to provide justice, has a big job on its hands. First, there has to be a comprehensive, but urgent, investigation into the causes of the fire and the reason for so many deaths — so that other tower blocks can be made safe.
How did the fire start? Why did it spread so quickly? Were the installations, including the cladding, of low quality? Should there have been sprinklers in the common parts? Why was the means of escape so limited?
Moore-Bick needs to make recommendations as to proper levels of fire safety, adequate escape, and the correct instructions to residents. If a fire can spread so rapidly, the instructions to remain in the flats were surely wrong.
Second, the reasons behind any inadequate building works need exploring. What was the budget and to what extent were cheaper materials used, with consequences for fire safety? Who was responsible for inspection of the works? What did the inspection reveal? How comprehensive was it? And how accountable was the inspection — were the works independently inspected or signed off by the contractors involved?
How many contractors and subcontractors were employed and what was the system of accountability for their work to the council? How many layers were there between companies on the ground, the Tenant Management Organisation and the council?
Above all, why were the residents not listened to? It is beyond heartbreaking to read the Grenfell Action Group blog from 2013 warning of electrical power surges throughout the building, and inadequate means of escape, and with no response from the authorities. Was that contempt for residents? An impenetrable bureaucracy?
Third, there are some very deep structural issues to be considered. The residents have complained that they tried to seek legal advice, to take action against the council, and that legal aid was not available.
Legal aid cuts have certainly reduced free legal advice available since 2013.
But even when there was a more generous legal aid scheme, it would have taken some inventive and creative lawyering to produce any legal remedies for the residents.
That’s because there are very few legal avenues available for council tenants: the Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (HHSRS) in the Housing Act 2004 provides remedies for councils to take enforcement measures against private landlords, on behalf of private tenants.
Council tenants can sue their landlords for disrepair, but inadequate fire safety installations would not be disrepair.
Councils are liable to tenants for any personal injury caused by defects to the common parts, but only once the personal injury has been suffered.
Lawyers could reel off parts of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, the Defective Premises Act 1972, the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957 and several more statutes. Each one is limited. There is no comprehensive legal remedy.
The inquiry could usefully consider whether housing law could be codified, so that there are easily enforceable rights to a safe, secure, warm and decent home.
Kensington and Chelsea has consistently topped the list of boroughs with the highest number of empty properties. The council’s website offers financial help to homeowners, to persuade them to let out the properties.
But it doesn’t tackle the basic problem, which is that properties, particularly in London, are now bought as capital investments, rather than to be lived in, or let out.
The owners don’t want them to be occupied; they just want to watch the capital value increase.
Our economy has prioritised home ownership as a source of wealth, rather than providing homes.
Moore-Bick should investigate the very limited ability of councils to buy up empty properties, and consider systems that would effectively penalise investors leaving homes empty.
Underpinning all of these issues is an inequality of power.
Council tenants don’t have the same clout as richer tenants, or owner-occupiers.
For over 35 years, national governments have systematically underfunded social housing. Council housing stock has diminished — through transfer to housing associations, right to buy and restrictions on councils’ ability to borrow and build more properties.
People waiting for council housing are desperate, and treated as desperate. They are given one offer of social housing only, told to “take it or leave it,” however inadequate it may seem.
Add in that those waiting for council housing are disproportionately from black and ethnic minority communities and there is a real sense that black lives — or poor lives — don’t matter.
- Liz Davies is a legal aid barrister specialising in housing and homelessness law. She is the honorary vice-president of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. She writes in a personal capacity.