Opinion Articles

The Grenfell fire and the destruction of the British council estate

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As dawn broke over West London on Wednesday and people began the long process of piecing together the chilling details of the Grenfell fire it was not immediately obvious how to classify this structure. Responsibility seemed to lie in an indeterminate space between different state and non-state organizations - an alphabet soup of acronyms. Grenfell was built in 1974 at the peak of a final spurt of tower block construction in the capital (tower block construction had been waning elsewhere in the country since the late 1960s). The tower was managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Council until 1996 when all of all of the borough’s council homes were transferred to a Tenant Management Organization (TMO), a body run by a mixture of residents and council appointees. Its residents were a mix of TMO tenants and private renters, some paying as much as £2000 for a two bedroom flat. Grenfell’s 2016 refurbishment had been outsourced to a private developer named Rydon LTD who in turn outsourced the tower’s external cladding (which some have speculated may have contributed to the spread of the fire) to another private company, Harley Facades. Seven other private companies have been listed by The Guardian as playing a role in the management and refurbishment of the tower.  

The 1980 Housing Act, which gave the residents of Council housing the right to buy their homes at sub-market rates, is commonly seen as marking the termination of Britain’s hundred-year experiment with council housing. What is often forgotten is the equally significant effects on the principles of social housing of subsequent Tory housing legislation in the 1980s and 1990s. These laws allowed councils to unload their housing stock en masse to TMOs, Arm’s Length Management Organizations (ALMOs), Housing Action Trusts (HATs) and Housing Associations – bodies that blur the line between state bureaucracies, property developers and charities. We don’t yet know how the Grenfell blaze spread with such sickening speed but we do know that the Grenfell Action Group – an organized body of tower residents – wrote a blog post in November last year accusing the TMO of neglecting fire safety standards.  They denounced the body as “an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the everyday management of large scale social housing estates.”

Ambiguously managed, overly-fortified and increasingly privatized, the contemporary housing estate would be unrecognizable to the generation of architects that first conceived them. In 1954 a delegation from Sheffield Council travelled to Germany, Denmark and France to visit high density housing developments. Awed by the scale of these structures the visitors remarked on how their height and density made possible an entirely new way of living. Such buildings could provide for “almost every human need.” At a time when “community” was something to be constructed instead of discovered, these vast structures, it was hoped, would produce new political subjects, born in a concrete tangle of labyrinthine stairwells and overhead walkways.

From 1956 government housing subsidies to councils were tied to height, incentivizing councils to build upwards. The result was four hundred and forty thousand flatted British homes. While some of these blocks were dangerous and inhumane, others were modern, graceful structures, offering spacious well-located homes to working class former slum dwellers.

Even the shabbiest council estates were conceived of as totalities by their planners. It is their comprehensiveness that makes estates instantly recognizable. In many estates heat pumped into homes from municipally managed boilers replaced individual coal fireplaces. Centralized waste disposal systems replaced kerbside collections. Water, heat, repairs, rent, gas and electricity were all covered by an undifferentiated “service charge” paid to the council and provided as a public good rather than a metered commodity.

The last forty years has seen the undoing of the collective bedrock of comprehensively planned housing estates. These worlds have been torn to pieces, their forms of provision metered, unbundled, picked apart and privatized. Using a strange mix of evolutionary biology and rational choice theory, criminologists and planners such as Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman argued that public space (rather than poverty) was responsible for crime. Their theories resulted in mazes of waist-high dividing fences and the division of estates into fortified clusters divided by entry phones and thick metal doors. On Channel 4 News one Grenfell resident stated that he was able to help people escape from the back of the block only because he had bought his electronic key to open the security door. Meanwhile, from 1980, residents of council blocks began to purchase their own homes under ‘right to buy’. Estates became split between public and private ownership, with private residents demanding to disconnect from district heating systems and to audit each line of their service charges creating a host of legal problems. Facing unsolvable disputes over heating and public space on part-privatized estates, Leicester’s City Attorney wrote to the government in 1982 to complain that “these houses were not built for sale.”

While we do not yet know the causes of the hideous Grenfell fire there are many reasons why the quality of council housing in Britain has so declined. It is certainly not the case that high density apartment buildings go against the grain of human nature – one need only look at New York or Paris or indeed the glass forest of high income London housing that gets thicker with every passing year. Underfunding, neglect and gentrification are a big part of the story. A significant yet overlooked historical arc is the loss of the collective vision that guided such estates. In the eyes of politicians and property developers places like Grenfell are bereft of purpose, strewn wreckage left over from a former political epoch. They are awkward physical reminders of a social past that those in power would rather forget.  

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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