Grenfell and housing – which way now? NLA Sounding Board

Thursday 29 June 2017

©Agnese Sanvito

London must get better at pooling resources to respond to tragic events like the Grenfell Tower disaster and Government should regularly review building regulations and consider safety ratings for homes like the ones used for cars.

There must also be a root-and-branch review of how building control operates in this country, along with more thorough assessments of housing management structures and the design of estates, which appear to cut their tenants off from the street network. Finally, a solution needs to be found to the problem of councils being forced to take out a court order simply to gain access and inspect mixed tenure blocks. 

Those were some of the key views to emerge from the latest meeting of the NLA’s Sounding Board on the implications of Grenfell for the built environment sector and – separately but not unconnectedly – on any more general messages that could be delivered to new housing minister Alok Sharma. 

Introducing the session was Sue Foster OBE, Strategic Director Neighbourhoods and Growth, LB Lambeth, who has been immersed in the issue since 14 June and said that tragic and unexpected events such as Grenfell always bring action, in this case likely to be ‘really significant, across the industry’. It was important, said Foster, that recommendations are not simply made, but enshrined in regulation which allows local authorities to enforce, and the industry to ensure it delivers against new standards. Authorities such as Lambeth are faced with a major task, given its 122 blocks over 6 storeys in height, 31 of them either partially or fully-clad retrospectively. It is testing each, and while it is confident that the work done over the last five years is of a completely different form, Foster said she was mindful of Camden’s situation, where in one building’s case its cladding was not what that authority was expecting when it had commissioned it. 

Lambeth has responded further by reassuring its residents on safety and ‘reinforming’ them of the fire brigade’s message to stay in their own homes during incidents, with compartmentalisation the ‘absolute key’ to fighting fires in tall buildings. 

The learning for authorities across London, moreover, is that with the scale and form of the tragedy, said Foster, individual boroughs cannot mobilise the type of response and provide the right levels of empathy, support, communication and coordination for the people affected all by themselves. ‘We are now providing a much more coordinated response’, she said. ‘I would say that has taken longer than it should as a collected group of boroughs.’

Management of housing stock is another issue. ‘I think this will be quite a game changer in who is accountable, who has responsibility, how do we manage stock, particularly on multi-managed estates’. Tenure is one thing but management will have to be reviewed. Fire risk assessments too, should be ‘meaningful’, and Lambeth is reviewing its own tall buildings at the ‘much more intrusive’ Level 4. There could potentially be lessons to be learnt from other industries here. ‘You buy a car and know what safety rating it has’, said Foster. ‘You make a choice about what car you buy, partly on safety reasons. We don’t have a rating saying how safe you are in your home. I think this could require us to do something quite different around our communication with our residents and how safe they feel.’ Finally, the government needs to contribute funds to this whole scenario meaningfully, said Foster.

Daniel Moylan, Councillor, RB Kensington and Chelsea, said that part of the problem was that large residential blocks and estates were ‘machines’ with complex ‘systems’, such as heating and hot water, that were difficult to maintain piecemeal, by contrast to smaller-scale housing. Maintenance therefore required periodic major capital works (in the context of a perennial shortage of capital funding to social landlords) often long after deterioration in the systems had become evident.  But another issue was that in residential buildings people on the whole did not want to be decamped during works, anxious about both disruption and their right to return. So there was something about the built form of towers for residential purposes that created problems which could become ‘persistent and endemic’ for the occupants, with issues going beyond fire safety. ‘In addition there were social issues both about the sense of disempowerment social tenants felt, giving rise to anxieties in the face of major works; and about the severance of social housing from many working families, who had little access to it, undermining political commitment. ‘Tenure and empowerment are crucial to this,’ said Moylan. 

In Ealing, said Pat Hayes, there was a major incident 20 years ago where fire spread through an estate’s pitched roof form created for insulation, but which led to a change in building regulations. Reviews of such regulations should be done much more regularly, along with a look at the role of approved inspectors in the building control process. It is difficult for authorities to know what goes on in their stock in terms of occupation. But Hayes said we must not respond with totally inappropriate measures such as fire drills in the middle of the night. ‘We have to avoid overreacting’.

Ed Watson, Executive Director, Growth, Planning and Housing, City of Westminster said there were ‘endemic’ flaws in the system including the role of leaseholders and lack of knowledge about who lives in local authority stock or might be vulnerable. And, with a system built on compartmentalization, weak points such as non-compliant work carried out by leaseholders could undermine the rest of the prevention mechanisms. There is also a potential problem with the system that relies on third parties including contractors doing what they were expected to do. ‘There will be and has to be some fairly dramatic system-wide legislative and regulatory changes, the scale of which we haven’t really yet understood and the cost of which could be potentially unmanageable’, he said.

Pocket CEO Marc Vlessing said a look at international reporting on the Grenfell incident was instructive – the Germans and Dutch simply couldn’t understand how the UK subcontracts risk endlessly both in the public and private sector. ‘You create a culture in which you just don’t know any more what’s going on between arms-length TMO’s and councils, let alone main contractors and endlessly sub-contractors – ultimately where does accountability lie?’ Also, there now needs to be an acceptance that a complex world city such as London needs to have a certain minimum quantity of ‘redundant’ (i.e. surplus) housing which the system needs to maintain at any cost in order to move people in and out of in response to emergencies but also to assist in the fiendishly complicated task of decanting social tenants when trying to manage major refurbishment projects. Finally, he argued that local authorities needed to be much bolder in enforcing their rights to undertake improvements. Director of Planning and Strategic Transport, LB Croydon, Heather Cheesbrough added that regulations need to be reviewed, especially since they stopped being statutory and are now more to do with ‘judgment calls’, with permitted development rights – former office buildings now being residential – a particular concern. 

Digby Flower, Chair UK and Ireland, Cushman & Wakefield, said that a contrast was the commercial offices sector, where buildings now have BREEAM ratings and even Wired score ratings – why can there not be a similar rating for fire safety in public sector housing? But perhaps appropriate form should also be assessed for different kinds of tenants, said Savills’ director of world research Yolande Barnes. And the design of some estates and blocks was such that they are cut off from the street network, inhibiting access for fire engines and the ability of people to get out of their flats. ‘I think there is a broad issue about urban form’, she said.

The Sounding Board also discussed the new housing minister, Alok Sharma, who is the 14th to hold the role in the last 17 years. Heather Cheesbrough said Sharma’s background showed his backing for infrastructure projects such as Crossrail 2 and Heathrow, so a message to him on the importance of transport would perhaps be sensible, on projects such as the Croydon main line or on sub-regional planning issues like a new garden city. But Green Belt was another possible line of enquiry since it ‘fundamentally jeopardizes housing delivery’, although Pat Hayes questioned whether less regulation was even a faint hope in current circumstances. Perhaps, then, a new approach from government to stop bowing to NIMBY-ist approaches on development could be hoped for, suggested Cheesbrough. ‘What we need from central government is a real commitment to delivering housing’, she said. Other items for Sharma’s inbox might include looking at objectively assessing housing need, support for local authority house building and the ‘real no-brainer’ of an increase in planning fees, and legislation on CIL rates.

However, as London Communications Agency executive chairman Robert Gordon Clark suggested, given the previous discussion, a shopping list of requests may prove difficult to deal with, at least in the short term given the time the new Housing Minister may have to spend on the far-reaching implications of Grenfell.  Meanwhile Mayor Sadiq Khan has also had to deal with five major London events (the fire, the Croydon tram crash and three terrorism incidents) in less than a year, which may be starting to define his Mayoralty in a way no one expected. Whatever happens, how we communicate about housing and accusations of gentrification will come under closer scrutiny, said Central director Pat Brown, but what was also clear was that anything about the built environment had to be longer term than the political cycle, said Barnes. Might a cross-bench, cross-party approach be necessary on the built environment, not just housing? And might the House of Lord’s be a better place to lobby? Is there a case for a coalition on both sides of the house to do something about housing? ‘There is an absolute necessity to have cross-party support if anything is going to be done’, said Barnes. So perhaps, after all, a different approach to simply lobbying one housing minister is called for. Out of all this mire, though, said Emma Cariaga, Project Director for Canada Water, British Land, let’s hope that there is now at last a genuine interest in talking about housing at the top table. The focus has got to be on the Cabinet, and the Treasury. ‘This is about cash, and priorities’, she said. ‘Until there is sufficient focus and subsidy given to housing it only comes in huge quantity when there is subsidy available. Nothing will change without cash being properly prioritised for the delivery of housing in this country.’

New London Architecture (NLA) chairman Peter Murray said a Grenfell working group would be set up within NLA to debate the key issues, especially given its regular research on tall buildings. It is currently collaborating with the RIBA and Design Museum on bringing together a Housing Expo which will look at exemplars of good design at density and be on show in around three years’ time. There will also, said Murray, be space in NLA’s packed programme to take a look at comparable fire codes in Germany and Holland.


David Taylor

Editor, New London Quarterly 

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