THE BLOG

Grenfell, And How Council Residents Are Used To Being Ignored

20/06/2017 12:07

Since waking up on Wednesday morning, I have thought of little other than Grenfell Tower. And like many others must surely be doing, I have thought of what it must be have been like for those residents trapped in that block, waiting for a rescue that never came.

I live in a council block in Haringey in North London. Situated in Highgate, and surrounded by multi-million pound homes, ours is a mixed and friendly community, and one that is used to battling our Labour council, and the 'Arms-Length Management Organisation' (ALMO), Homes for Haringey, that manages the housing stock, for even the most basic repairs to be carried out.

As a leaseholder I sometimes feel disempowered, because I know that I am part of the problem. I purchased my flat in 2006 from the tenants who had bought it from the council in the early '90s. A bus driver and a cleaner, they sold it for ten times what they had bought it for, and retired to their native Jamaica on the proceeds. If this sounds like a success story, we just have to consider what 'right to buy' has meant in terms of the decimation of council housing stock, and the resultant housing waiting lists.

Shortly after moving in I got together with other residents - tenants and leaseholders - and resurrected the residents' association. Homes for Haringey were keen to encourage this, and I soon figured out why: it helped them tick the 'resident involvement' box.

It transpired, however, that involved residents - ones who ask for repairs to be done and chase council officers when said repairs aren't carried out - are not much liked by councils at all. When I read the blog about the Grenfell Tower residents' demands that repairs were carried out and that the block was made safe, and read too of the responses they received from the council, my blood ran cold. It was an all too familiar tale.

Also a familiar tale is the way in which tenants are often treated with disdain by the powers that be. One neighbour, a leaseholder, recounted how a council employee came into her back garden, wandered into her kitchen and started commenting on her 'posh fridge'. When he realised she was a leaseholder, not a council tenant, he quickly retreated.

I too have been met with snobbery by more affluent local residents. When I told a woman in the next street (multi-million pound properties, well-appointed flats) that I lived on the estate, she complained that "You lot are always playing loud music." 'You lot'?

Much has been said about the Tory-led Kensington and Chelsea Council, and how it was their Tory ethos that meant they ignored residents and chose, to name but one failing, to spend £2 less a square metre on unsafe cladding, whilst giving richer residents council tax rebates. And yes, right to buy was introduced by Thatcher. And yes, Tories have opined that council blocks have no place in London.

But I know that Labour-led councils also fail those living in council housing. They contract out the management of their housing stock to the lowest bidder, which conveniently - they hope - absolves them of responsibility should there be a problem. ("It's not us, it's Homes for Haringey!" is a refrain I have heard all too often).

Two years ago, the council proposed a number of sites for new housing developments. Most of it would be unaffordable, and would do little/nothing to help the housing crisis. On the contrary, since some of the sites earmarked would mean the demolition of council estates, it would worsen the problem.

Our estate was one of the sites earmarked for possible demolition. The council scheduled a meeting to discuss the proposals with residents. We were told about it via a letter stuffed through our doors on the day of the meeting itself. Nevertheless, many of us turned up, angry at what was being proposed.

A Turkish neighbour of mine, a council tenant, who was pregnant at the time, was told by a council official that she was being 'selfish' for wanting to keep her home, because where were the council meant to put all the new homes they needed to build?

The meeting was heated and angry, as could be expected. Residents, many of whom had lived in their homes for decades, suddenly faced being uprooted. When this has happened elsewhere in London council tenants have sometimes been rehomed as far away as Yorkshire. We knew that our demands for repairs to be done, which had so often been ignored, had meant that our estate was run down to the extent that it was now viewed as a demolition prospect.

We recharged the Residents' Association and challenged the council to remove our estate from the list of proposed sites. Eventually they backed down, and the estate was instead 'regenerated' (we've heard that word a lot over the past week).

However, although the outside of the blocks was improved, and many tenants received some internal improvements in their flats, one thing was not touched: the electrics.

Lights flicker, bulbs pop prematurely. After spotting burn marks on my kitchen ceiling, I paid an electrician to do a safety check of the wiring. Although he deemed it safe, I am not convinced, and wonder what it would take for the council to re-wire the block.

This is not the only safety concern. The estate is next to a builders' yard, and the wall that divides the two is cracked, dramatically slanted in places and crumbling. Behind the top of the wall, where wire fencing is erected, piles of building materials such as bricks tower high and often lean precariously. The year before I moved in, another resident told me, a pile had toppled over into the narrow street. Luckily no one was hit.

I spent ten years complaining about this wall. Today it is more threatening-looking than ever. When I walk my children past it on the way to school, I often fill with anxiety.

I'm sure this story will be familiar to all too many council residents across London, indeed, across the UK. How many of us have used up so much energy asking for even basic repairs to be carried out? How many of us have worried about the safety of our accommodation?

Grenfell has brought into sharp focus the lives of those who don't usually get noticed, made audible the voices that are usually ignored. Those responsible need to be held to account. Councils everywhere - of every political hue - must step up and put people before profit. Change must come before yet more lives are lost.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS