Learning the lessons from Grenfell

The tragedy at Grenfell Tower four months ago shocked the country and threw the country’s relationship with social housing into sharp relief. Since the fire we’ve been supporting and campaigning for the rights of survivors, and for wider changes in social housing. As part of beginning to understand what these changes look like and how wide reaching they need to be, we hosted a panel event this week.

This event gave Mahboubeh Jamalbatan, who lived in Grenfell Tower and who Shelter has been supporting through the rehousing process, the opportunity to tell her story to people from across the housing sector, political spectrum, and beyond. Her account was incredibly moving and raised some key questions for the panellists and audience members.

We were also joined by Polly Neate, CEO of Shelter, Ed Miliband MP, Edward Davies, director of policy at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), and Victoria Vasey, director of North Kensington and Chelsea Law Centre.

As one attendee stated – we could have had a daylong conference on Grenfell and the housing crisis and still have more to say; but the conversation on Monday did pull out some key themes and issues that are important to ensuring things are improved in the future.

There are some practical lessons that need to be learned

Victoria Vasey’s experience providing legal support for residents of Kensington and Chelsea highlights that unsuitable offers are still being made to former residents of the tower. They’re being put up in houses which are so damp families can’t sleep on the beds and they’re facing hold-ups as the council has no clear process for drawing up tenancy agreements. Both she and Ed Davies agreed that there can be no one-size fits all approach to fixing housing, both for families at Grenfell and for homeless people across the country, but there are steps that can be taken immediately.

There’s a stigma around social housing and its tenants that needs to change

In her opening statement Mahboubeh closed by saying that ‘although I know that a number of authorities are trying to resolve [our] issues and I thank them, my request is to change the attitude of local authorities towards the residents’.

The event featured input from members of the audience including Southwark Tenant’s Association who echoed the survivor’s words and those of Victoria Vasey in calling for residents’ voices to be better heard and for us to address the real stigmatisation of tenants in council and housing association properties. An audience member put it succinctly: we need to build more social housing that we can be proud of. The central focus of much discussion at the event was the decades-long under investment in social housing and widespread ignoring of wholly justified concerns raised by tenants.

Change is not guaranteed; we must fight for it

Ed Miliband voiced the concerns of many in the room when he stated that society always assumes that we will learn the lessons and react when a tragedy like Grenfell happens, but he does not think it is inevitable. It’s part of everyone’s job to make sure the lessons are learned and we shouldn’t shy away from fighting to make this happen.

Housing is a crisis that no government has really got to grips with and we need fundamental change to improve the situation. Ed Miliband and Polly Neate agreed with a question from the floor that local authorities should be allowed to borrow to build and all panellists agreed we cannot divorce housing from the wider societal context. As Ed Davies argued, we can’t just talk about housing, we also need to talk about the people living in the housing – he presented statistics and arguments about a wide range of interconnected policy areas such as employment, productivity and education.

What happens next

We agree that we cannot let the tragedy of Grenfell go forgotten and are working hard to help make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

There needs to be fundamental changes to address the ‘real disconnect between an overly complex legal framework, and the need to protect tenants’ rights’ as our CEO said on Monday. Shelter has commissioned a legal review of housing law with the Universities of Bristol and Kent. This will identify the legal factors and gaps in the law that contributed to this tragedy and we will be using these findings to push for change in the government’s green paper on social housing.

Furthermore, we are urging all politicians to support the private members bill on Fitness for Human Habitation. Tenants at Grenfell Tower repeatedly raised safety concerns which were not acted upon. This cross-party bill will empower tenants to make their voices heard and compel their landlords to resolve safety concerns. Fundamentally, this bill reinforces their right to live and to raise their children in genuinely safe homes.

If you’d like to know more about our work on Grenfell, catch up on Shelter’s legal review.