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How much has changed in housing policy since the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017?

Yelena Jurkenas evaluates the measures the government has put in place to prevent housing fires since the Grenfell fire in 2017

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On 14 June 2017 flames swarmed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey social housing block of flats located in North Kensington, London. There were 72 deaths and another 70 suffered traumatic injuries. The fire is reported to have been sparked in flat 16 on the fourth floor near a Hotpoint fridge-freezer. However it was ultimately  the cladding encasing the building which exacerbated the spread of the fire. The fire arguably could have been contained had the cladding not been there and had better fire protection facilities been in place.

Hence the question arises, what could have contained the fire? First of all, there should have been a wet riser taking firefighting water to the peak of the tower and the fireman’s lift should also have been in working order. Alongside this, the windows were set in plastic which melted at 50 degrees. The authority’s advice of stay put was a fault too, as it should have been abandoned when the cladding caught fire.

The apartment front doors also lacked an automatic close function. After residents left the fire had a free passageway to continue raging through the building. This suggests that the condition of the social housing was neglected due to the attitude of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) towards Grenfell residents. Therefore, this fire represents a divide between the way deprived and advantaged communities should be treated. Prior to the fire, the residents of Grenfell Tower lobbied for change in the building, but it took a fire for the authorities to listen. Even now we wonder – what has been achieved to avoid history repeating itself?

Since the devastating fire an inquiry into its cause has prompted £46 million in national government funds and the establishment of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce to confront the RBKC to commit to delivering better support for residents and renewing public trust in social housing.

In response to the fire the Labour Party drew up a new social housing agenda which includes the promise of installation of sprinkler systems. They also commit to accountability on these policies meaning there is a third-party incentive to follow through with their promises. However, since the Labour Party are still in opposition their influence is limited, and their policies may not gain the leverage needed to enact the necessary radical change to social housing policies. Social housing initiatives are changing significantly but as the change originates in the opposition rather than in the parties in power it suggests that in reality only minimal change is surfacing.

There is hope though. In 2020, the Conservative Party drew up a new manifesto for their key housing policies. Here, they commit to implementing all the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry and they promise to remove flammable cladding from all high-rise buildings. Despite this encouragement, these pledges lack funding commitments implying they are largely backed by rhetoric instead of action.

Many are still worried due to the plethora of unkept promises from the government regarding social housing policy that continues this worrying state of affairs. As Lord Greenhalgh reminded us on 14 June last year, the removal of cladding is an ‘ambition’ not a ‘promise’. This affirms that only minimal change is surfacing in social housing policy and the authorities still do not take the appalling fire enhancing conditions of many blocks seriously.

Housing policies continue to arise from a complicated relationship between local government and Local Fire Authorities and Local Authority Building and Planning Control. Time and time again this emphasises the lack of specific requirements for building design and guidelines leaving central government confused. This feeds into local government prioritising cost initiatives in an attempt to see through the vague health and safety regulations.

It is important to note that this issue stretches beyond the social housing spectrum as many private developers now realize their error in installing the dangerous flammable cladding. Many private tenants have had to pay for cladding removal with this being most common amongst mid-rise and low-rise buildings. The Secretary of State for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove has now introduced a deadline of early March 2022 for the removal of cladding on 11-18 metre buildings with the threat of government intervention should the industry fail to meet these requirements.

The Government is working to support those who can’t afford the costs of removing cladding but unfortunately it is not offering refunds for those who have already paid, sparking outrage. The Government has also adapted the Building Safety Fund to relieve the immense costs on leaseholders, suggesting that commitments are at last being made.

The Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 set in motion the channels needed to radically change housing policy for the better yet due to the infrastructure of housing decisions remaining the same only minimal change surfaces. The accountability initiatives now exist, and authorities have been woken up to the effect vague policies can have on lives. Although the majority of change is still to be enacted, waves are being made to achieve safer housing for those in social and private housing.

Qualified fire engineering experts need to be employed to assess fire safety regularly, building regulations must be tested, and governance needs to increase in relation to fire safety. Unfortunately, until these requirements are met social housing remains in a postcode lottery of fire safety. Dictated by local government’s ability to interpret local authorities’ recommendations and perspective on what is more important, safety or money saving incentives. This is where transparency and accountability instigated by third parties in particular becomes essential because they infiltrate at the local level. Ensuring that local governments comply with central regulations set up through careful consideration.

To rectify the minimal change that has taken place since 2017, central government must meet with fire safety professionals, set up new regulations and do everything within their power to encourage local governments to commit to these safety regulations to prevent tragedy occurring once more.

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