Hard cash is needed to make social housing residents feel safe

In the Commons on Wednesday, MPs debated issues surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire, one month on. The scope of the public inquiry, the need to prioritise survivors and bereaved relatives, and the imperative pursuit of justice were all discussed.

But Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield Attercliffe and chair of the communities and local government select committee, raised a particularly crucial point. In the aftermath of the inferno, councils and housing associations across the country were encouraged to send cladding materials to be tested for combustibility and fire safety if towers under their jurisdiction had been clad. Every single sample has so far failed tests. Betts pointed out the mixed messages from housing minister Alok Sharma and other Conservatives on what happens next. Councils were initially told the cost of removing and replacing the cladding would be met in full by the government. Now, local authorities have been informed they will have costs refunded only if they can’t afford to pay.

Betts points out the big issue here: housing funding has been slashed to almost nothing since 2010. Any money for recladding towers will have to come from councils’ housing revenue accounts, rather than central funding. And for most councils, Kensington and Chelsea excepted, there is simply no money left.

The debate focused on what can be done to make social housing safer now. Sprinklers were mentioned repeatedly: Conservative David Amess was highly critical of the failure of his own party to properly legislate for fire safety, and many MPs spoke of the ludicrous “one in, two out” Conservative culture on regulation, brought in by David Cameron and George Osborne. That sprinklers aren’t in every social housing development, school and care home is down to two things: one, a government refusal to make the safety feature mandatory, and two, councils are skint and sprinklers are expensive.

Safety isn’t cheap, but nor should life be: people should have a right to live in housing that is adequate and won’t collapse, can contain a house fire and keeps us protected.

That so many of us don’t shows a two-pronged problem: diminished councils hit by savage austerity cuts that will only become deeper, and being beholden to companies for whom profit will always be king, and cost and corner cutting a greater priority than safety.

The building industry has rightly come under greater scrutiny, and many members of the public and politicians are calling for a review of building standards and regulation. But we also need to look at both central and local funding of housing.

For years, as the housing crisis diminishes our rights to adequate housing, the focus has been on housing supply and homelessness. This is important, but the safety and condition of our homes has fallen by the wayside. Social housing needs to be refurbished when it begins to shows signs of wear and poor insulation, but this should be done properly, with safety and the comfort of residents as the paramount concern, not cost. This can only happen if councils and housing associations are properly funded.

Not only should we be building more social housing to give people secure tenure and affordable homes, but we should be giving people councils that can function properly, housing the homeless, combatting rogue landlords, scrutinising environmental health, and making sure tenants are safe and comfortable in their homes.

Social housing is more than bricks and mortar: it’s a whole system and community. This can only work if the government accepts its failed austerity project has never been the right approach and certainly isn’t now. Local government and housing needs proper, long term investment, before more people are killed.

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