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Elephant and Castle estate
An estate in Elephant and Castle, south London

How Grenfell put the past, present, and future of social housing into focus

From Ronan Point to the Ledbury estate, Kieran Yates speaks to tower block residents about living in fear and being neglected by the state

“Everyone got scared, didn’t they? We were. After Grenfell happened, you think about escape. ‘Could I jump from this it manageable?’”

Michael Hooker lives in the second storey of a four-storey council block on St Matthews Estate in Brixton. I’m here, door knocking, asking residents about their sense of home, and their sense of safety. After last year’s fire at Grenfell Tower, which killed at least 72 people and displaced many more, almost 100 tower blocks around the UK were found to have failed fire safety checks. A BBC report in July 2017 reported that in Lambeth, samples of three buildings failed a safety test. Though the number is small, how does this smoke-and-mirrors approach – which tells residents in social housing tower blocks nothing about which specific buildings have failed tests – affect the locals who live in those very buildings?

“I’m not sure if I feel safe or not”, ponders Hooker at his front door. “But I know lots of people on this estate that didn’t after Grenfell. Every second Wednesday of the month, there’s a residents’ meeting, and I know people said they were worried. I think people wanted fire extinguishers in individual homes to stop them getting stolen. But I suppose Grenfell is a one-off, isn’t it?”

The uncertainty is telling. Hooker is one of many occupants of social housing across the UK who, in the wake of the Grenfell fire, are newly aware of how unsafe their homes may be. Like other residents of his borough, Hooker received a letter from Lambeth council in the week after the fire. The letter (which is online) reassured tenants that works would be carried out to protect their safety, and also noted that cladding – while not the same particular type of SCM cladding that saw the fire whip up the Grenfell building – was used on 31 of Lambeth’s 122 medium/high-rise blocks of (six storeys and above). As with many other places around the UK, the borough began carrying out tests on the cladding used on buildings, leaving residents waiting anxiously to find out if they were deemed “safe”.

Morena Gentili is an Italian neighbour who has recently moved to this same estate, St Matthews. She lives on the third storey. Propped up by the balcony, she says that though she has not been in the UK long, she was here to watch the images of Grenfell Tower burn on the TV. “No, I wouldn’t say I would know what to do in a fire,” she sighs. “I don’t know if we have fire extinguishers...I don’t feel really safe here, no. I think after Grenfell, people are fearful.”

This is not to mention the residents who have been left in an even more terrifying and precarious housing situation after being actually displaced by the fire. Amanda Fernandez is an ex-resident of the Lancaster West Estate, who lived directly beneath the Grenfell Tower, in its walkway. I meet her at a Holiday Inn Express in Hounslow where she is currently living, 11 months after the fire, still waiting to be housed. “I didn’t choose to be here, I don’t want to be here,” she says. “I said, ‘Look, I’ll take Camden, Westminster, but I have to go to work, I’m the only one who speaks English in my immediate fam…’”

She’s explaining how the media has seized on the narrative that she must be grateful for any option of housing offered. “People have been housed outside London, and have to accept it. I’m supposed to rebuild my life with no one around me, in the middle of a community where I don’t know anyone? At first I was trying to build myself up, like maybe it's good to be out of the area, but then it was like…it caused more stress, it affected my health. Even if they said we’ll give you a seven bedroom house and garden in Hounslow, I wouldn’t want it.”

Like other residents waiting nervously for bureaucratic work to be done as their lives hang in the balance, Fernandez feels forgotten by the state. “The communication within the council is terrible – I’ve had to speak to three or four people about housing alone, and each time I have to go over what's happened to me. Sometimes I get so upset – the longer you keep these people in a hotel, the bigger the trauma, or the quicker they’re just gonna give up and take whatever is given to them.” She sinks into her chair and sighs. “You hear of trauma breaking people to the point that they die and I don’t want my mum and aunt to get so stressed we end up losing them over this, or the young girls to grow up with some undiagnosed PTSD, and even me. I don’t want my trauma to define me.”

The lists detailing high-risk housing around the UK exist. A quick look on the BBC’s website to see where cladding tests have failed makes for chilling reading. At the time of writing, the list is extensive (Merle Court, Kilburn; Braithwaite House, Islington; Elizabeth House, Brent; River Apartments, Haringey; Marwood Towers, Everton). The list goes on, and includes a further unnamed 69 buildings in 18 areas. A closer look at the areas that have failed tests show Salford as the biggest culprit (Twenty-nine blocks of flats have so far failed safety tests in Salford – more than any other area, according to the latest figures).

Councils began removing cladding from nine tower blocks, containing more than 850 flats, on 25 June 2017, just 11 days after the fire. I emailed local housing organisations to ask for more detail on this, and left unanswered voicemails and emails for local councils, MPs, and housing associations. For the purposes of this piece at least, it seemed like talking to journalists was touchy ground. One email response from a spokesperson from housing association One Manchester emphasised that: “Our programme of work to replace the cladding on our tower blocks began in January 2018 and we anticipate it will continue into early 2019...We are also in the process of installing fire alarms in all of our high-rise buildings and these are now operational in communal areas at all blocks.”

So, work is being done. But what is the process of fixing these structural building works like for residents who live in these buildings while it takes place? In my own area of south London, the feeling of galvanising energy to respond and push back to the local council is fierce, as the threat of displacement looms.

Danielle Gregory is the founder of the Ledbury Action Group, a campaign group set up by residents of the Ledbury Estate in Peckham, where she has been living for the last eight and a half years – before being made to move (down the road) thanks to dangerous living conditions.

“I’m furious with (Southwark) council,” she emphasises, “because they have been so negligent. They’re not doing proper checks, they’re not being thorough, they’re not valuing human life and they’re putting people at risk every day and blaming it on a lack of central government funding.”

The Ledbury Estate is visible far before you reach it. It’s surrounded by small little shops that are frequented by its residents – including a hair shop, and a ‘mini market’ with a sign that shows its age as it advertises a bus pass and the national lottery. The 13-storey estate has 224 households and around 6-800 residents. Gregory lived on the 12th floor. On the day I visit Ledbury, the whole bottom floor is concealed with scaffolding, wire guards, and a sign declaring ‘Unauthorised entry to this site is strictly forbidden’. It’s clear that the block is half empty. I can’t help but wonder about the residents that still inhabit it, walking in and out past the warning signs to continue their lives in the upper storeys. I take my chance to speak to someone coming out about the future of their home. “It’s a mess, isn’t it,” says a middle-aged woman. “I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I’ve heard what is happening and I don’t like any of it, at all.”

The Ledbury Action Group was formed last summer after residents discovered “gaps and cracks” in four tower blocks on the estate, which had been flagged up and brushed off by the local authority, who said the gaps were merely cosmetic and would be filled. “Last summer the gaps got wider; I contacted the council again and was told the same thing.”

“Then Grenfell happened. It was a stark reminder that that could have been us. It was frustrating and angering, and a really frightening time for a lot of residents. I started reading, and realised that the gaps breached the compartmentation between flats, and although Southwark council refused to acknowledge that in the beginning, I decided to email photographs to London fire brigade and they got back fairly quickly saying that in their opinion it was a breach.” What followed, from Gregory’s perspective, was a literal quick fix – contractors started stuffing the gaps with fire-resistant material as a temporary solution.

While this past year has brought issues of negligence to the forefront for much of the public, many people living in social housing have been aware of dangers for a long time. Certainly, if like me, you’ve grown up fighting these battles on behalf of your family, this is just putting into sharp focus frustrations that you already know, and have grown up with.  

In fact, at the time of writing this, the preparations for this year’s 50th anniversary of another disaster are taking place. In 1968, six miles away from Ledbury, in Canning Town, the 22-storey tower block Ronan Point partially collapsed after a tenant lit a match for her gas stove, which resulted in an explosion which brought down one side of the building. It’s worth mentioning here that, upon closer inspection, the comparisons between Ronan Point and Ledbury are almost uncanny – and chilling. Ledbury – which was also built hurriedly in the urgent need for housing after WW2 – is a similar construction to Ronan Point. After the disaster, the government ordered that all such buildings be strengthened in case of gas explosions – but that still hasn’t happened for Ledbury. Gregory is pessimistic: “It will be years before they’ve done what they need to do.”

It doesn’t take a genius to draw parallels between the past, present, and future of social housing. Ronan Point, Ledbury Estate, and Grenfell Tower all provide a grim view of how social housing has been used against vulnerable communities by the state throughout history. Anyone who has lived in such housing – including myself – knows keenly just how you're treated when you demand due diligence. At the time of writing, Gregory and the other residents of Ledbury are waiting to hear whether they will be able to return home, and her lack of trust in a system that should exist to protect residents in state housing is an almost universal one. “We have the Old Kent Road regeneration exactly where the new tube station is supposed to be, so we’re all aware that they could be quite happy rubbing their hands together with glee over the timing. It gives them an opportunity to demolish the whole estate and build luxury flats, so we’re fighting that all the way.”

Grenfell, in its horror, galvanised groups like Ledbury Action Group, but it didn’t create them – these were battles that had raged long before the events of last year. Ronan Point took place in 1968, and it seems no real lessons were learned from it by those in power. For some, change in places like Salford is happening infuriatingly slowly, with building issues that may take a lifetime to rectify. For Ledbury, the community needs to maintain energy to fight their fate long after the next two years. Fernandez, and the many displaced people like her living in hotels, can only hope that the state sees her as a priority.

The only constant is the lack of trust in a system that should exist to protect residents in state housing. For residents like Hooker and Gentili, and many of those living in estates, blocks, and social housing across the country, these thoughts will surely weigh heavily on their minds as they begin to see that Grenfell, one of the greatest horrors of their lifetime was not unique. Healing the wounds of that realisation may take many more lifetimes.