Always look on the bright side…

After this week leaders’ debate I am going to stick my neck out and predict that the Conservatives will win a working majority at this election, perhaps by as many as 30 seats. A month from now, when Jeremy Corbyn is in Number 10, feel free to call me an idiot. At this stage of the last election the Conservatives had a stronger lead in the polls, but I don’t think Boris Johnson will make the same mistakes as Theresa May.

I know that a Johnson government will be a huge disappointment to most people in our sector, but I’ve always taken the view that we need to reach out across the political spectrum to make the case for social housing. When we founded the SHOUT campaign in 2014, we made sure that the launch included Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Green politicians. I also wrote an article for the Conservative Home website making the case for social rented homes.

If there is another Conservative government by Christmas, we’ll need to carry on arguing for social housing.

I wrote a recent blog about Boris Johnson’s views on housing. They are not encouraging. But the floor-crossing shenanigans of the last year have shown that political parties are not monoliths: they contain a range of views, and within the Conservative Party and on the right there are many voices calling for urgent attention to our housing crisis, which means that there’s some potentially fertile ground upon which to scatter our seeds of housing wisdom. Persuading the new government that social housing is a big part of the answer will be a struggle but “say not the struggle nought availeth”.

As an example, here are a few selected words from a senior Conservative politician:

“I want to see housing associations taking on and leading major developments themselves…your social mission can ensure developments are rooted in a conception of the public good, rather than in a simple profit motive…creating genuinely mixed communities with the right infrastructure and truly affordable housing…you also have a much broader role to play…changing the way tenants and society as a whole think about social housing…for many people, a certain stigma still clings to social housing…some residents feel marginalised and overlooked, and are ashamed to share the fact that their home belongs to a housingassociation or local authority…I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.”

That could have been in a speech by Jeremy Corbyn, but it was of course Theresa May, speaking to the NHF in September last year. If you search for housing-related articles on the Conservative Home website you will find a range of views on housing, some very positive. For example, here is Bob Seely erstwhile MP for the Isle of Wight, calling for between 250,000 and 340,000 net additions a year; for upwards of £9bn of funds to go to registered providers to buy up and convert bungalows and provide a new generation of key worker and starter homes; for an end to the automatic right to buy; and for government to pass government land to councils more swiftly.


Next is our ally Lord Gary Porter bemoaning the rampant nimbysim among traditional Tory voters, and arguing the case for better funding of infrastructure and new homes to attract younger middle-aged voters.

Or here is Will Tanner, a former advisor to Theresa May, describing how careful resident consultation can overcome nimby opposition, citing a scheme in Newquay where the community was persuaded to support a four-times larger mixed use development on the edge of town that will increase the size of the town by 20%. A development that “will serve Newquay’s housing needs for not just five but the next fifty years”. By engaging sensibly with local people and meeting their needs, and not just the short-term interests of developers and landowners, nimbys were turned into yimbys, he writes.

Of course, there are also voices at the other end of the spectrum, like our old friend Harry Phibbs asking why we have targets for housebuilding, since we don’t set target for the the number of dishwashers or pairs of trousers we need each year.

Some commentators from the right-leaning press are also making a very strong case for radical reforms to build more homes, arguing that the Tories will lose unless they address the housing crisis. Foremost is Liam Halligan (“Tackle Britain’s housing crisis or risk socialist rule”). He has been economic correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph since 2003 (he shared a flat with Dominic Cummings in Moscow in the mid-nineties) and his new book, Home Truths, sets out a radical reform agenda. He calls for supply-side stimuli rather than the £billions that have been wasted on Help to Buy. He rails against the oligopoly that is the housebuilding industry and urges stiff fines for developers who fail to build out their sites. He supports selective building on the Green Belt (yes!), and, above all, the repeal of the 1961 Land Compensation Act so that landowners can be fairly taxed for any uplift in land values.

To take a typical example from recent government figures, a hectare of agricultural land around Reading might sell for £22,000, but the same land with residential planning permission could fetch £5m. Halligan suggests a 50/50 split in the uplift for the landowner and the state. This revenue, he says, could be ring-fenced to fund the new schools, hospitals and other infrastructure that would make housebuilding more popular with local communities, and allow local authorities to build millions of social homes. This is a call that is being supported by, among others, Sajid Javid (it would ease land speculation, he says) and Tony Pidgeley, founder of Berkeley Homes.

All this is hardly traditional Tory fare – in fact, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Labour manifesto. It seems that the scale and range of the housing crisis is finally hitting home.

So, look on the bright side, there are chinks of light on the horizon. To quote another song, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

Stay or go?

Last week I wrote about the Grenfell Inquiry. One of the points raised in Sir Martin Moore Bick’s Phase 1 report was the failure to reverse the “stay put” advice once it was clear that the block was beyond saving. Ever since the 1960s it has been an article of faith that compartmentalisation in tower blocks does not require mass evacuation, and that moving hundreds of people out of a block could be more dangerous than them staying put. Not only is there a danger that stairways will be dark, smoke-filled and fire-ravaged, leading to a degree of confusion and panic, but one has to bear in mind disasters where people died as a result of being crushed in a confined space, such as Bethnal Green tube (1943:173 deaths), Ibrox (1971: 66 deaths), and Hillsborough (1989: 96 deaths).

One of the inquiry’s recommendations is that the government should put in place national guidelines requiring the owners and managers of high-rise residential blocks to draw up plans for the partial or total evacuation of their buildings. These should include measures to protect exit routes and to prepare personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs) for vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, people with disabilities, and families with young children, for whom evacuation might be more difficult. Their details should be provided in a property information box, stored on the premises, and copies of these plans should be lodged with local fire and rescue services and also displayed within the premises. The inquiry also recommends that the fire and rescue service should be able to send a signal to all or some residents to instruct them to evacuate using “sounders or similar devices”. Continue reading

Safety First: The Grenfell Inquiry

Ali Yawar Jafari was born in Afghanistan in 1936. He was a keen traveller, and fond of animals and gardening. Once, he saw a pigeon whose legs were tied in string and he waited for days to catch it so that he could free it. He told his family that he was pleased the pigeon was now free to go wherever it wanted. Ali Yawar lived in flat 86 at Grenfell Tower and was 81 when he died in the fire on 14 June 2017.

This is just one tiny human story in the 174 pages of testimonies in Chapter 32 (“Remembering those who died”) of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s official Grenfell Tower Inquiry. I challenge you to read these pages without crying. They reveal the human side of this catastrophe, of the talented, diverse, hardworking people living in that block. A community of Londoners that was let down by the state and its agents.

Just to recap the key events of that night. A fridge fire in flat 16 on the fourth floor was reported at 12.54am in a 999 call. Two fire engines arrived at 12.59am and two more shortly after. By 1.20am they had extinguished “an ordinary kitchen fire”, in the report’s words, but by this stage the fire had spread into the external cladding. Within 20 minutes it had reached the roof and then spread around the whole block, moving upwards and downwards. By 1.50am 168 residents had evacuated the building. By 2.47am the normal “stay put” policy was abandoned and a further 36 residents escaped. The last resident was evacuated at 8.07 am.

72 people died.

The firefighters who attended “displayed extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty” but the London Fire Brigade comes in for some criticism in the report for control and communication failures, its lack of up to date information about the tower and for its failure to call for earlier evacuation between 1.30 and 1.50 am.

But hindsight is wonderful. No firefighter could have been prepared for what was encountered that night, the speedy spread of the fire and the catastrophic failure of a fundamental principle of firefighting – compartmentalisation.

Part Two of the Inquiry will look at the wider construction and safety issues, but the Inquiry has already reached some fairly firm conclusions about the rapid spread of the fire. When the block was refurbished in 2016 foam insulation panels were affixed to the concrete façade and these were protected by aluminium composite (ACM)  rainscreen panels which had a polyethylene core. There were cavities between the original concrete façade, the insulation panels and the ACM panels, to allow ventilation and drainage.

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Striking Gold

Last week a new council scheme in Norwich was judged to be the UK’s “best new building”, winning the RIBA’s prestigious Stirling Prize, and beating off competition from London Bridge Station and an opera house, among others. This is a remarkable achievement: not only is it the first-time social housing has won the prize, but it reflects a (perhaps short-lived?) renaissance of council house building across the country.

If you missed it, Goldsmith Street comprises almost 100 Passivhaus homes designed by Mikhail Riches, a mix of two storey houses bookended by flats with private balconies, all at social rent. There is generous space for bikes and prams, and it is car free with play spaces dotted throughout the site. The judges described it as:

“A modest masterpiece. It is high-quality architecture in its purest, most environmentally and socially conscious form…This is proper social housing, over ten years in the making, delivered by an ambitious and thoughtful council. These desirable, spacious, low-energy properties should be the norm for all council housing.”

Hear, hear to that.

The Passivhaus standard means that the homes are cheap to run, costing no more than £150 a year to heat.

One resident said: “The ceilings are really high and there’s loads of storage…The boys share a bedroom but it’s so big it could be two bedrooms. There’s so much space that honestly you don’t know what to do with it.” Residents are already reporting improvements to their mental and physical health. That is what good, affordable social housing can do.

The scheme has faced some criticism for its cost – £1,875 per square metre, excluding fees. But I have always taken the view that quality will out, and that it makes sense to take a very long-term view of social housing.

We should pride ourselves on adopting different values and principles to speculative housebuilders, who move from site to site often without much care for the long-term impact of their schemes.

I think the Goldsmith Street homes will still be standing a century from now, unlike some of the shoddy places that have been built over the past fifty years by private house builders, and, dare I say it, housing associations.

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