This week’s appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower shocked the nation. The massive fire that engulfed the building claimed countless lives – authorities fear the exact number may never be known – put dozens in hospital and made many more residents homeless. It has also left people scared, angry and searching for answers.
How could this happen in one of the richest and most safety-conscious countries in the world? An investigation is now under way into the cause of the fire. The Prime Minister has said there will be a full public inquiry. Experts have pointed at the exterior cladding’s polyethylene core as a cause of the fire spreading. One residents’ group at the west London estate warned last year of a fire risk at the council-owned block.
The Grenfell Tower fire has prompted a wider debate on the standard of social housing blocks across the country. Back in 2000, when Gordon Brown was at No 11 as Chancellor, he promised to improve the nation’s stock of social housing. Brown introduced the ‘Decent Homes Standard’ in 2002, aiming to repair homes owned by councils and housing associations. A lot of money was spent – £20bn – doing repairs and refurbishment work to make sure homes were warm, safe and watertight.
A great deal of improvement did take place. A 2010 report by the Communities and Local Government department showed almost 90 per cent of social housing stock met the Decent Homes Standard. And yet 10 per cent of Britain’s social housing was still considered “non-decent”.
Serious safety concerns have been raised since then. According to a 2011 study by the Chief Fire Officers Association and Chartered Institute of Housing, only 27 per cent of housing managers in the sector felt confident their buildings were “fit for purpose” regarding fire safety. And in 2013, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue advised installing new systems and sprinklers in 4,000 towers across the UK – a recommendation not acted upon.
All tenants have rights – and all councils and housing associations have complaints procedures
There have also been concerns about disabled tenants living in unfit homes because some local authorities have not adequately adapted them. The charity Leonard Cheshire recently estimated that 300,000 disabled people are still living in unsuitable homes.
What can residents do to raise their voices? Housing expert Tom Murtha, founder member of the SHOUT campaign to protect social housing, said the transfer of so much housing stock from councils to housing associations hadn’t necessarily resulted in tenants’ complaints being heard any louder. “It was always difficult for council tenants to get representation,” he said. “Since the stock transfer process, some housing associations have really well-developed, progressive ways to engage and involve tenants, while others pay lip service to it. But it’s important to remember, all tenants have rights, and all councils and housing associations have complaints procedures.”
If a social housing tenant has concerns about the condition or safety of their home, what should they do? What rights and recourse exist to fight for improvement?
- Tenants can directly contact their landlord, either the council’s housing department or housing association, to explain the problem, before asking about the complaints procedure.
- Some residents will also have a local tenant management organisation (TMO), a body of council or housing association tenants that have responsibility over a maintenance budget and the responsibility to make concerns over safety clear to the building owner.
- Other, less formal tenants’ and residents associations (TRAs) have proved useful in campaigning over collective issues that don’t seem to be getting proper attention. TPAS, England’s leading tenant engagement experts, offer guidance to both tenants and landlords. In Scotland, TIS (Tenants Information Service) promotes better tenant participation, and in Wales, Welsh Tenants provides tenants with advice and guidance.
- Shelter provides free, independent advice to social housing tenants, with local advisers explaining rights and landlords’ responsibilities over repairs. And Citizens Advice can also explain rights, depending on whether you are a secure tenant, an assured tenant or a starter tenant.
- If you are a local authority tenant in England and you feel you’ve exhausted your landlord’s complaints procedure, you can complain to the Local Government Ombudsman, or Housing Ombudsman if you are a housing association tenant. In Wales, any social housing tenant can complain to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. In Scotland, it’s the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.