Opinion

Damian Barr: Grenfell was caused by the politics of greed

Having grown up in a council house, the Big Issue columnist says that when it comes to public housing, profit has replaced paternalism

Margaret Thatcher

I didn’t know we lived in a council house until Broseley Homes started going up down the road. Until then, it was just our home: semi-detached, three-bed, one bath, back and front door, bleached front steps. Same as all the others on our street. Built to last for miners over mines now still as graves.

We could decorate as we liked. My mum variously subjected our walls to ‘modern’ textured Graham & Green, ‘luxurious’ red velvet flock and swirls of ‘easy to clean’ Artex. Our floors were concrete but carpeted. When we moved in, in 1987, the windows were old and brittle and Jack Frost left fingerprints on the inside.

Billboards promised ‘luxury family living’. Who would sleep there? What was a luxury family?

One summer the council came round and replaced every window in every house on every street in our scheme and fitted gas central heating, so my mum had to regloss our skirting boards. No more trying to sit closest to the fire. But not every house got done, here and there the old windows stared back. It took a while to work out they were the people who’d quietly exercised Maggie’s Right to Buy. We felt sorry for them.

Down the road, the shiny black diamond slag heaps of the bing were being flattened to make way for Broseley’s ‘bought hooses’. Billboards promised ‘luxury family living’ and after school we’d break into the building site and swing from scaffolding in unfinished rooms smaller than the ones we went home to. Who would sleep here? What was a mortgage? What was a luxury family?

At school, ‘council house’ became an insult, as much a marker of shame as the free school dinners I ate every lunchtime.  Walking my girlfriend home to the bungalow her parents owned, I marvelled at her red monoblock driveway, her front porch, her utility room – a luxury family! One day, I vowed, I would own a bought hoose. Now, I have two (or at least mortgages on them). I have gone from council tenant to homeowner and landlord. Maggie would be proud.

As Grenfell Tower burned I recalled what it felt like growing up in that council house in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s. I felt cared for and lucky. I also felt trapped. When my mum, who’d survived a cerebral haemorrhage, developed something like multiple sclerosis our home needed adapting. For nearly a year, she had to lobby for a shower because she couldn’t get in and out of the bath any more.

During all those months, I now know she couldn’t get properly clean, felt scared of falling, ashamed at having to shout to her teenage son to lift her naked out of the bath. The council eventually made the changes and made it all good. Now?

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Profit, literally suffocating, has replaced paternalism, merely stifling. Grenfell hasn’t been about politics, it was caused by the politics of greed. Residents of Grenfell Tower warned for years that the 24-storey tower had no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escape and just one staircase. Fatal, regardless of being wrapped in the cladding that’s banned in America – where it’s made and where the profits go – and since found on dozens of other blocks across Britain.

Metropolitan Police blame these materials for the inferno, which has so far claimed 79 lives – 79 futures up in flames, 79 families burnt to the ground.  Charges of manslaughter may be brought. Now hundreds of families are being evacuated from similar blocks to where, who with, when will they get home? Air beds in leisure centres with strangers either side and a suitcase if they’re lucky. This doesn’t happen to luxury families.

I recently got the chance to buy our old house – my mum still lives there. But I just couldn’t. It felt wrong

I recently got the chance to buy our old house – my mum still lives there. It would have cost £15,000. Next door is on at £100,000. But I just couldn’t. It felt wrong. Public housing was the cornerstone of community and ‘bought hooses’ the exception. Statistically, this is still true – home ownership is actually falling, especially among the young. According to ONS, in 1991, 67 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds were homeowners. By 2014, this had fallen to 36 per cent. But still, if you can’t afford to buy you probably don’t deserve to.

Some owner-occupiers in the development Grenfell survivors have been placed in reportedly fear falling house prices. I listened with sadness, but not shock, to one woman on an LBC phone-in: “I pay a £15,500 service charge… I feel sorry for those people but if someone was getting it for free I would move. I am not hard-hearted.” She felt angry with the people who’d lost everything and not the developers ripping her off. It’s easier to direct anger down not up.

After university, I rented privately, which made me miss the council. One landlady forced my boyfriend and me to sleep in single beds because she disapproved of our ‘lifestyle’. We pushed them together but she caught us out on an unannounced ‘inspection’, then threw us out.

If tenants can’t sleep at night, then landlords shouldn’t be able to either

She also picked all the apples off our tree because she said she owned them. Another increased the rent 10 per cent year on year while leaving us without a bathroom for three months. I never want to be that landlord. Amazingly, it’s quite easy not to be.

My tenants – and I only say ‘my’ because I take personal responsibility for keeping them safe and, to a certain degree, comfortable, in the flat I own – have smoke alarms and a carbon monoxide detector, which I check annually. I also pay the £100 for gas and electrical safety checks – one engineer told me I could save money by cutting off the gas fire. I cut him off. These are not luxuries – they are basics.

If tenants can’t sleep at night, then landlords shouldn’t be able to either. The garden is thick with apples and plums I’ve never thought to pick.

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