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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 November 2017

No more excuses: fit sprinklers now!

The Grenfell Tower blaze has killed many and destroyed the homes of many more, photo @Natalie_Oxford (Twitter)

The Grenfell Tower blaze has killed many and destroyed the homes of many more, photo @Natalie_Oxford (Twitter)   (Click to enlarge)

Bill the government, not the residents

Publish all block safety assessments

Paul Kershaw, chair, Unite union LE/1111 housing workers branch

In the immediate aftermath of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower the government pledged that money would not prevent vital safety work being done.

But since then they have set their face against paying for sprinklers - an essential measure according to the London Fire Brigade. And at least one council, Tory-controlled Wandsworth in south London, plans to punish leaseholders with a charge of 4,000!

Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right to demand that the Tories allocate 1 billion to fit sprinklers. As he says, it is obscene the government will not commit retrofitting funds while failing to tackle tax avoidance.

Safety can't wait

It is also right that Labour is pledging to fund installation when elected to government. But safety can't wait. Socialists will support residents and tenants in demanding that sprinklers are fitted now. Social landlords should take action now and bill the government.

Local authority landlords could proceed now using reserves, and housing associations should draw on their own resources. Housing associations' surpluses this year will amount to 5.6 billion, an increase over last year of 15.6%, according to consultancy firm Vantage Business Solutions.

Operating margins average 30%, much higher than private construction companies. Property developer Bellway recently boasted of a record margin of 22.3%, for example. If they prioritise safety, housing associations can afford sprinklers.

Sprinklers must be fitted - but the government, not residents, should pay. Non-payment and legal action are among the options being considered by some of the more than 1,000 leaseholders in Wandsworth, who met last week to form a group to oppose the plans.

The labour movement must back such campaigns. Some leaseholders may be better off - but many would be pushed further into debt, or forced to move, in order to pay these sums.

Social housing residents have had difficulty accessing fire safety assessments from landlords. If landlords resist providing this basic information, the labour movement must support residents with a massive campaign. No safety - no rent!

The Information Commissioner has called for social landlords to proactively share safety assessments. The Department for Communities and Local Government has backed this up. But some landlords remain unwilling.

Inside Housing, the trade magazine, invited housing associations to post assessments on their website in the interests of transparency - but associations have been unwilling to do so.

Councils can be subject to Freedom of Information requests. As independent bodies, housing associations are not subjects to this legislation. But there is no good reason to withhold it.


Fund the regulator, kick out the developers, build council homes!

Publicly owned land sold off, with minimal affordable housing built on the development. The so-called 'affordable' housing that is built is unaffordable for local people.

Poor maintenance and shoddy construction standards. Minimal regulation, regulators underfunded, with leaders' credibility deeply compromised by conflicts of interest.

These were the aspects of the "Great Housing Scandal" highlighted by Channel 4's 'Dispatches' on 13 November. All of these are familiar issues to Unite union members in the social housing sector - and all are issues we have raised in the past.

In our branch, Unite LE/1111, we have workers in the social housing regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). We have members living on the Lancaster West estate whose lives have been turned upside down by the Grenfell fire. We have frontline housing managers battling with the direct impact of austerity.

We have only too much direct experience of the issues raised by Channel 4.

When the Tories came in they announced the HCA was 'toast' - to be placed on the 'bonfire of red tape'. This plan met with considerable opposition from banks who rely on the staff of the regulator for assurance their money is safe.

The government partially backed down. It allowed the HCA to continue - in a much reduced form, with far less resources. Tenants and residents were not important to the Tories or Lib Dems. But the banks were!

In the wake of Grenfell it is clear that regulation must be properly resourced.

The regulator had its 'tenant empowerment and engagement' team cut, shifting the regulator's focus exclusively onto housing associations' financial viability. Underlying government ideology sees no further than commercialisation of social housing.

Tellingly, surviving residents of Grenfell Tower - who had warned so publicly of the fire risk their landlord's management created - said they did not know of the HCA's existence.

What makes this worse is that the HCA might still have found out about the serious concerns at Grenfell: one of the landlord's board members at the time, Anthony Preiskel, is also an HCA board member! There has been widespread concern at this within the agency.

But from what Dispatches reported, Preiskel sees no conflict. Certainly he has not seen fit to resign following the fire.

But the chair of the agency is Boris Johnson's former deputy mayor with responsibility for planning - and now acts as a consultant for property developers adept at reducing the proportion of 'affordable' housing in their luxury developments. Apparent conflicts abound.

The programme also featured well-known cases of substandard new developments by housing associations. Surveys suggest staff increasingly feel their employers have lost sight of their social purpose.

Unite LE/1111 has consistently called for a massive programme of council house building; rent control and secure tenancy in the private rented sector; and improved, properly resourced regulation.

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