Written evidence submitted by Miss Danielle Gregory [RSH 024]
I have been a council tenant in the London Borough of Southwark for more than 15 years. In 2009 I was housed on the 12th floor of a tower block on the Ledbury Estate in Peckham. Shortly after moving in, I raised concerns with my local authority landlord about large gaps and cracks in the walls of my flat. My complaints were ignored. Despite many attempts to raise repairs about the cracks over the years, I was not taken seriously - I believe due to the stigma I faced as a young single parent and a council tenant. I was made to feel that I should be grateful to have a home at all.
The Grenfell tragedy in 2017 demonstrated to me that living conditions could mean the difference between life and death and that we, as tenants, must have our voices heard.
After calling a meeting of all residents of the four tower blocks on my estate, I discovered that many other people had also been raising the same complaints of cracks and gaps, some for as long as 20 years.
After campaigning for Southwark Council to commission intrusive structural tests and assessments, we discovered that the blocks on the Ledbury Estate were of the same ‘Large Panel System’ (LPS) form of construction as Ronan Point; a 22-storey block that partially collapsed in Newham in 1968, killing 5. Further surveys subsequently revealed that all four blocks were at risk of the same type of catastrophic ‘progressive collapse’ as Ronan Point and were a fire risk due to the cracks breaching compartmentation between flats.
Southwark Council’s response was to ‘decant’ myself and 224 other households. We had to continue to campaign vigorously to protect residents’ rights throughout the rehousing process.
Following these experiences, I joined a small campaign group (Tower Blocks UK) who, since the 1980s (when they were known as the National Tower Blocks Network) have been urging the government to act on tower block safety.
Our latest research estimates that the problems with LPS blocks pose a potential risk to more than 100,000 people across the UK.
Most of these LPS blocks were built in the 1960s and are used as social housing. MHCLG wrote to all local authorities and housing associations in September 2017 raising the Ledbury Estate case and asking them to check the fire safety and structural integrity of their own LPS blocks. The Ledbury Estate is also the first cited example of evidence of ‘deep flaws in the current system’ on page 5 of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Safety and Fire Regulations.
Since these publications, it’s unclear what, if any, follow up checks have been done by DLUHC to ensure that the necessary structural assessments of LPS blocks have taken place. Of the local authorities around the country who did undertake tests, most have discovered that their blocks are equally at risk of structural collapse and as such, have opted to decant their residents. Examples of this include Biart Place in Rugby, Tangmere Point at Broadwater Farm in Haringey, Hartopp & Lannoy Point in Hammersmith & Fulham, Clare House in Bow and many more blocks up and down the country. But many owners of LPS blocks have not undertaken any assessments at all or have instead simply relied on historical documents for reassurance. This comes despite MCHLG having warned LPS owners in their 2017 letters not to assume accuracy of, or rely upon, historical records.
We continue to raise concerns about LPS blocks with the government but there is no clear response. Instead, local authorities and housing associations are being left to devise their own strategies to check these blocks and solutions on how to deal with them and their tenants when they are found to be unsafe.
As well as the LPS problem, the continued cladding crisis highlights the scale of the issue of flammable materials being used on high and medium rise blocks. Additionally, there remain further elements of fire safety deficiency, including failure to plan and unclear guidance on accessibility and evacuation, faulty or absent fire doors and compartmentation breaches. Many of these issues pose an immediate risk to life.
Many tenants are also facing poor living conditions and ongoing general disrepair. For example, there are significant problems with mould and damp across the UK (as highlighted in the October 2021 Housing Ombudsman report entitled ‘It’s Not Lifestyle’) and other problems such as leaks, pests and vermin that contribute to poor health and wellbeing outcomes. The Covid19 pandemic has added to a backlog of repairs for many social landlords, and, across the board, repairs are not being dealt with in a timely manner.
Our own visits to tower blocks in recent years demonstrates anecdotally that, almost certainly, safety and/or disrepair issues affect every single tower block in the UK in some way or another.
The emergence of groups such as End Our Cladding Scandal as well as the ongoing media coverage, such as ITV’s disrepair exposés with Daniel Hewitt additionally serve to demonstrate the breadth and scale of the issues in social housing at the current time.
We want to be clear in our message; if the government does not act now, there will be further large-scale tower block disasters. Preventing further tragedy must be the priority.
Edward Daffarn of Grenfell United said to the government's housing committee in 2018: “Grenfell two is in the post, unless you act and act quickly.” This remains the case today.
The Grenfell disaster highlighted the seriousness and urgent need for improvement of safety standards across the social housing sector. These problems did not start, and do not end with this tragedy, but that fateful fire on 14th June 2017 demonstrates the worst outcome following decades of neglect of social housing stock nationally, both by local authorities and housing associations, and continued contempt for those who live in social housing, and successive governments who have failed to take the matter seriously. Grenfell United, the survivors and bereaved, and people up and down this country want to see prosecutions as a result of the Inquiry. Without real justice, it will never be possible to gain back the trust of the public on social housing.
Edward Daffarn said to the government's housing committee in 2019: “If you live in social housing and you want to raise a complaint, the primary way to do it is to take a photo, upload it to Twitter and hope you can embarrass your housing provider enough to do something about it”. This tallies our experiences too. Social housing residents regularly contact us at Tower Blocks UK at their wits end, after being repeatedly ignored by their landlords. Many have tried various avenues to recourse and been continually ignored or ‘fobbed off’. Through our outreach work we’ve come to realise that often, social housing tenants are not aware of the avenues to recourse, or what their legal rights are. Indeed, going back to my own experiences at Ledbury Estate, the reason I did not take further action sooner was simply because I had no knowledge of tenants’ rights, how or who to escalate complaints to. When my landlord ignored me, I didn’t know where to turn.
Seeing that this was a common issue, Tower Blocks UK partnered with the Legal Education Foundation and mySociety to design FixMyBlock.org - which aims to support social housing tenants in understanding their rights through jargon free guides, template letters and shared stories from other social tenants on their successes in resolving safety and disrepair issues, translated into 22 languages. But it should not be the role of campaigners to fill the gaps in providing useful information and effective resources to tenants to inform them on how to take action.
If the new regulatory framework is to stand any chance of success, it must not be left to social landlords themselves to disseminate information to their tenants on how to enact their rights - because many will almost certainly make a concerted effort to purposely not communicate these messages effectively.
The role, purpose and scope of the Regulator of Social Housing and the Housing Ombudsman need to be made clear and accessible if tenants and residents across the UK are to be able to fully understand and access its provisions. Many social housing tenants will not even be aware of the Social Housing White Paper, so information must be shared widely and delivered in a clear format, not in a format whereby tenants must take it upon themselves to attempt to navigate complex policy jargon. There needs to be urgent consideration of how to bridge gaps in communication.
Currently, some of the most successful messaging campaigns reaching social housing tenants in communities are by compensation claims farmers who place adverts on social media, on search engines and through letterboxes. These organisations are making a fortune cashing in on tenants’ plight and local authority housing revenue accounts. This is a lose-lose situation for social tenants and landlords alike, but it demonstrates that there are ways to engage with tenants that need to be further explored. The Regulator and the Ombudsman need to gain the trust of tenants and show that they genuinely care. This is something that needs to be carefully thought-out. As it stands, I would have very little confidence in a new system of regulatory framework that claims to seek to empower those who have no knowledge of its existence.
A concerted effort needs to be made by the Ombudsman and Regulator in building relations with tenants and making their impartiality clear. Pathways to support need to be shared so that it’s no longer down to individual residents to attempt to unpick bureaucratic processes to figure out how it all works, and how regulations are applied to their own unique situations. Providers of all social housing should be required to register with the regulator, and the penalties for service failure and maladministration should be significantly more of a deterrent than they currently are. Looking at recent case decisions by the Housing Ombudsman, it’s clear that enormous amounts of time and effort are spent by tenants trying to get issues resolved and hold their landlords accountable. In many cases, this requires tenants to seek specialist advice and support. Yet even where the Ombudsman finds the landlord has failed in their duties, landlords are simply asked to remedy the fault and perhaps pay a small token of compensation to the tenant. This is not a deterrent, nor an incentive to do the right thing from the outset. It’s currently easier for social landlords to do nothing and wait to see if their tenants bother taking them to task, knowing that in many cases that tenants are not fully aware or confident of their rights and that busy working lives and families often prevent them from having the luxury of time to dedicate to hours and hours of case preparation and reporting.
For any new regulatory systems to be effective, tenants must be valued first and foremost at the heart of the system. They must be believed and taken seriously and feel confident that their rights will be protected.