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20 COMMENT THE SOCIAL NETWORK


LESSONS MUST BE LEARNED


Patrick Mooney is managing director at Mooney Thompson Consulting


Patrick Mooney, managing director at Mooney Thompson Consulting, tells of the lessons that need to be learned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy


n the immediate aftermath of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, among the many questions being asked are some that strike at the very heart of social housing, and what sort of future it has in a modern society. While we will have to wait for the public inquiry to establish the full facts and identify the lessons to be learned, we should still ask ourselves how it is that clear warning signs over recent years were missed. Did a drive for cost savings take priority over safety, why were the tenants’ concerns not acted upon and what is the council (their landlord) doing with so much money in its bank accounts?


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WE SHOULD ASK HOW IS IT THAT CLEAR WARNING SIGNS OVER RECENT YEARS WERE MISSED


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Recent disclosures of warning letters sent to Government ministers about outdated and not fit for purpose fire regulations make for uncomfortable reading, but they also highlight the shortcomings in a regulatory system that is both myopic and ineffectual. Social housing has been the subject of what is called co-regulation since 2009, with landlords in England basically responsible for policing themselves. Their regulatory body, the Homes & Communities Agency has set a series of standards for landlords to follow, but staff and Board members of the HCA are really only focusing on value for money and governance at housing associations. Local authorities and Arms Length Management Organisations (like KCTMO, the body which managed Grenfell Tower on behalf of the council) are expected to fend for themselves.


WEAK REGULATION This ‘hands off’ or light-touch system was brought in by Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps, the former Communities Secretary and Housing Minister. They also abolished the Audit Commission and its Housing Inspectorate, which brought inspections of all social landlords to a crashing halt. Why publicly funded and supported housing should be exempt from this scrutiny, while other services like schools, colleges, hospitals and care homes are still subject to regulation and inspections is


anybody’s guess. The cost savings have been minimal. We cannot say with any certainty that these decisions directly led to the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, but they certainly created the climate or environment in which landlords could get a bit slack. Couple this with the need for councils to make huge cuts in their frontline services due to the savings imposed on the public sector and you can perhaps see why some poor decisions might have been made. What we do know is that the housing


inspectors brought about positive changes in landlords’ approaches to gas safety and in listening to and acting upon tenants’ views on service delivery and their landlords’ performance.


It will be interesting to see if the public inquiry recommends a resumption of inspections or other changes to the regulatory system to improve tenants’ safety. But the initial reaction from the DCLG which has asked councils and housing associations to provide information on their tower blocks, particularly those which have been recently refurbished, does suggest a change in the mood music around scrutiny and oversight.


The owner of Grenfell Tower is the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, and sadly the council’s immediate response, in the days following the fire, was so chaotic that the Government was forced to step in along with London Councils and the Red Cross to ensure survivors got the help they needed. But even then reports emerged of residents from the tower block being offered accommodation up to 200 miles away (in Preston, Lancashire), or in temporary accommodation in other parts of London, while others were forced to stay with family and friends if they wished to stay in the borough.


UNIVERSAL CREDIT CHANGES DEFERRED Some temporary relief has been provided with the news that the planned rollout of Universal Credit into North Kensington in July has been


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