Practically no one gives any thought to the effort required to keep tower blocks fit for purpose. Once upon a time Councils undertook to repair almost any or everything. For example, Hackney Council in the 1960s controlled its DLO (Direct Labour Organisation) with a workforce of over 2000 tradespeople. Many were skilled in plumbing, carpentry, metal work, glazing, bricklaying, plastering, tiling and painting and decorating. Similarly Havering Council’s DLO provided comprehensive repair and maintenance teams. Where and why did all those high standards evaporate?
Over the years with many changes in Government and Local Authority administrations council repair obligations have nearly vanished. The main reason for reductions was the attack on the grant year by year. The Government HIP (Housing Improvement Programme) imposed on the HRA (Housing Revenue Account) grant to Councils controlled the ability of Councils to organise their programme. The Councils annual bid for capital and revenue needs gave an overview of its overall stock condition with details of under or overspend in the previous five year period. That requirement (due to leaseholders becoming responsible for their own repairs) substantially reduced the social housing repair responsibility. Combined with tightening of Council budgets most Councils reviewed (reduced) their obligations to remaining tenants.
Some councils understood that ‘planned maintenance, against reactive maintenance’ was far cheaper and more effective than current practice. Therefore proactive councils saved thousands on their HRA by simply replacing ordinary domestic appliances, as properties became vacant, rather than wait until they broke down.
Now, regardless of age or ability, all tenants are expected to undertake a whole range of home skills from replacing worn tap or ball-valve washers to repairing cupboard doors and latches. Many found blocked waste pipes weren’t a council problem! Of course, tenants can request the council undertake these repairs but that will be undertaken with the councils time scales. Worse: the work will recharged at current tradesman rates, which can be eye watering for those on fixed incomes or,unemployed.
One effect of the reduction of social housing stock because of “right to buy” is that the Governments fiscal grip on councils has tightened. Tenants have increased responsibilities in the pursuit of free market forces. The poor have got poorer and Council tower blocks have deteriorated turning some of them into dangerous slums. Young people are now in the clutches of private rented properties often owned by unscrupulous landlords who are entirely unconcerned about property conditions. Rat/cockroach infested hell holes are rented out at exorbitant prices. Rachman* style harassment has re-emerged with all the misery and grief it ever was. The attack on social housing hasn’t solved the housing crisis its just shifted it underground. Meanwhile social housing is deteriorating because of short-sighted maintenance programmes.
The money raised from the sale of council housing stock was labelled as “Capital Receipts” – however, councils were severely restricted as to how they could use it. There is a huge pot of money built up in capital receipts across the country. The Government are only now (2017) realising the folly of not allowing councils to use that money to replace council housing with new build properties to rent in the social housing sector. The double whammy is that population growth and a reduction in social housing ahs created a societal crisis. Today I read that the housing charity Shelter, fears the crippling combination of homelessness, high rents, Universal Credit and the lack of affordable homes will create misery this winter. Calls to its free helpline have already risen by 25% in the past year. It beggars belief that the Tories Government has the brass neck to turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor.
Grenfell Tower was a tragedy on a scale unheard of in the UK and it can’t be brushed under the carpet no matter how much procrastination goes on. Meanwhile thousands of other tower blocks are rotting due to government fiscal policies which is costing untold billions. The Tories are meant to understand investment so why are they destroying billions of pounds worth of social housing. Is it on purpose? Is it an ideological attack by right-wing extremists?
* A vicious London property owner who attacked some of his tenants to make them leave protected properties in the 1950s.