Cllr Sean Astee, leader of Trafford Council, has said that housing is “becoming the defining issue in our generation” during a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference, and that the Grenfell Tower fire will be a key event for years to come on the need for safer social housing.
A debate called ‘The future of social housing in modern Britain’ was held in Manchester Town Hall, in which panellists discussed the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire and building safer social housing.
Chairing the discussion was non-executive director of Bright Blue think tank and journalist Rachel Johnson, who was joined by David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation; Emma Maier, editor of Inside Housing; Shaun Bailey, London Assembly member and deputy chairman of the regeneration committee, and Cllr Sean Anstee.
Anstee said: “The population is going to rise by 300,000 over the next generation, yet last year we built the lowest number of houses in 24 years which does not make sense.
“Grenfell is systemic of the failure of social housing to provide safe homes for the most vulnerable in society. We have got to build more to accommodate the growing population, and it is in London’s interest that the North is successful because we have more space.”
Maier said: “There were fires before Grenfell and lessons were not learned. There was one in August 2016 in the Shepherd’s Bush tower in the afternoon when luckily nobody died, but it took until the spring of this year for the fire brigade to admit the cladding was why it had spread.
“There is clearly an issue for building standards and safety is a priority. Why did the fire services not make information on the cladding public? It was only through FOIs that we learned the cladding was responsible for the Shepherd’s Bush fire.
“In building social housing, safety standards must be paramount.”
Orr agreed with Maier, and said: “We need to get a much more systematic way of recording fire safety checks, so that two inspectors don’t give two completely opposite results. We have to address this because people in social housing are feeling marginalised and objected, and that comes to a crescendo with a howl of anger from Grenfell.”
Bailey criticised how “everyone attacks the Tories but nobody has attacked Labour for failing to address Grenfell.” He urged that “We [the Tories] have to show the people of Grenfell that we care. I don’t care how you do it – use social media, use whatever, just call Labour into question.”
Questions from the floor asked how the Tory Government would produce better, safer social housing.
Bailey added: “We [the Tories] must show we have the will to spend money and prioritise that. We must build on the Green Belt where necessary. If you want people to talk about the Conservatives, we have to talk about Green Belt sites and where we can build and that cannot be ignored.
“There is no magic pot of money, and unlike Labour, the Tories must be prepared to prioritise what money is spent on instead of promising everything. Social housing must be one of those priorities.
He added that: “Architects are building ugly houses with units that face away from each other, and that detracts from the sense of community. Architects have a responsibility to build nicer social houses for people to live in.”
The Greater Manchester combined authority last week published an update on high rise buildings which stated that local authority building controls have seen an increase in workloads relating to the need to re-inspect and advise on the suitability and safety of cladding systems. The update also reported that “the current approach to securing fire safety in high rise buildings is not fit for purpose, is open to interpretation, and is inconsistently applied.”