This paper makes a case for a community-led future for the estate; and indeed argues that community-led housing represents a way forward for housing policy in general.
The fire in Grenfell Tower, which began shortly after midnight on the morning of 14th June 2017, killed 71 people. 376 households from the Tower and from neighbouring buildings were made homeless. Health professionals estimate that over 10,000 people from the wider community will experience physical or mental health problems as a consequence of the trauma of that night; the clinical director of the Grenfell Tower Mental Health Response Team described his work as ‘the biggest programme there’s ever been in Europe.’
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster attention focused on responsibility for the fire itself. Who was to blame for allowing the tower to be vulnerable to such a catastrophe? Soon, however, this question became connected to a wider set of concerns. Why was it a tower block of mostly low-income households that caught fire? Why had the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), not listened and acted when residents warned them about safety risks in the building and the neglect of the Lancaster West estate as a whole? What did the disaster—and the clumsy and confused response by central and local government in the days that followed—say about the attitude of the people with power towards the people in the housing estates of North Kensington?
We suggest that the apparent failure of the authorities to heed the concerns of Lancaster West residents about fire safety reflects a wider and historic pattern. Over many years, the perception grew that council staff (and the staff of the Tenant Management Organisation, which in recent years managed the estate for the council) were not accountable to residents but to a distant bureaucracy. Many residents came to believe that the council did not take seriously residents’ safety, let alone their general quality of life.
This perception may or may not have been justified. Certainly, many councillors and council officials at RBKC were decent people doing their jobs as they thought they should. What seems inarguable, however, is the impotence of residents in the face of a system that denied them both voice and agency: the ability to get their views heard or to take action themselves to improve the conditions they lived in.
This reality—the powerlessness of local people—is not particular to RBKC. Nor is it recent. Indeed, it helps account for the decision to build Lancaster West itself, and many housing estates like it elsewhere in London and the UK. It also underpins some (though not all) approaches to estate regeneration over the last generation.
This short paper focuses not on the question of culpability for the fire itself, which is the subject of a police investigation and the official enquiry established by government, but with the future of the neighbourhood of the wider Lancaster West estate, separate from the Tower site. It makes a case for a community-led future for the estate, and indeed argues that community-led housing represents a way forward for housing policy in general.
No change in the governance or management of the Lancaster West estate can make good what happened on 14th June last year. But if the right decisions are taken, the legacy for the community and for society can, in part, be a good one. Our hope is that the neighbourhood of Grenfell Tower may make something beautiful for the future: a new model of community living that will inspire the rest of London and the UK.
Read the report here.
Watch an interview with the authors here.