When the immediate politicised posts hit social media, whilst the terrible inferno of Grenfell Tower was still raging, I and other property professionals all over the country already knew that the blame couldn’t be laid squarely at the door of any one political party or response times due to fire service cuts. For me there was a much deeper issue.
My status, written in shock and quite reactive, is still one I stand by today, two days later: “I find immediate politicised FB posts in pretty poor taste. People are dead and badly burned this morning and opportunists are seeking to make it a Tory/Labour issue. Was it down to firefighters, or an utter failure of building and fire safety, couple with crap materials, coupled with over crowding in shoddy accommodation. This has been an accident waiting to happen, and usually we see it happening in third world countries but it’s here and it’s being ignored and brushed under the carpet for profit.”
I’ve watched the grief but also the anger erupt at that shocking Kensington site and am only dumbstruck that it’s taken this long for a disaster of this magnitude to happen. There’s one word I’d change in my status update above and that’s ‘accident’, because of course it wasn’t was it. It wasn’t an accident. There’s still an enquiry to take place but we all know that the toxic combination of an exploding fridge, an unfit for purpose cladding system, an unacceptable checking system, outsourced social housing and overcrowding have all contributed to this terrible event.
The media and politicians have tried to dissipate this anger with soothing voices saying “Now’s not the time to ask questions”, trying to quieten local residents and viewers with platitudes about the amazing emergency services and community spirit, but locals are having none of it and rightly so. When the cameras are switched off and the media circus has left town, who will listen to the questions then? Now is the time for anger and questions, and for not being quiet.
What strikes me, mainly about London but also Manchester (where I live and work) and many other towns and cities across the UK, is the housing direction we as a nation are now accepting as normal. I’ve been a landlord since 2001 and have always strived to create desirable and safe homes for my tenants, all of whom I know and respect and like. They ring me, text me or tweet me. If it’s an emergency we’re there immediately. Their homes are my homes and are treated as such. I am not the norm.
Successive governments have had absolutely no handle on housing. Since the Thatcher ‘revolution’ of a great social housing sell off (a Very Bad Thing imho), through Blair’s noughties explosion of B2L (fuelled by the above but also the utterly corrupt false inflation of city centre apartment block flats prices so all the professionals got their ‘cut’) to the current housing ‘crisis’, the UK housing market has had no stability for over 30yrs. At one end there’s zillionaires mansions, oligarchs palaces, footballers pads, Sandbanks and million quid semis. At the other end are death trap towers, sink estates, garden shed des res’s, student hovels and cramped HMOs. I say no stability but of course exclude the current ‘stability’ created from interest rates at practically zero because everyone’s so damned scared to put them up in case the whole pack of cards in the middle of those two extremes comes tumbling down as well.
Pathetic isn’t it.
Prior to this week, the focus for the newly enlightened Conservatives wasn’t stopping the sell-off of our nation’s property – everything from London mansions/flats to Northern student blocks – to foreign cash buyers. Oh no. It wasn’t properly funding councils to assess, monitor and sanction the shoddy, dangerous accommodation bringing Rachman type conditions back to the 21st century. Oh no.
The new Conservative policy is to solidify the strength and position of institutional landlords, those faceless corporations of money who manage rental and social housing from behind countless doors and keep tenants not so much at arms length but behind a barrier of receptionists, emails and even tax havens. The new Tory trick is to weed out smaller individual, accountable landlords like me, the ones who actually care about their tenants. Their cunning plan has been to change the tax rules to make small landlords with mortgages pay income tax on their gross income, before mortgage interest payments have been deducted, even if this means the landlord goes out of business and is forced to sell. To an institutional landlord. A tax change which would cause outrage if it were applied to any other business but it’s ok, ’cause it’s evil landlords. But the thing is, we’re not the evil ones. They’re attacking the ‘wrong’ landlords.
The landlords who are evil are the cash rich faceless ones who cram people into tower blocks and carry cheap renovations, the ones who stick families in sanitation free sheds at the end of gardens, the ones who ignore repeated pleas for help from the powerless poor. The type of landlords not being gunned for by the Tories. Where is the logic? It just defeats me. And why aren’t people seeing this for what it really is?
I took a lot of stick from my pals for voting Leave in the recent Brexit referendum, and I read a lot of articles from clearly very nice people who accused and still accuse Leave voters of being the nasty lot. I voted Leave for two reasons. No 1 was my hatred of the gravy train EU, where thousands of ’employees’ of that unelected behemoth take inflated salaries to do precisely nothing and are entirely unaccountable. We could not question and we did not know – a dangerous position to be in, I felt. No 2 was all about the Free Movement of People.
The Free Movement of Who, exactly?
The rich move anyway. The rich can go wherever the hell they like, when they like, for as long as they like, in luxury.
The middle classes don’t move much. They might go to Waitrose on a Friday, downsize to a bungalow or go to Malta for a fornight’s holiday.
The poor. The poor tend to stay put, get a taxi to the weekly shop or have a week on the Costa Brava.
The really poor. The refugees. The war torn. The displaced. The economic migrants. The trafficked. The terrorists. They move. They move all the time. They can’t stop moving. And who benefits?
The rich. The corporations who employ them on zero hours to clean, sell burgers and shift stock. The criminals who exploit them. The dealers who arm them. The corporations who manage them. The traffickers who sell them. The shitty landlords who house them.
I asked myself when deciding Leave or Remain who benefits from the EU? The rich, the establishment, the banks, the experts, the corporations and most of the media were all for Remain. Blimey, were they. But why were they?
Nice people in my timeline were also for Remain, nice middle class people who like working abroad occasionally and getting a good exchange rate and small airport queues and employing Polish builders, Finnish nannies or Romanian cleaners and who think that it’s a good thing that everyone can just move around for work, just like them.
I wanted to be a Nice Person. But I kept thinking about who benefits and who loses from Free Movement, and whether it’s really free, or whether it has a massive, massive cost. Not to me, but to the people who are being shipped en mass around the globe. Moved away from their homes, ties and families. Moved out of their comfort zones, their homelands, torn from their cultural fabric. Moved away from any pretence of a position of power to places where their voices are weak and quiet.
No-one cared about the population of Grenfell Tower and the more I hear, see and read, the more my heart sinks but my anger rises. Welcoming people into the UK is admirable. Surely however, having proper, adequate, well managed, well funded, attractive and most importantly safe housing for them to actually live should be in place. But how can it possibly be in place when literally millions of people have arrived in the space of a few short years?
No-one ever talks about the practicalities of mass migration or Free Movement. We just somehow think it’s ok to usher people in and use them as cheap labour to run cities. Both the Conservatives and Labour have been equally to blame, the latter way more for uncontrolled immigration without any sort of plan in place, and the former for being incapable of sensible and compassionate decisions when it comes to the poor.
- We need to stop talking about just a housing crisis and start including the fact that we have a people crisis.
- Knee jerk demands like requisitioning mansions are utterly ridiculous – just stop selling off property to cash-rich foreign ‘investors’.
- Pass legislation to examine closely current housing stock, take proper records of what is where, who runs what and how they run it.
- Central government should fund the sanctioning of shoddy landlords, and stop them from trading in deathtraps.
- Centrally fund a national register of landlords and make sure we are ALL on it. Why not, if you’ve nothing to hide?
- An obvious and immediate assessment of all tower block social housing.
- This might be controversial but I believe there needs to be a break clause for the UK to stop incoming migration. Grenfell Tower has clearly shown us we cannot safely and properly house the new poor, shocking but true. How can we assess what we need to do when still hundreds every month are entering the country, all needing housing and councils can’t cope and say they cannot afford to cope.
Grenfell Tower wasn’t a tragedy but a crime. No price higher than that already paid by residents will be paid by any single person found culpable. Just as criminal is that we as a nation have allowed housing for the poor to revert to Victorian times, even allowing for the fact that the incoming migration of millions of ‘new’ poor has been so dreadful managed and taken the authorities quite literally and ridiculously by surprise. Surely it’s not beyond the realm of our nation’s capability to effectively sort this terrible state of affairs out, and our responsibility as citizens to ensure that happens?
But hey, as long as we can get a cheap cleaner and a fast Costa, right?