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Grenfell, Austerity and ‘Right to Buy’ - Exploring the state of social housing

In the wake of Grenfell, housing rose to the top of the British political agenda for the first time in a generation. The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at Queen Mary University of London hosted a special film screening and panel discussion which explored the state of social housing in the UK today.

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Despite the media spotlight on housing following the Grenfell disaster, few stories examined the long-term failures that have resulted in shortages of social housing in the UK. Dispossession: The Great Housing Swindle explores the agenda behind the neglect, demolition and regeneration of council estates over the past 30 years.

The right to buy

The so-called right to buy policy implemented under the Thatcher government gave people in social housing the right to buy their property at discounted prices. Over the years this programme has been held up as a policy which was disastrous for social housing in the UK but as Dispossession shows, the situation is more complex. 

Speaking at a panel discussion comprising of legal experts, scholars and activities, Paul Sng, director and producer of Dispossession, shared his views on the social housing situation in the UK today, including the right to buy policy.

“It was designed to win working class voters, which had traditionally voted for Labour. There was nothing wrong with the policy in theory except that there was no formal, written agreement with the Treasury, which meant that there was no meaningful replenishment of social housing stock,” he said.

“Over the years landlords have been able to buy former social housing en masse which have then been rented out at inflated prices. I would argue that the housing crisis is the biggest single issue in this country, even bigger than Brexit in my opinion,” he added.

Insights from a Grenfell survivor

Antonio Roncolato was a resident of Grenfell Tower when the disaster occurred in June 2017 and the penultimate person to be rescued. He shared his experiences during the panel discussion: “Often in the media the people who lived in the tower were portrayed as one group but the truth is that the community at Grenfell was mixed. The majority of us worked, few were on benefits. The media did not always do us justice. 

“We, as a community, wanted to be involved more in the refurbishment of the tower before the disaster but the authorities did not listen to us. The local authorities made mistakes, they were supposed to solve problems but they actually created them,” he added. 

Joe Delaney, a local resident and activist also shared his insights of the disaster and the aftermath. “This disaster was a culmination of failures which goes beyond political parties and across all areas of government. When you look back, the land was seen as more valuable than the residents that lived on it. People are effectively being priced out of London.”

Impacts of austerity

Dr Victoria Cooper, Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University discussed the influence that austerity has had on both the lived experience of social housing and the image of it among the wider public. “Austerity is essentially a class project which has effectively targeted people in social housing as well as those who receive housing support in the private sector,” she said.

“Policies such as the bedroom tax have hit disabled people hard in particular since many need additional space for equipment or for carers. The implications of austerity are huge and will be felt more widely in the future,” added Dr Cooper. 

On-going investigation

Jamie Burton, a public interest lawyer highlighted the need for a thorough and robust enquiry into Grenfell. He argued that proper investigations take time and that it will be a slow process for the truth to fully emerge. He pointed to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry as an example of this which took more than a decade to reach completion.

The final insights from the panel came from John Preston, Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. In his latest book, Grenfell Tower: Preparedness, Race and Disaster Capitalism, the tragedy is discussed in relation to other events such as Aberfan. He argues that preparedness for disasters has always been designed in the interests of the state rather than citizens and asserts that the so-called ‘stay put’ policy which was in place at Grenfell is a strategy to socially control working class groups in a disaster.

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