Everyone agrees the Grenfell Tower disaster must usher in a new era of social housing in the UK. The danger is that it sends us back to a very old era, when the council owned, managed and controlled community housing.
There is another way forward, one which meets the rightful sense of injustice felt by people living on Lancaster West, the estate where Grenfell Tower stands – not the injustice of a botched refurbishment which (probably) caused the tragedy, but the injustice of residents not being listened to when they raised concerns, over many years, about their safety or quality of life.
For decades – indeed, since 1974 when the tower was built despite growing evidence that most families didn’t like high-rises, and designs like Lancaster West created ghettos – the estate was treated like a feudal demesne. It was the property of the local seigneur, the council, which was sometimes competent, sometimes generous (with the people’s own money), but often neither, and always absolutely in charge.
It is worth reflecting on what would have happened if, like many apartment blocks around London, Grenfell Tower had been privately owned by the people who lived in it. Each household would have had shares in the management company that owned the freehold and from which they rented their flats. When the question of refurbishment came up, the residents would have exercised direct control over the budget, the specification and the appointment of contractors.
We await the government inquiry to determine guilt for the disaster of Grenfell Tower. Personally I would be putting the ownership model in the dock. As an expert in community housing bluntly told us, ‘if Grenfell Tower had been owned by residents they would never have approved the refurbishment that led to the fire, because no homeowner would have considered those particular works either necessary or a good use of their own resources.’
The better way forward for Lancaster West, Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets and I argue in a new paper for the Legatum Institute, is for the council to do the right thing by the residents and simply give them their estate. Community Land Trusts are already familiar in rural areas – Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis has been held in trust by local people since 1924 when the local landowner, Lord Leverhulme, gave it to them – and the model is catching on in cities too. In the Walterton and Elgin Estate in nearby Westminster, residents forced the council to hand over their homes in 1992, and now run the place themselves.
The model is straightforward. All residents are members of the trust, empowered to elect their leaders who in turn appoint the executive team who manage the estate. Rents are retained in the communal kitty and spent on upkeep and services. Because the estate owns an enormous asset, it can borrow cheaply to finance building works, including the development of new homes, which are (unlike in most estates) popular with residents.
The government and council have rightly pledged to allow the families of Grenfell Tower to decide what happens to the site of their former homes. The same principle should apply to the rest of the Lancaster West estate. This will never put right the decades of injustice, but it will make a better future. And moreover, it could herald a new dawn across the UK: the capitalisation of communities, the empowerment of residents, and more housing for people on low incomes.