On Grenfell Tower, residents’ associations, and democracy

During the 1990s I spent some years as a board member of the Landmark Housing Association, which was a Registered Social Landlord in London responsible for a property portfolio that included both rental and shared ownership properties. Landmark was part of the larger Family Housing Association, and until the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1991, had been known as the London Teachers’ Housing Association. Latterly, along with Family, it has been subsumed into Family Mosaic as organisations merge and become larger and larger.

Landmark housed different sorts of people but quite a lot of its clients were key workers (teachers, social workers, nurses, junior doctors, classroom assistants, fire fighters, police officers, etc). All these professions were abysmally paid at the time for what they did, and so many young professionals were fleeing London in search of housing and jobs further afield, that it was felt to be essential to retain some of them by providing suitable places to live near where they worked. Landmark also provided housing for ‘local people in housing need’ to ensure balanced communities, so this might include anyone who lived or worked in a particular borough who had applied for a property, and whose salary was below a certain threshold. These residents had often been born locally and worked in the public sector locally, in relatively poorly paid jobs, but were committed to contributing to a sense of community where they lived.

Landmark almost always built its own properties, and they were terrific (see picture). Social housing regulations are very strict, to ensure quality and sustainability in various regards, and Landmark conformed to these regulations in a very conscientious manner. The properties were human-scale, attractive, fitted out economically but with a sense of style and a desire to maximise light and space. There was usually plenty of storage, space for bins, cars, pushchairs and bikes, and as much green space as they could finesse. They even ran gardening competitions for residents’ groups. The sites they used for development were ex-local authority or brownfield sites, and they went to a lot of trouble to do the work well, yet keep service charges low and standards of operation high. Their developments won awards, pitted against private developers. The development team basically built properties that they would have liked to live in themselves.

And this is where it worked so well. They saw their clients as people. Each development had its own residents’ association, and communication was frequent and detailed. Residents voted on all sorts of things, ranging from how large the repair sinking fund should be, to whether the gardening contractors ought to be retained, to how ecologically friendly the lightbulbs ought to be. The amount of consultation was significant and the outcome was that the blocks were, in the main, efficiently run and there was plenty of information about problems on the ground. Representatives from the various residents’ associations were allowed to stand for election to the main board, and have direct input into the higher level management of the organisation as a whole.

I also sat on the complaints committee. Here we learned about how things went wrong sometimes, whether that was examples of poor design that were causing problems to tenants that needed rectifying, to problems with housing expanding families as they grew. The complaints committee was in a very good position to feed into policies and improve the general offer moving forwards. Looking back, it was a kind of democratic utopia, not that I realised this at the time.

And here we are, twenty years down the line, with a property management company able to ignore the pleas of tenants to take notice of serious safety concerns. If management companies won’t take the views of residents seriously, then they should be made to do so. Let’s legislate for proper engagement between residents’ associations and boards, and for elected representatives of the residents to be included on boards. It’s a privilege to house people, and due respect needs to be paid to those whom you house. At Grenfell Tower, we have seen the consequences of failing to do so.

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