Housing Regulation 408

There are two separate but linked questions arising from the terrible disaster at Ladbroke Grove. One is the efficacy of national building regulations on fire and safety. It is plainly true that, if Grenfell Tower met them, they are inadequate. The second is how Kensington and Chelsea Council in particular manage their housing.

To look at the second question, I do agree with David Lammy that there is potential criminal culpability here, but I am not quite sure that he is right to describe it as “corporate manslaughter”. It seems to me that responsibility rests more with government than with corporations (though I accept that the former is a tool of the latter).

One of the most retrograde developments of my lifetime has been the wholescale “outsourcing” of delivery of public services away from direct government provision. So rather than by council employees, your bins are probably emptied and your streets swept by a private company paid to do it. Just as your utilities are supplied, your trains run, civil servants get their stationery ordered, increasingly medical services are provided, international aid projects are administered, and literally thousands of other examples.

This development was driven by the ideological belief, often fanatically held, that people employed by government are less efficient than those employed by the private sector. That ideology also depended on a rejection of the very notion of altruism; which rejection of altruism was at the heart of Thatcherism. The idea that people are only motivated by personal gain is of course quite untrue. Firefighters, who are still employed by the public, have proved that just now, beyond anything I can say, by going well beyond their contractual duty to try to help. But even accepting for one moment, for the sake of argument, the doctrine that people are only motivated by money; it plainly does not follow that public services would be more efficiently delivered by the private sector. What does follow is that public services will suffer from profiteering if run by the private sector.

But this disastrous contracting out is not always to private for profit companies. It is sometimes to what Tories call the “third sector”, meaning charities and not for profit companies. Much of the aid budget is now spent this way. Not at all coincidental, the pumping of large amounts of public money into this sector has coincided with a quite incredible rise in the salaries and emoluments of senior charities staff.

We have ended up in the situation where executive staff of charities are on over £200,000 a year, where the chief executive of Save the Children gets twice the salary of the Head of DFID, and where people who occupy what were once public sector jobs in rail, water or housing can earn ten times what their public sector predecessors were getting. At the same time wages, employment protection, conditions and unionisation for the actual workers have all been cut.

This is important because the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation Ltd is a not for profit company. No shareholders get any profits from it, and it does not remunerate its directors. This is the body which manages Grenfell Towers and did the refurbishment. Some of the (rightly critical) comment has assumed that KCTMO Ltd is a profiteering private company and this is why it has skimped on possible safety features like sprinkler systems. But it is more complicated than that.

The majority of KCTMO directors, including the chairman, are themselves tenants of the council’s housing. Three more are council appointed. The philosophy behind KCTMO Ltd is on the face of it benign – the tenants are managing their own properties. Which leads to the question of why relationships had broken down so badly between KCTMO and those apparently speaking for the residents of Grenfell Tower, particularly over fire safety issues.

Some of the answer to that may relate to social hierarchy among different types of council tenant. I do not know if anyone on the KCTMO board lived in Grenfell Tower, but imagine we would have been told that if so.

My experience of other organisations would lead me to suspect that in practice KCTMO Ltd did not operate in the way that it does on paper, and that the Chief Executive and other officers had a disproportionate influence. I have seen enough decisions in enough public bodies with a supposedly democratic structure – including universities and councils – to know that the elected representatives often find it very difficult to challenge the “expertise” of the executive officers. This is particularly likely to be true in an area like housing, where there are architectural, construction and legal issues. You quickly end up in a situation where the elected representatives are not really making decisions but only rubber=stamping the decisions of the officers. I saw various tenants who had been involved in the complaints to KTCMO interviewed yesterday, and they all referenced the Chief Executive, Robert Black, and not the tenant representative Chairman.

KCTMO’s staff costs are just over £10 million per year. I can find nothing on wage structure and what the executive officers are paid. I hope that information will become available.

But I can see no reason to believe that Mr Black or anybody else could make any personal gain from not installing a sprinkler system, for example. It appears responsibility for providing funds for this kind of capital expenditure lies with Kensington and Chelsea Council and not with KCTMO. It happens I lived for three years in Shepherds Bush and know this area very well. Ladbroke Grove is 15 minutes walk from some of the most expensive houses in the world. The idea that people in social housing were not high on the priorities of the council rings to me entirely true. In fact there is plenty of evidence that councillors are in cahoots with developers looking to demolish the social housing and build yet more massive luxury developments primarily for sale to the global “elite” of the extremely wealthy.

So much for the local picture. Nationally, it appears beyond argument that the government has failed again and again to update regulations following similar fires both in the UK and elsewhere. Yet again this is ideologically driven. Deregulation is a key principle of neo-liberalism. The government has an intrinsic belief that anything that adds costs or restriction to corporate profit should be resisted, and the idea of adding new regulation is simply anathema to them. That background cannot be ignored. The more you dig into this terrible tragedy, the more lurid a light is thrown on Neo-Liberal Britain.

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408 thoughts on “Housing Regulation

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  • Chris Rogers


    Please correct 4th Para down, second sentence when you reference ‘public sector’, you actually mean ‘private sector’ given the public sector is government & councils – hope this helps?

    • Trowbridge H. Ford

      Pleas explain,, as I find nothing wrong with the fourth paragraph.

      It reminded me of my belated visits to the Veterans Administration Hospital here in New Haven, Connnecticut..

      Of course, I suspected all kinds of problems from what I had heard about this troubled public service. I was amazed at how helpful they were. One of them even went to the trouble of registering me after my application had been lost by someone. And then the doctors really took my problems seriously. Am having completely different treatment from what I received from the private sector Yale/New Haven Emergency Room, and the Rehabilitation Ceneter, and at no cost!

  • Phil Ex-Frog

    The not for profit housing sector may not pay shareholders but it exists to shape an environment where the bottom line is an inescapable reality. It exists to prioritise profit for the industry, savings for the council and to manage expectations of tenants. As a co-op member I have been to conferences where everyone else is a housing professional. Behind closed doors the way they talk about tenants is shocking. They seem to really hate the tenants. From NFH officers to PR reps from HAs. They move onto jobs in policy making, government, development etc.

    Even in small TMOs the housing pros exert a huge influence. I know of committees where the tenants simply turn up and vote the way the chair tells them. I can easily see how in such a huge organisation as this KCTMO the tenant reps are irrelevant to influencing decisions.

  • Sharp Ears

    You all should have listened to James O’Brien on LBC this morning. His opening remarks were amazing. He said the whole matter is political from top to bottom. Contributions from those phoning in were informative and moving.

    I do think that Lammy is right. I hear that May has announced that a public inquiry will take place. More balls in long grass?

    Ref: ‘KCTMO’s staff costs are just over £10 million per year. I can find nothing on wage structure and what the executive officers are paid. I hope that information will become available.’

    We heard that Black and three others in KCMTO have £600,000 pa between them.

  • nevermind

    I feel so sad for the relatives and people that were in that fire, as well as those who watched what happened.

    That building regulations allow planning department to overlook the fact that outside laminates are flammable is beyond my comprehension. Such materials should have never been allowed for this use.
    The cladding was passed by regulators and the planning department, without whom nobody could have proceeded, questions should be directed to them.
    This morning Im listened to a bystander who witnessed the baby been caught in a blanket, he said that a window opened further up and a man shouted down, ‘please tell my boys that I love them very much’.

    If this tragedy, waiting to happen, according to some tenants who said so and warned of the fire risk, does not come up with action, does not order an investigation on all cladding in or outside public buildings already been carried out, indeed all building, then we will just merely hold our breath, weep at the human responses
    and wait for the next avoidable accident.

  • Vestas

    The area the fire occurred in is the richest council borough in the UK.

    The council are (AFAICT) one of the most active in terms of moving poor people out of borough – Peterborough is their currently favoured location as many of the Poles have left due to the 20% decline in the value of the pound so rent is very cheap (by London standards anyway).

    Richest borough in the UK, very active on “social cleansing”, sounds like tories who don’t give a shit about anyone who can’t afford a couple of million quid for a house to me.

    Not a fan of Lammy (he’s got more than a few skeletons in the cupboard) but he’s got this right – someone in K&C council, TMO or the building company (or all three) is going to have to be put in front of a court. Its not like they didn’t know about the panels being a disaster waiting to happen – the Melbourne fire a few years back proved that beyond all possible doubt.

  • DtP

    My very first job was as a trainee local gov acct managing the transition from full council ownership to devolved arms length management and it was never right. It was coupled with the forerunner for PFI called PPP (public private partnership). PPP’s were a damn sight better than PFIs as the council (or the main statutory body) retained ownership. But then as with much of anything, the ‘directors’ worked out they could take the absolute piss.

  • Krief

    1) I think firefighters may be a non-representative examlpe. I may misjudge them, but I suspect that people who clean toilets really do just do it just for the money.

    2) So apparently, do the charity executives…

    3) And deregulation is a problem whether it’s public or private. I don’t mind privatisation as long as the regulations are good, and properly enforced.

    • Arnold

      “I don’t mind privatisation as long as the regulations are good, and properly enforced.”

      Well you should. Privatisation is always a heist.

    • Ba'al Zevul

      But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? If the taxpayer is paying a private contractor to provide an essential service, then the government, as well as paying an attractive margin to the contractor, should provide the regulatory oversight. The contractor himself will wriggle out of any responsibility to his customers (or citizens, as some call themselves) in order to maximise his profit on the deal. At the end of the process, the taxpayer ends up paying more for the private service and its regulation than he would if it were centrally administered and under some kind of democratic control. We’re discussing essential services here. See also PFI.

      But hey, corruption is the new public service.

    • K Crosby

      Neglect of regulations (where they aren’t abolished) is what privatisation is for.

  • Leonard

    That’s a very fair article and as usual, Craig makes efforts to be scrupulously balanced concerning who are already being demonised by sections the MSM without any proper analysis or research.

    The perception about London, especially from abroad, is that it is a wonderfully diverse, dynamic city full of creativity and productivity. But it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that contemporary London is increasingly existing on a system that is not dissimilar to places like Dubai, where those who service the demands of the more wealthy are bussed (or rather tubed) in and out from increasingly crowded, dystopian and sub standard, expensive housing far away from the centre.

    Kensington and Chelsea council has an enormous surplus – several hundred million – which makes it a fabulously rich local authority compared with most of the rest of Britain. Its spending in the last few years tends to be confined to vanity projects or for the attraction of tourists. There is no doubt that its attitude to social housing has been one of barely concealed embarrassment. No wonder its commons seat changed from Tory to Labour, an almost unthinkable development only a year ago. Let’s hope the new MP galvanizes a sea change.

  • Ian Pleb

    Will the surviving residents ever get rehoused in Kensington &Chelsea is the big question? The burnt out remains of Grenfell Tower will be demolished but what will go up in its place and who will get to live there? There are numerous examples of council and ex council blocks being refurbished or demolished and the land rebuilt on but few local people ever get rehoused in the new properties. Much of central London had been ‘cleansed’ of the working class by redevelopment schemes of previously owned council land and buildings.
    Will these poor folk get lost in the mists of time like so many before them.

  • Bob Napier

    I’ve just written to Damian Green about a seven months delay in paying me a small Civil Service pension. At one point they told me that I wasn’t getting a pension because my contributions had been taken into account in a small pension they were paying me for a period of work which ended BEFORE the period I was claiming this pension for. Straight out of the Franz Kafka playbook that one.

    So far so boring! I ended my complaint by saying ‘I do not expect you to agree that the underlying cause of poor service is that My CSP Ltd is in the private sector (ultimate owner Equiniti) where the ‘bottom line’ is the priority. I believe in ‘the market’ and I would have no complaint had I been given a choice of pension administrator and chose a bad one. But what we have here is a function sold to the highest bidder, who can only make what they consider a reasonable return by low pay and low investment in staff training. My sympathies are firmly with the staff of My CSP Ltd.’

    I’m not holding my breath for a sympathetic response on that point!

  • Arnold

    But I can see no reason to believe that Mr Black or anybody else could make any personal gain from not installing a sprinkler system, for example.
    No reason to think Mr Black might ever take a backhander from a contractor then? What planet are we on?

  • Black Joan

    Part of the problem seems to be the introduction of “self-certification” — outsourcing the inspection of building work to, er, the builders themselves. That (and PFI) is thought to explain why all those schools in Scotland were built without wall ties and other dull but essential bits of kit.

    The new MP for Kensington (a Labour win by 20 votes) Emma Dent Coad, is an architectural writer and as such, and in her capacity as a local Councillor, she has been blogging about the rubbish “workmanship” evident in some of the recently built or refurbished housing intended for the peasantry (see here from March this year http://emmadentcoad.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/catalyst-housing-development-portobello.html ).

    • Arnold

      Big corporate interests will already be in position, channelling the discussion in ways that are likely to get them big contracts.

      And all the politicians will follow suit, wringing their hands and crying crocodile tears for a while, at the same time as displaying “grit” and “determination” to “put things right”. What a fucking load of old bollocks!

  • Richard Fife

    Every word of this is right on the political side. We must be grateful to Craig for the thorough (but still incomplte) examination of KCTMO: a more thorough examination is absolutely necessary. We must, as I have, and I’m sure Craig has, hesitate to make a political issue of this appalling tragedy. But on cautious consideration it is obvious that it IS a political issue.

  • Mike Hall

    Excellent piece Craig. I particularly agree with your assessment of KCTMO as I’ve worked in this kind of public funded nonprofit co. structure, as an executive officer, myself.

    Fortunately, myself and my colleagues remained close to ethos of public service, and retained the full confidence of the public representatives on our board. But there is no question who wielded the power in such a structure – the executive officers, as you describe.

    It’s wide open to abuse, and I’ve little doubt in this case that the Tory Council fully exploited that, with at least partial responsibility for the deaths at Grenfell Tower.

    • Ian

      For a tenant’s view of the TMO, see this piece in The Guardian:


      Some excerpts:
      “Collins first made the call for an inquiry in January 2016, in a speech at a meeting of Kensington and Chelsea council’s housing and planning scrutiny committee. He also raised residents’ concerns over the conduct of the building’s tenant management organisation (TMO) and its contractors.

      The residents’ association was formed after advice from Victoria Borwick, the local MP at the time, but tenants feel their group was not listened to or taken seriously.

      At the meeting, Collins presented a survey by the association that found 90% of residents were dissatisfied with the manner in which improvement works had been carried out, and 68% felt they had been harassed or intimidated by the TMO or contractors.

      Collins said managers from the contractors had come to his doorstep; other residents were told their tenancy would be under threat and their hot water and heating would be switched off unless they granted access to the TMO’s contractors. Many reported receiving threatening letters from solicitors acting for the TMO demanding entrance to properties, when tenants had not denied entrance to the TMO in the first place.”

      it seems the TMO’s are a front for the council and pay no heed to residents, but take the side of council and contractors. Tenants in places like these are terrified of being evicted to live in towns far from their social networks, which is the policy of councils like Kensington, otherwise known as ethnic cleansing, in order to gentrify the area with new expensive apartment blocks. Profits will accrue to contractors and investors. Tenants are pawns in the game.

  • Phil the ex-frog

    “It is sometimes to what Tories call the “third sector””

    You think “third sector” is a tory thing? The third sector as a phrase and a sector first flourished under Labour. I know these days the tories must be blamed for everything but the truth is that social cleansing in London has been fully embraced and often led by Labour councils.

    Even today Labour were well repreesnted at the LREF get together where developers and councils carve up estates for profit.


    • frankywiggles

      Yep, Sir Robin Wales in Newham a particular disgrace, Hackney, Lewisham not far behind.

        • Le Kurd

          Haringey is the worst of all. It is on the cusp of signing the biggest “partnerships” with Lendlease, a known black lister, used same cladding in an Australian hospital and illegally charging NYC for costs which never existed, for which they were fined $56m dollars. This partnership will demolish existing council housing stock and replace them with private accommodation (read: luxury flats), and council tenants have not received guarantees that they will be able to move into one of these flats or moved somewhere close to the area. It is essentially an ethnic and class cleansing of London on a massive scale

  • Sixer

    I agree, Craig.

    Public services are stabilising institutions in market economies. They should never be part of markets themselves. That doesn’t stabilise, it destabilises. Without marketisation, left and right can still happily argue over the level of funding and services and how much should have social or individual responsibility. The rest of us can still rely on the stability of the provision.

  • Iain Stewart

    Nobody has mentioned the powerful plastics-based insulation materials lobby, whose cheap yet highly inflammable cladding products depend on mineral wool firebreaks. Lack of familiarity with the reputedly easy-going English (as compared with Scottish) building regulations makes me hesitate to guess how many storeys are theoretically “fire broken” (1). As a technical point, sprinkler systems have no relevance in this case.

    (1) “For any building with a height above 18m, or less than 1m from a boundary, the regulations in England state that external walls must be clad in products with limited combustibility. In Scotland the regulations require that the cladding material is non-combustible.”

      • Iain Stewart

        Arnold, extruded polystyrene is only slightly more efficient as a thermal insulant, but it burns easily releasing poisonous fumes. Mineral wool is inert, hence its use as a fire break and more generally as incombustible external insulation. Are you a freelance lobbyist for the unstustainable plastics industry or something?

  • Sharp Ears

    Watched this live on the Parliament Channel but it is not on Hansard or elsewhere as far as I could see.

    MPs demand help for terrified high-rise residents after London fire
    Ministers are told that disabled people fear for their lives, and Jeremy Corbyn says there is great anger at Grenfell Tower

    Messrs Nick Hurd, Housing Minister under Rudd, and Alok Sharma,Department for Communities and Local Government, faced questions and requests on the promised public inquiry.

    • Sharp Ears

      Also O/T The fire will not be featuring in Crimewatch tonight ! but is bound to dominate QT BBC1 11pm

      15 June 2017
      59 minutes
      David Dimbleby chairs topical debate from Coventry. On the panel are:

      Conservative defence minister Tobias Ellwood
      Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry
      Lib Dem former health minister Norman Lamb
      co-founder of the Conservative Woman website Laura Perrins
      Rob Delaney, comedian, writer and star of the sitcom Catastrophe.

      Wonder how Dimblebore will keep a lid on it.

  • Sven Lystbak

    You talk about tenants only.
    I read somewhere, that at least some of the apartments were privately owned and either owner occupied or rented out.
    So it seems that the building was in a process of privatization which of cause complicates the picture.

    • Adam Burgess

      A lot of them will have been sub-let on the sly by rapacious council tenants, making the job of discovering who has perished in the fire a lot harder.

      • Disinterested Bystander

        That’s a pretty disgusting comment, especially given the circumstances. I don’t suppose you’ll be back with an apology for this disgraceful and unevidenced slur. Hit-and-run snipers like yourself never apologise for anything.

    • Arnold

      They don’t own their flats: they are leaseholders, which is a kind of tenant. Hardly anybody who lives in a flat in England or Wales owns it. They only own a fixed-term lease on it, under which they pay ground rent to the freeholder. The law was changed in 2002 to facilitate “commonholds”, but lawyers and big property interests stamped on it. This article is a good starting-point.

  • Ron

    Just a few points I’d like tlo make: 1. Private sector is more efficient than the government at managing things. The question here is whether efficiency is the key priority in certain areas of activity. 2. The charity sector needs a good looking into – perhaps a national public investigation is needed. Charities seem, at least financially, to operate very opaquely. It also seems that they are very politicised. 3. Yes, self-interest is the primary motivation of a normal person who has not undergone brainwashing of some kind. It’s something to do with the instinct of survival. It is, however, not the only motivation.

    • Arnold

      Private sector is more efficient than the government at managing things.

      No it’s not. Look at the railway system. Or the payment of student grants in September and October.

      Yes, self-interest is the primary motivation of a normal person who has not undergone brainwashing of some kind. It’s something to do with the instinct of survival. It is, however, not the only motivation.

      What a load of right-wing cock.

  • Johnstone

    ‘a big health warning over that’ said one Skye news correspondent to another .. over the suggestion of corporate manslaughter …a very strange statement.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Can you believe it! The fire chiefs will not looking for sabotage being the cause of the fire, only looking at that alleged faulty bridge, bad wiring, the cladding, no sprinklers, etc.

    Already looking like the explanation of the Dr, Kelly murder where the evidence of his finders and that of the forensic people was overridden by those who moved his body and those who blamed suicide, like that loony Dr. Keith Hawon, at the Hutton Inquiry.

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