No More Grenfells

I’ve been fortunate always to have had a roof over my head, though it hasn’t always been a comfortable one. A few of the places I lived in as a student were beyond grotty and  one I had to leave after a week it was so desparate. The bed bugs were the final straw.

The room I moved into certainly wasn’t palatial, but it was at least clean and the walls weren’t running with damp. The rent was a little more, but it was reasonably warm and safe, in a house where the owner, my landlord lived.

I’ve lived in some cold places. Back in 1963 in a viciously cold winter there was a month or two where the bathroom never got above freezing and I never had a bath, and in Leicester the ice was thick inside the windows and I gave up shaving – and never started again.

In Manchester, where we lived on the top floor of a small terraced house, there were slotmeters on the landing for gas and electricity, and the landlord came and emptied them. We were paying three or four times the going rate. We went out and bought a paraffin heater. It was smelly but got our room warm – and the condensation from it brought the wall-paper off the wall.

Everything changed when I got a job in a new town – and a large new flat at council rent with a hot-air heating system run on off-peak electricity, and we lived in comfort for several years before buying a house of our own. We wanted to move and it wasn’t possible to remain in social housing.

We moved into a small victorian semi which was cold and draughty and which had hardly been modernised since it was built, other than having the gas lighting replaced by electricity – though some of the piping was still there.

We were fortunate that we could afford to replace the old draughty sash windows with double glazing. I spent hours fitting draught-proofing, putting insulation in the loft and on the inside of front and rear external walls behind plasterboard fixed to battens. The exterior walls were just a single brick thick – which didn’t stop people trying to sell me cavity wall insulation, though there was no cavity. We had gas fires put in rather than central heating as it was more energy efficient but it remained a rather cold house, though much better now since we had external insulation on the gable end a few years ago.

We were fortunate that we owned the property (though it took 20 years to pay off the mortgage) and could make it warmer – and that we could afford to do so – with the help of government grants to meet part of the costs for a new roof and, many years later, external insulation. And that we had enough income never to have to make the choice between turning on a fire and eating. When we were in private rentings things were much tougher.

I spent a year in a tower block too, on the 10th floor about half-way up. But fortunately it wasn’t covered in highly flammable material and didn’t catch fire. The worst that happened was broken down lifts. But there are still many blocks with the same dangerous cladding that was used at Grenfell, and probably also applied with much the same disregard for proper support and breaks; not really accidents but tragic fires waiting to happen.

We need new laws – like that the Conservatives – many of them landlords – voted down to ensure that properties are safe to live in. And for governemnt to keep the promises it made just after Grenfell. To bring in proper and regular fire safety checks, to ensure that building regulations are adhered to – and toughened where neceessary. To remove flammable cladding from all tall buildings, to reverse cuts in firefighters and fire appliances and so on.  To listen to the complaints of tenants and take action, and to end evictions of those who complain or ask for repairs of private rented properties. And of course to build much more council housing and end the demolition of existing council estates.

In my twenties I was a housing activist, part of the Moss Side Housing Action Group, trying hard to persuade the city council to build homes that people wanted and would last. We wanted safe, decent housing – and they built instant slums, now largely replaced. People deserve good  housing – and the cheapest way to provide it is council housing.  Rents are much lower not as many think because of subsidies, but because it is more cost-efficient and most council estates have more than paid for their costs in a reasonable time-scale.

I’ve not written anything here about the actual protest, but you can read that in the text and captions on My London Diary.

No More Grenfells – Make Tower Blocks Safe


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My London Diary : London Photos : Hull : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

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