Housing 2017 day one: social housing in the spotlight over Grenfell

Speakers at the opening day of this year’s Chartered Institute of Housing annual event in Manchester had an unenviable task. They had to acknowledge that everything they said in their presentations was in the context of the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, but also press on with the business of tackling the ongoing housing crisis.

Some in the housing sector have called for Housing 2017 to be about nothing but Grenfell Tower and the housing sector and government response.

They rightly identify the need for the UK housing profession to demonstrate loud and clear to residents and the wider public and policy makers that social landlords are taking Grenfell Tower and its implications for fire safety in social homes very seriously.

The argument is that there is greater media and political attention than at any time in the last 15 years on this year’s conference. The world is now watching social housing and it expects urgent action on improved fire safety. As a housing sector we must make sure this happens and happens quickly.

However, as well as providing safe and secure homes, housing providers exist to help meet housing need for people struggling to meet their housing costs.

Social landlords would be doing a dis-service to the 70,000 households Savills says are annually priced out from the housing market if they did not continue their work on providing affordable housing and helping tackle high housing costs.

There are a whole host of housing issues that impact on this – the introduction of the Local Housing Allowance cap to social rents from April 2019; the increase in homelessness; the struggle to provide supported housing in the face of these pressures. The list goes on.

To her credit, Terrie Alafat, the chief executive of the CIH, took on this communications challenge and, to my mind, succeeded.

She began her opening address with a sincere acknowledgement of Grenfell Tower and the repercussions, then addressed other areas of housing policy that continue to demand attention.

Alafat set the tone for the rest of the first day of Housing 2017. Speakers at sessions I attended from Savills to Laing O’Rourke acknowledged the context of Grenfell Tower and the need to quickly learn the lessons. But they also conveyed important messages on off-site manufactured houses, land and funding that are crucial to ramp up the effort tackling the housing supply crisis in many areas.

The importance of continuing to manage this delicate approach was emphasized to me at the session on ‘Making sense of the political landscape’, with national journalists from The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Observer.

All made the clear point that Grenfell Tower has caused the public, politicians and policy makers to look at social housing and the people who live there more closely than at any time in decades.

The implications for fire safety and building materials are of course at the heart of this attention.

However, Gaby Hinsliff of The Guardian also expressed the view that: ‘The idea that people haven’t been listened to by the state has become very powerful in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.’

In Hinsliff’s eyes, as the weeks and months unfold post-Grenfell Tower, pressure will grow on the government to take steps to tackle poverty and the increasing costs of living that mean many households struggle to make ends meet.

She also highlighted the extent to which trust has been lost in the ability of local authorities and housing associations to provide safe and secure homes.

The housing sector has much work to do to rebuild its reputation.

Improvements in fire safety must of course be prioritised, but this work should sit alongside the continuing social mission of housing providers to help more people into homes they can afford.

See Media is attending the three days of Housing 2017 in Manchester. We will blog each day on our take on the highlights at www.see-media.co.uk

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