Friday, 16 June 2017

Grenfell Tower - get on board

Grenfell Tower's Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation: Get On Board
I used to work just over the road from Grenfell Tower on a housing and social work job. Scroll to the bottom for an anecdote headed "anecdote" that might make you laugh. From that, I learnt nothing about Grenfell Tower directly (one or two tenants moved to council flats next door but not in the tower) but a lot of the evidence is obvious about the causes of the fire,
  • cladding not sprinklers
  • housing associations management, not "residents listened to" or "fire regulations" directly
  • what an inquiry should talk about, if there is a need for one at all

Polyurethane Cladding

Everyone has seen fire damage on tower blocks, which effects one flat and just possibly the one above or two floors above, if cinders have got in through a window. It follows that the problem is not directly about sprinklers, even if they would have helped. Everyone has also seen the smouldering cladding on TV, so that's where the problem lies.

Housing Association Management

Meanwhile, The Guardian writes that a load of people are in Kensington Town Hall chanting "we want answers" while The Independent thinks they are shouting "we want justice" - it must be hard to tell who should ask what question to who. Kensington Council is ground landlord to a specialist housing association that spent £10 million on polyurethane cladding. A small amount of extra spending would have bought inflammable cladding. It's as simple as that.

One thing I did learn while working for a housing organisation was how completely dotty they are, obsessed with procedure and hierarchy that forces staff to act a bit like MPs, stuck between residents and a procedure that says they have to be consulted about decisions already taken. While procedure is important, the theory behind what they do is almost secret and has to be picked-up gradually with luck. Each member of staff has a different theory to what the organisation is meant to do. Grenfell Tower was slightly simpler because it offers permanent housing, but some of the complications are the same.


Should a supported temporary housing organisation exist to help
  • past residents with resettlement and opportunities to come-back to a club or for advice
  • future residents
  • just the ones in the building who make a fuss?

If a junior member of staff somehow gives a senior member of staff a funny feeling of unstated disagreement, is this a question of
  • facts,  polite disagreement, action according to who's job it is to decide what
  • bad attitude and an excuse to discourage a potential rival?

Should the funding of the organisation be
  • described in a contract in the director's safe, which nobody else is allowed to see?
  • presumed by everyone concerned in their own way, often conflicting? For example people could agree that it would be good for a volunteer to do something, but need more information about whether taxpayer subsidy or rent covers something done by paid staff.

Should fire safety information be
  • evidence based with training to anyone who needs it based on records of past fires and clear facts?
  • left at the discretion of fire safety officers who speak to the maintenance manager about fire regulations that don't exist or are very hard to look-up?
  • oddly enough, an ex employee of the housing association has written an article for The Guardian - . Her experience is a little less frustrating in some ways. She got a job after university; I faced all this in the 80s and had to work-up to the privilege of a housing job or a housing support job. Housing support workers were paid less and that was my job title. She also got some kind of clear training about fire by default. I had to talk about fire safety because team meetings required it, so I asked for proper training and eventually got it, from the firm that supplied fire extinguishers. An unusual success but true. The ambivalence is the same. Is the job social work? Or letting agent? Or an awful mixture of the two under glaring management scrutiny by people who shouldn't really be in the job, but were somehow allowed to cash the subsidy cheque.

    Should consultation of residents assume
    • that all residents want the same thing, to be determined in a meeting, and "get on board" as the picture suggests?
    • that every tenant will want a slightly different thing, often overlapping? For example most might think plastic cladding flammable, some might not care either way if sprinklers are installed, others might think it a waste of money and a few might not want the things in their flats while they are tenants, whatever happens outside. That's not a "get on board" answer.
    You get the gist that nobody would want to work for a housing organisation for long and staff turnover is high. Meanwhile a group of residents is encouraged to use vague language and to feel disappointed. I disagree with The Guardian's statement about a similar group:

     "Residents are not ignorant: they have to live in buildings like this one every day, hoping for the best in the knowledge that this home is the only one they have. Grenfell Tower’s tenants may not have been experts in architectural cladding – who is, apart from the people you entrust with the safety of your home? – but they were well aware that their building didn’t have an adequate fire-alarm system or procedure for evacuation in the event of a serious fire."
    The truth is that residents have different levels of ignorance, and the tricky bit is to inform and educate about background detail, and that's something that could be done on the website or anywhere similar; it doesn't have to be done by every single landlord. Just today, someone added a note to this page to say that planning permission was for less flammable cladding. That's the kind of fact that residents need so that debates can be reasonable and not break-down into phrases like "doesn't listen" or "justice".

    If I lived in a tower block, I would not vote for fire practises, nor go-along with them if introduced. I would be the one who left a pushchair next to the lift and got cross with an official who sent a letter. The truth is obvious. It's plastic cladding that spread the fire, and sprinklers would only use-up scarce time and money, so making the choice of cheap cladding more likely.

    There another bit of ignorance that politicians and media encourage. It is a view of a religious people who like to come together in shared togethery-ness, and have no need for the Social Fund or whatever it is called now, or Housing Benefit, or the council's duty social worker or duty to rehouse in emergencies. No politician went to visit Work and Pensions staff trying to deal with emergency claims, but a few visited

    No wonder there is a group of people making a fuss about sprinklers that wouldn't have helped, and a group sitting in the ground landlord's lobby chanting "justice" or "answers" as loudly as they can. If there is a public enquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire's cause, that's what it will find out. An organisation with high staff turnover, low availability of facts, and shelves full of tenant consultation notes and policies as their name - Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation - suggests. If you check their web site at this difficult time, you see just such a message, as a pop-up that all new visitors have to acknowledge.

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    what an inquiry should talk about

    • Planning permission was for one cladding; the suppliers' receipt was for another more flammable one. That's the whole thing sorted with just some background stuff to find out about
    • How members of housing association staff thought plastic cladding was OK.
      This is the same as asking: how do people who wish they could get a better job end-up making a decision when bombarded from all sides? What is it that makes the job difficult and short of applicants? What allows the Machiavellian applicant to get the job? Why are people writing about the need for sprinklers, which would reduce a tight budget, when more expensive cladding (or none) is obviously the answer?
    • How fire laws, law-like rules, and evidence could be made more search-able and well-written. To the point where any builder or housing association worker or tenant in a consultation meeting should be able to start looking them up, even if they give-up and ask advice later in the process. This is more important than whether laws and law-like things are up to date on plastic cladding, I think that private sources of information and negligence law should work almost by themselves, even if nobody updates things like ministerial guidelines for decades.

      If evidence of past fires and injuries could be linked to the same sources of information, so that someone in a meeting with colleagues about cheap cladding, under pressure from all sides, could point to previous fires, that would be ideal.
    • How people who are fair and who respect facts could be hired info public-funded management jobs. This I think requires a way of getting a reference from previous junior colleagues, as well as the senior ones who might be Machiavellis or just desperate to be shot of the person they give a reference for.
    • How people are so ignorant of facts that they invade the wrong building, claim they are being lied-to about facts which nobody can yet know (the death toll) and generally believe that making a noise helps. I think the rioters are the problem as well as the cladding-choosers and their management.
    • How to get breathable air to a flat that has toxic smoke wafting about. Sprinklers wouldn't help. A long fire-proof hose in each flat might help, either to climb down or to breath through.
    • Finally there is the issue of dignitaries and camera units coming to film and shake hands with people called "community leaders" in one case. There was a report today that a local catholic priest was praying for victims of the disaster. I hope it made a concrete difference, but in the UK we have a
      benefits agency with
      hardship payments, we have
      duty social workers,
      housing benefit, and the
      council's duty to re-house people made homeless by disasters.

      All of these are important and more likely to have any effect than what the BBC reports, which is priests and shared togethery-ness. So the enquiry should enquire why no politician could be bothered to visit the benefits agency and no public sector information worker put-out statements about how benefits are meant to work. The result could be better understanding by claimants about what they've paid for, better understanding by politicians about whether the system works, and less of this pretend system by which people pull-together and post random jumpers to local churches in case that helps.

    Anecdote - skip to para two if in a hurry

     As it happens my employer - London Cyrenians - rented cheap space off the building where Grenfell residents met politicians or spent an emergency night or two, a building built as a church, with basements and balconies sub-let to social work and education agencies, and still working for faith groupies in the middle. Our office was in the left-hand balcony, where Victorian architects planned for so many more faithful to congregate that two tears of seating would be required. Maybe they expected even more and left room to build more balconies. By the 1950s or 1960s, someone must have guessed that this was not going to happen and built partitions with frosted glass and lockable doors to make a lettable office space.

    One day the boss was a way for the weekly stupid team meeting. We heard music. Lead Kindly Light Amidst Encircling Gloom ... Leed Thou Me On ...  something like that. So we sang along, as you do if trying to bond with colleagues.

    This was a real funeral for some faith-groupies, apparently. The director told us a day or two later, just in passing. There was nothing else to do or say

      related post about London Housing Trust:

      John Robertson now works at for vegan shoes online

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