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Tragedy in Social Housing

The horrors of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London were still fresh in our minds when a tragedy, almost certain to eclipse both, befell the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington.

In the early hours of Wednesday, 14th June, it is believed a refrigerator exploded. A frightening occurrence in any family home, but when the home in question is a flat in a 24-storey tower block, it is catastrophic. Fire ripped through the block and despite fire services arriving within 8 minutes of the alarm being raised, there seemed little they could do to impede the progress of the blaze. 

Residents of neighbouring tower blocks had the unwelcome view of the tragedy as it unfolded, hearing the screams of those trapped and seeing victims jumping out of windows to escape the flames and the smoke, in scenes reminiscent of New York’s Twin Towers attack on 11th September 2001. 

At the time of writing, we know of 79 dead or missing and presumed dead, and it is still possible that this figure could rise. Hundreds have been left homeless and seen all their possessions destroyed in the conflagration.

It seems unbelievable that as recently as 2015, Grenfell Tower had been refurbished at a cost of £8.5 million. Unfortunately, despite concerns of tenants, nothing was done to improve the fire safety of the block. Installing a sprinkler system, seen as the most effective prevention for the spread of fire, would have cost £1100 per flat, but it seems this was not one of the measures considered essential.   

The Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn have visited the scene of the tragedy and an enquiry has been promised, but the anger of the community has been directed at the fact that this was social housing and the feeling that this would not happen in the high value, private developments in the locale. This is probably true, but hopefully, more due to the fact that recent developments will meet modern standards not existent when Grenfell Tower and its’ neighbours were built in the 1960’s. No-one would like to think that buildings provided by public money would have less effective fire safety provisions than those built with private money.

Although at present, the attention will be on social housing, with investigations being conducted throughout the country to ascertain whether any other blocks are at risk due to the materials used in their construction, there will be implications for the private sector.

More stringent fire safety regulations will impact on private as well as social landlords; if additional features add to building costs, then the rents will rise. Will tenants accept that this is necessary, or look for cheaper properties which may not have been acted on as swiftly to fully safe-guard.

Could huge tower-blocks be banned? Unlikely, as land is in short supply – in areas with the most demand, a ban on any building above a couple of stories would not be tolerated.  

There is also the wider effect that a disaster of this nature will have. Will flats at higher than second or third floor, be appealing to prospective tenants, either private or social? Or will they continue to be haunted by the terrible sights we all witnessed in the media?

When a tragedy such as the one that befell Grenfell Tower happens, lessons must be learnt.

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