Warnings that went unheard
The Grenfell Tower disaster raises many questions in the light of apocalyptic messages posted by the Grenfell Action Group. Residents blogged that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO’.
Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation is owned and run by tenants. The board typically comprises tenant representatives, councillors and independent representatives (in equal measure). Yet tenants had formed an ‘action group’ – which suggests their voices were not being heard.
Tenant inclusion in the delivery of housing services has been watered down by successive governments, as private initiatives have taken hold of social housing delivery.
KCTMO is not the ‘landlord’, which has understandably confused residents. The council still owns around 9,000 properties, but in 1996 responsibility for managing all housing services passed to a TMO. KCTMO is unique in not only being the largest of its kind but also for the wide range of services it manages. That may explain its alleged lack of responsiveness.
TMOs are developed under Right to Manage regulations introduced in 1994 and since revised. They were intended to empower tenants.
The 2006 White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities aimed to give tenants a say in how public services are received and designed for them. This was to be achieved by rebalancing the relationship between central government, local government and citizens. It was recognised that housing estates are best run where residents have a say in shaping their housing environment.
KCTMO board member Councillor Judith Blackman is quoted as saying she made 19 complaints about fire hazards to the council on behalf of residents. It is unclear who declined the request to carry out an independent safety assessment, but it was stated that the deficiencies were brought to the attention of the council. Yet it was also suggested that the board (that is, KCTMO) were satisfied no further action was required. Presumably, that decision was made after consulting the council.
KCTMO is an incorporated private company whose management fees are paid by the council. It is accountable to the Homes and Communities Agency and will produce an annual report to tenants.
The regulator sets standards for UK registered social housing providers but has, in effect, limited its role to focusing only on the financial viability of a provider (the ‘economic standard’) and has neglected the consumer standard by raising the threshold at which it will intervene. That threshold is defined as being where failure to meet the consumer standard causes or has caused serious harm – there is no preventative objective.
Tenants with a complaint about housing services must first contact the managing agents. But stalemate can ensue should the TMO and council landlord decline to act. Council tenants have recourse about their landlord to the Housing Ombudsman, but getting a complaint to that stage is laborious.
Another obstacle is that the TMO could not rely on the local authority Environmental Health Team to investigate the hazards identified because that team cannot act where to do so would place them in conflict with their council.
Changes introduced in 2010 by the then housing minister, Grant Shapps, began to erode provisions that had empowered tenants. The quango National Tenant Voice was abolished; by 2011, councils were no longer required to provide data to the Audit Commission on tenant satisfaction; and by 2012 the Tenant Services Authority closed. In 2013, legal aid cuts were introduced.
What is needed now is a rebalancing to ensure there are effective mechanisms for tenant participation without obscuring who is accountable to whom.
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