The Conservatives are asleep at the wheel and lack the skills or desire to address the built environment’s multiple crises, writes former MP Emma Dent Coad
We are witnessing utter chaos in government. If there was ever a time for architects, planners and other professionals connected with the built environment – those with a commitment to social justice - to step into the fray of local and national politics, that time is now.
The overdue and watered-down legislation on fire and building safety is emerging at a snail’s pace following the atrocity of Grenfell. And unfolding before our eyes is the entirely predictable disaster of Brexit.
Supply lines are failing, with late deliveries of materials quite literally bringing construction sites to a standstill. And of course, the disappearance of skilled EU workers means that we are desperately short of people with the relevant expertise to meet the built environment’s needs.
The entire building industry is in chaos, but the wrong people are in charge
We need to mitigate the damage that Brexit has done, anticipate the next crisis and resolve the devastating outcomes of this government’s mismanagement.
The entire building industry is in chaos, but the wrong people are in charge. Instead, we have in our national political leadership those whose expertise lies in making money and extracting it for their own benefit.
In the past five years we have had five secretaries of state for housing, communities and local government and now “levelling up”, housing and communities. We have had a banker, a corporate financier, a corporate lawyer, a journalist and a business strategist.
In June 2017, on my first session in the House of Commons as Labour MP for Kensington and just after the Grenfell Tower fire had wreaked havoc in my neighbourhood, a colleague beside me pointed to the row – all of them men – on the Tory backbenches opposite. “Millionaire, millionaire, millionaire, billionaire, millionaire – all landlords or property developers,” they pointed out.
The realisation that a majority of lawmakers in the majority party of the House of Commons had self-interest, rather than the national interest at heart should hardly have been a surprise. But the sheer magnitude of it hit me.
Just days after the atrocity of the Grenfell fire, with a mountain to climb to help provide care for survivors and bereaved families, and to work out how to get legislation changed so that “Grenfell II” would not occur, I was faced with a wall of carefully controlled sympathy, alongside studied indifference, from the Tory caretakers of property wealth.
Looking for useful allies among MPs I certainly found several and, as the months went by and buildings with similar cladding and other fire safety issues were identified, we did form some kind of united front. There were some who understood technical matters – two former planners, three former firefighters.
As I got to meet the various secretaries of state and housing ministers over my 30 months in parliament, I saw the enormity of what we were facing. They didn’t really care
And there were others who cared enough to inform themselves of the details of what had happened at Grenfell, and of what needed to be done to remediate the tens of thousands of buildings across the country that could potentially suffer a similar fate. But, as I got to meet the various secretaries of state and housing ministers over my 30 months in parliament, I saw the enormity of what we were facing. They didn’t really care.
This of course reflects the attitude of Tory councillors in Kensington and Chelsea, whose disdain for tenants of social housing has been so painfully revealed during the testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. This attitude runs deep. Kensington and Chelsea Tories believe that people living in homes designed for their use, such as the houses and flats of Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and Edenham Way, are “privileged”.
Goldfinger worked to eradicate the slums of north Kensington and give low-income families homes that were dignified, decent and comfortable, with all the modern utilities at their disposal. He designed these homes around how people lived. He wanted to improve their lives, and their futures.
But Kensington and Chelsea’s Tories have thought for some years, and still believe today, that ordinary people on ordinary incomes, do not deserve to live somewhere nice. Instead, they believe these people should perhaps move out to somewhere they can afford.
The Tories support punitive measures to move the less well off into poorly converted office blocks, on the outskirts of our cities, far away from decent work opportunities, transport, schools and community facilities.
In the days after the Grenfell fire, after I had been interviewed numerous times and widely quoted, I was accused by the Kensington and Chelsea Tories of “politicising” the fire. The idea that the atrocity for which they were accountable was somehow a politically neutral event, some kind of misfortune or natural disaster – not entirely man-made and avoidable – was repeated endlessly.
They said “tragedy”. The community said “atrocity”. We must never forget that Grenfell was entirely avoidable.
The determination of the council leadership to distance themselves from accountability worked only so far. The tens of millions of pounds they are continuing to spend on comms and legal fees – our money – is a direct result of a series of their political decisions. Bad ones.
We have generations of buildings that need to be remediated, or retrofitted, to counter climate change, and we lack the understanding and expertise that is so sorely needed in government to make it happen
Let us remember that the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was an exercise in “retrofit”. We were less informed about climate change 10 years ago when the work was being planned than we are now, but it was nonetheless an effort to patch up an ageing building that had suffered from poor maintenance over many years and make it livable into the future.
Now we have generations of buildings that need to be remediated, or retrofitted, to counter climate change, and we lack the understanding and expertise that is so sorely needed in government to make it happen – people with foresight and vision. Climate is yet another battleground that is being politicised in the current Tory leadership contest.
I would like to encourage more engagement with politics from those working in the built environment. Not just to protest, lobby, write letters, sign petitions and meet MPs, but to be ready to stand for election in local or national government. If you are not in a political party, join one now.
There is a general election coming within two years, so get active and see what you can achieve. If you cannot be selected this time around, offer your services as an adviser, get your skills and expertise out there, be irreplaceable.
Bankers and corporate lawyers should not be making planning policy. We need informed debate. We need you.
On 22 September my book, One Kensington, will be published. It has been a long and painful process, covering my 16 years on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council and 30 months in parliament, based on an archive of notes and documentation. It chronicles years of poor decision-making on finances and on housing, by a council led by those focused on burnishing the reputation of Kensington and Chelsea as a place to visit and buy insanely expensive houses, while they sidelined the homes and safety of those for whom they had statutory duties of care.
The haemorrhaging of money on vanity projects, while saving on maintenance and repairs of social tenants, is laid out for all to see. This is the story which has been so painfully revealed at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, but written from the inside.
One reviewer has described the book as “a brutal exposé. It reads like a 200-page ‘rotten boroughs’ column from Private Eye, but written with furious personal compassion for those let down. It is a deconstruction of the culture that ultimately led to some of the failures at Grenfell Tower and is absolutely damning from start to finish.”
I don’t ever want to write another book like this. So, over to you. Involve yourselves in politics, shift the bankers, corporate lawyers and property developers aside, and instill some knowledge and sanity into government.
Emma Dent Coad is an architectural historian. She was the Labour MP for Kensington from 2017 to 2019 and has been a councillor in Kensington and Chelsea since 2006. Her new book, One Kensington, will be published by Quercus on 22 September.