The housing crisis: Structure, accountability and the Grenfell Tower tragedy

Why should people have to put up with so little control over their living conditions? Why should they have to put up with profit coming before safety?

Organisational structure is boring. In the coming months and years, as the failures that led to the tragic, avoidable inferno at Grenfell Tower are investigated, there will be many dramatic moments.

There will be villains and heroes, we will learn of a chain of errors, each compounding the previous; political careers will rise or fall, and if the investigation is rigorous and complete, we will enjoy the downfall of those who did not care enough.

What will never be exciting is the question of organisational structure. Yet perusal of the blog of Grenfell Action Group, and some knowledge of the borough and of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), shows that a major link in the chain of failure is KCTMO and its designed lack of accountability.

The TMO first came to my attention when I was doing work in the borough that brought me into contact with residents. KCTMO is universally hated by those it houses. The hatred goes beyond the usual suspicion of residents towards those who have power over them. KCTMO has for years been an unaccountable and deeply resented part of life for many Kensington and Chelsea residents. I have not met one resident with a good word to say for ‘their’ TMO. It was therefore unsurprising to read on Grenfell Action Group’s blog how deeply unresponsive they had found the organisation to their repeated complaints – on multiple grounds – about fire safety in the block.

Unresponsiveness from their providers is very familiar to many who live in social housing. They live under the regimes of ALMOs (Arms-Length Management Organisations) and housing associations, the democratic components of which are weak to non-existent. And the excuse for that has been a neoliberal technocratic insistence that the local authority will never innovate and will never provide good services, while independent companies will.

The tragedy has raised serious questions about UK housing provision

The result has been organisations utterly unaccountable to those they serve, with many housing associations increasingly acting more like profit-seeking companies than providers of public goods. In particular, the larger housing associations formed through mergers over the years seem to many residents to be a law unto themselves.

So here’s a question we could ask independently of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower: why should people have to put up with so little control over their living conditions? Why should they have to put up with organisations more interested in profit than in housing them safely? Why have successive governments been making housing organisations less accountable rather than more accountable? Isn’t that a sign of contempt for those who live in social housing? Isn’t it a sign of the lack of respect and lack of care towards residents? Isn’t that a political decision? Do people deserve this unresponsiveness and lack of accountability in their housing?

Ironically, it is Tenant Management Organisations (TMOs) that could provide a part of the solution to the problem of unaccountable housing organisations. A TMO is a democratic organisation, structured in a similar way to a housing co-operative. The latter is a superior level of democratic control, for a long-term housing association will usually own the property in which its members live, while a TMO only manages the properties owned by someone else – usually the local authority. So if TMOs are meant to be democratic, what went wrong in Kensington and Chelsea?

A clue to the residents’ hatred of the TMO can be read between the lines of the press release by the National Federation of TMOs: “KCTMO is a unique TMO due to its size and governance model, being that it runs the entire housing stock for the local council, which the overwhelming majority of TMOs don’t.”

A couple of years ago I asked a stalwart of the housing co-operative movement, also an aficionado of TMOs as a democratic management method, about KCTMO. He rolled his eyes. “They ignored all the advice from people who understood TMOs,” he said. The idea that you could put all the housing of a borough in one huge structure, as Kensington and Chelsea did, was laughable to those who understood TMOs. These democratic organisations function well if they cover a block or a few blocks, but they are not structured to deal with large-scale housing management. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea cobbled together their own ersatz TMO, one too large and remote to ever truly be democratic, one that the experts in TMOs knew would not work. It was this ‘TMO’ that ignored the warnings of Grenfell Action Group.

In fact, the very existence of Grenfell Action Group tells you that KCTMO has failed. I live in a housing co-operative and there, as in any functioning housing co-operative or TMO, if the committee is failing to do what the residents want, the committee will be changed. That’s what democracy means. I have never heard of a truly co-operative organisation that requires action committees to try and push changes. Voting is the mechanism that should work to create change in a democratic organisation.

There were many other ways to structure housing management in Kensington and Chelsea, but we should be clear that most of them would have been just as bad. They would have been undemocratic and unresponsive. That is the standard in social housing management. But there are hundreds of functioning housing co-operatives and TMOs in London alone, providing a democratic beacon of how social housing can be run.

Talking about structure is not as exciting as calling for Gavin Barwell (former Conservative housing minister and current Downing Street chief of staff) to resign or demanding that the Tories admit to their failures on social housing, but it is vital if we care about the everyday experience of those living in social housing.

Let’s talk about how reasonable it is to demand democracy in housing, let’s talk about people’s right to control their own environment, their homes most of all. Grenfell Action Group should not have been ignored, but its existence should never have been necessary in the first place.

KCTMO should be restructured as a matter of urgency, but let’s not stop there: millions of people are living under ALMOs and housing associations that ignore them. Let’s give people democratic control over their own housing, not just because it will save lives – though it may well do – but because that’s what people deserve.

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