Key lessons from Grenfell must be to listen and communicate
On the one year anniversary of the Grenfell fire, CIH Scotland's deputy director Callum Chomczuk reflects on some of the key lessons which need to be learned in this new opinion piece.
The anniversary of the Grenfell fire, alongside the ongoing public inquiry, has created a renewed focus on the safety of housing and ensuring that these awful events never happen again.
Grenfell obviously highlighted fundamental failures in the building regulations and fire safety systems covering high-rise buildings in England, poor enforcement and the recent Hackitt report rightly recommended a wholesale overhaul.
In Scotland a number of reviews have been established, one focusing on communication so that residents know what to do in the event of a fire and further reviews are considering building standards and the regulatory framework, with a focus on fire safety regimes in high-rise flats. No high-rise social housing was identified with the same type of cladding as Grenfell, but we are still waiting on recommendations from the safety reviews on how to improve existing systems.
It is absolutely right that we do this and give all tenants confidence about the safety of their home and where gaps are identified, they are addressed quickly.
However, one of the lessons from Grenfell is that it is not just about buildings; it is about society’s failure to listen to some communities.
One of the most harrowing accounts of the tragedy is that tenants’ concerns about safety and maintenance were routinely ignored for years. It was not just a lack of engagement and indeed interest from the council about building standards, but there was, reportedly, threatening behaviour from the tenant management operator and its solicitors towards the tenants that did speak up.
Tenants often know more than landlords about developing problems, previous changes made and what needs to be done. They are a source of vital information for landlords and what is more, they want to engage.
Our role as housing professionals is to help bridge this gap, so that the concerns of residents and communities are heard and that they inform decision making. To achieve this it is vital that those who work in housing have the right skills and knowledge to provide good-quality, safe homes. As the professional body for housing, CIH Scotland works with our members to spot the signs of danger, make referrals to the fire service for home visits and improve tenant communication across all tenures.
This includes keeping tenants informed about their rights and what they should expect from a landlord in both the social and private rented sector. For example, we know that annual visits from housing officers and establishing tenant scrutiny panels can be an effective way to keep communication open and empower tenants to hold their landlord to account and improve standards.
Scotland does have a good track record in this field. All social landlords (councils and housing associations) have a duty to develop a tenant engagement programme, but undoubtedly more can be done so that landlords and tenants are working in partnership to improve services.
Grenfell was a devastating tragedy and has rightly forced the entire country to think again about our approach to social housing. There will be recommendations from the separate Scottish reviews that will allow us to improve the safety framework for tenants and we look forward to them being published and acted on. But building safe communities is about more than strengthening standards. It is about challenging any culture that considers one group of people less important than another; it is about listening to people and involving communities in decisions about their own lives. Yes we can be proud of our approach to tenant engagement and participation in Scotland, but there is more we can do. The victims and everyone affected by this tragedy deserve nothing less.
*This article featured in the Herald Scotland on Thursday the 14th of June 2018.