On 25th November 2019 I attended the Council Assembly bringing forward a deputation about the fire safety of properties in Southwark. The Council Assembly is where councillors discuss and debate motions put forward by other councils, this is also where deputations from the public are heard. Deputations allow residents to petition, lobby and generally bring a concern to the council. The following is the statement I put forward prior to the meeting, this was a collective statement which we worked on as a group of residents (from both public and private housing). This was then passed onto the Mayor of Southwark to decide on if the motion around cladding would be heard.
"We as residents of Southwark are appalled that 3 years following the Grenfell fire, we are still living in unsafe properties, living with trauma and anxiety due to this and feeling trapped in our own homes consequent of the lack of the poor quality of our buildings. As a collective group this has impacted both private and public tenants/home owners in a variety of ways, including the emotional and financial stresses in living in properties that are currently unsellable and deemed worthless, and leaseholders potentially being liable for tens of thousands of pounds for remediation costs. We have called upon this deputation to draw the council’s urgent attention to the impacts that cladding combined with general poor fire safety in our properties is having on our lives."
Amongst the residents who participated in bringing up the deputation, myself and my mum were the only social renters involved - however this issue has visibly impacted residents in social rented accommodation, as seen through the findings after the Lakanal House fire and more recently Grenfell. Unfortunately during the deputation it felt as though there was more attention perhaps drawn towards the impact that the failure in fire safety has had on leaseholders/homeowning residents rather than residents like myself who are social renters. This drew attention to the polarisation between us, and the subpar treatment of social rent residents.
During the deputation we were given a chance to raise our issues, below is the text I had prepared:
" We have spent the last 4 years living with the extreme anxiety of the consequences of a fire in our building following finding out that our building wasn’t compartmentalised properly. In 2018 we had intensive and intrusive fire safety works in our property.
Recently in July we had a fire in the communal area of our flat, our fire safety failed, with no alarms working, fire doors failing leading to flats filling with smoke. This has caused myself and my siblings to have severe panic attacks, we have had to deal with post-traumatic stress from this and this was post remedial works and our housing association, we are social renters with, Peabody, have not communicated with us since what caused the fire, what they’ve done to resolve the failed fire safety.
So we get left stuck emailing Peabody, for answers that we never actually receive, many times we’ve had to contact Councillor Leo Pollak to apply pressure on Peabody to get any sort of answers. So there’s no communication. Peabody have a duty of care and they’ve not held any sort of accountability.
Despite remedial works living in this property, which we never signed off after the works, we are consistently anxious because we don’t trust that we are safe here anymore. But we are trapped as social renters on the council housing waiting list, waiting to get the opportunity to move properties.
We should not be dealing with cladding as an issue in Southwark especially after seeing what happened at Lakanal house and how it foreshadowed the Grenfell fire. Although Southwark Council have put money into fire safety works, these issues are reflective of the deregulation and privatisation of housing. I live on the Bermondsey Spa Regeneration area, and the entire area has been impacted by unsafe cladding or poor fire safety works and its just not fair on us as renters to be put through all this stress in our own homes."
This was then followed up by Anna who spoke about her experience as a leaseholder, which of course - both of our messages were reflective of what many Southwark residents are going through. From this point we were given the opportunity to ask and answer questions from the relevant councillors.
Leo Pollak, cabinet member for housing in Southwark, responded first agreeing that "there has been a deregulated building control regime in place for far too long and building regulations that simply weren't capturing the wide range of fire safety risks" following which he announced that they are "setting up a new building safety board which will do a number of things, it will be chaired by the strategic director for housing in the borough and will crucially be doing the job of ensuring that we are tracking and monitoring every unmediated fire safety risk associated with external cladding on council buildings and private buildings."
I agree with Cllr Pollak on this, deregulated building control has led to buildings with a range of fire safety risks being ignored or not put in place as well as other issues such as poor boilers/heating systems being in place. For example on Monday, we found a huge leak in our boiler cupboard, this is not the first example where the boilers have been faulty or caused leak damage on my development. Although hesitant on how effective the new Building Safety Board would be in preventing these issues I would hope that it would put more pressure on developers in Southwark to build strong, sustainable and most importantly safe homes.
Following this, councillors were given the opportunity to ask us questions, beginning with Cllr Humaira Ali: "Whilst a lot of this is in purvey of the government and private sector, what would you like, what support would you like from Southwark Council" to which Anna spoke on our behalf, requesting that the council apply pressure on developers to hold accountability where they have failed to build safe homes for tenants and leaseholders and for honest, transparent communication between residents and housing associations.
Cllr Ali was followed up by Cllr Johnson Situ who asked his question in two parts, "the government has announced £1.6 billion in terms of remedial works" which he describes as a drop in the ocean as it is estimated £10 billion is needed to address the remedial works, following this he asked Anna what this means if these costs are passed to leaseholders. We are currently experiencing one of the largest economic recessions in our lifetime, with little job security and less savings, many leaseholders simply wouldn't be able to afford these costs leading to this being a huge point of anxiety for leaseholders. Following this Cllr Situ asked me if I would be happy to continue working with the council in terms of campaigning, which yes I am happy to continue these discussions. However I believe that so many other social renting residents are unaware of the support network that they could have access to like local councillors - so alongside these discussions with Cllr Pollak and Cllr Situ I think its important we begin signposting residents to the support networks that are existing already.
Its important to note that due to many social renters lower socio-economic position in society, we often end up having to work longer hours or are having to work multiple jobs. This often limits the amount of time and energy we have to focus on battling these issues highlighting the importance of having representatives who can fight these battles in a capitalist society.
After our deputation was the discussion around the End our Cladding Motion proposed by Cllr Humaira Ali. I found when reading this motion and listening to the councillors speak on it that it was heavily focused on the leaseholders position, which although also important often highlights that social renters feel like we are a second thought in these processes. Although grateful for individual councillors efforts to put the working class social renters voice into these discussions, I can't help but feel disappointed at the limited discussion around social renters in the motion, perhaps it is symptomatic of the stigmatisation of council housing.
Council Assembly, 2020. [LiveStream] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmrbbZvvtgo : Southwark Council.