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Why Wandsworth Thinks It Can Charge For Grenfell Safety Improvements

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Why is anyone surprised at all at the news that Conservative-controlled Wandsworth Council thinks that residents should pay the cost of installing safety equipment in the tower blocks in which they live.

It is, after all, an entirely logical reaction. The residents in question fall into two categories – those who have purchased their property (wither on a freehold or leasehold), and those who rent.

Well look, if you have taken Thatcher’s shilling (as the mass-sell off of local authority housing should be rightfully known) and ended the relationship with a local authority landlord, what else do you expect? Part of what tenants get for their rent is periodic upgrades – new front doors, or windows. If you’re not paying into the pot, why should you expect to get something out?

And let’s be really clear about this – the principle surely applies evenly across everything. Even things that would help you to escape rather than perish in the event of a fire.

Turning now to tenants. Well you have to admit, this is an exceptional item. I’m sure that the argument goes – this is outside normal repairs and improvements. You will need to pay extra for this.

Because local authorities haven’t got the money to fund this. Hell, with social care budgets stretched beyond breaking point, libraries closing, bins only being emptied every other week. There is no spare cash.

But there is an imperative to get this job done. Heaven forbid there is another Grenfell Tower. Common humanity as well as public opinion will not wait for remedial action to be taken – especially when things like installation and maintenance of sprinkler systems should surely have been “hard wired” into any arrangements?

I suppose once the Moore-Bick inquiry reports, there will be irresistible political pressure for the government to make sure such things are in place. A bit like the Cullen report into North Sea Oil safety. For “making sure”, read “financially underwrite”. But until then, despite everyone knowing this is a good, sensible, necessary idea, the funding is left to a combination of ingenuity (some local authorities are managing to do this work at no direct cost to their residents) and reallocation of resources.

But why on earth does it take a judicial enquiry into a devastating event to get sprinklers in tower blocks to be accepted as an inarguably good thing – something as expected and required as decent sanitation, or electricity?

Step forward one Philip Davies MP (Conservative, Shipley). Mr Davies is the man who talked out the most recent private members’ bill to try and fix this sort of thing. Karen Buck’s Homes (Fit for Human Habitation) Bill did what it said in its title. And Mr Davies killed it off. Too onerous on landlords he argued.

Just to be clear, I am not saying Philip Davies is to blame for Grenfell. But if he as an individual, or Parliament as a whole are content for, as an illustration tower blocks not to have sprinkler systems as a matter of obligation and priority, then it cannot be a surprise when bad, very bad, things happen.

But come to think of it, the buck (no pun) doesn’t stop in Westminster. As a country, we are too fond of low council tax, of chronic under-funding of local authority and public services, of flogging off public housing without topping up the affordable property stock. Too comfortable with a “brutal system of rampant inequality, hollowed-out public services and disdain for the powerless and the poor.”

Residents of Wandsworth shouldn’t have to pay for something so closely associated with their right to…. well, life basically. But it is time to recognise that willing that end raises deep and unavoidable challenges around the means needed to achieve it.

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