The long shadow of Grenfell Tower

For over 35 years Shelter Cymru has been calling for decent, safe and affordable homes for everyone, recognising that a home is the foundation for people’s health and wellbeing and for the stability and cohesion of communities as a whole.  We have campaigned on the importance of quality rented affordable homes, stressing that there should be no second class citizens when it comes to housing people.

We know that housing inequality causes ill health and contributes to premature death through fires or poisoning. Now tragically we have all watched in horror as housing inequality has killed, in one go, scores of people.

Grenfell Tower is a horrific symbol of a failed approach to housing that has been creating poverty, ill-health, insecurity and homelessness for decades. Yes, of course, the immediate cause looks like the cheap cost-cutting material that clad the building, but the origins of this tragedy go deeper.

Public spending on housing in the modern era is dramatically less than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Entitlements that people need to afford the rising costs of rents, have been relentlessly squeezed and severed from actual need.  Housing less well-off people has been left largely to the market, and the market has not, and cannot, deliver.

The 1980s effectively began the atomisation of housing, its privatisation, its individualisation.  It became no longer primarily a collective responsibility to ensure all citizens were decently housed, it was up to them.

This view still resonates. Most people get why it’s important to contribute through taxes to health services and education and the police, but have been less clear on why they should support the building of affordable homes, if polls on voting intentions are correct. Public policy has both led and reflected the view that finding somewhere to live is down to preferences and personal choices almost unaffected by structural deficiencies of the market and public policy.

Perhaps the tragedy of Grenfell Tower will change that. Perhaps it will lead to a greater recognition that we have a housing system that creates second class citizens, people who are insecure, vulnerable to eviction, living in poor and dangerous conditions – people without a voice. In fact we cannot let the tragedy of Grenfell Tower do anything else but change that view among people and politicians.

We have built a group of campaign supporters across Wales whom we hope will spread the word of the importance of decent homes for everyone and why everyone, whether well housed or not,  must call for more resources to build quality affordable homes and create a housing system that supports everyone.

In Wales there has been a growing recognition of the importance of a decent home to people and communities, and the Welsh Government’s 20,000 new affordable homes target is welcomed. But it’s still not enough – and it can be undermined by UK decisions on benefits and public expenditure. We say that everyone has a right to a decent home.  We need to make this right real.

More information on the response in Wales to the Grenfell Tower tragedy will be published here over the next few days.

by John Puzey, Director of Shelter Cymru