Fixing our broken housing hearts

By Alistair McIntosh, Chief Executive, HQN

We’ve got to get a shift on. The Notting Hill Carnival starts on the 26th of August. That’s the next time the world will descend on Grenfell. So we need to have put our house in order by then. Here’s what I would do.

It’s time to tell the speculators that enough is enough. There is a picture in the local paper in Camden that says it all. It shows a council tower at night next to a private block. In one half of the picture lots of lights are on but the other half is in darkness. You can guess which way round they are.

It’s time for a policy of use it or lose it in busy places. You can’t tell people in London there are no homes for them when they can see loads of empties with their own eyes. Don’t rub people’s noses in it. That will end badly. Possession of empty homes does more harm than possession of drugs. So make the punishment fit the crime. Or at least change the tax system. By the way the picture is a few years old. It shows the towers where the council is worried about fire and moved folk out. That’s why the paper put it in again.

We need to make safety the number one job. The law setting up the HCA didn’t give it a big role here. Sadly, the then Government wanted to put in place a Praetorian Guard to protect the lenders and to hell with everything else. To be fair the HCA has flexed what little muscles it has in this area. It put Circle and Luminus to the sword on safety. And it has warned about the dangers of chopping the repairs budget to pay for the rent cut. But it needs to do more. When they go in to do an in-depth assessment they must look at safety as the number one priority. What will they find?

There is a mixed picture. I’ve just read a report of a fire in a tower in Birmingham where everything worked as it should. Mind you tenants were worried given what they see in the news. So we can get it right. But we certainly know what bad looks like. It’s things like stock condition surveys that tell you all you need to know about net present values but nothing at all about safety. You would have thought the houses needed to be pretty much free of fire risk to be worth anything. But too often that does not enter the equation. And these risks do not make their way onto the assets and liabilities register.

Then there’s the laboriously constructed multi-coloured swap shop risk maps that couldn’t hit a barn door at five paces. They are about as much use as that weather app on your phone. If it says 0% chance of rain pack a brolly. And don’t get me started on internal audit reports done by kids with no technical knowledge. To make matters worse the sample sizes can be tiny. We’ve got great news for you Mr 20,000-home landlord – 76 per cent of the 15 fire risk assessments we looked at were OK. No we didn’t actually go to the houses. But the files are tip top. I suppose it is a blessing that no one actually reads the things – too often boards just look at the traffic lights for simpletons on the cover sheet.

Of course there are strong boards. But you all need to step up to the plate. I really do see some sloppy work on safety. These days covenant compliance is the work for grown-ups. So other things get less attention. Time is finite.

While the HCA has to hit the fast forward button on safety, there are a few things they can pause for now. I’d pull the tenant involvement standard and beef it up. You must listen to tenants on safety. After every tragedy you find someone that says ‘I told you so’. Better to be wise before the event.

I’d take a good look at the VfM standard before it comes out too. Make sure it spells it out that scrimping on safety is wrong. And compel landlords to proactively manage safety in much the same way they deal with financial risks. The long forgotten white paper wants more hook ups to boost efficiency. The HCA shouldn’t just check the finances of a merger. It must cast a sharp eye over the new outfit’s safety management plans. You can get a lot of untidiness here as the top brass spend all their energy heaving a deal over the line.

And If I was the HCA I would certainly not be trumpeting about what a great idea de-regulation is just now. Yes it was a big technical task and in some quarters it matters. But the public will think it sounds a bit like the watering down of fire safety that did not go so well.

As Joe Strummer, one of West London’s finest squatters, once put it – the future is unwritten. Of course we can do better if we all pull together. We have to build new homes, yes we need to look after the money, but our first priority must be to keep people safe. One of his most famous songs was about going up and down the Westway at night. After the fire there is a darkness in that old sky. Never again.