As Camden Council launches its £130m legal action against companies involved in the botched regeneration of the Chalcots Estate, a new book lifts the lid on this and other similar public private partnership scandals that reached their tragic apotheosis in the Grenfell fire disaster two years ago.
Safe as Houses: Private Greed, Political Negligence and Housing Policy after Grenfell by Stuart Hodkinson is a remorseless account of how cash strapped local authorities have bought into the privatisation agenda of successive governments over the past 40 years by outsourcing the maintenance, management and refurbishment of housing amid watered down building standards and a laissez faire attitude towards tenants bordering on contempt.
With regard to the book’s main focus, Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the preferred vehicle for council homes regeneration since the 1990s, the result has not only been shoddy workmanship but one that has seriously compromised tenants’ health and safety, including most damningly the installation of combustable cladding – the book is dedicated to the 72 people who perished in the council owned but privately managed Grenfell Tower after fire raced up the exterior cladding within minutes and burned for 60 hours.
The more flexible regulatory framework has gone hand in hand with the rise of self-regulation – the equivalent of a pupil marking their own homework – alongside councils washing their hands of any responsibility of the fate of their property or those who live in them.
The winners, says Hodkinson, associate professor in Critical Urban Geography at the University of Leeds, have been the PFI contractors, whose upfront investment ties up local authorities in long term debt paid for out of the public purse.
The contracts are invariably inflated to the point of “rampant profiteering”, he adds in the tone of righteous anger running through the text, as money is borrowed at a higher interest from commercial banks and also includes the cost of an army of consultants to help navigate the legal and accounting complexities of multi-layered PFI deals.
This is the trap that Camden Council fell into when it began the refurbishment of the five-block Chalcots Estate in Swiss Cottage in 2006 via a £150m PFI scheme as part of New Labour’s Decent Homes programme. With the help of tenants’ testimonies, Hodkinson forensically describes the defective works and services that were carried out and the indifference with which complaints were dealt with by both the companies and the council.
This swiftly changed in the days after Grenfell when urgent checks revealed that a similar cladding had been used as well as a catalogue of serious safety breaches. The result was the largest evacuation in the country since the Second World War involving more than 2,000 people, who had to be placed in hotels and other temporary accommodation for weeks.
Camden Council, which originally bought the Chalcots Estate from local landowner Eton College in the late 1960s, is now suing the contractor and sub-contractors for the debacle, in particular the cost of replacing dangerous cladding and defective fire doors.
The “regeneration nightmare” experienced by Chalcots residents was repeated in two other controversial PFI schemes examined by Hodkinson, in Islington, where a 30 year, £350m contract to refurbish and manage 3,000-plus street properties was agreed in 2003; and Lambeth, where a £252.4m deal to both refurbish and replace homes on the Myatts Field North Estate – now more than half private and rebranded Oval Quarter to attract buyers – got underway in 2012.
As in Camden, the schemes followed years of poor maintenance and subsequent decline and were at first welcomed by residents. But when things began to quickly go wrong, with faulty work being routinely signed off, they found their complaints falling on deaf ears. Shockingly, some of those who persisted were threatened with eviction. As Hodkinson puts it: “Outsourced public housing under PFI has suffered from a systemic accountability vacuum at the heart of the model […] Those who do speak out are routinely ignored and sometimes actively silenced.”
It appears to be business as usual for Rydon, the construction firm behind the refurbishment of Grenfell and a principal sub contractor in the Camden, Islington and Lambeth schemes. Despite coming under the scrutiny of the ongoing inquiry into the Grenfell fire, it has just won a £100m contract to redevelop a council estate in Ealing.
Touted as the “only game in town” if tenants wanted better standard homes, PFI has involved a shift from a publicly run and accountable housing service to one managed by an “opaque network of private companies whose sole interest is to make money”, argues Hodkinson, warning that unless PFIs are phased out and public housing is brought back wholly in house and more of it is built, then there will be many more Grenfell Towers in waiting.
Safe as Houses: Private Greed, Political Negligence and Housing Policy after Grenfell by Stuart Hodkinson is published by Manchester University Press at £11.99