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Tower blocks: where do we go from here?

PUBLISHED: 15:00 29 June 2017

Dorney tower on the Chalcots Estate in Camden where residents have been evacuated over fire safety concerns in the wake of the Grenfell disaster

Dorney tower on the Chalcots Estate in Camden where residents have been evacuated over fire safety concerns in the wake of the Grenfell disaster

PA Wire/PA Images

With the evacuation of the Chalcots estate in Swiss Cottage, Highgate Ward AM Sian Berry questions the mayor on the future of our tower blocks

Landmark Heights near Stratford has paused re-cladding until more is known about the causes of the Grenfell fireLandmark Heights near Stratford has paused re-cladding until more is known about the causes of the Grenfell fire

The Mayor of London has agreed that tenants are being failed in public housing across the country. During Mayor’s Question Time on 22 June, Mayor Sadiq Khan said in response to a question from Green Party AM Sian Berry: “there are failings all across London.”

Residents have been evacuated from the Chalcots Estate in the fortnight since the Grenfell disaster as their homes have been deemed unsafe. Mr Khan labelled tower blocks “the worst mistakes of the 60s and 70s” but has since pulled back from comments about demolishing the buildings.

“The mayor is wrong,” said Ms Berry to the Ham & High. “The mistakes that we need to deal with are to do with PFI style refurbishment deals that have been done largely in the 21st Century.”

“The blocks themselves have been there a long time, they’ve grown up as communities now, and there are people there who know each other…generations of people who forge communities in these places. You’ve got to look at the social side as well as at the carbon cost of wasting huge amounts of resources when you could be refurbishing and extending.”

Ms Berry has long campaigned for the refurbishment of tower blocks in contrast to demolition, arguing for the preservation of those homes and communities. She said: “The main focus of concern is 21st century refurbishments and if these buildings were not a fire risk before they were refurbished then they can and should be made safe rather than make the break up of communities that demolition projects inevitably bring even worse.”

On the Chalcots estate, work is now being carried out to ensure the buildings are fully fire retardant, a responsibility which lies with the landlord (in addition to structural features such as walls, floors, window frames and piping and electircal wiring).

Councillor Georgia Gould, Leader of Camden Council, said: “Our contractors are very busy across the estate, working hard to complete fire safety works as quickly as possible to bring a swift end to the disruption. We have already started works to ensure that residents’ doors are self-closing, and today will begin working to correct all of the other issues identified as a risk by the fire service.

“We have undertaken works to ceilings, electric doors and cupboards and I am very pleased with the pace of our dedicated teams. 200 self-closing doors have been delivered and we are ready to start installing them today.”

Sian Berry is loathe to see demolition prioritised over further refurbishment of tower blocks. “Places that already exist that contain communities, people who have lived there for many years, generally they don’t want any of it pulled down. What they’d like to do is put extensions on the top, an extra couple of floors. All of that can be done safely, can be done in a way that’s high quality and much better value than knocking down perfectly good social housing.”

Furthermore, she argued that joint ventures often provide fewer social and affordable homes than previously stood on the site, as has been the case in the Battersea development where the number of social homes has been slashed as ‘unviable’.

“The councils, and Camden is one of them, who are looking at going into joint ventures with big companies, it really isn’t necessary. There are other ways. It’s been looked at as the easy way to get finance and the easy way to get lots of homes built because these are volume developers,” said the AM.

In the end, Ms Berry argued, there’s no need to involve private companies since social housing is self-sustaining: “There’s no reason why social housing should be in any way connected with profit. It pays for itself in the end.”

Ms Berry is arguing for more power for tenants when changes are made to their homes, something the Mayor campaigned for in his manifesto. She said: “The thing I’m trying to promote is local communities who get together and make their own plans for their estates.”

Ms Berry will question the council next week on the next steps for the Camden Community Investment Programme which includes projects such as the Central Somers Town development that will provide 136 new homes, 44 of which will be for social rent.

The AM will urge the council to work with the community and press for a debate on the future of building works in the next meeting. “I think it’s something we can’t just not discuss,” she said.

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