Serhan: Have there been incidents like what occurred at Grenfall before?
Hanley: There was another more recent fatal fire in another tower block in London called Lakanal House in 2009, in which six people died. It was caused by fire spreading very quickly through the building. Sam Webb advised the legal team on behalf of the tenants and again he was saying the way tower blocks were built and are now under-maintained and under-regulated in Britain basically makes a lot of tower blocks “death traps,” in his words.
When you’re growing up on an estate, it's actually not that unusual to see fires in tower blocks. But in most tower blocks, and this is how they’re legislated to be built, each individual flat has to be built in such a way that if there is a fire it can’t spread beyond that flat—so the issue with Lakanal House and Grenfell Tower is why that didn’t happen in this case.
Serhan: Grenfell tenants voiced concerns about safety, writing last year that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.” How common are such concerns when it comes to council housing?
Hanley: People’s concerns about council housing in London to date have been more to do with gentrification and the very intense pressure placed on tenants of council housing to agree to regeneration programs. These often end up in their housing being demolished and then them getting displaced so they don’t get to live in the area or even the borough that they’ve made their lives in and then sort of nominally given the right of return once the estate is regenerated and coming back to find that the housing is unaffordable. Essentially it was a way of getting rid of them so they could build luxury flats on the space.
Serhan: What changes do you think would have to be made in order to address these safety concerns?
Hanley: Building regulations are going to have to be completely overhauled, fire-safety regulations are going to have to be overhauled. I would have thought that it will become law to have to fit sprinkler systems and effective fire-alarm systems in all blocks and flats, because that’s not currently law. It’s the law for care homes and schools that are newly built, but not in tower blocks so that may ultimately change.
Serhan: What role do you see public housing playing in British society?
Hanley: My sort of guiding principle when it comes to housing is that it should have been made a national housing service just like we created the National Health Service. Housing is an absolutely essential component of public health. Secure and good quality housing is the very basic building block of peoples’s lives, and if your housing is rubbish, you just can’t build a life on it. Bad housing makes you ill. Expensive housing reinforces your poverty. You have to have good housing, and the market can’t meet that need. We had this chance after the war to create a situation in which the fear of housing insecurity and the fear of unaffordable housing and the fear of actually dying because of bad housing all could have been removed, and it hasn’t.