The fire that engulfed west London’s Grenfell Tower last week, killing at least 79 people and leaving several dozen others injured, is not the first time the city has witnessed the collapse of one of the many tower blocks that make up its public housing.
In 2011, it was estimated that three-quarters of Britain’s social-housing blocks are potentially unsafe in a fire—a condition linked to decades of neglect, poor maintenance, and a lack of proper fire-safety regulations.
I spoke with Lynsey Hanley, the author of Estates: An Intimate History and a regular contributor to The Guardian, to discuss the rise of social housing in London that led to the construction of buildings like Grenfell Tower, and what the blaze could mean for the safety of such housing structures going forward. As someone who has lived in social housing and written extensively on its impact on British society, Hanley offers context about the role such housing was envisaged to play, and how it will need to change to fulfill that promise.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Yasmeen Serhan: In your book you mention the role the “social welfare state” played in the development of London’s public housing. How did that come about?
Lynsey Hanley: After the First World War in Britain, there was a massive rush to build lots and lots of social housing, or what was the called council housing, because the prime minister at the end of the first World War, Lloyd George, promised what he called “homes fit for heroes.”
There were about one and a half million council houses built in Britain between the First and Second World Wars. After the Second World War, Britain’s urban centers had so much housing destroyed in bombing raids that there were hundreds of thousands of people left homeless … The minister for health, Nye Bevan … built upwards of 150,000 new homes a year, and they were of far superior quality because his idea was that the doctor and the butcher and the baker and the vicar and the laborer and so on would all live in pretty much identical or similarly sized houses, all on the same streets together and that there’d be proper social mixing. He also had the idea that rented council housing would be so desirable that you wouldn’t actually want to buy a house. He sort of envisaged differences in assets and, by extension, the importance of social class kind of withering away because everyone would be living in good quality housing.
Serhan: Were these buildings typically high rises?
Hanley: In Britain, there’s this sort of strange quirk which is that every Englishman wants his castle, and people long expected to live in houses with gardens, so individual terraces or row houses with their own front and back garden that were no higher than two stories. But what we call “tower blocks,” or high rises, those came along after the war and was influenced by continental architects like Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect who imagined continental cities with basically everybody living in 30-plus high blocks of flats. It was a totally and utterly futuristic vision of what city living could be like, and a lot of architects in Britain were really taken with this idea because after the war so many cities were just flattened by German bombing and it was almost like they had a blank slate. ... Corbusier’s vision was quite seductive for a lot of city architects in Britain, but really in the popular consciousness low rises and houses were still by far the most popular idea.
High rises only really began to take hold in cities when the Labour government immediately after the war was replaced by a Tory government, which wanted to compete with Labour on the number of houses that got built. They started giving council subsidies to build over six floors ... all of the sudden in the 25 or 30 years after the war they ended up with about 4,000 tower blocks across the country. It only formed a small part of all the council housing in the country, because we built an absolutely extraordinary amount up to the 1970s. By the end of the ’70s, about a third of all households lived in council housing, of which only a relatively small percentage lived in tower blocks.
Serhan: You come at this topic from a person experience, as you’ve lived in council housing yourself. What was your experience like?
Hanley: I grew up on a 1960s-built estate outside Birmingham that had about 30 tower blocks in the estate, though I grew up in a house. Then I moved to London to go to university when I was 18 and found myself living in an inner-city council estate in the east end of London. I identified a lot of similarities and differences between the estates I had grown up on … I saw how the physical design of the houses in both estates were so distinguishable from private housing, which in Britain you associate with very solid looking, quite grand looking Victorian-terraced housing or larger 1960s housing.
On the estate in London, I saw people’s lives being really sort of circumscribed by its location, by the fact that it was right next to the massive road, so pollution and traffic and the sound of police sirens were all stressing factors. There were people’s experiences of social isolation, particularly living in tower blocks. You know, mums with babies would be really isolated if they lived in the upper floors because they couldn’t get down or bring their buggies [strollers] down if the lift [elevator] broke. I really started to see how the effects of class were reinforced by the kind of housing that people were living in.
Serhan: Have there been any notable cases of high rises like Grenfall collapsing due to improper construction?
Hanley: In 1968, there was a building called Ronan Point in the east end of London and two months after it was completed a gas explosion knocked off one entire side of the building and killed four people. An architect called Sam Webb carried out an investigation into the causes of that disaster and he found that basically the subcontractors who built it for the private builders on behalf of the council were under-skilled in the process of putting up prefabricated tower blocks, so they cut corners every which way because they were doing it quickly and doing it cheaply and didn’t truly know what they were doing. … Ronan Point was described as a “house of cards” basically held together by bolts.
Serhan: Some reports suggest the Grenfell Tower fire spread so quickly because of flammable cladding used during the building’s 2015 refurbishment.
Hanley: Yes, the cladding itself that was used was flammable and should have never been used. One of the issues when tower blocks are clad or re-clad in that way is that there is a necessary gap between the cladding and the building itself that allows the cladding to expend and contract in poor weather, but that cavity can also technically mean that if a fire starts the fire can be sucked up like a vacuum between the cladding and the exterior, which appears to be what happened in the case of Grenfall.
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.