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Branch member Glyn Robbins on Grenfell in the Guardian

Grenfell must be a turning point in housing – for staff and residents

 

Unite has been active in responsing to the terrible events at Grenfell, responding the corporate manslaughter probe, making specific suggestions on safety and responding in the immediate aftermath.  Members who wish to be involved in Unites response or who are directly affected by the events are encouraged to conact branch officers.

Glyn Robbins has this in todays Guardian   

 

 

 

Making social housing more commercial has eroded workers’ skills and knowhow. We still care about creating a better housing world, but do politicians?

 

Amid the extensive coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire, there’s not been much about housing workers. That’s quite right: the focus should be on the real victims and villains. But in the search for answers and justice, the role of those providing frontline housing services shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

I’ve worked in housing since 1990. I manage a council estate with some similarities to Grenfell. It’s system-built, run by a tenant management organisation in an area with sharp social contrasts. It’s not a high-rise, but I have been responsible for them in the past. I shudder to think about it now. Even allowing for the crassness of Kensington and Chelsea council, Grenfell could have happened anywhere.

 

Face-to-face relationships replaced by call centres

 

Over the decades, working in housing has reflected changes in the sector as a whole. Familiar, local, face-to-face relationships have been replaced with remote call centres. In-house workforces and direct labour have been privatised and sub-contracted. Permanent jobs have become temporary. Once repairs would be done by the housing provider’s in-house team, who would know the estate and residents, but that work is now contracted out.

 

At the same time, powerful, independent tenants’ associations, which used to exert real control over local housing services and demand to be listened to, don’t exist in the same way. The right to buy has divided many associations and there are fewer of them, so they have a less strong voice now. But above all, a strong council housing sector has been systematically dismantled by government policies, including right to buy.

 

All this has reduced the ability and confidence of workers and residents to challenge bad decisions. Continuity of knowledge is lost amid the multiple contractors, layers of bureaucracy, different tenures, household churn and short-termism that have become a feature of council housing.

 

Increased pressure on housing workers

 

Cuts and the housing crisis have increased pressure on housing workers. Trying to do more with less has demoralised and alienated many staff. Too often relationships between workers and residents become antagonistic and a culture of defensiveness and mistrust emerges.

 

Housing has become polarised in other ways. For a few, changes in the sector have resulted in inflated salaries. But for most, it’s been about pay freezes and de-skilling. In 1990, there were more ways of getting the training and education needed to do a housing job well. There were numerous colleges offering housing courses, with opportunities for day-release, so people could learn on the job. They provided practical, legal and theoretical knowledge of housing policy and management that helped workers to represent residents’ interests.

 

Being a good housing worker may not be rocket science. It’s mostly common sense. But some knowhow and skill is useful, particularly as demands on the service increase. Frontline staff should understand the context they’re working in. That helps to foster mutual respect between workers and residents.

 

Working in housing has never entirely escaped its paternalistic origins, but that attitude of helping people is now increasingly laced with commercialism and the sector is in danger of becoming remote and detached. All housing workers, particularly senior managers on six-figure salaries, need to remember what we’re paid to do and by whom.

 

Best moments in my job

 

The best moments in my job come when I working alongside other people – staff and residents – who care about what we do. I recently inspected an empty home on the estate with a highly-experienced council surveyor. An adequate budget is available for the home to be brought up to an immaculate standard. It will be let with a secure tenancy and at an affordable rent. That is becoming the exception, but after Grenfell, it has to become the norm.

 

Grenfell must be a turning point. Housing workers can play a part in building a better housing future, based on our duty to care. But we need a government and politicians that care, too.

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