Tony Benn once said: ‘We are not here to manage capitalism, but to change society and to define its finer values.’
Tony was a lifelong resident of Kensington and helped us with local campaigning whenever he could. I’d like to think he’s smiling down on us now, from socialist heaven.
Our housing crisis is due to the financialisation of the sector, which has benefited very few.
In Kensington and Chelsea, the borough I still represent as local councillor, and the constituency of Kensington, which I represent as MP, is a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong with housing in my lifetime.
I was born in a terrace house in Chelsea, where my parents, Spanish granny, and we six children lived. My father, a hospital doctor, supported us all. We did our own repairs and decorating and wore hand-me-downs, but we could pay the bills and had food on the table.
A hospital doctor today could not possibly support nine people anywhere, let alone in Chelsea.
Housing inequality in the borough is the worst in the country. And I proved it in my report, published last November ‘After Grenfell: Housing and Inequality in Kensington and Chelsea: “the most unequal borough in Britain”’.
So how many empty homes do we have in total, private and social rented?
The Empty Homes Agency has been given the figure of 63 Council-owned, and 240 HA empty last year – but I believe the true figure of empty Council homes is in the 100s.
When the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) handed over management to the Council recently, a list of 3,500 repair jobs came with it. 3,500. And that failure to repair has left people living in unimaginable squalor. I do not use that term lightly.
Which brings me onto our Grenfell survivors, bereaved and the near neighbours who simply cannot bear to be near the site of the worst peacetime atrocity in modern English history.
Those of us who could bear to listen to the pen portraits at the Grenfell Inquiry these last two weeks will have heard the testimonies, among so much indescribable pain, of disabled people who should never have been allocated a flat in that tower.
It was TMO policy to move people with disabilities into the lower floors of the Tower. But one family accepted a flat on an upper floor in desperation, and lost their disabled mother who was unable to escape.
So these disabled survivors now need to be rehoused. And the Council does not have suitable homes to offer them.
One family was offered a flat in the so-called luxury of Kensington Row, but could not accept it as they need adaptations to be independent. They’ve been told the work cannot be done for two years as the block is still under guarantee. The proposed solution to this is to offer home care. This may breach their human rights.
Another family was offered accommodation in an older building which needs adaptations. The Council has refused to pay, because it is owned by a housing association. The family is so desperate to move that they have offered to fund the adaptations themselves, with their compensation money.
And the worst case of all to date, a self-sufficient family who care for their older disabled family member themselves and are proud to do so, whose housing needs cannot be met, so the council suggested they put their elder in a care home so they can be rehoused separately.
The figures we hear weekly from the council, and successive ministers, of Grenfell-related housing statistics, are not the whole story.
And the ministers are well aware of this. The figures have been spun.
Because in November, there were not 210 Grenfell-related households needing rehousing. There were 376. The number of people needing rehousing was 857, of which 714 were in B&B accommodation in hotels. And the number of children in total was 323, of which 226 were in B&B accommodation in hotels – at Christmas.
I have asked the council four times to update these figures, and they have omitted to do so. What on earth are they hiding?
My constituency has been called ‘the money laundry of the world’. We have nearly 90,000 properties in the borough, of which a quarter do not house electors.
While people struggle to survive in hotels, parts of Kensington and Chelsea are becoming a ghost town. This degree of inequality reeks.
Transparency International estimates that nearly 8% of properties in K&C are owned by companies registered in an offshore secrecy jurisdiction. That’s 6,000 homes registered in tax havens, at least 1,600 of which are kept empty.
This market manipulation does not only affect those with billions to hide, it affects the entire property market from most to least expensive.
The incompetent council were entirely complicit in this process, even gaining planning permission on council-owned sites to be sold on at a later stage. So the council were playing Monopoly with the money launderers, while not scrutinising their own housing providers. And we have seen the result at Grenfell.
So, while crying crocodile tears about house prices, the council has been 100% complicit in overheating the property market, which is forcing our families out.
Allowing developers to vomit out endless general purpose high value homes will not solve this crisis. We have an over-supply of prime properties. Many no longer sell. And 29% of children in K&C live in poverty, while care homes are moved out of the borough and replaced by private ‘caviar care’.
If we are sincere in tackling this housing crisis, for this generation and generations to come, we must look at the tax system which supports private landlords and disadvantages the renter.
We must dig deep into the frankly shocking and unprofessionally-run social housing sector, and challenge housing associations to do the job they were set up for – housing low-income households.
In short, we must do all this groundwork to find out the true level of need.
This is not about numbers. It is not about ‘managing capitalism’. It is about spending taxpayers’ money where it can be best spent to house people in the kind of homes they need.
This must be one of the highest priorities for an incoming Labour government, and we must get this right.
Providing the stability, space, and security of a home they can afford is the best possible start in life – and also the best ending.
This must be our legacy for Grenfell.
Emma Dent Coad is the Labour MP for Kensington