Meeting with Incommunities (Part 3: Shared responsibility?)

Note: this is the final part of a 3-part blog reflecting on a meeting at the headquarters of Incommunities, Bradford’s main social housing provider, last Friday (11th August). The context is outlined at the beginning of Part 1

Paul Barrett, Ruth Bartlett and Jenni Mynard, at the Fisherman’s Inn last Thursday, before our meeting with Incommunities on Friday

3. Shared Responsibility?

As discussed in Part 2 of this blog,  both Incommunities and their tenants face significant challenges in the form of housing stock that is (to fudge our language) less than ideally fit for purpose. It’s difficult to know what can be done about some of these issues without a change of policy at government level, leading to significant investment in new buildings.

Leaving aside these bigger questions, though, my next question is whether — within the parameters of what a housing association can control, and is responsible for —  more might be done to mitigate the daily problems faced by tenants? Or put another way: if tenants are to be made responsible for their “lifestyle choices” (see Part 2 discussion), who is holding Incommunities to account for its management choices? Because it seems clear that their existing procedures have not always served tenants’ needs as well as might reasonably be expected.

Chapter and Verse

Take, for example, the specifics of Jenni Mynard’s case. Some of this is touched on in our film, High Rise Damp, but in preparation for Friday’s meeting, Jenni provided me with a stack of letters and documents that she’s kept as evidence since 2012, and it was newly depressing to see this all set out in black and white. Jenni has given me permission to summarise the key points briefly. I’ll mention no other names, but all of this can be backed up with documentary evidence:

  1. Jenni’s GP wrote on her behalf in 2010, noting her son’s coughing (since diagnosed as asthma), and asking that reasonable steps be taken to improve the family’s housing conditions given her reports of damp and mould.
  2. Having received no response from Incommunities (hereafter, IC), Jenni asked her GP to write again in 2012. She also went to her local councillor and parish priest, both of whom intervened on her behalf.
  3. These interventions led to a meeting with IC complaints’ staff at Jenni’s flat, during which a long list of necessary repairs and improvements to the flat’s fabric were discussed, all of which Jenni minuted herself. (These were all within the realms of the kind of maintenance that a tenant should reasonably expect of a landlord.) However, during this meeting, Jenni’s priest was “astonished” (his word) by the fact that the IC staff members had brought no clipboard, notebook, or any other means to record the outcomes of the meeting. His impression was that it was not being taken seriously.
  4. Following this meeting, there were sporadic visits to the flat from various workmen during the summer of 2012, often without appointment and completely unannounced. They made good some of the necessary repairs, but many of the other ‘agreed’ matters were left unaddressed. Moreover, some of the repairs that were carried out were done poorly and inadequately: e.g. poorly-installed damp-proofing; ill-fitting floor tiles that lifted when trodden on; a new window that leaked rain. Jenni found that her attempts to contact IC staff about these issues resulted in her calls not being returned.
  5. In the spring of 2013, with IC still unresponsive, Jenni tried contacting her MP, Philip Davies, about the condition of the flat. He wrote to Geraldine Howley, as IC’s Chief Executive, and this led to another meeting at the flat — this time with a member of their staff who did take careful notes about the long list of matters that needed addressing (including, for e.g., replacement of the leaking window installed only the previous year!). He shared this action list with Jenni via email, then went on holiday. And then nothing happened.
  6. In desperation, later that summer, Jenni wrote again to Philip Davies, who wrote again to IC, and finally some action was taken about the most pressing matter — the mould on the wall of her son’s bedroom. (Note: on the other side of this wall is a ventilation shaft serving the whole building – the temperature of which is beyond the control of this family’s “lifestyle choices”!). Thermal boarding was installed over the existing wall (as seen in our film), and new damp-proofing was added. Promises were made that IC staff would revisit with a damp-meter, in future months, to check on whether the damp had returned. But nobody ever came.
  7. The workmen who came in 2012 and 2013 did not provide any redecoration to parts of the flat where they had done work. For a patch of wall where they had plastered over wallpaper, the family was provided with a tin of paint and left to get on with it (ie painting over wallpaper).
  8. After all this, Jenni more or less gave up hope of getting anything further done. Last year, when I made our short film about her case, she described movingly on camera how she had simply felt beaten into submission.
  9. This year, after copies of the film and my blog link were sent to IC, Jenni finally received a visit during which a fresh damp inspection was carried out, and some further remedial work was undertaken (e.g. use of mould-resistant paint in the cupboard shown in our film). The family was then advised to follow the “lifestyle” advice discussed in Part 2 of this blog…

Jenni is grateful for this recent work, but points out that, whenever damp inspections have been carried out, it has been in the summer months – when condensation is much less of a problem than in the cold winter months. One assurance that Geraldine offered during our meeting was that a fresh inspection will be organised for the winter.

So progress is being made, and indeed Geraldine and Adrienne were keen to impress on us that there have been recent improvements to Incommunities’ service strategies which they expect will bear fruit in future months and years. They pointed to the recent Fun Day at Crosley Wood (discussed in a previous blog) as evidence of this refreshed approach. Hopefully, then, things are indeed on the up.

But we’re talking here about raising the bar from a position only inches above the floor… A tenant should not need to enlist the support of a councillor, a priest, an MP, and a university professor in order to prompt a landlord into action! The documents Jenni has kept suggest, at the very least, significant dysfunction in the procedures for logging work needed and then ensuring that it is adequately carried out. One can’t help wondering just how many residents, with less dogged determination than Jenni, have simply given up hope of trying to get things improved…

Language matters

During our meeting on Friday, Paul Barrett and I asked whether — perhaps — part of the problem here lies with Incommunities’ insistence on referring to its tenants not as tenants but as “customers“. Doesn’t such language run the risk of entrenching a culture in which the relationship between housing association and tenant is simply one of financial transaction — of paying rent in exchange for a roof over your head? Given that most social housing residents have little choice about which roof they are paying for, the consumer metaphor breaks down pretty quickly.

Put it this way: if I’ve bought something from a shop that doesn’t work properly, I will take it back and request a refund or replacement. The shop will comply, in the interests of ensuring that I return to their store next time, rather than choosing a competitor: that’s good customer service. But if something in a flat at Crosley Wood doesn’t work properly, the tenant can’t go anywhere else (unless they have the financial wherewithal to move into private rented accommodation). So there is no obvious incentive for Incommunities to do anything about the problem very quickly… other than the general moral incentive of wanting to do the right thing. Back in the days of council housing, the council was answerable to its voters, many of whom would be living in council houses. But today, housing associations are accountable only to their regulator — the same regulator that demands all costs to be passed directly to the tenant, thereby inflating the price of some flats above their market value… (see Part 2)  For all these reasons, the “customer” label seems less than apt for social housing tenants.

[In response to the paragraph above, Adrienne Reid comments in email: “Housing association customers have access to a three stage internal complaints process, the last stage of which is a customer (tenant) panel. After this they can progress to the independent housing association ombudsman as a right. Additionally, councillors still send in enquiries. All of these mechanisms are free.” I’ve no doubt this is all true, but this internal complaints process seems less than transparent to “customers”: having trawled Incommunities’ website for  mention of it, I’ve found only an inward-facing policy document and a generic online form that invites “compliments, comments and complaints“.]

The use of the term “customer” also seems to individualise tenants as consumers, and so militate against any sense that Crosley Wood is a community — where landlord and residents need to try to work together collaboratively to improve the social dynamics for everyone. During our meeting, I pointed out that Yorkshire Water, in part responding to a challenge from one of my colleagues on the HydroCitizenship research project, has begun actively using the term citizens in preference to customers — in recognition of their desire for a more productive, two-way relationship. For example, rather than simply selling units of water to us as customers, Yorkshire Water wants us to participate actively in mutually beneficial behaviour: see, for example, one pilot project that has involved Bradford ‘citizens’ collecting used cooking fat in plastic tubs for YW to use as bio-fuel. (This ensures that the fat is not poured down kitchen sinks — thereby clogging up drains and exacerbating flood risk…)

Presented with these various points, Geraldine and Adrienne nonetheless defended the use of the term “customers” on the grounds that it is used to denote all the people that Incommunities deal with: the term extends beyond just their tenants. Moreover, they suggested, some have seen the “tenant/landlord” relationship as stigmatising and/or hierarchical, whereas the term “customers” implies a need to provide “service”. It’s an interesting argument, but not one I’m personally persuaded by. As we’ve seen above in Jenni’s case, “customer service” at Crosley Wood has at times been abominable. And as the tenant of a private landlord myself (those words are in my contract), I have never felt stigmatised…

Oppositional dynamics?

Where stigma lies, I think, is in the attitudes and assumptions that are often held about social housing tenants (attitudes that have often been exacerbated by the popular media and by political rhetoric about “skivers versus strivers”, etc.). And indeed, there’s no point denying that an estate like Crosley Wood does house a number of tenants whose disadvantaged lives have led to mental health issues, or substance abuse problems, or who have been guilty of anti-social behaviour, and so on. I can imagine that working for Incommunities must sometimes be very difficult, if you’re dealing with people with complex needs, or when you get a faceful of grief from someone who is angry about their living conditions, or about the neighbours who have been put in next door to them, or a hundred other things. It might be very easy, after you’ve been in a few such confrontational situations, to start imagining that every tenant is a “problem case” of some sort. Even when they are not. And thus a vicious circle keeps turning — because if staff become habitually defensive or confrontational, this will naturally exacerbate the frustration of tenants.

There was a telling moment, during our meeting on Friday, when this “oppositional” dynamic came into focus quite sharply. Incommunities recently held a “fire safety surgery” at Crosley Wood, which was intended (in the wake of the Grenfell tower fire in London) to try to reassure and inform residents about their own situation. Anticipating that there would be lots of demand for discussion, Incommunities sent a sizeable team of seven or eight staff members to this event — only to discover that they outnumbered the residents who attended. But as Jenni explained, the large turn-out was perceived by residents as Incommunities coming in mob-handed. She felt that this had prompted a some people to stay away from the meeting — perhaps feeling that they would simply be fobbed off with pat explanations. That kind of distrust and suspicion is perhaps understandable given the track record of poor service that many residents have experienced. And yet it’s equally easy to see why, from an Incommunities point of view, this low turn-out might be perceived as a show of apathy towards a constructive attempt at dialogue… And so the cycle of misunderstanding continues.

Community “resilience”?

Similar problems were apparent at another recent meeting was hosted by Incommunities at Crosley Wood, during which an attempt was made to formalise the residents’ use of the portacabin community centre next to Peel House. The locks on the cabin had been changed in advance of the meeting, and residents were then invited to a meeting to discuss constituting a new committee with keyholders (and a chairman, secretary, treasurer…). These moves were intended to be consistent with the housing association’s recent attempts to improve neighbourhood relations, by creating more of a sense of structure and legitimacy for the use of this shared space. But from the residents’ point of view, they had just been locked out of the one shared space they had on the estate, which had been in use for sharing group meals etc. Being asked back in again on new terms was inevitably read, by some, as passive-aggressive…

Paul Barrett, from Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre, was in attendance at the portacabin meeting, and he pointed out during our meeting with Geraldine and Adrienne that — from his point of view as a community development specialist — the move towards a constituted residents’ committee was premature. It also imposed an undue burden of responsibility on those few residents who had turned up to the meeting, and were thus placed in keyholder roles. Adrienne responded by acknowledging that Incommunities are a housing provider, not community development experts, and that mistakes might have been made here. She then explained that Incommunities is currently developing a “partnership network” scheme, whereby community centres such as Kirkgate Centre will be approached to help advise on community development strategies, and to develop better collaborative working — towards new initiatives that might enhance community and individual “resilience” in the face of often difficult circumstances.

All of that sounds positive, and I hope that Adrienne’s conversation with Paul, especially, will develop further. But I’m also hesitant about that word “resilience“. Maybe I shouldn’t get stuck on words, but I’m an academic after all — and there’s a whole critical literature about the risks of the term resilience being used as a means to further privatise social problems. Too often, when this word is invoked, the unspoken subtext reads something like this: “it is in no way our responsibility to try to address or rectify manifest social inequalities and injustices, it is simply the individual’s responsibility to make themselves more resilient to their crap circumstances”. Similarly, the danger with a “partnership network” of the sort Adrienne described might simply be that the housing association further absolves itself of responsibility for its tenants’ well-being by sub-contracting the question out to community centres…

I should stress that I do not think that this is what Adrienne intends by this initiative. My impression was that she was listening carefully to what Paul, in particular, had to say, and that she was genuinely interested to further the conversation beyond this particular meeting. Perhaps there are, indeed, ways to share complementary knowledge bases, and to open up dialogues that can overcome ingrained, oppositional suspiciousness of the sort I described above. In short, perhaps there are ways for us all to take shared responsibility for improving the situation, rather than simply passing the buck or blaming other people.

Shared responsibility is important, after all. To take an example from another set of issues that I’ve tackled elsewhere on this blog — flood risk management — the fact is that individual house-holders at flood risk do need to improve their personal resilience to such threats. There’s no point in expecting the government, or anybody else, to march in and make all the necessary alterations to your home that would minimise the danger of flood damage (how many of us would want the government marching in?!), so you have to take some responsibility yourself. To do your part. (And in Jenni, we see someone more than willing to do her part: she lives eight floors up, well out of reach of the River Aire, but at the start of our film, she describes her own response to the 2015 Boxing Day flood, on behalf of other people…) But such individual citizens’ responses need to be mirrored and complemented by the responses taken by statutory and voluntary organisations — be they local councils, housing associations, community centres, or whomever. We all of us need to listen, and learn, and gain new perspectives on the issues at hand.

To conclude, then: at the risk of over-stating my problem with that word “customers”, I would suggest that the marketisation of social housing has had negative impacts on residents and providers alike, by imposing an artificial dynamic of supply and demand… But this housing provider is called Incommunities, not Insupermarkets, and it seems to me that listening, learning and working together is surely the only way in which to improve community relations, and with them, the relationships between landlords and residents.

*

My thanks, again, to Geraldine Howley and Adrienne Reid for taking the time to speak with us in such a full and constructive way. Responsibility for any inaccuracies or misunderstandings in these blog texts is entirely my own.

 

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 2: Brutalism)

Note: this is the second part of a 3-part blog reflecting on a meeting at the headquarters of Incommunities, Bradford’s main social housing provider, last Friday. The context is outlined at the beginning of Part 1

Part 2: Architectural problems and their costs … (or, living with “Brutalism”)

My discussion of fire safety issues in Part 1 of this blog concludes by highlighting a slight risk of disconnect between policy-making at management level (even sound, evidence-informed policies such as ‘Stay Put’) and the personal experience of tenants. In what follows, I want to suggest that such risks seem all the more pronounced when it comes to day-to-day living in tower blocks like those at Crosley Wood.

At our meeting last Friday, Chief Executive Geraldine Howley and Assistant Chief Exec Adrienne Reid acknowledged that Incommunities are fully aware that such blocks offer less-than-ideal housing conditions. If the opportunity arose for large-scale social housing developments today, they stressed, we would not be building tower blocks. While they were diplomatic enough not to say this, the hard political reality is that for decades now, successive governments have under-invested in social housing. Since 2010, Conservative-led governments have presided over a particularly steep decline in such new investment, even as the “right to buy” policy initiated by Margaret Thatcher back in the 1980s continues to reduce the existing social housing stock, by moving homes into the private sector. The inevitable result of such policies (seen by some as “managed decline”) is that, in many instances, people are being housed in buildings that are, in effect, “past their use-by date”. By transferring operational responsibility for these remaining social properties onto housing associations such as Incommunities (who are not directly answerable to voters, and who are required to balance their own books – by hook or by crook), the state has effectively absolved itself of responsibility for the escalating costs of maintaining our declining housing stock.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, concrete high-rise blocks were seen as the way of the future. With old, insanitary, “back to back” housing being demolished in many parts of the country, high-rises were built in the belief that they provided an affordable, hard-wearing alternative. When Bingley Council built the Crosley Wood estate in the late 1960s, the term brutalism — used to describe such blocky, concrete structures — was still seen by many as a positive term (originating from art brut — French for “raw art”). Unfortunately, such structures have often turned out to be just plain brutal on their occupants…

Passing on the costs

High-rise blocks are, Geraldine pointed out, expensive both to maintain and to live in. For example, by comparison with low-rise accommodation, there will be a lift and a deep stairwell to maintain, as well as all the associated common areas (landings etc). And apparently, the rules governing housing associations — as laid down by the regulator, the Homes and Communities Agency — specify that the added costs associated with particular properties have to be passed on directly to the people living in them, in the form of supplementary charges on your rent. So even if it wanted to, Incommunities could not choose to distribute such costs evenly across its whole housing stock: it has to be those in the high-rise who pay!

In practice, this means that some Incommunities tenants are literally paying more in rent and charges than they would be for a comparably sized flat in the private rented sector. (And note that it’s the Chief Executive who is volunteering this information! She has a problem with the regulations too…) For tenants reliant on housing benefit, the added costs of living in a high-rise are effectively just being passed back to the state (and the taxpayer…) through the welfare system. But for those who are trying their level best to work for a living, the impact can be brutal. As Jenni volunteers in our film High Rise Damp, she would like to be able to move out to (cheaper!) private accommodation, but good references from Incommunities have been a problem because she is in rent arrears… And those debts have been caused not just by the passed-on charges but by the condition of the family’s flat! When her son Dylan was sick with asthma, Jenni had to take time off work unpaid… running up debts to Incommunities even though the asthma was probably related to damp on the walls in their flat…  A vicious circle if ever there was one.

Heating and condensation

Damp and condensation are themselves a major issue with high-rise blocks. Jenni’s family had a particular issue caused by a ventilation shaft running through their flat (see film), but more generally dampness is a hazard of living in concrete boxes! As discussed in Part 1 of this blog, high-rise flats are often built as collections of sealed concrete boxes in order to minimise fire risk, but concrete is well known to be a very poor insulator…. it does not retain heat well, so concrete flats are costly to keep warm. The problem of heat loss explains the use of external insulation cladding on high rises, which at Grenfell tower turned out to be so murderously flammable. (Again: Bradford blocks do not have that type of cladding.) But according to Adrienne, a recent analysis of another Incommunities tower block revealed that the removal of exterior cladding would result in residents having to spend an additional £7 per week (£28 per month) to maintain appropriate background heating levels.

The term “background heat” is important here because residents in such flats are recommended to keep them heated pretty much constantly in cold weather. If you don’t, you run the risk of condensation on your walls — when warm, wet air from, say, cooking or laundry meets cold concrete… If not promptly wiped away and dried out, such condensation will eventually result in mould and mildew.

During our meeting, Geraldine mentioned that tower-block tenants are advised to keep their flats heated to 22 degrees Celsius in the winter months — a figure that I made a note of because it seemed strikingly high. (The World Health Organisation’s standard recommendation of 18 degrees. Most homes in the UK have thermostats set between 18 and 21.) However, Adrienne has since sent me the “chapter and verse” of what residents are told about this issue, which she points out does not mention a specific temperature recommendation. The guidance is worth quoting in detail, I think:

“Condensation occurs when there is excessive build up of moisture in the air. There is always moisture in the air, but people create additional moisture in their homes by: 1) cooking, or boiling water 2) taking baths or showers 3) using paraffin or bottled gas heaters 4) drying clothes indoors.”

It’s maybe worth interrupting here to note that, with the exception of (3), these are all things that any of us might want and need to do in our houses. And when you live in a high-rise flat without a balcony, you don’t have much choice other than to dry your clothes indoors! Officially, the advice for dealing with warm, moist air from laundry and cooking is to keep your flat “well ventilated” (i.e. windows left open… or, at best, the vents built into modern window frames should be left open). But allowing heat to escape through ventilation presumably adds further to your “background” heating costs…

“Lifestyle choices”

It does not help, then, that the official Incommunities position on condensation in flats is that it arises from “lifestyle choices” — rather than from flaws in the original building designs. That is, it’s your choice to generate warm air in a cold flat by air-drying clothes (or indeed using a tumble dryer), and your choice if you don’t ensure that your thermostat maintains a continuous background heat…

Such references to lifestyle choices sound to me suspiciously like blaming the victim. Is it a “lifestyle choice” to choose between constantly heating your flat and regularly feeding your children? Most social housing tenants are, after all, at the lower end of the income scale, and there is a significant — and, Adrienne acknowledged, growing — problem with fuel poverty in locations such as Crosley Wood. Those who can’t afford the heating bills are thus more likely to end up with condensation, dampness, mould and resultant health problems…

Responding to a draft of this blog, Adrienne acknowledged that “lifestyle choices” may indeed be an unfortunate use of language: “I think we could revisit this term”. At the same time, she sought to clarify that the term is used by Incommunities to distinguish “a problem of lack of ventilation/heat” from “a fault requiring a repair” (i.e. one which is Incommunities’ responsibility to fix). She further observes that, while “there are 189 flats in this area [Crosley Wood], last year we had 21 reports of damp, of which 3 needed some thermal boarding [as in Jenni’s case] and two where leaks form upstairs flats. The rest were condensation related. I think that this indicates that we are not dealing with an extensive building issue.”

This may indeed be the case, although Jenni — as a resident at Crosley Wood — points out that, in her experience, many of her neighbours do not even bother to report such issues, because they have so little faith that they will be addressed in a timely or constructive fashion … or perhaps because they will be told that they themselves are to blame? (For more on Jenni’s own experiences with having to battle an intransigent bureaucracy, see Part 3 of this blog!) People with low social capital and confidence may not always feel empowered to demand changes to substandard living conditions, so reporting statistics alone are not necessarily a reliable indicator of the extent of the problem here.

Returning to that term “lifestyle choices” — it’s surely a good thing if it might be revisited, but it also seems indicative of the general tendency to privatise problems that are generated by wider social and political circumstances. If a tenant has condensation problems, the blame is implicitly transferred to them as an individual. Incommunities, as a housing association which has to run as a self-sustaining business operation, cannot accept corporate liability for the problems generated by living in buildings that are “less than ideal”, because this would also make them liable for all kinds of additional costs, legal and otherwise. And those costs would themselves then have to be passed on to “the customer” — i.e. the tenant. Another kind of vicious circle.

The delicacy of this problem is reflected in my very use here of the term “less than ideal”. In my previous draft of this blog, I used the words “unfit for purpose” (which I have also heard expressed by several other independent observers who have looked at the condition of the Crosley Wood flats). In her email feedback, though, Adrienne contested this language, insisting that: “Unfitness and structural problems have a precise meaning in relation to housing. . . . this language is too loose in my opinion, I feel the more accurate point you make is that they are not ideal.” Maybe she has a point: I am not a housing expert and cannot claim to be familiar with the specific connotations of technical language. But I do know a bit about how English works, and I’m not sure there’s any precise difference between saying that something is “less than ideal” and saying that it’s “unfit for purpose”. The word “ideal” is defined as “satisfying one’s conception of what is perfect; most suitable” … so, by definition, less than ideal means that it’s less than fully suitable… it’s somewhat inappropriate… so it’s possibly unfit for purpose… In short, we are talking about shades and degrees of language here, not clear-cut distinctions. Perhaps the distinction in language here comes down simply to this: from an Incommunities point of view, “less than ideal” is language that can be lived with, whereas “unfit for purpose” would place the onus on them to change the situation. With potentially unaffordable consequences.

 

To conclude:  there are a number of brutal structural problems — in the sense of both architectural structures and socio-political ones — that put both Incommunities and their tenants in something of a bind. That being the case, though, my next question is whether anything can be done to mitigate these problems within the parameters of what a housing association can control, and is responsible for? That’s Part 3.

 

Meeting with Incommunities (Part 1: fire safety)

Incommunities on the canal

Crosley Wood flats by the canal

Note: the following has been edited since it was first posted in August, in order to allow for ‘right of reply’ from Incommunities. Social media notifications about the blog were not circulated until early September, after edits completed.

This last Friday, August 11th, we had the opportunity of a very interesting and informative meeting at the Shipley headquarters of Incommunities – Bradford’s main social housing provider. Their building sits right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, as indeed do the three tower blocks of the Crosley Wood estate, Bingley, which we were there to discuss.

“We” were myself (Steve Bottoms), Paul Barrett (community development director at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre), and Jenni Mynard – a resident at Crosley Wood who is the subject of our short film High Rise Damp, and of a blog post I wrote more recently, following the Grenfell tower disaster in London.

This meeting with the Chief Executive of Incommunities, Geraldine Howley, OBE, came about after I wrote to her – and to various members of the housing association’s board – with DVD copies of the film and a link to the blog. I am very grateful to Geraldine, and to her colleague Adrienne Reid (Assistant Chief Executive for Neighbourhood Services) for taking the time to speak with us, in the interests of building dialogue and understanding. Indeed, we were given considerably more than the hour initially timetabled, which was much appreciated.

I will confess to some disappointment on discovering that Geraldine (I hope it’s OK to use first names) had not actually watched our 15-minute film. That is, of course, perfectly reasonable, insofar that Chief Executives of large organisations are extremely busy people, who often need to work from summaries rather than first-hand sources. My disappointment lies simply in the fact that, while Geraldine had clearly been briefed on Jenni’s case (and had a number of documents about it in front of her), she had not taken the opportunity to consider Jenni’s story from her own point of view – as a tenant, as a parent, and as a citizen. That story is, I think, indicative of many people’s experiences, and it’s a perspective we don’t often hear. We had hoped that it might be heard at Incommunities.

That point aside, the meeting was productive and informative. I’m going to try to summarise what was discussed in three, inter-linked posts. This first one (below) looks specifically at the fire safety questions that have arisen for tower blocks, post-Grenfell.

Part 2 then takes a wider perspective on the architectural problems with “brutalist” concrete towers such as those at Crosley Wood, and indeed at the burden of costs that they impose on social tenants (we were alarmed to learn that these can be higher than in the private rented sector!).

Part 3 then looks at questions of shared responsibilityand the extent to which Incommunities can be seen to be working with social tenants to improve their living conditions (or not). Some significant terminology used by Incommunities, such as “customers” and “resilience”, also comes under examination.

Part 1. Fire safety

As noted above, our film with Jenni was not discussed at the meeting. However, it became clear that my previous blog post had caused some concern at Incommunities, not least because of my use of a photo of the burning Grenfell tower at the start of the blog, underneath the title “Life in a Bradford tower block”. (I promised to look at this again, but on reflection I’m going to leave it as is: I think it’s clear from the first paragraph that the image is of the London fire: there is no suggestion that one had taken place in Bradford.) There was also mention of inaccuracies in the blog, which I have promised to amend if they are pointed out to me. I am concerned to be as accurate as possible.

One important correction that was discussed during the meeting was the suggestion at the end of my blog (based on comments from Jenni), that the central fire alarm system in the Crosley Wood flats was disabled a few years ago — leaving residents to rely upon individual smoke alarms, and their own judgement about whether to call the fire brigade, rather than on any centralised response. However, Adrienne stressed that the central alarm system is, in fact, still operable. If it’s triggered, an autodialler calls Bradford Council’s Britannia House (Customer Services Centre), notifying them to call the Fire Brigade. Meanwhile, vents are automatically opened at the top of the buildings to help release smoke. It is only the sounders in the blocks themselves (e.g. the red bell in the picture below) that have been silenced, in order to avoid alarming residents into rushing for the stairwells…

This is in line with of the current Stay Put Policy for tower block fires, as agreed with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. The idea is that it is generally safer for residents to stay put in their flats during a fire than to be seeking to escape down the single, narrow stairwells that exist in blocks like those at Crosley Wood — just as firemen might be seeking to come up. The rationale here is that these flats are all designed as self-contained concrete boxes (concrete walls, ceilings, floors). Concrete is of course fireproof, so provided that doors are kept properly closed, it’s reckoned that it should be a good hour before a fire can escape from the flat it starts in. Within that hour, the Stay Put Policy assumes, the fire service should have been able to respond and extinguish the fire.

This all makes a lot of sense, if other factors are properly taken into account. The reason that this policy did not work at Grenfell tower was allegedly (there is a formal enquiry looking into this) that the flammability of the exterior insulation cladding on that building had not been taken into account (there’s more on insulation in Part 2 of this blog). Incommunities checked very swiftly, post-Grenfell, that their Bradford blocks do not use the same cladding that had cost so many lives in London.

That does not mean, of course, that the buildings are therefore definitively safe. It’s worth asking, for example, how water can leak so easily between floors (as Jenni vividly describes in our film) if these are sealed concrete boxes? But the good news is that Incommunities have now commissioned fully independent fire safety assessors (from Savills) to conduct a review of all their properties. This process starts later this week — from August 18th. This is a major undertaking, given that Incommunities has over 1200 flats in 30 tower blocks around the city.

During our meeting, it was suggested that this independent assessment would be conducted on a block-by-block basis. This concerned us somewhat, since our own (admittedly cursory) examination of two different, neighbouring flats at Crosley Wood, accompanied by an off-duty fire officer, indicated that there may also be fire safety issues on a flat by flat basis. Harry Whittle – from the Incommunities Asset Management staff – has since clarified via email that “in fact individual flats will be surveyed”.

Commenting on an earlier draft of this blog, Mr. Whittle also comments that problems with individual flats of the sort mentioned below should normally be addressed through “reporting of repairs by the customer”. However, as discussed in Part 3, such reporting by tenants has not always been responded to in a timely fashion by Incommunities. And poor responsiveness can lead to a resigned, “why bother?” attitude among some. This is one example of the way that shared responsibility needs to be revisited and reassessed on all sides.

Some examples of specific problems we looked at in our limited sample of two flats were:

… this kitchen door, which is as closed in the picture on the left as it ever gets: it simply doesn’t fit the door-frame. As such, it compromises the principle that a kitchen (the most likely place for a fire to start) can be left to burn for around 20 minutes before it spreads to other parts of the flat (and beyond the flat after 60 minutes).  The tenant in question states that, in the twenty years she has lived in this flat, this door has never shut properly.

The same tenant does have a proper closing device on the front door of the flat… another important fire safety measure (below).

… but contrast that with the next picture, showing the inside of her neighbours’ front door. This one has no such closing device, and they don’t recall there ever being one in the 12 years they’ve lived there. Harry Whittle, however, notes that “when checking smoke alarms the engineers are checking front entrance door closers”, so it looks like this is an issue which will be directly addressed in the near future.

Notice in these pictures, also, the trunking adjacent to the ceiling, carrying various pieces of wiring. Because these flats have concrete ceilings and floors, wiring can’t be hidden within the walls as it would be in most homes, so has to be carried externally. That’s fine, from a safety point of view, if the trunking is metal (i.e. fireproof), but our fire officer pointed out several places in these flats where plastic trunking had been retrofit… as in the image below (where another wire has been casually taped to the trunking).

Apparently, such plastic trunking has proven very dangerous in fire situations, because it melts quickly in the heat, leaving wiring hanging down as a trip hazard for residents and firemen alike. Harry Whittle’s email response on this point notes that, “per IEE 17th edition regs 2015, plastic trunking can still be used.” If you check these regulations online, though, it’s clear that they have been introduced because several firefighters have lost their lives in recent years as a result of hanging wires. The regs specify that where “non-metallic trunking” is in use, “a suitable fire-resistant means of support/retention must be provided to prevent cables falling out in the event of fire” (my emphasis). In the picture above, there does not appear to be any such additional, metallic support… and indeed the plastic stuff is actively peeling off the wall at the corners (see “sounder” image, further above). Clearly this is an issue that will need to be looked at.

Our off-duty fireman also raised some concerns about this sort of metallic trunking, which carries wiring out of flats into the corridor to connect with the mains trunk to the left. Here, wiring has clearly been taken through the concrete wall, and our fireman speculated whether this might compromise the integrity of the flat’s “concrete box”. Harry Whittle’s response: “fire stopping works i.e. collars; intumescent putty are used to maintain this. However, again this is part of the Type 4 destructive survey.” This is the most rigorous type of fire risk assessment, apparently due to be carried out by Savills as part of the commissioned inspections.

So it does sound like a very thorough assessment is being undertaken – and that should be reassuring for residents. Before moving on, though, I want to gently query the disabling of the alarm sounders, as previously mentioned. Because while this makes good sense from an operational/managerial point of view (i.e. maximising the likelihood that people will “stay put” in event of fire; minimising the chances of panicked people running for the stairwells), it is rather less reassuring from the point of view of individual tenants, who are – in effect – being left under-informed about fires in their own blocks. This might help reduce risk, but it does not reduce anxiety: if you can see smoke billowing up from downstairs, for example, but no alarm is going off, what do you do – other than panic? Raise the alarm yourself? Our fire officer said that, yes, if in doubt, always ring 999. (And Harry Whittle concurs.) But this potentially means that lots of people could be bombarding the emergency switchboard with calls that would be unnecessary if residents were kept better informed about what was happening. by one wonders whether Incommunities could do a better job of letting tenants know what is

This brings us back to Jenni, and her experience of attempting to establish through the concierge service for her building (Peel House), whether anything was being done about recent fire scares. This concierge service, which Incommunities provides but which residents pay for through additional charges, has in Jenni’s experience proved less than informative. If they answer the phone at all (which, she says, the often don’t), they tend to be rude and unhelpful. Surely, though, if a (silent) alarm has been sounded centrally, the concierge service should be aware of this, and be able to reassure worried residents that appropriate action is being taken?

In our meeting at Incommunities, Jenni repeatedly expressed her frustration over what she perceives as the failure of the concierge to provide the service being charged for. After all, her 12 year old son, Dylan, can get extremely distressed at any hint of smoke or fire in the building … as well he might, given that he has seen fire engines outside Peel House on fairly regular occasions throughout his childhood — while looking down from eight floors up. If all she can do is dial 999 to report a suspected fire, that is not helping with his anxiety levels… Moreover, as she points out, sometimes it just does not seem appropriate to call 999! She gave the example of a recent incident in which she could hear a smoke alarm going off in a neighbour’s flat. Since this might have been triggered by something as trivial as burnt toast, she didn’t want to bother the emergency services, but as a concerned neighbour, Jenni asked the concierge to call the flat of the tenant in question, to check that they were OK. That’s the kind of basic gesture of concern and goodwill on which communities are founded. And yet the concierge simply said it was not their problem. If you’re concerned about your neighbour, that’s your business, not theirs…

So to summarise here… I don’t doubt that the Stay Put Policy is the correct one for Crosley Wood. But we need to think carefully about people as well as policies. It seems clear, based on conversations with Jenni and her neighbours, that there is a much better job of communication and support to be provided to tenants, so as to minimise the potential for confusion and anxiety in uncertain situations. After all, mutual support and communication are the means by which we start to live in communities — rather than as randomly isolated customers…

[Continue to Part 2]