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.

 

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