The Homes & Community Agency(HCA) is the UK state regulatory body for social housing; its job is to monitor the performance, finances and provision of services of landlords. Missing from the media coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster so far is any discussion of what relation the HCA has to this horror story of corporate murder. Given the years of complaints from Grenfell tenants(1) about their landlord the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation(KCTMO)(2), we can reasonably ask why the HCA never stepped in to investigate the terrible tenant-landlord relationship and the many fire safety complaints tenants had flagged up repeatedly before the fire broke out.
They can hardly have been unaware of the problems, especially as there is one obvious close relationship between the HCA and KCTMO – and that is ex-property developer Anthony Preiskel, who is on the Board of both the HCA and KCTMO. As the HCA website describes him;
Anthony Preiskel has a commercial property background, involving work on regeneration projects, having recently retired from a career of more than 20 years at P&O, chiefly as Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of P&O Properties. He is currently an independent Director of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the company which manages all social housing owned by the Royal Borough.(3)
In 2012 when he was appointed to the HCA it was reported that he would be paid £12,000 a year for working two days a month(4). He has been earning more in a day than many tenants would take home in a week.
The KCTMO Board of which Preiskel is a member were certainly aware enough of the issues to pass judgement on them. Safe in their bureaucratic ivory tower, they reported having discussed and ruled on them a year ago with this horribly ironic comment that perfectly shows how clueless they were about what was happening on the ground;
“At a board meeting of KCTMO in July 2016, the board determined – as part of its Health & Safety Action Plan – that it should “extend the fire safety approach adopted at Grenfell Tower to all major works projects”. (5)
The Board is supposed to regularly review tenant concerns. If they ever bothered to listen to the warnings tenants repeatedly gave they chose not to deal with them. Did Preiskel ever bring the HCA’s attention to the safety dangers raised by tenants? If not, why not? Did they ever listen to the concerns of their own staff? A former KCTMO worker was so worried about the fire risk to tenants that she says she “used to have nightmares about blocks burning down”(6). Yet KCTMO management allowed the fire safety failures to continue and their Board member Preiskel apparently never notified his other employer, the HCA.
If Grenfell tenants got tired of their complaints being ignored by their landlord and, taking the next and final step in the complaints procedure available to them, then tried to complain to the HCA and/or point out safety failures it did them no good. Any tenant who has tried to pursue a complaint against their landlord and, receiving no satisfaction from them, then tried to take it to HCA (or its predecessors like the TSA) knows how frustrating this whole process usually is. As regulator of social landlords the HCA is the final port of call for tenants dissatisfied with how their complaints have been dealt by their landlord(7). The HCA have the legal power to demand appropriate remedies from landlords and to penalise them for their failings. But the criteria for the HCA to accept tenants’ complaints are ridiculously strict, largely due to how the HCA has chosen to interpret the relevant law. This is a type of bias, ingrained within the management culture of social housing – unsurprisingly, when there is a revolving door of job-hopping between landlords, regulator and property developers with a culture of shared self-interest and mutual financial gain.
The key legal phrase used by the HCA as a fortress against dealing properly with valid tenant concerns and complaints is “serious detriment”;
“The HCA may intervene only if a registered provider [ie, social landlord] has failed to meet one or more of the standards and it has reasonable grounds to suspect either: that the failure has caused ʻserious detrimentʼ to the providerʼs tenants or potential tenants; or that, if it does not intervene, there is a significant risk that the failure would do so. The HCAʼs ability to intervene depends, therefore, on the definition of ʻserious detrimentʼ. There is no statutory definition. In its Review, the HCA interprets it as the ʻrisk of, or actual, serious harmʼ. [...]
Recent legislation gives responsibility to the landlord for complying with “consumer standards” including safety measures; “The purpose of changes made by the Localism Act 2011 was to make Boards and councillors responsible for regulating consumer standards in the first instance; and the HCA is required by statute to minimise its interference in consumer matters.”(8)
This is how the HCA described its conveniently vague stance as it replaced the Tenant Services Authority as regulator;
Regulator will not define ‘serious detriment’ clause
25 January 2012 | By Carl Brown
The social housing regulator has said there will be no clear definition of the ‘serious detriment’ that will see it intervene in consumer regulation cases.
Deborah Ilott, strategic regulation manager at the TSA, said: ‘We can’t define precisely what serious detriment means because it will vary from case to case.
‘But generally speaking it will involve a breach of one of the consumer standards and some action that is likely to cause harm to tenants. The most obvious examples are in relation to gas safety.’
[...] Consumer complaints are expected to be resolved by the landlord in the first instance, and then by a local MP, councillor or tenant panel. After eight weeks have elapsed the tenant will be able to go to the housing ombudsman.
In addition to intervening on consumer regulation in cases of serious detriment, the HCA committee will provide economic regulation, monitoring governance and viability, for social landlords.(9)
Yet, even by this strict criteria, we might expect some investigation of the fire safety failings repeatedly pointed out by Grenfell tenants. Anthony Preiskel surely should have been aware of them if the TMO Board’s paying lip service to ‘encouraging tenant participation’ etc had anything more than a cosmetic function – so did he report them back to the HCA? If not, why not? If he did, were they rejected as not falling within potential “serious detriment”? These are crucial questions in the investigation of the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire – but will they be asked, never mind answered? Will the conclusion be that the buck stops nowhere? The HCA is claimed to be the last line of defense in listening to tenants’ concerns and in protecting tenants’ safety against negligent landlords. Will deliberately slack regulation be allowed to get way with it and continue?
Here is how an asset management company advises its social landlord clients on conforming to the “co-regulation” of HCA;
Serious detriment what do you need to do
Understand what the HCA’s co-regulation system really means – You are supposed to regulate yourself. When a serious issue comes up you must go to the HCA quickly with:
• An accurate report of the size and scope of the problem, and
• A convincing action plan to sort things out.
If you don’t do this you could end up with a G2 or G3 rating [ie, HCA governance ratings implying management failings]. The cardinal sin is to fail to tell the HCA what is going on. It is a big mistake to sort things out and then tell the HCA later. You must keep them in the loop.
Improve your communications – You need to fight on many fronts these days. The HCA can find out about risks from councils and social media. Does the council know that your board and executives take health and safety seriously? You must patrol social media and find out what is concerning tenants. Tenants, environmental health officers and councillors may well know more about the homes you own than you do. It can lead to big trouble with the HCA when they catch you out. And the councils do talk to the HCA. (10)
In this case such oversight and prodecures were easily ignored by all involved. And yet, back in November 2013 even a Parliamentary Committee, reviewing the HCA’s regulation of landlords, had complained that it had “interpreted his remit as narrowly as possible” regarding its interpretation of what qualifies as “serious detriment”. So, over three years before the Grenfell fire, even sections of government were criticising the HCA for the soft approach to regulation they had chosen to take;
THE COMMITTEE'S COMMENTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:
• Having reviewed the evidence we are not completely assured that the Regulator is discharging his responsibilities as we would expect. First, he has interpreted his remit as narrowly as possible. In responding to our report we request that he explain and justify his application of a test that breaches of standards should be systemic when he assesses serious detriment caused to tenants by a breach of consumer standards. Second, we formed the impression that the Regulator has treated consumer regulation as a distraction from his main job, economic regulation.(11)
The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea also has blood on its hands; in the 1990s the Rotten Borough delegated management of its council housing stock to KCTMO. Since then they have a legal obligation to monitor the TMO’s performance - they recently gave it a glowing review, singling out the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and its health & safety aspects for praise(12). As a landlord, supposedly under the legal obligations outlined in the quote above, KCTMO was clearly not heeding such basic advice – nor was it having its legal obligations adequately forced on them by the RBKC Housing Department or HCA who are supposed to monitor their performance. Were HCA notified by the TMO of the outstanding fire safety issues repeatedly raised by tenants? Instead of taking seriously concerns raised by tenants widely across social media the Council and TMO were trying to gag tenant bloggers by threatening them with legal action(13).
If the HCA ever bothered to look at what Grenfell Action Group and others were saying for years about their landlord’s mismanagement it was ignored. Did the local Council or Mr Preiskel – the direct link between the HCA and KCTMO, sitting on both Boards – ever raise tenant concerns about fire safety with HCA? Or did he sleep his way through his £500 a day HCA job, only waking to collect the pay cheque?
Successive Labour and Tory governments and local councils have all encouraged the gradual privatisation, gentrification and displacement of social housing from the urban landscape. The politicians and management all have blood on their hands for weakening effective regulation of landlords – and also for failing to implement recommendations that fitting sprinkler systems should become a legal requirement – rejected on the grounds that the extra cost would discourage house building(14).
The landlord KCTMO is rightly in the spotlight now for its murderous policies. But the HCA, as housing regulator of KCTMO and supposed defender of tenants’ consumer rights and safety, also has questions to answer and at present they aren’t being asked. The HCA have acted as a buffer protecting social landlords and their speculator friends, much more concerned with social landlords’ financial health and commercial expansion(15) than with the valid complaints of tenants and their safety. If they had monitored KCTMO more closely and taken seriously tenant complaints this tragedy might have been avoided. One of HCA’s own board members, Mr Preiskel, is deeply implicated in KCTMO’s deadly mismanagement of Grenfell Tower and the regime that made it possible.
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The HCA should take its share of the blame but there is a wider collective responsibility; the landlords, politicians, developers and regulators are all guilty of creating a culture of contempt and neglect towards tenants – everything, including lives, has been sacrificed for the pursuit of profit and power. Tenants don’t have enough of either to be respected; they are seen as an obstacle to greater, more efficient capital accumulation. Social housing is now seen as just another “property portfolio” on the Monopoly board of the city. It has taken a tragedy like Grenfell Tower to expose this undeniably for all to see.
Anthony Preiskel is a convenient example of the bureaucrats who inhabit the now-integrated world of real estate speculation and social housing; a former property developer happily sitting on the Board of both landlord KCTMO and its regulator HCA with no admitted conflict of interest by either of these bodies. (Leading councillors in the Rotten Borough of Kensington & Chelsea also have careers combining politics, social housing management and commercial property development, as ably exposed on the Grenfell Action Groups blog(16).) The management practice of these agencies created this disaster. As the bosses earn their six figure salaries their massive pension pots accumulate; they wait for the likely MBE award and mutual praise, backslapping and regular expense account free lunches for their service to ‘the public good’. Meanwhile, in the name of belt-tightening austerity, they often impose wage freezes on their frontline staff and extortionate service charges and rents on tenants. On retirement, a prestigious lucrative seat on the Board of a charity or of a public service ripe for privatisation beckons. Healthy profit from their property dealings on the side (lubricated by their extensive career contacts) may also boost their income.
* * *
The very logic of capitalism encourages the cutting of corners to increase profit but there are, in different times and places, massive variations in the implementation of safety regulation – often dependent on how much safety working class struggle has won over long periods and in response to disasters like Grenfell. Private property, control and possession of territory are fundamental to social relations in capitalism. Will these events encourage a deeper questioning of power relations in class society? For too long the poor have paid a heavy price at the hands of the politicians, gentrifiers, real estate speculators and landlords. Now it’s time to organise to make it payback time.
1) See the excellent Grenfell Action Group blog; https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/
Relevant links regarding the fire; https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/grenfell-tower-fire/
2) First legislated for by the Tories in the 1980s, TMOs became operational in the 1990s under the Blairite Labour Government as a halfway house form of organisation on the path towards eventual privatisation of social housing. Promoted laughably as a form of tenant empowerment, they replaced the local authority landlord with a new bureaucratic formation with less accountability to tenants.
7) The Housing Ombudsman and the HCA have an agreement for dealing with different types of complaints. Complaints of individual tenants are more often dealt with by the Ombudsman and tenants have complained of the HO's bias towards favouring the landlords. Some complaints, e.g. of a “systemic failure” in governance and regarding serious safety issues, can be dealt with by the HCA.
11) The work of the Regulation Committee of the Homes and Communities Agency: the Regulation Committee's Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14 - Communities and Local Government Committee https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmcomloc/836/83604.htm
12) see ‘TMO Review – Appendix 1; http://www.kctmo.org.uk/files/board-meetings/153818_board_pack_-_20_july_2016.pdf
Two tenants who perished in the fire also received threats of legal action from the KCTMO for raising safety issues; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/grenfell-tower-fire-london-dead-legal-action-campaign-fire-safety-mariem-elgwahry-nadia-choucair-a7795586.html
15) Now thoroughly integrated into the world of big bucks property development, larger TMOs and Housing Associations have commercial wings that build property for sale and rent at market prices. Their social housing sector, its property value and rental income, is used as collateral to guarantee the loans that fund their commercial property speculation.
16) Rock Feilding-Mellen is Deputy Council Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration. Tory councillor Feilding-Mellen, son of an Earl, has been accused by the Grenfell Action Group of using his access to Council inside information on future local ‘regeneration’ development projects to further his property speculation. He has also been accused of conflicts of interest when voting on decisions to grant Council property leases to expensive prep schools he sends his own children to. He also openly advocated the end of social housing in inner London for benefit claimants;
“It appears that part of the Deputy Leader’s housing policy is an explicit aim to remove families on benefits from their homes in RBKC and to achieve this the Council is actively “trying to wean people off the expectation of being put up in prime central London locations”. We assume this is so that the Council can socially cleanse North Kensington and move more middle class people to the area.” https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/pants-on-fire-no-3-joint-award-cllr-fieling-mellen-and-the-rbkc-decant-policy/
The Grenfell Action Group has done excellent work in keeping tabs on how Feilding-Mellen, the equally double-barrelled Council leader Nick Paget-Brown and other RBKC councillors have been cultivating close links with major players in international real estate dealings. See, eg; https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/eilding-mellen-bang-to-rights-not-just-yet/
Councillors have attended international property investment conferences but claim it was in a personal capacity unrelated to council plans for ‘regeneration’ – ie, gentrification. Council leaders claim that the free lunches bought them by their real estate pals have nothing to do with their council roles. Feilding-Mellen runs his own property development company with a name brilliantly unconscious of its own irony; ‘Socially Conscious Capital’.
Feilding-Mellen lists among his ambitions as a councillor; “Invest in the Council's housing stock so that our tenants can live in attractive, safe, and well-built homes that are fully integrated with the rest of the borough thereby preserving our diverse but mixed communities”. https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/contactsdirectory/CllrPublicInfo.aspx?seed=Councillor%20Rock%20Feilding-Mellen&key=4881
He clearly describes himself here as intending to have an important influence on the provision of services to tenants. As a description of the exact opposite of how tenants have actually been treated, we can mark that down as a truly epic Socially Unconscious fail ...