LONDON, June 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Londoners must stand up to political and business leaders who exploit the fire at London’s Grenfell Tower to demand the demolition of high-rise housing for the city’s poor, said architects, academics, and residents of the city’s towers.
Commentators, including a former leader of the ruling Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, have called for London authorities to raze towers across the city after a fire at the 24-storey social housing block killed at least 80 people.
In the past decade, the UK capital has seen an explosion in the number of luxury apartment towers while more than 100 social housing blocks, many built in the 1970s to house Londoners on lower incomes, have faced demolition or privatisation.
Four days after the blaze, London Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote in The Observer newspaper: “It may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.”
But architects and urban planning scholars condemned leaders’ statements as opportunistic.
After a meeting this week of architects, urban planning academics, and housing campaigners, Paul Watt, senior lecturer at London’s Birkbeck College, said the large-scale demolition of towers cannot be justified by design failings.
For early investigations into the fire show that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was a new addition to the building during a 2016 refurbishment. The addition aimed to improve insulation and improve the tower’s appearance.
“When you look at Grenfell Tower today, the only thing left standing is the 1970s structure,” said Geraldine Dening, co-founder of campaign group Architects for Social Housing.
“The problems in Grenfell Tower were not the original building, and I think now is time for (social housing) residents to stand up and refuse to accept those statements.”
Police have said they will consider manslaughter charges as part of a range of possible criminal offences committed by those responsible for the renovation at Grenfell.
Members of the London Assembly - which works with London councils and the government on issues - passed a motion on Wednesday condemning the mayor for failing to attend meetings at City Hall since the fire.
Sian Berry, chair of the London Assembly Housing Committee, said there needed to be an official response to the growing evidence that it was the refurbishment that caused the fire.
“Jumping straight to that conclusion betrays an agenda of trying to demolish lots of council homes and push ‘regeneration’ that is, in the main, led by developers,” Berry said.
London has historically remained a mostly low-rise city, but burgeoning demand for new housing and a loosening of regulations in recent years has seen plans for more than 300 new tall towers of over 20 stories in height, according to the Estates Gazette.
Prior to construction of these new upmarket towers, most of the city’s residential towers were low-cost housing.
A 2015 London Assembly report showed local government demolition of social housing estates over the last decade has cut the number of homes rented a below market rates by more than 8,000.
Due to the major upheaval to lives, the report advised demolition be a last resort if refurbishment was not possible.
University College London, the parent institution of the capital’s renowned Bartlett School of architecture, sent a letter to the mayor on Monday cautioning against premature demands for demolition of tower blocks.
“The stigmatisation of social housing blocks has played a very negative role within the current housing crisis,” said the statement.
Fire safety checks on towers across Britain, triggered by concerns over combustible cladding, have revealed wide-ranging fire safety failures on local government housing.
This has prompted Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to establish an independent advisory group to examine tower safety across Britain.
A city hall spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the mayor still supports the demolition of 1970s buildings where fire risks are found.
“Everyone should be suitably protected from fire in their own home. If this is not possible in some blocks then they will need to be demolished and rebuilt,” the spokesman said. (Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)