And still high rise

High rise blocks. For good or ill they are on the agenda. The tragedy at Grenfell has highlighted that at least some recent re-furbs have been done poorly and in a way that increases fire risk. But many thousand people live in high rise blocks across the country and, whatever some Birmingham Conservatives might think, the buildings are likely to be here to stay in the long run.

So, getting away from the need to ensure they can contain fires (something bare concrete blocks are actually quite good at!) what is the issue with high rises, particularly council and housing association blocks? Firstly, we have to admit that a minority of blocks were poorly designed and constructed and that no amount of refurbishment apart from complete gutting or demolishing will make them adequate to live in. Those blocks should not stand the test of time. Bodged refurbishments need to be improved and if risks have increased by refurbishment (as it appears they were at Grenfell) then this need to be reverse quickly.

Moving on from this, the upkeep of blocks is best described as “hit or miss”- some communal areas in blocks are well looked after, both by the tenants and the housing management and some, well, aren’t. Crucially, the need to foster both an active community spirit and adherence to fire regulations in communal areas is key to making blocks livable and safe.

Next, when blocks were built there was fewer qualms about families with children living high up. Most point blocks were built with at least two bedrooms with the expectation that a family would be living in them. Nowadays families with children quite rightly won’t usually seek this kind of accommodation and are likely to reject it if they are offered it, or stay there for a short time before moving to somewhere more appropriate. To be fair to the Brum Tories, it does sound like there is an issue with children being accommodated at height in the second city, but their approach seems to be knock them down and start again, rather than relocate and consider what else can be done with the blocks.

Thirdly, if families aren’t going to use the blocks then who will? Recognising the problems relating to families quite a few councils started putting single people into two bedroom high rise flats, but along came the bedroom tax and put anyone in this situation claiming benefits at a disadvantage. Who knows how long the bedroom tax will be in existence. Unlike the blocks themselves they are simply legislation- a government could overturn it very, very quickly if it chose to. But until that happens single claimants of working age are rightly pretty concerned about creating a liability they cannot afford.

Next and on to a more general point, but amplified by people living cheek by jowl and with communal spaces in high rises, is that with significant demand for affordable housing someone (usually under choice based lettings a computer) has been deciding who qualifies for the next available house. In many areas, this means most if not almost all lettings are to people with one form of priority need or another. Filling a dense space with people who, for one reason or another, have a vulnerability and many of whom who have experienced homelessness (in one form or another) is possibly not always great housing management.

Finally for this sketch, quite a few of the older high rise blocks were built in the middle of larger council estates. If people are tempted to move into them they either have to have no issues with that or overcome those issues, potentially by experience of the area at its best.

Over time these issues have interacted in order for some blocks to see a vicious circle. Families moved out and only those topping the housing queue could get a house. Those bidding (or, pre-CBL, those being placed) were likely to be relatively desperate for a home. Communal areas were neglected or vandalised, if not cleaned up then they would get worse. The sort of tenants who may act with community spirit eventually became and exasperated and moved out. Most flats were filled, but with the advent of the bedroom tax it became hard for working age people to consider moving in, so some were left empty. Empty flats led to concerns from neighbours, some of whom moved out. And so on.

It is worth remembering that a significant amount of money has been spent on many high rise blocks, firstly to get them up to decency standard and then to make them nicer places to live. But the logic I have until now outlined potentially shows that there is a need to treat high rise blocks as a bit of a special case that needs some special answers.

What I’m about to say next isn’t new and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking it is my idea. But there is an answer staring us in the face for at least some of the blocks. If households with children and single working age people cannot be accommodated, who does that leave?

I’ll ask another question: who is sitting in larger properties that could be used by families, perhaps as they have children who have moved out, who may have gardens they want to maintain but struggle, who would like to take part in communal activities close to their home and would by and large respect and maintain shared spaces? Who doesn’t need to worry about the bedroom tax?

Indeed there are plenty of examples of councils and housing associations using recently refurbished blocks as general accommodation for older people. Absolutely fundamentally, what doing this means is that you have to ensure the lifts keep going at all costs (lift engineers can be expensive!) and maintain communal spaces so that people can live and socialise under the same roof.

This shouldn’t be about forcibly moving people out of their homes, rather creating exactly the kind of private living space with communal facilities that many private providers are showing many older people want. If you can make high rise blocks desirable to live in for older people then you can free up other homes, provide a decent and long term place for people to live and ensure the co-location of services around those who need them and social activities for those who want to take part in them.

Another option (again, not my idea) is to let people be a bit more free with who will be renting with them. Allowing house-shares for younger people actually fits with what the government were trying (badly) to achieve with the bedroom tax. Yes, this doesn’t necessarily get away from some of the issues I’ve listed above but it does offer another opportunity rather than letting blocks dwindle away until a politician decides it is time to knock them all down and start again.

So let’s be clear, there are clear opportunities for what to do with high rise blocks that break the vicious circle. Just because they are not suitable for families doesn’t mean that they need to come down and be replaced. With a bit of lateral thinking and investment early in the process high rise blocks (excepting those too poorly built to last) can be something to be saved, lived in and cherished.