The unfolding tragedy that is Grenfell Tower has led many of us to jump to conclusions. At times it feels we have looked to find someone to blame, rather understand what went wrong and what needs to be put right. It is not clear to me whether the Government-ordered Inquiry will lead to a better understanding of whether the money invested in improving Grenfell increased the risk of this tragedy. Neither is it clear that the inquiry will explore what benefits there were of maintaining this island of affordable social housing in a borough where the majority of housing was beyond the pockets of residents of Grenfell. But one conclusion we cannot shy away from, is that the testimony of residents, families of the bereaved and their neighbours is that Grenfell has again exposed the persistence of inequality, with black and minority ethnic groups being at the sharp end of this inequality.
Those with longer memories will remember that housing has been at the forefront of battles to challenge inequality, in particular racial discrimination. The discriminatory consequences of housing departments’ ‘sons and daughters’ policies which often led to black and minority ethnic people in need having to wait significantly longer for social housing in East London. The integration policy of a West Midlands council that insisted officers would have to ensure that a black household could not be living next door to another black household. The policy in fact stipulated that there needed to be at least six houses between black households. Practices that now appear to come from fiction, were regularly pursued. An East Midlands authority required staff to record the ethnicity of all those applying for housing. Staff were told applicants were either to be recorded as white or black, and if they were neither black nor white then they must be Asian.
These patently discriminatory policies and practices have hopefully been consigned to history. As importantly effort has been made to bring about real change in access to better quality homes. Some of this has been achieved though ensuring social housing allocations are based on need and do not discriminate according to race. Some of this has been achieved through the development of black and minority ethnic-led housing associations, as well as mainstream agencies, reaching out to groups who were excluded in the past. Some of this has been achieved through enforcement action with prosecuting private landlords who discriminate or do not observe the rights of tenants. Some of it has also been achieved by individuals and communities using their economic power to go and live in places that were sometimes seen as ‘no go’ areas.
Unfortunately, however, the Race Equality Foundation better housing briefings (www.better-housing.org.uk (opens new window)) suggest the experience of discrimination and disadvantage for black and minority ethnic people has not been consigned to history. For example, Andrew Nocon (2015) drawing on the Census notes: White Gypsy and Irish Traveller households are seven and a half times more likely to experience housing deprivation than White British households. He further shows that Black African households are 75 per cent more likely to experience housing deprivation than White British households. He adds that Bangladeshi households are 63 per cent more likely to experience housing deprivation than White British households.
The persistence of poverty in Britain, means that many others will also be experiencing housing deprivation. But, it is also clear that the persistence of racial discrimination means that black and minority ethnic communities are at greater risk. Whether the Grenfell tragedy will mark a watershed in the housing of those experiencing disadvantage, is open to debate. However, we must be clear that there already is sufficient evidence for us to act to ensure black and minority ethnic no longer experience discrimination in accessing good housing.
And if you found this of interest, the Housing LIN are currently considering a range of ways of expanding this conversation to engage all regions and members, and to inform our strategic work. We welcome any contributions on the topic, either through our discussion forums, or directly to Kurshida, our East Midlands Regional Lead or Clare Skidmore, our National Strategic Lead - Influencing and Networks, at email@example.com. Please do let us have any suggestions of specific issues we should be covering, organisations we should be working with, any innovative housing and care-related projects or initiatives with and for BME communities, and any other ideas. We look forward to hearing from you.