“Lend me your ears”
Jeremy Corbyn’s keynote speech at the Labour Conference in Brighton last week placed housing at the heart of his proposed reforms. This is encouraging indeed, but so too was the emphasis on the utter necessity of listening before doing; Mr Corbyn stated, “Thousands are living in homes that are unfit for human habitation. That’s why, along with our shadow housing minister John Healey…we are launching a review of social housing policy – its planning, building, regulation and management. We will listen to tenants across the country and propose a radical programme of action and bring it back to next year’s conference.”
One of the grievances still so acute from the Grenfell Tower tragedy is the sense that the concerns raised by residents about the building, in the months and years leading up to that horrific morning in June, repeatedly fell upon deaf years. Tenants raised their fears about the fire safety and have said again and again how these were dismissed or ignored. It is significant that the chair of the Grenfell Inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has committed in his Terms of Reference to examine the arrangements which were – or were not – in place before the fire to enable local residents to comment on the risk of fire at the Tower. Over 300 Core Participant applications have been submitted, each of whom expresses a wish to have his or her voice heard.
In accepting the recommended Terms, the Prime Minister has acknowledged that, “What is clear is that there are a number of concerns, which have gone unheard for too long. It is very important that their [the former residents of the Grenfell Tower and the families of those who died] views are taken into account by the Inquiry.”
Similarly, the Mayor of London, in his draft London Housing Strategy which was freshly published for public consultation earlier this month, has asserted that, “residents’ voices must be at the heart of decision-making by councils and housing associations.” He goes on to state that “the views, concerns and interests of social housing residents need a much stronger voice at a national level, so that their interests are taken into account in policy-making.”
The report goes on to state, “The Mayor believes it is essential that, as a minimum, we ensure the system for regulating social housing is genuinely responsive to the concerns of tenants, leaseholders, and freeholders on social housing estates. He is proposing an immediate package of reform to strengthen the voices of social housing residents.”
So we have heard, over recent weeks, four key leaders in the public sphere emphasising the need for real, careful, active listening. Yet how rare a quality that is! How easy it is for us, as the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the 1940s, “to forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” Listening can be hard work – but in the whole realm of reimagining and reconfiguring Britain’s social housing policies, on local and national levels, it the hard work of listening, particularly to tenants who are the end users of social housing – which must not be overlooked.