“Human rights commission to launch its own Grenfell fire inquiry”

Britain’s human rights watchdog is to launch an inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire that will examine whether the government and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea failed in their duties to protect life and provide safe housing.

The dramatic intervention by the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has the potential to draw damning conclusions about the role of the state, could foreshadow the official inquiry, ordered by Theresa May and chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, which has been criticised for excluding social housing policy from its remit. The commission’s recommendations are due to be published in April, considerably earlier than the official inquiry’s full findings.

The commission’s chair, David Isaac, said the EHRC, whose application to become a core participant in the official inquiry was rejected, had decided to launch its own inquiry amid concerns that key questions – including the extent to which the state has “a duty to protect its citizens”– were being neglected. While acknowledging that the move might be seen as “controversial” in some quarters, he defended the commission’s decision to become involved.

Six months on, Grenfell Tower fire survivors are left demanding answers
“We are the UK’s national human rights body and we have a statutory duty to promote equality and human rights,” Isaac said in an interview with the Observer. “We think the human rights dimension to Grenfell Tower is absolutely fundamental and is currently overlooked. Grenfell for most people in this country, particularly in the way the government has reacted, is a pretty defining moment in terms of how inequality is perceived.”

He recalled his reaction to the tragic events of 14 June. “Like everybody else, it was shock, horror, distress. I think it was a national moment that defined how certain parts of society experience the state’s public provision of housing and also how the state responds. We need to learn from what’s happened with Grenfell, look at it in the context of our human rights obligations, and think about how we can improve. There are loads of lessons to be learned.”

Last week it emerged that four out of every five families who were made homeless in the fire are still looking for new housing, with almost half of them likely to spend Christmas in emergency accommodation.

The EHRC inquiry, which will involve a panel of legal experts, will pay particular attention to the UK’s obligations to the tower’s residents under the Human Rights Act and international law. At a time when some want the act scrapped, the inquiry’s actions could be viewed as provocative.

“Human rights are for everybody,” Isaac said. “This is political and I know there is a view among some politicians, but also among society more generally, that human rights only protect extremists and terrorists but that isn’t the case at all. I always talk about Hillsborough as a really good example of where the Human Rights Act and the human rights lens has been used effectively to ensure justice prevailed.”

In a statement to be published on its website tomorrow, explaining its decision to launch what it refers to as its “project”, the EHRC will say: “The Grenfell Tower fire caused catastrophic loss of life for which the state may have been responsible. More than 70 people died in homes managed by the state. They should have been safe and they were not. The people who died and others affected by the fire come from diverse backgrounds. They include children, elderly people, disabled people and migrants. …

… The commission’s decision to examine the Grenfell Tower fire reflects a more muscular approach to addressing human rights and equality issues. Recently it has brought a number of high-profile legal actions and launched several major inquiries, such as that into the gender pay gap.

Isaac said: “We are a more confident organisation and this is a good example of us being that – holding the government to account by doing what only we can do. It might be perceived to be controversial but I believe that’s our role.””

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/09/human-rights-commission-to-launch-own-grenfell-fire-inquiry

“The Guardian view on social housing: time to fight for affordable rents”

“ …On Friday the specialist journal Inside Housing published research that showed a new and significant factor behind the sharp rise in the numbers relying on emergency support.

The right to buy, first introduced in 1980, already abandoned in Scotland and soon in Wales, was successfully reinvigorated in England by David Cameron five years ago. It has been a boon to the buy-to-let market and a curse on councils that find themselves renting them back at hugely inflated cost.

Soaring house values have turned what should be a place to live into a golden asset. Former council properties have been snapped up by private landlords. In the most prosperous areas, up to 70% of former council homes are now privately let. Private rents out of London average over £200 a week while council rents are nearer £90 a week.

Councils in England have been sending up emergency flares for more than a year, trying to alert the government to their inability to build enough new homes to replace the ones they have been forced to sell, with predictable consequences.

In the last five years, since right-to-buy discounts were nearly doubled, 54,581 homes were sold and only 12,472 homes were started. Some are built in one authority from receipts of sales in another, compounding local shortages.

Councils have to use part of the receipts from sales to pay off housing debt, and can only keep a third for replacement. They are still banned from borrowing to make up the full cost of buying or building new ones. Between now and 2020, councils also face having to sell off higher-value council homes in order to fund discounts on housing association homes that are due to come in under right-to-buy provisions.

Like so much else that has happened since 2010, social housing policy has not just been damaging but contradictory, fostering the chimera of a property-owning democracy in an age of shrinking social housing stock and rapidly growing demand. The government makes bold promises on new affordable homes to buy. But what’s needed is homes that people can afford to rent.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/08/the-guardian-view-on-social-housing-time-to-fight-for-affordable-rents

“Forty percent of homes sold under Right to Buy now in the hands of private landlords, new analysis reveals”

Scotland and Wales stopped these sales – it can be done, no excuses.

“Tens of thousands of council homes sold under the Right to Buy scheme, designed to help low-income families get on the housing ladder, are now being let out by private landlords, new research has revealed.

Just over 40 per cent of properties purchased under the controversial scheme are now being rented out privately – a rise of 7 per cent in the last two years alone.

As a result, properties sold off quickly become significantly more expensive than they were previously. The average private rent in England is £210 per week – more than double the £88 average social rent.

If the current trend continues, more than half of all Right to Buy homes will be rented privately by 2026, according to the research by Inside Housing magazine.

The analysis – based on figures from 111 councils, around two thirds of the total – shows that 180,260 leasehold properties were sold by local authorities since 1980. Of those almost 72,500 are now registered with an “away address”, suggesting they are being rented out privately.

The mass sell-off comes despite council house waiting lists currently standing at more than 10 years in some parts of the country, and a 97 per cent fall in new social homes being built since 2010.

Amid fears over the on-going impact of Right to Buy, the Scottish Government scrapped the policy in Scotland last year and on Tuesday the Welsh government voted to follow suit.

Critics say Right to Buy has led to a staggering loss of social homes because those sold off under the policy are not being replaced. According to Local Government Association analysis, just one new home is built for every five sold.

There are now just 2 million council homes left in Britain – down from 6.5 million when Right to Buy was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, although a number of factors are behind the fall.

Despite growing concern about the impact of the policy, last year the Conservatives controversially extended Right to Buy to properties owned by housing associations – meaning thousands more low-rent homes are likely to be sold off. …”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/right-to-buy-homes-sold-private-landlords-latest-figures-rent-a8098126.html

Cranbrook: bad news for E.on? Regulator to investigate district heating networks

Residents of Cranbrook are stuck with E.on for 80 years unless things change as reported by Owl here in February 2017:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/02/05/cranbrooks-district-heating-system-under-fire-no-switching-allowed-and-developers-get-a-cut-for-80-year-contract/

and here in 2016:
https://eastdevonwatch.org/2016/07/28/cranbrook-what-can-happen-when-you-are-tied-to-one-district-heating-energy-supplier/

“The UK’s competition regulator has announced that it is launching a comprehensive study into domestic heat networks to make sure that households are getting a good deal.

Competition and Markets Authority on Thursday said that heat networks – systems that heat multiple homes from one central source – currently supply about half a million UK homes through about 17,000 networks.

Between now and 2030, the number of customers using heat networks is expected to grow significantly to around 20 per cent of all households. But the sector is not currently subject to the same regulation as other forms of energy supply such as mains gas and electricity.

The CMA said that, as a result of that, it’s concerned that many customers, a large proportion of whom live in social housing, may be unable to easily switch suppliers or are locked into very long contracts – some for up to 25 years.

There’s a risk, the regulator said, that they may be paying too much or receiving a poor quality of service.

It said that its study into the networks would examine whether customers are aware of the costs of heat networks both before and after moving into a property and whether heat networks are natural monopolies. It would also look at the prices, service quality and reliability of heat networks.

“Heat networks can play an important role in cutting carbon and keeping down energy bills for customers. However, we have concerns that this sector may not be working as well as it could be for the half a million homes heated by these systems now and the millions that may be connected in the future,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA.

“That is why we’re taking a closer look at this market to ensure that heat network customers get a good deal on their energy now and in the future.”

The CMA study will be completed within the next 12 months. It said that it would source evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, including heat network builders and operators, other government departments, local authorities, sector regulators and consumer groups.

An interim report updating on the CMA’s progress will be published in six months.

Heating networks can be better for the environment because they deliver lower carbon emissions, which can also result in cost benefits for households.

Because of this, heat networks have become an important part of the Government’s strategy to reduce carbon and cut heating bills.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-domestic-heat-networks-review-competition-markets-authority-review-regulator-a8096396.html

The scandal of child and pensioner poverty

Almost 400,000 more UK children and 300,000 more pensioners plunged into poverty in past four years, new study finds.

Hundreds of thousands of children and older people have been plunged into poverty in the past four years, according to a stark analysis laying bare the challenge to families trying to keep up with the cost of living in Britain.

The research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found almost 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners in the UK were living in poverty last year compared with 2012-13, the first sustained increases in child and pensioner poverty for 20 years. The foundation warned that decades of progress were at risk of being unravelled amid weak wage growth and rising inflation.

The thinktank urged the government to unfreeze benefits, increase training for adult workers and to embark on a more ambitious house-building programme to provide affordable homes for struggling families. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/04/uk-government-warned-over-sharp-rise-children-pensioner-poverty-study

Swire fails to save another hospital

In August 2017 Swire spearheaded a campaign to keep heart services going at London’s Royal Brompton Hospital (having miserably failed to lead similar campaigns in East Devon, leaving Claire Wright to fight for us:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/08/05/more-on-swire-saving-services-at-royal-brompton-hospital-london/

Well, his attempts in London don’t seem to have worked either:

“The world-leading Royal Brompton Hospital in London, recently ‘saved’ by NHS bosses, is being lined up for a billion pound sale to make way for luxury flats. …”

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5140315/World-class-heart-hospital-make-way-luxury-flats.html