Daniel Renwick and Robbie Shilliam

Our book, Squalor, part of A New Beveridge Report published by Agenda, was written in the shadow of the worst residential fire in Britain since the Blitz. As part of its renovation, Grenfell Tower had been wrapped in insulation and cladding that was highly combustible. When the fire started, it was accelerated by tens of thousands of litres of solidified petrol present in this wrapping. Ambiguities in government guidance – especially Approved Document B – gave the building industry far too much room for reckless manouevre.

The manufacturer of the cladding system, Arconic, the insulation companies Celotex and Kingspan, as well as the developers and architects stretched their interpretations of the regulatory documents to breaking point. A local government, highly invested in property markets and speculation, signed off and sanctioned the renovation. Mass death followed. The seventy-two souls that perished in the fire were killed by a confluence of factors – from regulatory failure to an inflexible command to stay put. Several private and public organizations face potential criminal liabilities for their failures. Yet more than five years later, justice remains to be done. 

We present a political history of squalor from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day in which the causes and consequences of the Grenfell Tower are our point of arrival

Our book presents a political history of squalor from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day – a history in which the causes and consequences of the Grenfell Tower are our point of arrival.  Our objective is to demonstrate that squalor in Britain has been consistently re-made by political elites, even when they have pursued policies to ameliorate squalid conditions.

We track a process of what could be called “population sorting” across a historical vista constituted by imperial, welfare, neoliberal and populist eras. We argue that diverse strategies such as slum clearance, new town building, social housing provision, and buying incentives have all rested on a fatal flaw: those who live in squalor have been judged to be part of the dysgenic environment themselves – they are a part of squalor, rather than sufferers of squalid conditions.

Of course, all elite projects are not the same, even if they depend on similar logics. For instance, one project attempted to resist the impulse to segregate populations; another replaced a public duty to house almost entirely with a private interest to buy. In many ways, the consistent reproduction of squalor over time eventuates as much through the clash between various projects as from the similarities of their premises and assumptions.

We include in our story the defence of shared space

Central to these clashes is, we argue, a resistive project by those who have suffered squalor. So, we include in our story the defence of shared space, in predominately urban settings, staged by the residents and denizens rather than by architects, planners or state officials. Such grassroots defence demonstrates a distrust of the state and its services, and a desire for self-determination through methods sometimes considered illicit. Yet we suggest that the act of defence itself has been treated by elites as illegitimate – whether illegal or not – as revealed in the testimony of Ed Daffarn to the Grenfell inquiry concerning the dismissive treatment of resident action groups by local government. 

Our political history indicts present-day politics for a failure to confront squalor. Where the state might once have considered housing a public health issue, contemporary politics is predicated upon maintaining the economic conditions for house price inflation. Simple supply-side economics chokes demand. For all the valorization of the private sector, rental markets are presently a shameful site of squalor stitched together by threadbare regulations. Subdivided households conceal overcrowding across our major cities. Deregulations announced since the Grenfell Tower fire allow potentially dangerous conversions of office buildings into homes.  Undocumented denizens find themselves especially dependent on the criminal housing market, where sheds and outhouses come to house the most vulnerable. 

Daniel Hewitt and Kwojo Tweneboa have shone valuable light on the housing associations and councils who have left their residents to suffer squalor. Incredibly, though, the public sector has better housing stock than that of the private sector. Huge amounts of the sector fail to meet housing standards, with mould, infestations and broken heating systems inducing misery for millions. And if current trends continue, by 2050 the majority of the country will be privately renting.

Grenfell was a victim of the new not the old

Policy Exchange, Sadiq Khan and David Lammy sought to frame the tragedy of Grenfell Tower as a legacy of past social housing inequities. We argue, unabashedly, that Grenfell was a victim of the new not the old. It is no longer the Dickensian stereotype of the slum-dweller who stands to be burnt. Private leaseholders and first-time buyers have found their blocks covered in ACM cladding.

Since 2010 there have been twelve housing secretaries

The government took four and a half years before promising to make the developers and building owners responsible for the Grenfell Tower fire pay. One might wonder how yet another regime in Downing Street will honour that promise. That said, when it comes to housing, turnover of government leaders is now the norm. Since 2010 there have been twelve housing secretaries – an average of one per year. For those residents campaigning for change, the frustration this builds cannot be overstated. How can meaningful relationships be built with such turnover?

Above all, while each government ascribes, variously, to the deregulation mantra, the same governments ascribe to the mantra of surveillance and social control. In our book, we argue that this combination produces “organized negligence”. Riffing off David Harvey and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s idea of “organized abandonment”, we argue that the aftermath of Grenfell has shown just how much communities are not so much abandoned but neglected – that is, purposively trapped in rules that do not serve their interests or even provide for their basic safety. In sum, housing policy is absent of humaneness, let alone justice, and least of all a commitment to reform.

Mortgage rates and interest rates are to rise to such a level that millions more now find themselves facing precarious housing futures

The Grenfell Tower fire should have been an event that signally changed the politics of housing. But what should have been a full stop to a sentence enumerating vicious and inequitable injustices has become a comma. There have since followed constitutional and political battles over Brexit, a pandemic, and an energy crisis. Since we finished the manuscript, every month has brought new developments in the politics associated with squalor. Most recently, the “growth” policies of the current (since writing even this has changed!) Chancellor of the Exchequer has led mortgage rates and interest rates to rise to such a level that millions more now find themselves facing precarious housing futures, with monthly costs threatening to strip them of their securities and push them into homelessness.

Since Thatcher’s revolution in housing, land prices have risen sixteen-fold

A political solution to the problem of housing does exist but requires, above all, controls to be placed on the valuation of land. This requires a robust state response to the inordinate power that landowners wield in our contemporary system. Whereas the minister for housing and health in Attlee’s post-war government, Aneurin Bevan, intimately involved the state in the accrual of “betterment” in land and thus in the sharing of profits from land sales, speculation and trading, that role ended abruptly in the 1960s. The Land Compensation Act of 1961 enshrined the right of private landowners to profit through land banking and speculation. And since Thatcher’s revolution in housing, land prices have risen sixteen-fold

The state should be compelled to actively regulate such that a safe and affordable living standard is enjoyed by all

Whatever the numbers and scale, and even while acknowledging contending interests, it is reasonable to propose that the prospect of a shared fate could unite those suffering in the private sector with those suffering in the public sector. Instead of the de facto rule of large landowning bodies, the state should be compelled to actively regulate such that a safe and affordable living standard is enjoyed by all. The 20th century provides lessons in what might be possible when government is frightened into reform by the prospect of radical change.

Squalor will not be slain by the market nor by political elites but only by a movement of engaged denizens who demand accountability and expect that every home should be fit for human habitation – and for its flourishing. 

Drawn from Daniel Renwick’s and Robbie Shilliam’s book, Squalor, with Agenda Publishing.

Daniel Renwick is a writer, youth-worker and videographer. He lives in London.

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He was previously Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

Header Image Credit: Agenda Publishing


Renwick, Daniel and Robbie Shilliam 2022. ‘Squalor’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (3): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2022.03.0005