Disaster and hope in London

19 July 2017

As this issue of Cranes Today was being written, London was hit by one of its worst disasters in decades. A fire took hold in the Grenfell Tower, a social housing block in one of the city's richest areas, Kensington, killing around 80 people. The details emerging from the police investigation—which treats the disaster as a potential manslaughter case—are horrifying.

Residents, often those least able to escape, fled to the upper floors of the building. The police report that some of those huddling together with nowhere left to run were on the phone to emergency services for almost an hour, with no hope of being rescued. With temperatures reaching over 1,000°C, it is expected that specialist teams will take months to recover the remains of everyone killed.

In the days immediately after the fire, it became clear that this was no isolated, unforeseeable, disaster, but a tragic result of intentional decisions. Often, residents of social housing are portrayed as passive and hopeless recipients of state aid. But Grenfell residents had for years been making clear, well-argued, complaints about fire risks. They were ignored, while the council responsible for the safety of their homes gave tax repayments to those more fortunate. One of the key areas for the investigation has been cladding used on the building. Savings made when selecting this cladding may have meant it was not fire proof.

The scale of the disaster and the long-term injustice involved in the treatment of residents has brought to a head decades of concern over housing policy. Across Europe, healthcare and school education are treated as a universal right. On much of the continental mainland, access to decent housing has been treated in a similar way. In Britain though, since Margaret Thatcher's intentional decimation of social housing,

right-of-centre Conservative and 'New' Labour governments have compensated the post-war Boomer generation—those most likely to vote—for stagnant wages by artificially stimulating house price inflation. In London now, home owners routinely make more from the rising value of their property than from their salary, while those who rent see an increasing proportion of their salary going on having somewhere to live. The effect has been a new 'doughnut effect' in London, as vast swathes of the population are forced out of the city's core, leaving communities in the hands of overseas investors and those few lucky enough to have bought homes 30 years ago.

Fixing the problem will take concerted political effort. Direct local democratic control of housing policy will be an essential part of this, along with central government allowing local councils to add to the public sector borrowing requirement through capital investment, and tax breaks for affordable 'build-to-rent' projects built by non-profit housing associations and the private sector.

The Boomers will have to accept house prices that rise less fast, and perhaps even fall, as the hundreds of thousands of genuinely affordable homes needed in London are built. And central government will need to make sure that this older generation is protected, through pensions and social care in old age, as the return on their investment in property falls.

But this is not only a political issue. It highlights how much value the construction and lifting industry brings to society when it innovates. This, in fact, had been my planned subject for comment as I started this issue. Earlier this year, I visited the Rising Factory system Mace is using to build two new residential towers in east London. Once assembled, this modular system encloses the working floor of the building, using built in overhead cranes to bring materials and tools to workers in a 'just-in-time' lean construction system that allows a fully finished floor to be completed each week.

While this system works without traditional tower cranes, other innovations, like the prefabricated pre-finished volumetric modules we cover in our Job of the Month, require fast, high capacity, cranes for their installation. We've also recently seen some interesting developments in autonomously driven heavy transport vehicles. It is possible to conceive of a largely-automated lean system stretching from module fabrication to finished installation, that is safer for workers and less disruptive, while still delivering high quality, genuinely affordable, homes at the rates needed in growing cities.