An Open Letter to James Cleverly, MP

Dear James,

One of my Conservative-voting friends liked your Facebook post yesterday about why you voted against the housing bill. I just want to clear up why, in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, I (and many others) am directing my anger partially towards you and those who voted with you, and to address some of the things written in the comments of that post. I have rented in London for four or five years now. It’s not a long time, but it’s enough that I have moved into four or five rooms (several of them in quite quick succession, which is common) and to understand the way housing works in London.

The insinuation is not that you are personally responsible for the faulty cladding on Grenfell Tower, but that you are responsible for the lack of recourse for the residents and a culture in which they were not valued. Many of the newspapers have focussed on just one clause of the Housing Bill – ‘fit for human habitation’ – but I agree with you that this is dog-whistle politics. The finer details of what you voted against are much more insidious. 

The Labour amendments to the Housing Bill were a compromise: the Bill was intended to sell off ‘higher value’ council homes (an ideological difference between a party whose focus focus is providing economic ‘freedoms’ and one whose focus is on providing welfare), which would necessitate the movement of council tenants from areas where their homes were deemed ‘high value’ and into homes that were less sought-after. What this meant in practice was selling homes in London and moving tenants outside London. This is an economic folly, for one: a city as vast and sprawling as London requires low-paid workers to do ordinary jobs which keep it ticking over, and it requires them in droves. Each Starbucks drunk, Pret eaten and taxi ridden requires a low-salaried worker during unsociable hours to provide the service. You would be surprised at some of the places that do not pay the ‘recommended living wage’ (but that is more of my personal experience, and a different story). It is not just about economics, though; it is about what we value as a society. By saying that the artists, refugees, schoolchildren, Muslims, pensioners and teaching assistants who lived in that building matter less than somebody who can pay for it says that we as a society (and you as a person) value them less than any person with a fat cheque. Their income and their race become relevant factors in the fire because these are contributing factors in their vulnerability and the thing which has marked that particular set of people as potential – and now actual – victims.

The Housing Bill implemented powers to tackle rogue landlords (the legislation you decided duplicated the ‘fit for human habitation’ clause): allowing local authorities to request a banning order, creating a database of rogue landlords and allowing tenants to apply for a repayment order. Again, this values money above people: the idea that I want money back from my landlord as a fit compensation for living in squalor is laughable. I would much rather be guaranteed a safe home than compensation. Furthermore, this legislation presupposes that the council are not the ones at fault, as they were in the case of Grenfell Tower. It presupposes that your claims are for your own home, rather than the building as a whole as in the case of Grenfell Tower. It also presupposes that your complaint falls under existing legislation that describes ‘unfit habitation’ rather than allowing that phrase to be interpreted by the judiciary on a case-to-case basis or extended in the eyes of the law.  It presupposes that you have the skills or means to bring about a claim. There are too many variables.

Those powers to tackle rogue landlords are not sufficient. I know, because I have tried to use them. The council and environmental health can do very little to a private landlord other than send a letter (an ‘improvement notice’) and wait. If you go out of your way to make your own property fit for habitation (like calling the London Fire Brigade who will install smoke alarms free of charge) then there is nothing they can do. Photographs, statements and the word of any number of tenants (past or present) are not sufficient evidence, and you must wait for a member of the council to visit you (during council hours) and write a report. For vulnerable people, who lack resources like time, money or knowledge of their rights under British law, the easiest thing is to not even go to these meagre lengths and so many landlords go without even these paltry checks to their behaviour. We as tenants have no rights. 

There are any number of things this Bill did not provide for: extortion from letting agents (it does not cost £70 to run a credit check, nor does it make sense to charge a ‘signing fee’), protection from landlords who do not use letting agents, a meaningful punishment for landlords who break the law. This Bill did not serve ordinary people. 

Privately rented properties are what I and all of my friends live in (except one friend who bought a flat and is having the building knocked down by the council – but that’s a different scandal). Many people I know live in ex-Council Flats which are rented at market price like some of the ones in Grenfell Tower (a policy which you approve of), so these ‘unfit for human habitation’ homes are not cheap, they are the standard for London living except among the elite. The association of them as the homes of the working-classes shows how little London landlords care about ‘little people’, but the victims list demonstrates that this block was for people of all walks of life, and many of the stories show the community spirit from within the block. Having lived in a house that was ‘not fit for human habitation’ as well as in several homes where the landlord (and other people with keys) has not followed legal requirements, I can only tell you about the fear I have felt in my own home and my frustration at being unable to improve my own living situation. But more than that: this letter is not written with selfish aims to improve my own lot in life. This letter is written in anger that you can dismiss your place in a culture that does not value the people who need help the most and wash your hands of your involvement in a Bill which you claim seeks to protect tenants and which I – and many others like me – know to not serve anybody. 

Furthermore, people are widely angry because of what the Housing Bill represents. To many people, the idea that landlords can vote together on any Bill represents a conflict of interests in a system which values the property-owning and wealthy above the ordinary citizens of our nation (and harks back to a time when only men of property could vote at all). A major aspect of the criticism levelled at you, and those who voted with you, is not about how you voted but about the fact that you were allowed to vote together, especially when the only collective power the residents of Grenfell Tower had was their much-publicised blog, which did not affect public policy and brought about no change. 

A few final points, to address the comments under your post: Momentum does not tell me how to think. Momentum shares information to like-minded people who often come to the same conclusion (in the same way that a person’s views often reflect the people they are friends with due to shared experience). They are a flawed organisation, and I do not just read The Canary and The Socialist Worker for my news. Make no mistake, I am similarly not happy about the political point-scoring being made of this tragedy, but it is not all coming from the Labour Party (who are, by the way, fallible) press office – if you hadn’t noticed, the image being contrasted with Theresa May by the newspapers and on social media is generally NOT of Jeremy Corbyn, but Elizabeth Windsor. 

Please do be careful in your analysis and in understanding the criticisms which are being levelled at you. The people of this nation are angry, and your indignation at our anger disrespects the dead as well as our concerns for our safety and security. I am sure that you yourself are a good landlord and therefore cannot comprehend the fear and needless expense that we renters face daily, but your misunderstanding of this issue fails the people of Braintree as well as the nation at large. Share-and-shame posts list your actions – your voting record and your expenses. If you think these actions are defensible, defend them! Don’t dismiss claims of their relevancy if you think you did the right thing. 

This is a national moment of trauma and we need to be shown that those in power understood what they must do to ensure that death on this scale can never – never! – be allowed to happen again. 

Yours sincerely,