Closing the Gaps: Health and Safety at Home

On 14th June 2017, there was a fire at Grenfell Tower in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. At least 80 people died. Grenfell Tower was a tower block of 24 storeys with around 120 flats. The was an appalling tragedy and the research team expresses its sympathy to everyone affected. The law relating to health and safety in people’s homes is piecemeal, out-dated, complex, dependent on tenure, and patchily enforced. It makes obscure distinctions, which have little relationship with experiences of poor conditions. Tenants wanting to remedy defects face numerous and often insurmountable barriers to justice. The law needs to evolve.

In this report, we discuss the range of legal gaps which exist in the law as appear to have affected or impacted on the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.  We are concerned, in particular, as housing lawyers, academics, and human beings that no such tragedy should happen again. The law can only ever be part of the context; even perfect laws (if there were such a thing) can fail in their implementation or as a result of judicial interpretation.

The intensity of concerns that have enveloped the Grenfell Tower tragedy has focused in part on the law. There has not been a more propitious moment for the public discussion of rights and obligations in housing perhaps since the 1960’s when the tower block debate began, and the mid and late nineteenth centuries, when the first significant interventions into housing began in the name of public health.

This report is designed to contribute to that public discussion. We have tried to write it so that it can be read widely. Some of what we have to say may be shocking – for example, the Victorian heritage of much of the law in this area, which focused on public health and morals, as opposed to safety of the occupants; some of what we have to say should be concerning – for example the lack of coherence in the law and practice, and the different protections available depending on housing tenure;   and some of what we have to say – like the inability in some cases to answer the often critical questions, who has responsibility for the front door – is ludicrous, ridiculous and dangerous.

In our view, the health and safety of occupiers should not depend on tenure, class, or the history of housing policy. It should be designed to protect the health and safety of all occupiers.  

Research Team

  • David Cowan (Bristol)
  • Helen Carr (Kent)
  • Edward Kirton-Darling (Kent)
  • Edward Burtonshaw-Gunn (Bristol)
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