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Stepping up the fight for change.

Byline: Neil Elkes

THE fallout from the Grenfell fire disaster has firmly placed the issue of housing shortages, house prices, rents, empty homes and development on the national agenda.

And now Selly Oak MP Steve McCabe who has, for a long time, railed against the problems of cowboy builders and dodgy student landlords blighting his constituency with overbearing extensions, has spotted an opportunity to revive his plans for a crackdown.

Regular readers will remember how over the last five years the growth in student numbers coupled with relaxation in building laws led to large numbers of family homes in Selly Oak being converted and extended into large student digs. More rooms were added, others were partitioned and unsightly multistorey extensions abounded denying neighbours of light and privacy - all with a view to cramming more rent-paying students in.

"The cavalier attitude of some developers suggests it's all about packing people in like sardines so as to maximise the rent take," Mr McCabe said.

Mr McCabe suspected that a number of these properties were safety risks, saying the relaxation in planning and building regulations were ruthlessly exploited by some rogue landlords. In one case he dealt with the works wrecking a neighbour's home and in another he says a gas flue was dismantled and 'nearly poisoned an elderly couple'.

The White family, in Billesley, made national front pages when a neighbour's extension was so close it left only a four-inch gap and shared a gutter with their home. Private legal prosecution was their only course of action.

This is the way in which the relaxation of planning and building regulations, designed to cut red tape for those looking to build a kitchen extension, loft conversion or conservatory, was exploited.

The Labour MP is now arguing there are parallels with the Grenfell disaster in which a lack of, or relaxation of, regulations around fire safety and cladding, seen as part of a war on 'unnecessary' bureaucracy, created a fire hazard which contributed to the huge loss of life.

Since 2015 Mr McCabe has been trying to get new laws passed to protect family homes from unsafe and undesirable conversion into houses of multiple occupation or student houses.

His private members' bill won some support before it 'was talked out' by a housing minister last year and dropped. He has also been trying to smuggle some of its elements into housing laws going through the House of Lords.

But now he argues Grenfell Tower has shown that some of the laws and building regulations are unclear. He is particularly keen to ensure there is more independent survey and inspection of these conversions. He said: "The government says it will take action in the public sphere but I'm worried that there may be a whole set of other issues with private conversions. Now I'm calling for a moratorium on these conversions until the rules are much clearer and we can be sure that these conversions are safe. We can't afford to wait until something awful happens."

Given the huge loss of life at Grenfell despite warnings, perhaps Government ministers will not be so quick to ignore and be more receptive to his argument.

| | | BACK to the bin strike - week five and still going. I'm hearing a lot about private contractors being used to clear some of the rubbish backlog and have a few thoughts on this. Those on the binmen's side say this is illegal, to bring in extra labour during official industrial action and they have a point.

The council on the other side is saying this is legally compliant use of outside help. Part of the case seems to be the argument made by leader John Clancy last week that the disruption is going beyond the industrial action - ie, a lot of staff are not doing their required work during the part of the day, the six or seven hours, they are not on strike.

The tower block waste is one issue where the union and council agreed an exemption in the light of Grenfell tower disaster. No one wants a fire accelerated by a build up of rubbish.

But on the ground this work was clearly not being done.

This is the kind of work the council sources say is being picked up by the contractors. I'm not an industrial relations lawyer and not sure which way this goes - but can't see either the union or council going to court over it. Defending either a Labour council which could be breaking strike regulations or a union whose members may be taking action beyond what was permitted is a tall order. It would be hugely embarrassing all round.

Given the huge loss of life at Grenfell despite warnings, perhaps ministers will not be so quick to ignore and be more receptive to Mr McCabe's argument


The Grenfell Tower disaster has thrust housing safety back into sharp focus
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 3, 2017
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