Emma Dent Coad: “I’m glad to be a troublemaker if it will save people’s lives”
In a new series, we hear from MPs about the big issues that matter to their constituents but don’t always make the headlines. This week, Emma Dent Coad on the sorry state of affordable housing in her Kensington constituency
For Emma Dent Coad, the personal is political. “A collapsed ceiling in my flat propelled me into active politics,” the Labour MP for Kensington tells The House. “It collapsed, and my daughter was sitting in a high-backed chair, and if she hadn’t been, she would have been very badly injured. So every time a ceiling collapses I’m taken back to that moment.”
Crumbling masonry, asthma-inducing damp, three-year-old buildings with floors that have already caved in – all feature prominently in Dent Coad’s excoriating new report on the sorry state of affordable housing in her constituency. “I lived in what they called hard-to-let in those days before I got my current flat,” she says. “That sort of instability is horrible. It’s really horrible.”
The Kensington MP and former councillor – who shocked Westminster in 2017 as she snatched the stereotypically well-heeled West London seat from the Conservatives – estimates that nearly half of all the 2,000 cases she has taken on since the election are housing-related.
It’s a workload dominated by the plight of housing association tenants – a sign, she says, that too many organisations once seen as friends of the poor “have lost their social purpose”. Indeed, her new report – a ten-year update on a similar project she carried out as a councillor – takes its name from the message relayed to one local housing association tenant as the price of dealing with their complaint: “If you drop the MP we may be able to help.”
That, Dent Coad argues, is symptomatic of the “absolutely disgraceful” attitude that too many providers take when dealing with their-often vulnerable tenants – a situation she says must be tackled with proper regulation of the sector before ministers pump more cash into housing associations. “The government has given the Mayor of London a great deal of money to hand out to housing associations to build this new generation of social housing,” she warns. “But a lot of that new social housing is very, very poor quality. We’re putting people into buildings that have major defects after three years, whereas the older ones have taken 130 years to get into a very poor state with very little maintenance. The new buildings frighten me.”
The study is shot through with the desperate testimony of residents who have gone to Dent Coad and her Kensington team for help. One constituent referred to as ‘A’ spends four years complaining about a major split in the ceiling, receiving only a literal plastering over of the cracks in response. ‘A’ is watching television with their young child when the whole thing finally gives way. “‘A’ grabbed the child and ran out of the room just in time,” the report says. “The ceiling had collapsed completely, causing significant damage to A’s belongings and risking their lives.” One constituent suffers an attempted break-in and, eighteen months later, the locks have still not been fixed. Another simply tells the MP’s office: “They tried to convince me the rats were in my imagination.”
Dent Coad spends much of her Friday constituency days meeting housing association and social tenants in a bid to better understand what’s going on behind closed doors, with the reality often sharply at odds with Kensington’s reputation for extravagant wealth. “A lot of people don’t really see what I see,” the MP says. “I live in North Ken, just off Ladbroke Grove, and they are lovely stucco houses, terraced houses and single houses… but unless you know what you’re looking for, you don’t know.
“Actually a third of those huge, detached houses are social housing. And you can tell – just look at the bells. If all the bells are uneven, screwed on, glued on or whatever and it’s a complete mess, or if you look at the curtains and they don’t match, or if somebody has got newspaper in their window because they can’t afford curtains – you can spot it when you know what to look for.”
The Labour backbencher says her office is also feeling the knock-on effect of cuts administered to other parts of the welfare state, with the sharp reduction in legal aid over the past decade making itself felt in her caseload. “We’ve definitely had more people who want us to give them that kind of support, which we can’t,” she says of requests for legal help. “We’ve found pro bono lawyers that we can pass them on to who we hope will take them on, and we give them as much advice as we can within the red lines that exist. But it is quite difficult.”
Dent Coad holds out hope that the Fitness for Human Habitation Bill – drawn up by fellow London Labour backbencher Karen Buck – will give her team more legal clout to take on failing providers. The bill, which gained royal assent just before Christmas, hands tenants the power to sue landlords in cases where a property is deemed unfit to live in. “I hope that’ll make a big difference,” Dent Coad says. “We’ll certainly be using it from day one to at least threaten landlords.”
The Kensington MP has meanwhile just agreed to set up a regular joint surgery with one major local provider, a “very interesting” step forward which she hopes will act as an eye-opener to the organisation. “We’ll be calling on the people who’ve had very, very long standing issues that haven’t been dealt with [to come forward]. They just don’t seem to believe it.”
The Kensington MP’s battle to focus minds on the treatment of housing association tenants was undoubtedly given a tragic new impetus following the 2017 Grenfell Tower blaze, which cost 72 lives and is now the subject of an extensive public inquiry. The tenant management organisation that ran the block has since been brought back under the control of the council, and Dent Coad says she has already seen some tentative signs of improvement. “It’s not brilliant – but they were the worst in my previous report,” she says. “They’re now no longer the worst.”
But it’s clear that the Labour backbencher, who knew many of those affected by the fire, has been inspired by the courage they showed speaking out – both before and after the blaze. “I’m glad to be a troublemaker if it will save people’s lives,” she says. “You know, I saw the fire, and it’s something I’ll never forget. So it’s my mission now to make people listen.”
Judging by the sheer volume of complaints still rolling into her office, Dent Coad and her team are likely to have their work cut out for some time to come.