Grenfell Tower: a healthy-planning tipping point…or not?

Last week, I heard Sir Malcolm Grant, the former (and first) chief exec of NHS England, talk enthusiastically about the need to embed health within the planning system.* His summary of the history of the NHS – from its inception (with the acknowledgement of the link between good health and the built environment implicit in Nye Bevan’s role as minster of housing as well as health) through to the mysterious STPs – was a whistlestop tour for people who are in the business of planning rather than the business of health.

But there were three elephants in the room.

First, Brexit: the perma-elephant.

Secondly, the “biggest global-health threat of the 21st century”, and the elephant with the ability to trample us all: climate change (which I did at least manage to raise as a question).

Finally – the darkest – Grenfell Tower: the most devastating housing scandal in a generation…but there was not so much as a hat-tip to the residents and their terrible loss, their resilience and bravery.

So, why didn’t we mention it (why didn’t I mention it)? I suppose it is because Grenfell falls into the “S” category within “H&S”, and we were talking “H”? Or perhaps because the discussion was about the wider built environment, rather than individual buildings?

But, given that the evening began with the oft-cited Sir Michael Marmot quote about how health is all about where we “live, learn, work and play”, I am still horrified that Grenfell Tower didn’t come up. It continues to loom as large in the public consciousness as it does on the skyline of west London – it was on the front page of the Evening Standard that day, as it has been many, many times since 14 June.

This wasn’t just about dangerous cladding: it was the result of years of system-wide cost-cutting and neglect, and about a crashing failure to listen to residents. This is a crucial tipping-point from which to reprioritise health within the built environment as a whole – but it is deeply worrying that even if it were on the minds of those of us in the room, it wasn’t on our lips.

* At the annual Frederic J. Osborn lecture, organised by the Town and Country Planning Association. Thank you to the TCPA, both for the invitation and for the networking and food for thought (most of which has been extremely positive – although you wouldn’t know it from this blog, I’m afraid!).

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