We need a revolution in listening and responding

July 3, 2017 | Filed under

This blog is the 1st of two linked blogs and was written on 17 June, 3 days after the Grenfell Tower fire

The people of Grenfell Tower died because the people in power didn’t listen to them and didn’t care about them.

This is the conclusion I am coming to as I listen to the reporting on the tragedy. There are some people who will try to tell you that the fault is ‘tower blocks’ and we simply shouldn’t be building them or human error installing the external cladding. And it’s true that the tightening grip of austerity over the last 9 years has driven cost-cutting to dangerous levels. But it’s becoming patently obvious to most of us that decisions were taken at various times by several people operating at different levels of government that compromised safety, and that the concerns of the people who were most affected by those decisions fell on deaf ears. By far the biggest problem that this awful disaster has exposed is a shocking disregard for people who are not in positions of authority.

As someone who is closely connected to the housing world, I know that the repercussions of Grenfell will be far-reaching. In addition to the Public Inquiry into the incident itself, this will trigger reviews of building regulations and fire safety at the very least and will reach into reviews in procurement practice, regeneration, governance and beyond. It will make housing departments and associations revisit their evacuation procedures, tenancy sign-up procedures and property management plans to explore whether they should decommission more high-rise blocks. And hopefully it will lead to a resurgence of genuine ‘tenant scrutiny’ by which tenants get to scrutinise and have a say in their landlords’ plans.

But if the influence of this disaster is limited to the housing sector, we will be doing the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy a gross injustice.

At the heart of this is a deep problem that is endemic to many professions, including the health service. Grenfell was no accident; this is what happens when we stop listening to each other. The health service has had its own share of large-scale disasters (think Mid-Staffs) and every day, many small personal tragedies happen because we don’t listen and because even when we do, the systems don’t respond: the person with mental health problems who needs help to make amends with one or more members of their estranged family; the community that knows why the children growing up in their neighbourhood have poor health prospects and, moreover, want to do something about it; the patient who wants to die at home, but who is caught up in protracted hospital discharge procedures. The system is so often incapable of offering people what they really need and want.

‘Listening and responding’ is one of 5 features of health creating practices that New NHS Alliance has identified in its Manifesto for Health Creation as enabling people to become and to stay well. Listening is not a soft, fluffy skill that those lower down the health hierarchy can do while those higher up get on with the serious business of planning ‘systems of service delivery’. Listening and responding – yes, both are required – is the most powerful thing a health professional and the system can do. It is what makes the right things happen.

We need a ‘revolution in listening’ across our public sector including our health service. And this means making our systems flexible so we can respond. Because people know what’s wrong and they often know how to put it right. All professionals need to do is to find out what people need in order to be safe and well, and then give them that.

Merron Simpson is Chief Executive of New NHS Alliance and its National Executive Lead on Housing.